Nicole Willis on 1970s Music, Analog Recording and the Impossibility of Unique Human Experiences | Listen Up!

Nicole-Willis-photo-balconyPhoto by Jimi Tenor

Nicole Willis hails from New York City, where she grew up singing Burt Bacharach songs and listening to Malcolm X speeches on WWRL AM. Now she pumps throwback soul music out of her longtime home base in Finland with her band The Soul Investigators, peaking in her third decade of recording and performing.

Her new album, Happiness in Every Style, is perfect for fall, something like an audio sweater. The New York Times praises its “even-keeled, simmering grooves.” We concur. The whole album sounds comfortable, perfectly played, completely in the pocket–and enduringly warm from Willis’ alto voice to the analog tape on which it was recorded. For best results, buy the vinyl.

Listen to the uplifting single “One in a Million” below. And below that, check out our interview with Willis about crusty styles, Carole King–and disabusing oneself of the notion of originality.

Is Happiness in Every Style the best thing you’ve ever done?

Hard to say. I definitely try and stay in the moment and keep it fresh. I would like to think it gets better, the work we do. For myself, with The Soul Investigators, this was by far the easiest writing and recording process that we went through together. Usually they would make tracks, and then I would come in and add my part. This time we made all the music, lyrics and melody in the same session. We demoed it a couple times, then went forward and recorded vocals over new tracks. It went well and was a positive experience. I can definitely say that process made the album better for me. But I have to leave that up to the audience to decide if it’s really our best one or not.

Looks like you’re mainly touring Europe.

Well, that’s where we are. We’re in Europe, and we’re seven to eight people. In a very northerly part of Scandinavia. It’s not easy to go outside Europe. We’d love to come to North America. We were in Canada last year. It’s a great opportunity but it’s not something we can take for granted.

What’s it like being in Europe playing this American heritage music?

The thing is, music of course has origins. People might think a lot about origins of music when they listen. But there’s nothing exclusive for the listener. I like a lot of African music and don’t understand what they’re saying. But that doesn’t mean I’m not moved. You’ve got your audience and you don’t pick and choose who that audience is. People love what they love. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. But I couldn’t possibly do music that doesn’t come from my heritage or from what I enjoy. I enjoy all kinds of music and genres.

What music grounded you, growing up?

We listened to a lot of Motown. A lot of singers like Shirley Bassey, or Johnny Mathis, or Lou Rawls. Maybe a little Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick. A lot of Bacharach. Doo-wop. Paul McCartney. Wings. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Carole King. The Supremes, which is Motown of course. We listened to everything. Also there was radio. WBLS, legendary station, kind of religiously listened to. Sometimes we’d listen to WWRL, and they had speeches from Malcolm X and Farrakhan, which was cool. We listened to classic rock. We listened to everything. The thing about what I just listed to you, is that it’s definitely a mix. In the ’70s I don’t think people did mix that much. But we did listen to a lot of classic rock and and things like this. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Carole King, Barbra Streisand: That’s all in there. A lot of Rotary Connection I listened to later. And Minnie Riperton. Things like this. A lot of genres. From many backgrounds.

Happiness in Every Style has such a warm sound. Did you record it on tape?

It was recorded on tape. There was some digital treatment at some point. And then it went back to tape. It’s always starting on tape. Then digital, then back to tape. The guys [at Timmion Records] have vinyl mastering that they do there. Which is really good, sounds really good. But they’re not content with their vinyl cutting machine. They want something more lo-fi. They say, “It doesn’t sound crusty enough!” Which is funny. Especially if you’re cutting dubplates and stuff and it’s all sounding really good. I wish them luck. I think they might have found the machine they’re looking for, actually. They’re on a quest.

I like your lyric writing on “One in a Million,” it’s straightforward but deep. Do you like writing?

It’s a challenge. You don’t always know what to say. It’s the human experience. We’ve all said things. Been there before. It’s hard to have a unique experience, as a human being. It’s kind of impossible, really. So if you’re going to write a song, what is it going to be about? What do people want to hear? I think people do like familiar stories. Or want you to say it in your own way. Maybe that happens. If you’re lucky. I hope I can do that.

How have you been able to sustain such a long career making high-quality music, but not anything…

…commercial?

Yes.

It’s tough. It’s been a hard time. As it’s been, we have earned a very moderate living for a while. But as things have changed in the music industry, it’s just not easy to earn money anymore. It’s streaming, less things being purchased. I don’t know if our genre is popular anymore. With Keep Reaching Up, we were doing OK. But I don’t know what the future will be. Hopefully good. Everybody seems to like it. It’s been well-received so far. I really don’t know if it’s going to support me or my family. I also studied art. I studied painting. So I’m in a tricky spot with my profession. It’s not a profitable thing. There’s some inspiration to change it up and try to earn more money. Because you know when you have older kids, they need more things. It’s a real struggle. But hopefully we’ll have bigger shows, bigger audiences. Regardless, I’ll keep making records. Because you have to hustle.

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