By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com December 12 2011 8:35 AM ET
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.
In the black gay community there’s a huge debate over the concept of men on the down low; do you think that whole phenomenon is overhyped or reality?
First of all, I think, unfortunately, the down-low phenomenon is a reality and not just in the black gay community. Thankfully, as a result of the debate, I believe we are now aware of it. However, until we go beyond awareness and have the courage to affirm same-gender love, not only in the black gay community but also in the black community in general, there will be people who choose to live dangerously and continue to put themselves and others at risk.
You are ridiculously attractive. Did you ever have an awkward phase?
Thank you very much. Oh, yes! I sure did! Thankfully I survived the awkward phase. Only sometimes I feel as awkward now as I did back then. During my teen years not only was I deep in the closet, but I was really introverted, always skinny, and wore enormous glasses. I never went to prom. I was the geeky, artsy music kid, socially odd yet insanely creative, with this passionate singing voice.
Jezebel magazine named you one of its Most Beautiful Atlantans of 2011. What does that mean to you?
Extremely validating. I think it is so amazing that me, a man from small-town Ohio, USA, is being noticed by Jezebel magazine, the clever, elite, exclusive publication. It is one of the most incredible honors I’ve ever experienced.
You’re gay and gorgeous, from the Midwest but based in the South, started out in gospel music, and have had club hits for years. What’s your fan base look like? Is it Christian grannies and trendy young gay guys elbow to elbow at your concerts?
I think you’d be very surprised to know that I rarely see any Christian grannies or distinctly trendy young gay guys at the clubs I’ve played the world over. Quite the opposite. I see nothing but hot, extremely gorgeous women from all over the world, 18 to 40s even 50s, dressed head to toe in the latest Gucci, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana — and the men of all ages and walks of life who admire them — screaming loudly to the top of their voice the lyrics to the songs I’ve had the pleasure of writing. I’m still waiting for the Christian grannies and the trendy young gay guys to join the party.
Let’s talk about your solo debut album, Premium (Songs From the Love Ship), part 1, which just came out. What’s the number 1 thing you hope listeners take away from this album?
The thing I hope listeners take away from this album is that it is possible to love yourself just the way you are and that you deserve to spend a really good time with someone who loves you just the way you are.
Tell me about the origination of the song “Too Much in Love.” There’s a bit of classic rock feel to it that’s really engaging.
I’m glad you picked up on the classic rock feel. The idea was to pay homage to the powerhouse that is Lenny Kravitz and seductively merge what I bring to the dance music genre packed with an edgy rock punch.
It’s hard not to love your cover of Sam Cooke’s “Stand by Me.” What drew you to that song?
Thank you for the love. It really means a lot to me that you appreciate it. I have always loved soul music from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Grew up on all of this rich music, so the chance to cover this classic was a no-brainer. I love paying homage to classic soul royalty and it felt really good on my voice, giving my interpretation of one of my favorite singers of all time.
“Louder (Put Your Hands Up)” is going to be a huge club hit; I can already see it at every Pride party next summer.
Thank you very much. I am glad this record meets with your approval. To be embraced at every Pride party would be a legendary experience.
You genre-straddle a bit on this album — some rock, dance, pop, urban. Was there anything you left out on purpose?
Straddle is a good word. It’s been years since I released a solo project, so I had a lot to get off my chest. I wanted to expose some other dimensions of my persona. Seizing the opportunity to express myself in different shades and colors, my favorite colors — rock, dance, pop, and urban — and presenting this work to the world made me really happy. There are still more flavors I’d like to explore. I thought it wouldn’t be wise to give too much this go-round. I hope I leave everybody wanting more.
You’ve been backup singer for a bunch of great artists, from Dusty Springfield to Ricky Martin, which gives you privy to their work and world. What did you learn about those artists that people outside the industry don’t realize?
My experience with the enormously successful artists that I’ve worked with has been eye-opening. I find the more successful the artist, the more generous and selfless they are. They have every reason to take themselves too seriously, and yet, the times I’ve met them, I’ve come away touched by the depth of their humility.
You’ve had a long, successful business partnership with producer David Guetta. Is there a personal partnership in your life or are you single?
I am single.
Is being a black gay man living in the South any different than it is anywhere else? Why do you choose to live there?
Being a black gay man living in the South is very different than many other places. I prefer to live in a place where I feel safe. There are many parts of our own country and many countries around the world where the risk of abuse, torture, imprisonment, and even death for being out and proud is very real. No place is perfect, but I choose to live in the South because the proximity to a cosmopolitan city center with a reasonable cost of living is possible. I love long, hot summers and short winters. People are the same wherever you go, but I have found that people move a bit slower in the South and seem to practice more tolerance compared to other places I’ve been. Thankfully, my experience has been pretty uncomplicated. Most of all, living near the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was born gives me hope and faith in our world that peace and equality are really possible.
What’s next for you?
What’s next is that I plan to continue releasing more great music on my label Veneer Records. Premium (Songs From the Love Ship) volumes 2 and 3 are coming soon, so keep your eyes and ears open for them. I’ve really enjoyed writing and collaboration with great producers and artists both on and off my label, so releases of some really great records should be hitting the airwaves soon. I also plan to cultivate my love for acting, visual art, and merchandising.
I’m scheduled to tour from now on into 2012, and I’m headed to India and Russia and Brazil for New Year’s Eve.