Blue-in-Green:RADIO

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Nicole Willis: The Soul Investigator [Interview]

Written by Imran Mirza




It really has been as long ago as 2005 since the perfect made-in-heaven collaboration of Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators came to its fruition unleashing their debut album, ‘Keep Reachin’ Up’.  Released on Timmion Records, an undeniable classic floor-filling record and soul connoisseur’s gem was unveiled, propelled by standouts including ‘Feeling Free’, ‘If This Ain’t Love’ and ‘My Four Leaf Clover’, the trans-Atlantic pairing of the Brooklyn-born, US songstress and Finland’s soul and funk power-house band garnered sterling reviews and a loyal fan base who patiently waited eight years for the follow-up record, delivered to us with glee, again, by Timmion Records in the form of 2013’s ‘Tortured Soul’.

While ‘Keep Reachin’ Up’ was glorious in its infectious enthusiasm and all-round feel-good vibes and nature, ‘Tortured Soul’ is a decidedly darker album – in both its themes and its music, adopting a more bluesy approach to many of its songs.  Few tracks on this release even seem like they’d have a home on ‘Keep Reachin’ Up’ with ‘Time To Get Business Straight’ being one of the few can’t-sit-still contenders.  By no means is this a bad thing at all – as a result of the new direction, songs are given more room to breathe and are fleshed out with more instrumental work showcasing just how unbelievingly good The Soul Investigators are.  These are conditions that Willis equally thrives under as well though – showcasing her indelible talent and ability, both as a singer and a songwriter, to get you up dancing or have you nostalgically lamenting.

Why the wait though?  Thankfully, it wasn’t a complete dip into obscurity – The Soul Investigators kept themselves busy by releasing an album (well worth your time and money) in 2012, ‘Home Cooking’, while Nicole Willis kept the collaborations coming, working with artists and musicians including Shawn Lee (‘Jigsaw’ from Lee’s ‘Soul In The Hole’ album), Pizzicato One (‘A Little Bit of Soap’ from their ‘One and Ten Very Sad Songs’) and Mr Comicstore’s single ‘Are You Ready to Party?’ (check for the excellent Discomix too!).  And still, in between all of that, Willis found the time to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Lahti Institute of Fine Arts.

With the new album’s release, it probably couldn’t get much busier, but despite it all, Nicole Willis has still taken the time to bless this site with an exclusive chat about the last eight years and what went into the creating of the new album.  Friends, it’s my great pleasure to introduce you all to… Nicole Willis.

What were some of your earliest musical influences growing up?

One of the most important things about music at home was that it was diverse. We didn't feel a limitation as to what we could listen to, who we were or what we like. We had all genres of music at home.

You recently completed a Bachelor's degree, what made you want to go back into education?

I studied art as a child because I had an inclination for it. I always enjoyed drawing and painting. However, things are tough in the States in terms of getting an education. I didn't have real possibilities to study until I got to Finland. I certainly would like to go for a Master's degree but we'll just have to see if that happens. Trying to prepare myself for that application process these days as well as performing and writing songs.

Can you talk a little about how you felt 'Keep Reachin’ Up' was received? It seems that people are constantly discovering it.

I think when we released that record, people were pleasantly surprised.  It had this cover that was very throwback and that they found themselves dancing to stuff that is not immediately considered dance music. There were other records around at the time and they probably related it to those. But now we are more established and people seem to be aware of us and our history. Sure there are new people discovering that album and hopefully ‘Tortured Soul’ as well.

Why has the gap been so long between 'Keep Reachin’ Up' and 'Tortured Soul'?

I finished my degree and then we started writing, then recorded. The life process went on as we prepared to work again and make a new record.

What made you decide on the album title, 'Tortured Soul'?

The title was actually Jukka Sarapää's idea and it just seemed to fit. I thought, "maybe we try this or that", but the title just stuck and it was like a child that you observe to see if their name suits them. It was just right.

'Keep Reachin’ Up' and 'Tortured Soul' are very different albums – was there a deliberate attempt to give this album its own identity?

I think we didn't want to make an identical style of record. Naturally, there are lots of songs to dance to on ‘Keep Reachin’ Up’ but we deliberately fed our darker side when we made ‘Tortured Soul’.  We not only wanted a distinct identity for [this album] but we also wanted to evolve as writers and try other things.

Can you talk a little about what went into making the new album?

The band worked quite in their usual way. They developed tracks and I chose the ones I thought I could write to. In the studio, Jimi Tenor, Didier Selin and myself made arrangements to back even bar verse parts, bridges and choruses. We also recorded vocal demos of many songs. Perhaps the band re-recorded some parts or perhaps not. We always write with the original guitarist, Pete Toikkanen. He's pretty essential to the sound.

How did you initially hook up with the Soul Investigators?

Apparently, Didier Selin asked for an introduction from Tommi Grönlund of Puu/Sähkö Recordings. We did a single in 2002. So I guess I could say the rest is history.

If you had to introduce a brand new listener to Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators, what song would you play them first, and why?

Maybe the first song might be ‘Feeling Free’. It's a dance song so it’s great to start off dancing.

Do you have any plans to release a further solo album?

I am nearly finished with an LP I recorded with my partner, Jimi Tenor. We are launching our own label titled Herakles Records. Our project is called Cola & Jimmu and the album title will be ‘Enigmatic’.

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