Need To Know: Chris Willis
By Gregory Miller
You probably know who Chris Willis is, you just don't realize it. He co-wrote and provided vocals for his friend David Guetta's 2007 hit 'Love Is Gone' and since then he's become a leader in the dance music scene. The Ohio-born Willis -- who lends vocals to Guetta's new album, One Love -- chatted with us about working with the legendary DJ, dabbling in country music, and where his career is headed.
How did your relationship with David Guetta begin?
It was a fluke. I was working with a band that was based in Paris, and while we were doing publicity for the upcoming release of their album, one of the guys in the group introduced me to David at the restaurant David and his wife Cathy were running at the time. David was in the process of working on his new album and invited me to come to the studio and vibe. He played me a track, and I just started doing some random ad libs to the track. We were talking about the story that goes along with Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. There's a part in there that says, 'Walking hand in hand with little children, walking hand in hand.' So that was the key word, and I just kind of rhymed 'Walking hand in hand, got to understand, and one day soon we'll live in harmony.' I pulled other lyrics together with one of the melodies that they really, really loved, so that's how that song was created. I went back to Nashville -- I was living in Nashville at the time -- and the next call that I got from David was that the song was being added to the radio, that it was a huge smash in the clubs. It just changed everything. I continued writing, flying back and forth to Paris, and that's where the relationship began.
How has your relationship with him developed since?
In the beginning I wasn't really as comfortable with what was happening because I was transitioning out of gospel music. And this music was very mainstream, and very much oriented in the clubs, which has its own kind of view from a church perspective. David and his coproducer were very gracious and very compassionate and very understanding, and that went a long way to make me comfortable with what was happening. And so it evolved from writing, and we developed a friendship. When I would come out there to write, we would have really long drawn-out conversations about politics and religion and everything else and that turned into a friendship. And then of course the business relationship continued to expand, the more songs we wrote. The more songs that I sang, the more songs that I wrote, those songs continued to be featured at radio, so it developed into a really strong business relationship, and dare I say, a partnership. And we've become really good friends as a result of that, and to this day, we're working together, and I've moved from just songwriting and singing to producing and coproducing Kelly Rowland's vocals and one other song on the album.
The biggest commercial success you and David have had in the United States was 'Love is Gone.' What was that like?
It was incredible. My friends would call me from time to time and say, 'If I hear this song one more time I'm going to slit my wrists!' It was absolute euphoria for me because as a writer, when a song is played that much, where it gets on people's nerves, that's a great miracle. Every time that song is played, it means that many more people are hearing the song. Radio really supported the song, and the album was really crossing over into the mainstream market in America. And that's every singer-songwriter's dream. It was definitely a dream of mine, and it was definitely a dream come true for me. I felt like I'd won the lottery.
Are any of the songs on David's new album, One Love that you lent your vocals to going to be a single?
As a matter of fact, I'm hearing some murmurings around that 'Getting Over' will be. I'm hoping that will be a single. There's a lot of great buzz for it already on iTunes, so I'm really excited.
You've worked with a lot of famous people -- Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, CeCe Winans, and Amy Grant, just to name a few. Do you have a favorite?
You know, of the ones that weren't mentioned, I had the great fortune of working with Patty Austin in Nashville. She did a really good -- it was like a soul, Negro spiritual revue with a bunch of singers in it. She's really great. She's hilarious. She tells a lot of great stories. She has a devastating wit, and she knows everyone in the business. She has Quincy Jones stories, Michael Jackson stories. She's probably been my favorite. Just to be so funny and so witty but then to flip the switch and be so professional -- I have huge admiration for her.