Singer Nicole Willis has been mesmerizing audiences since the mid 80’s with her amazing voice. From back up and session singer to solo artist to her powerful vocal work with The Soul Investigators, Nicole’s work ethic has been rewarded with a string of successful projects. A veteran vocalist who has worked with such diverse bands as Leftfield, Brand New Heavies, Yasuharu Konishi, Curtis Mayfield, and The The among others, she shows no sign of slowing down at the present time. Flea Market Funk caught up with Nicole as she prepares for the release of her collaboration with the Soul Investigators due out in early 2013.
FMF: Hi Nicole. Could you walk us through a typical day of Nicole Willis?
NW: A typical day for me would be to get up and see my kids off to school, after they have breakfast and dress. Then I would go to my studio and paint for about 4 hours. Luckily we can be home when the kids come in so we usually do that. I’m planning to work on an album with my husband so I’m expecting that I’ll be at his studio, which is just across from mine. Later in the afternoon we bring our kids to there hobbies and prepare dinner. My day is a typical mother’s day with some art & music splashed in for “work”.
FMF: Listening to the 45 of “Tell Me When” on my turntable right now. Could you explain what it’s like to work with Jukka at Timmion Records and with the Soul Investigators?
NW: Jukka Sarapää is a very even person, quite easy going. Always finds a compromise between those who disagree. His graphics are really perfect for Timmion. When we do live shows, Jukka is not sensitive to criticism. He will adjust tempo at the blink of an eye. He’s a real pleasure to work with. The Soul Investigators are almost like siblings to each other as they have known each other so long. Generally they have a good sense of humor and are open for fun stuff.
FMF: Keeping on the topic of the 45, the flip, “It’s All Because of You” has a serious Curtis Mayfield vibe to it. I feel like you were channeling some Chicago Soul on that track. Can you tell us how that song came about, and how working with Curtis has influenced you as an artist?
NW: When I worked with Curtis Mayfield it was almost 20 years ago. Although I was an adult, somehow I feel that I have evolved as a writer & singer. His records were a staple of my household as a child but there were a lot of influences there for me. It was just a great time to grow up, the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Most people cringe at the thought of the 1980’s but that was an extremely fun time for me so I can’t say I didn’t enjoy all the music that was out there. We went to Atlanta to work on a music video of “Let’s Do It Again” and met Mayfield’s family. He was a warm person. The subject of the song “It’s All Because Of You” is quite personal, relating to experience from people close to me and myself. However it is not entirely auto-biographical. When I write lyrics, I try to write a story so it’s partially fiction. Most of my songs are.
“ Because I have enjoyed so many different kinds of genres of art & music, I feel lucky and hope that I can come from a sincerely diverse place. Sometimes it’s not always so but we can work in a mode of some kind of genre of music & art, we can pull things together that aren’t necessarily or naturally side by side. ”
FMF: What music are you listening to these days?
NW: Some Jazz, some indie, some underground, generally old records, some 1990’s stuff, Angolan music from the 1970’s, Pop music with my kids, a bit of everything.
FMF: Do you collect vinyl? If so, when you’re on tour is that part of the routine, looking for records in different cities and countries?
NW: I like to collect vinyl but I like to collect art objects more, or vintage clothes & furniture. I’m usually looking for stuff like that. The band guys are the real vinyl collectors. I can’t justify constant vinyl purchases because I don’t really DJ so maybe I’ll try to go to a good art museum. I missed my chances to go to Museum Ludwig & the Museum of Pergamon last weekend so I’m a bit disappointed. They’re some of my favorite places.
FMF: As an artist, what inspires you? I’m not just talking about musical influences, which I’d love to hear as well, but other factors that drive you to be who you are.
NW: I want to break the mold and be open to all the things that have influenced me in life & not do what is expected from me, or someone like me. It’s exhausting when assumptions are made about one’s background, etc. Because I have enjoyed so many different kinds of genres of art & music, I feel lucky and hope that I can come from a sincerely diverse place. Sometimes it’s not always so but we can work in a mode of some kind of genre of music & art, we can pull things together that aren’t necessarily or naturally side by side.
FMF: Your highly anticipated sophomore release Tortured Soul with The Soul Investigators is slated to come out in 2013. That will be 8 years since the Keep Reaching Up record was released. Can you talk about the process of making this record, what you were up to during that time (between the two), and what you have learned from making these two records?
NW: It’s great to have 2 albums worth of material after all this time. The writing process was always happening between now & then. I was pretty much raising my kids, studying art and trying to be healthy in those 7 years. We would like to actually start writing straight away so we don’t have such a gap between releases. It’s nice to have surprises for the audiences. It was good to pass the time because our creative changes came easily after those years passed. I think we’ve learned to not allow our creative process to be stagnant. We don’t want to imitate nature but be a part of it.
FMF: I like to equate making music to cooking food, so I wanted to ask you if there are any specific dishes are your specialty? While I’m cooking I always have some Jazz organ like Brother Jack McDuff or maybe some Alice Clarke playing in the background, have any specific music you like to cook to?
NW: Sometimes I cook with Wayne Shorter. He’s my Xmas holiday music. When we have a child’s birthday party, on goes the Pop, which is a lot of fun for them & myself as well. We made a couple of weeks ago Shish Kofte, & I was surprised by the presence of cinnamon & allspice in the recipe, but as well was garlic and coriander. It came out just perfect, especially because we BBQ’d them. I like a nice piece of salmon with fennel and cherry tomatoes in the oven. Or a Roast Beef, kind of medium rare, with fresh horseradish cream. I started making cupcakes, crème caramel, tarte Tatin, oatmeal cookies. Fun tasty stuff but very rich as well. My birthday is on Boxing Day so I have to think up a good menu for that, my kind friends are making time for me during a busy holiday season.
FMF: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
NW: I’m hoping to go back to school for a graduate degree in museology and curatorship. Hopefully on my down time, that would happen. Otherwise I hope I’m taking photos, painting, raising my kids.
FMF: What do you think is the main difference between music recorded in let’s say 1967-74 (specifically Jazz, Funk, Soul) and music being made today? Aside from the analog process.
NW: That’s a very specific time period. Desegregation was young if not non-existent. There was something segregated about the way we listened. We kind of decided that it was “cool” to listen to Soul and Funk because they belonged to us, us African American’s. But to this day, some people actually limit what they listen to in terms of what is cool and not by racial lines. In the USA we have an African American president who is also bi-racial, if that is possible. To be bi-racial is not so standard in the USA, although there are increasing instances for people starting families to be multi-racial. The 1960’s were about “moving on up”, clean, conservative. It’s easy to see this. 1970’s was a decade of drug experimentation, and that trickled into the way Soul & Funk were made then. It wasn’t clean and conservative anymore.
FMF: What’s next for Nicole Willis?
NW: More music, more painting. Getting ready to write some songs with my partner and the band as well.
FMF: Any last words?
NW: Not sure what I can add. But thanks for the opportunity to talk about our project.
Vist Nicole’s website for news, tour updates and more.
Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators have a new record, Tortured Soul due out in 2013 on Timmion Records.
Great interview. Thank you so much.
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