You probably know who Chris Willis is, you just dont realize it. He co-wrote and provided vocals for his friend David Guettas 2007 hit Love Is Gone and since then hes become a leader in the dance music scene. The Ohio-born Willis -- who lends vocals to Guettas 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 Kings I Have a Dream speech. Theres 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 well live in harmony. I pulled other lyrics together with one of the melodies that they really, really loved, so thats 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 thats where the relationship began.
How has your relationship with him developed since?
In the beginning I wasnt 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 weve become really good friends as a result of that, and to this day, were working together, and Ive moved from just songwriting and singing to producing and coproducing Kelly Rowlands 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 Im 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 peoples nerves, thats 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 thats every singer-songwriters dream. It was definitely a dream of mine, and it was definitely a dream come true for me. I felt like Id won the lottery.
Are any of the songs on Davids new album, One Love that you lent your vocals to going to be a single?
As a matter of fact, Im hearing some murmurings around that Getting Over will be. Im hoping that will be a single. Theres a lot of great buzz for it already on iTunes, so Im really excited.
Youve 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 werent 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. Shes really great. Shes 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. Shes 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.
I was surprised to learn you had worked with both Dolly Parton and Brooks & Dunn. How did you get involved in country music?
A lot of it is just proximity. I lived in Nashville for 12 years. I moved there to do gospel music and my career was kind of up and down in the gospel genre. So to supplement my income, I did a lot of session work, session singing. I sang on a lot of gospel work. And some of those same singers I was working with were heavily involved with Wynonna Judd and a lot of other country [singers]. So they would call me in on session and thats pretty much how I got involved in singing on country albums. Because theres a lot of country music coming out of Nashville, so it was a great asset.
Are there any music genres you dont dabble in?
Im an across-the-board kind of guy. I really appreciate every artistic expression. Im not as huge a fan of this kind of thrash metal where theres a lot of screaming and shouting, but I definitely understand people that get into it -- its just not for me.
When are we going to see a solo album from you?
Hopefully soon. Its no secret -- I am dying -- have been dying -- to do a solo album for years. So, Im hoping that the success of this album with David and the increased visibility will make my album make sense.
What are your plans for the near future?
For now, definitely publicity [Davids] album. The fourth album with David has been a great blessing -- to be on the album with Akon, Kelly Rowland, and all these other great artists. And to continue to explore the dance music genre. Im still pretty much a newbie in the genre, but Ive enjoyed some really great success. And to continue writing. I love to write music, and I love to write and collaborate with other artists and other producers and other DJs. I love to explore production. I love to play piano and arrange music. One of my dreams is to get involved in film and television. And Im a closet painter/artist, so Im taking my time whenever I can to create new work. And to continue to be creative as long as people are interested in what I have to create.
Do you find that you have a gay following?
Thats a very good question. I tend not to focus specifically on whether people are gay or straight. I like to think that everybody that loves the music -- no matter where theyre from, no matter what they do, as long as they believe in love -- thats what Im singing my songs about. I think the gay market has always been a great support for the dance music genre, and thats been an asset for the work Ive done with David and certainly for my work. I like to think that theres a huge gay following, and hopefully well discover that in the future and explore that more and more.
When I spoke with David last month, I asked him who his man-crush would be if he werent married, and he wouldnt give me a name, but said probably a singer. What kind of a guy do you crush on?
] Oh boy, thats a very good question. It could definitely be a DJ.
David Guettas new album,
One Love, featuring Chris Willis, is now available in stores.Send a letter to the editor about this article.