Name: Michelle Willis
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, keyboard player
Current release: Michelle Willis’ latest album Just One Voice is out via Ground Up Music. It features guest appeaarances by, among others, David Crosby, Michael McDonald, Grégoire Maret, Becca Stevens and Taylor Ashton.
If you enjoyed this interview with Michelle Willis and would like to find out more, visit her official homnepage. She is also on Instagram, twitter, and Soundcloud.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I would say relationships are the primary source – that’s where most pain and confusion emanates, right? Second would be my own struggle with myself and what I want vs what I do (but surprise these things seep into each other. (laughs)
Some of my favourite song ideas though, have been borne of mundane ideas, questioning cultural / social norms, or just coming upon a phrase I liked. More and more I’m finding myself drawn to simple, small moments, strange and funny concepts, lighthearted playful frameworks to base something upon that has a deeper meaning if you want to look for it.
That being said – when I’m feeling drained and need inspiration, I go to the art gallery (I’m in NYC so I’m spoiled). I love studying painters, their lives, their studies and bodies of work, the time spent cultivating ideas. It’s a grounding way to reflect how I’m approaching my own work, study, and greater engagement with the time that I’m in.
Everything feeds into everything really, reading a chapter in a book, time in the park, letting my mind and senses wander – that’s the perfect recipe.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Oh there’s just a flurry of crazy ideas that have no concept of beginning or end. Do people really visualize finished ideas right from the beginning?? I want to meet these people.
In terms of producing a record, I feel best when I make clear outlines (these come together over several hours of editing, time away and review). I plan with as much detail and references as possible. Then when the time comes, I submit to the moment, the intuition and strength of the people that I work with. We lean on the framework I’ve created when we lose our way, and check back in every once in a while.
In some ways this album is much like I imagined, and in others it’s a surprise.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I always demo my songs, and tweak them a dozen or so times before we go in and track. Sometimes I get a bit too attached (we call this “demo-itis“), so I try not to listen to them too much, but it’s tough!
When you first write and demo something, it’s so exciting, and it’s so true to a feeling that you feel, and it feels fresh, and like a part of you you’re bursting to share and live in.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Haaaa, well, it’s less ritual, in that there’s not a set time and consistency that I write in, and especially if I’m writing with someone else I gotta be able to just go and be in it no matter where we are.
But I’m most clear and open first thing in the morning, preferably outside or near a window, and am instantly in good feels when a candle is lit, everything smells good, and yes, with a chemex full of black coffee.
Oh, and I’m a big nerd about my pens, pencils and journals.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Different things all the time. Lately, guitar tunings have been a source of exploration / inspiration, and doing morning pages a la The Artist’s Way (a book by Julia Cameron).
The thing is, everybody is capable of writing and creating any time, no matter the time of day, setting, etc, but it’s allowing ourselves to go there. That’s what I find is true for myself and so many others, too. Sometimes, you just don’t want to go there, cause you’re not ready to go deeper yet.
Or, it takes a page or so of writing nonsense before you arrive at something, but more often than not, it’s that feeling of “Am I doing this? Alright here we go”.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
No set timing, no order, things move in and around. Lately I try my best just to listen to what I’m hearing in my head and writing it down, rather than playing or forcing anything out – with either lyrics or music.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I like a clever concept or metaphor to base things upon, succinct words (a.k.a the most trimmed fat there could be), honesty over one-dimensional meanings. I like a little sass and playfulness, too.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I have to dive in and not let go. I think that’s why I have these periods of avoiding writing for so long, because once I grab hold of an idea I know I have to just submit to it and let it take over in order to get all the ideas down, in order to listen and work it out in real time.
I’m getting faster at finishing ideas, but typically it’s taken me years to finish songs. That’s even before I go to record them in a studio for a record.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I aim to be a muse-follower for sure. I don’t think I’ve ever had control over an idea, or tried to will it somewhere. That seems counter-intuitive, but I’ve had scenarios where I was writing with people, and we had certain “rules” we wanted to maintain in order to have consensus and keep things moving forward in a short period of time.
Ultimately though, you just gotta listen and submit to what sounds and feels good, beyond the rules you set. I like structures, but I like them best when you bend just a bit beyond them – that feels great.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I think music, creation, improvisation, lyric writing, really listening and committing to what you’re hearing - all of that is deeply spiritual. It generates a crazy high, I think because it requires you to be honest and access a childlike part of yourself, a sense of play, a state without analyzation but in free embrace of the ideas coming to you. I think the more we live in and experience that state, the better humans we become to others and ourselves.
It requires that we let go of criticism and just try, for the sake of trying, for the sake of silliness, beauty, art, fun. When we’re able to go there, that state of mind is a beautiful, empowering, freeing thing.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Ummm, the end of the dollars. (laughs)
Well, yeah, as you say, production being something that’s infinitely possible on a laptop from anywhere these days, at some point you have to say, ok – this is it. It’s done. I don’t know how to describe it.
At some point you hit a wall, you take some space, you listen, you say – this is good. This tells the story. Nothing takes away from the story. If it lives this way, in has both room to grow and accurately represents the song.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
There’s no science to it, but letting things sit for a bit so that you can come back with fresh ears is really helpful. Sometimes that means working on another tune for a few hours, then the next morning coming back to give this one a listen. It can be as quick as that, or in the context of a record, sometimes with mixes I take a couple weeks between listens or revisions. Same with demoing / early writing and editing stages of a song – I take a day or so between listens so I’m not too attached to anything.
This is my approach, but I know lots of people who like to work much quicker than me. I’m slow as all hell!
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I’m there for all of it! Mastering not so much (I make notes and revisions, but I don’t physically sit in the room while they work). I’m always there for the mixes and general editing. I listen as it’s going on and make notes, and then after the engineer is finished and arrived at a place they’re happy with, we go through my notes.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Best case scenario … accepting and hanging out with the inevitable feeling, talking about it with friends, going out into the world, being open, bringing a journal, embracing the muse again and saying “Am I doing this? Alright, here we go.”
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think that everything that makes us who we are is apparent in our songwriting choices. No one is one-dimensional, or consistently one thing all the time, however. What I love about knowing a few great songwriters well, is in hearing their personal characters come out in their writing.
Therefore, yes, I do believe that the same impulses that direct our mundane, everyday tasks, often come through in our songwriting decisions. That’s what gives our music a voice, a character, a shape. That’s what makes coffee, food, the folding of laundry, the timing of arrival, that’s what makes it all taste, look and feel a certain way, and I love that.