By Peter Galvin
The power of his voice can shake the rafters. The power of his performances has moved clubgoers in every way possible – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Of course, we’re talking about the force that is Chris Willis, the artist, who, as singer, songwriter and producer, is now manifesting love and joy to audiences around the world with his new solo single, the Billboard club smash, “Louder (Put Your Hands Up).”
The song’s video, which has held the distinction of being the No. 1 most viewed video on YouTube in 19 countries, has Willis center stage, soaking up the light and beaming it straight to his fans.
Much has been said of the musical collaborations between Willis and world-renown producer and DJ David Guetta. Together, the two have created some of the most memorable club hits of the last several years, including “Love is Gone,” “Love Don’t Let Me Go” and their most recent global hit “Gettin’ Over You,” featuring Willis on vocals along with Fergie and LMFAO. Much has also been said about Willis as an in-demand session singer, songwriter and backing vocalist, who’s worked with such talent as Quincy Jones, Kelly Clarkson, Ricky Martin, Kelly Rowland, Dusty Springfield, Dolly Parton and Brooks & Dunn.
But now on the cusp of a larger, much-deserved notoriety – and on the eve of the release of his new solo album – it’s time for Willis to tell us more about himself in his own words. Here, the singer talks about his exciting musical journey as a solo artist, his devotion to the art form known as dance music, and the impact of his sexuality on his personal and professional life.
You’re putting out your own album after being part of other people’s recordings for many years. How do you like being the one in charge?
Well, I’ve put out music before on my own, but this feels like my first. It’s coming out on my own label, and it’s my own brand – it feels like a full-circle moment. It’s another one of my dreams to reach a mainstream audience, and I feel like this is the beginning of that dream.
How much creative input did you have in the making of the album?
Basically, I was involved in all of the writing, which I had already been doing with David (Guetta) for many years. I wrote all the lyrics and the melodies. Most of the other work I’ve done was a collaboration with other artists, mostly for their projects. It’s really about me this time. It’s a chance to put a really cohesive theme together.
I’ve been living with a lot of these tracks that I’ve collected over the years during the process of working with various DJs around the world. Some of the songs were written just for fun. Some were written off the top of my head, as a way to express the feelings I was having right at that moment. There are songs from both the past and the present.
What inspirations do you draw from in your songwriting?
The thing that inspires me most is love – having love, losing love, dreaming of love, praying for love. Another one of my muses is the dance floor. I always like to imagine what it would be like if I was on the dance floor and saw someone that I liked. I’d start out feeling afraid and insecure – what would I say to them? Then all of the sudden, with the help of the music, I’d develop this confidence in myself, and I’d know what to say. Or what if I was in a relationship that was on the verge of ending – what would I say to save it? I like expressing these kinds of feelings when I’m onstage because I know there are people on the dance floor who feel the same way.
Has being out front and on your own as a solo artist brought a whole new set of pressures to your career?
There is definitely an intimidation factor, but I’ve had a lot of successes and failures in my career, so I draw on all of that to help me. I’ve been in the business many years, and there are always pressures and deadlines. I’m accustomed to that kind of stress, having had to pull it together to perform after flying eight hours over the water. I like that pressure – it’s my job, it’s my lifestyle. But I’m not doing this in a bubble either; I’ve got an incredible team behind me.
How was it working with Fergie and David Guetta on the “Gettin’ Over You” video?
The thing about videos is they are one of the most grueling elements of working in the business. And Fergie and David made it seem so effortless. I realized in that situation, I was the rookie. But I was just glad to have some face time alongside them and get a chance to watch them do what they do. I really learned a lot from being there.
What’s it like for you to perform live in front of club audiences all over the world?
I really love performing. I call myself a show off. I love being onstage, love being in the light, love having all of those eyes on me. I feed a lot on the audience. They give me energy, which makes me want to give more. Each song is an opportunity to give from my soul. To have the opportunity to do that all over the world gives me a feeling I can’t really put into words.
Do you have a favorite city that you like to perform in?
I really love everywhere I get to play, but Russia and Brazil are probably my favorite places to go. The Russians and the Brazilians really respond to my music. I feel like Michael Jackson when I go to those countries.
How does your sexuality as a gay man impact your music, if at all?
It’s definitely a part of my personality that’s very real. But it’s not something I focus on. I don’t think it has as big an effect on me as it did when I was younger. In the past, I focused on it so much that I felt I could be crippled by it. I spent most of those years doing what I could to disarm the fears, doubts and self-hatred that can come with being gay.
I had to come to terms with myself so when I step out on stage, I can be honest, open, compassionate and vulnerable. I don’t focus on it so much now. I focus on the band, on the enthusiasm of the audience, on just trying to make it a great night. For the people that come to see me, it doesn’t matter what my sexuality is. It’s all about the party.
For many years, to be a dance artist was to sing in a kind of pop ghetto. But now dance music is providing the basis for many of the biggest hits on the charts. With that in mind, would you call yourself a dance artist or a pop artist?
I’m of the persuasion that dance music and pop music are the same things. I started out as a gospel artist, and that was what I was most passionate about at the time. In many ways, I was singing gospel as a way to release fear. I felt if I wasn’t singing gospel, I was going to hell – literally.
But I had all this other music in my soul, and I thought it would be a shame not to pay homage to all the other kinds of music that I loved. I like pop, country, soul, rock. But then dance music came out of nowhere. I found dance, and it found me. It was a window of opportunity that I leaped through. Dance music has allowed me to be so many things. I intend to explore this art form as long as there’s a taste for it. I love it.
Being a solo artist means you are styling yourself in a certain way. You don’t have to compromise to someone else’s view of what you should look like or dress like. Is that fun?
I love fashioning my own image. One of my original ambitions was to be a fashion designer because I absolutely love fashion. I really keep up with what’s going on and always have my face buried in the latest fashion magazine. Being my own artist and creating my own brand has given me the chance to focus on fashion even more.
When I was doing gospel, that was harder to do. In gospel music, the image that you’re creating is one that reflects Christ. With the music I’m doing now, I get to be different characters, tell stories and create all kinds of fantasies with both my music and my image. Mainstream music has given me the permission to really push the envelope and be who I am.
Your struggle to be who you are makes me think about all of the gay kids who are trying to transcend the bullying that’s going on right now so they too can be who they are without fear of violence or persecution.
I’m very passionate about the struggle to put an end to the bullying of gay teens and have sent out many messages on Twitter and Facebook in support of these kids. All of this bullying makes me think of a Dr. Seuss quote that’s had particular resonance for me over the years: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”