Make no mistake: You know and love the voice—and it belongs to Chris Willis.
At once soulful and gritty, Willis’ voice has fueled numerous dance and top 40 pop hits, including the 2007 charttopper, “Love Is Gone,” which dominated charts around the world, and “Everytime We Touch,” a Top 10 European smash earlier this year.
In a world of sound-alike dance divas, Willis is that rare male vocalist doing dance music successfully. But the man does more than sing. He’s an accomplished producer and stellar songwriter. Still, you may not necessarily know his name or face. But that is about to change. It is 2009, dance music is pop music (again!) and Willis is ready for his close-up.
You see, Willis is a featured vocalist on über-hot French DJ/producer David Guetta’s fourth album, “One Love.” (The two have been making sweet music together for nearly 10 years.) Surely, Guetta’s name rings a bell. The man, after all, is responsible for two of the summer’s biggest pop-dance hits: his own track, “When Love Takes Over” (featuring Kelly Rowland), and The Black Eyed Peas’ #1 smash “I Gotta Feeling.” Both are featured on “One Love,” as are guest turns from Ne-Yo, Akon, Estelle and other A-listers.
“With all the other celebrities involved in this project, the fact is more people will probably hear [it] than any of [Guetta’s] previous albums,” Willis says. “As a result, not only is there potential for change with regard to dance music in America, but everyone—David, the celebrities, myself and especially the fans—has the potential to gain from this new light.”
Indeed. Dance music is no longer viewed as the bastard child of the music industry. R&B and pop superstars are lining up to work with tastemaking electronic/dance DJs. Consider this a major shift in the musical landscape. “These superstars have just caught on to what I discovered, or should I say discovered me, years ago,” Willis explains. “It speaks to the appeal of dance music that is alive in the world. Here is a genre that takes the raw and true energy of creative genius and invites it to the best party of individuals the world has ever known—the dance music community—and says, just like it did to me 10 years ago, ‘We love you. We love the pure essence of what you do. Come and dance with us.’ And so they do.”
Willis and Guetta forged a creative union in 2001 when Guetta tapped Willis to be the featured singer on his debut single, “Just a Little More Love.” They’ve been recording together ever since. According to Willis, their working relationship has changed over the years. “It started with the focus on my participation as a singer and songwriter. It has evolved to the point where I’m not only writing the lyrics and singing, but I’m producing my own vocals and co-producing other vocals on the project.” Willis produced some of Kelly Rowland’s vocals on the “One Love” project.
Like dance music itself, Willis’ musical influences are many and include such R&B/pop legends as Stevie Wonder, James Ingram, Madonna, Prince, Donny Hathaway and Michael Jackson. (He is especially fond of “Off the Wall”-era Jackson.)
It’s no surprise that Willis’ self-titled debut album, a contemporary gospel collection released in 1996, was steeped in the R&B-flavored sounds of the artists that inspired him. “Chris Willis” spotlighted a newcomer whose enthusiasm for mixing gospel, soul and pop was heard by many in the music industry. With new fans in powerful places, Willis quickly became an in-demand session singer, songwriter and backing vocalist and has, over the years, worked with “American Idol” superstars Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken; gospel greats CeCe Winans, Amy Grant and Take 6; venerable icons like Dusty Springfield, country charttoppers Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Brooks & Dunn and quintessential pop producers Quincy Jones and Desmond Child.
“One of the most incredible things about this journey is how varied the twists and turns have been and where they’ve taken me. Years flew by before I realized that the experiences in and out of diverse genres had brought out the chameleon in me. It’s certainly a pleasure to pull from the bag of tricks sharpened in the studio, on stage, or in the background, and to use them now as a frontman. It hasn’t always been an easy ride, but it’s all worked to polish what I bring to the world.”
It was Willis’ co-production credit on Parisian pop stars 2BE3’s album, “Excuse My French,” that opened the door to David Guetta’ inviting Willis to sing on that ubiquitous title track from his 2002 debut album, “Just a Little More Love.” The Willis-Guetta union proved to be fruitful, with seven collaborations on the album, including the worldwide club/radio hits “Love Don’t Let Me Go” and “Just a Little More Love.” Willis—and Guetta—were catapulted into the international pop spotlight.
Two years later, Guetta tapped Willis, again, to contribute to his sophomore album, “Guetta Blaster.” Willis delivered the vocal goods on such songs as “Stay”, “Time” and “Money.” The creative partnership between Willis and Guetta was only heating up. For Guetta’s third album, 2007’s “Pop Life,” Willis was featured on five tracks (of these, he wrote three), including the club anthem-turned-pop radio hits “Love Is Gone,” “Everytime We Touch” and a mashed-up, anthemic reworking of “Love Don’t Let Me Go (Walking Away)” with The Egg.
Now, along comes Guetta’s fourth studio album, “One Love,” with Willis’ powerful vocals heard on three tracks: the hard-hitting “Gettin’ Over”, electro-smacked “The Sound of Letting Go” and the empowering bonus track “It’s Your Life.” In signature fashion, Willis—who supplies the melody and lyrics—sings of love and relationships, of love found and lost. “These are the sources of my lyrical inspiration,” he says. “It always comes back to love.”
When asked to forecast his own future, Willis says, “I have always dreamed of living a pop life in the pop world just like Prince, Michael or Madonna—you know, cutting-edge, mysterious, magical. But I never in a million years dreamed I’d have anything to do with dance music. Just like disco music escalated to popularity in the ’70s, dance and pop music seem to be colliding again. The world knows me now as a mix of the two. I have a new dream now: to continue to merge these two worlds together more and more. It’s already happening. I’d be a fool not to grow with it and let it take me beyond my imagination.”
Which begs the question: Where oh where is Chris’ own debut release? Pausing for a moment, Willis says it’s all about timing and strategy. “The last thing you want to do is release a project and it gets overlooked,” he explains. “I’m ready to release a solo album. The songs are here—love, loss, passion and hope. The interest is building. It’s only just a matter of time.”