After a decade of playing backup to some of the country’s biggest stars, musician Chris Willis — the powerhouse vocalist, lyricist, cowriter, and coproducer behind some of French producer/DJ David Guetta's biggest hits (including “Love Is Gone” and “Getting' Over You”) — is stepping into the limelight all on his own, with a series of three EPs, Premium (Songs From the Love Ship) part 1, part 2, and part 3. Veneer Records released part 1 this month and will release the two follow-ups in the spring.
“This feels like a new beginning,” says the Dayton, Ohio-born, Atlanta-based singer-songwriter-producer. “My fans will finally get to see more of me, more of what I can do.” Willis says working with Guetta has been “an incredible journey and it's been a whirlwind, surreal past few years performing to crowds up to 100,000 people all over the world,” but this new CD offers a chance to create something all his own.
Willis, who hooked up with Guetta in 2001 (for the Billboard-charting album Just a Little More Love) wasn’t always planning to top the Billboard dance charts. Raised in a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Willis began his career as a Christian gospel singer — a closeted one.
“I was deeply in the closet. Being a gospel, Christian artist, you almost had to be. I had a hard time reconciling my sexuality with my spirituality and with being the type of artist I wanted to be.”
But today, Willis is out and proud and after having done backup for many industry notables (from Dusty Springfield and Dolly Parton to Ricky Martin and Kelly Clarkson), he’s ready to take on the world. It doesn’t hurt that these celebs still sing his praises. Fergie calls him the "voice of heaven,” and Akon says he has a “voice that punches through the party and gets everyone’s attention.”
Willis tells The Advocate about the new album, living in the South, and getting right with God.
The Advocate: You’ve said that you always felt like God really understood about your sexuality, but that wasn't the message you got in church. Did you come out after leaving the church or after leaving gospel music?
Chris Willis: I was born and raised in the church, so the church will always be a part of me as long as I live. Growing up, I remember going to church every Saturday for my entire youth and young adulthood. Later on, I simply chose to leave “the building” and decided to perform a different music style. A few years ago, I was dropped by two gospel record labels, and rather than walk around bitter and angry for the loss, I decided to embrace it as freedom. I gave myself permission to explore all music styles, not just gospel music. At the same time, I had been struggling for years to reconcile my sexuality with my spiritual connection to God. I tried praying my feelings away and carried around a lot of self-hatred because they just wouldn’t change, no matter how hard I tried. Rather than live in agony, I chose to learn to love myself just the way I am and go from there.
What was coming out like?
Coming out was terrifying. I lived in constant fear that my family and friends would hate me, kill me, and completely reject me if I told them the truth. I basically got to the point that I would rather them know the truth and let me go than for them to find out about it in the press or the media. Confiding in my family and friends that I love the most turned out to be best thing I could have ever done. They showered me with the most incredible love I never thought I would ever experience. The fact is, when I came out to them, they knew my truth all along. They were just waiting for me to be comfortable enough to confide in them. I’m not sure what difference it made to them, but coming out at last felt like I had been given a pair of wings.
Did you worry that being out would affect your success in the music industry?
I most certainly did worry that being out would affect my success in the industry! I still do. I grew up in the days where being gay is the worst thing you could ever be — period. I remember asking God, “Why this? Why me? Why now? Why can’t you make it go away? Why couldn’t it be something else? No one will ever take me seriously if they really knew the truth! Please take it away!” It felt like torture. It didn’t go away. I had to learn how to accept it and not let it stop me from trying to achieve. I also decided that I didn’t want to be the guy who lied about it. Once you start lying you have to keep covering it up with more lies. I’ve had to learn to exercise my faith in the truth and trust that no matter what, the love that I share in my music would come back somehow. Success or not, at least I told the truth.
What do you think now? Does being gay affect your work or the producers who work with you or the people who listen to you?
Well, first of all, I’m not the kind of guy who walks around telling everybody what’s going on in my personal life. I understand that I’m in the entertainment business. I now have the best job in the world, and that is to make great music, give a brilliant show, and create an escape, a diversion from reality that’s painful at times. I like suspending reality just long enough for people to forget their troubles until they’re ready to face them again. On the other hand, I don’t believe in pretending to be someone I’m not. If anything, the fact that I happen to be gay and have chosen not to lie about it, I find that I’m more compassionate, more sensitive, more tuned in and concerned about the way other people feel. This affects my work in that I pour all of my emotion into my recordings, lyrics, and performances. I am passionate about my music and use it to communicate a message of love — that everybody deserves to be loved no matter who you are. There will probably always be people who won’t agree with my choice to accept myself for who I am. I can’t change them. I can only do the best with what I have.