Monday 16 October 2017

Nicole Willis: "My Name Is..." [Interview]

Since debuting with The Soul Investigators on Timmion Records in 2005 and taking the soul world by storm with the undeniable classic floor-filling record and soul connoisseur’s gem, 'Keep Reachin' Up', Nicole Willis cemented herself as one of the premier artists for these glorious contemporary soul times.

Even with an eight year hiatus between the group's first and second albums ('Tortured Soul' would later follow on in 2013), support and anticipation did not waiver from the devout supporters of the trans-Atlantic pairing of the Brooklyn-born, US songstress and Finalnd's soul and funk power-house band, which has continued to garner sterling reviews.

Thankfully those eight years weren't replicated for subsequent projects with 'Happiness in Every Style' following in 2015 and now, backed by The UMO Jazz Orchestra, we have 'My Name is Nicole Willis'.

Although Willis shares top-billing with the excellent UMO Jazz Orchestra, this album is very much Nicole Willis taking centre-stage.  A declaration if you will that is even further underlined by the fact this album sees its release on her own Herakles Records.  Musician and producer, Jimi Tenor, tackles horn arrangements throughout the project and joins the production trio of Willis and Pete Toikkanen, guitarist from The Soul Investigators.  Musician, author, talk show host and hero to Nicole Willis, Ian F. Svenonius, also jumps on the album's intro and outro, really rounding the project out as becoming one of her most personal efforts.

It's a Nicole Willis release so highlights will always be aplenty: 'Still Got A Way To Fall', 'Break Free' and 'Togetherness' stand tall amongst some fantastic songs, and the re-imagined versions of previous releases, 'One In A Million' and 'Together We Climb' showcase just what The UMO Jazz Orchestra bring to the table.

Whether it's The Soul Investigators, The UMO Jazz Orchestra or the upcoming project with Banda Palomita, Nicole Willis solidifes her passion, ability and intent with every release.  With the greatest of pleasures, for the second time on this site, we're able to introduce the incredible... Nicole Willis.

How did the collaboration with the UMO Jazz Orchestra come about?
It had been a thought for some time that a live show with the group would work well, since my prior releases and gigs included horn sections.  We began writing some new material for that show which took place at Savoy and developed something slightly different from what I have written before. The writers team was Pete Toikkanen, Jimi Tenor and myself.  Jimi is rather gifted at making big band arrangements.

Is there any particular significance behind the album's title, 'My Name Is Nicole Willis’?
I suppose after finding creative differences in work and my divorce from my husband of 17 years, I wanted to reclaim myself.  I’d felt I put my own agenda on a back-burner for a rather long time and that I could no longer slip back into uncomfortable or diminutive situations.  It was like a push of assertion, that thing we somehow always do to make a change that might be difficult.

Can you talk a little about what went into the making of the new album? 
While preparing for the show at the Savoy here in Helsinki, we rehearsed at Ilmala for two days that were recorded.  The scores had been written well in advance and had been placed into the possession of the UMO creative team.  It was in a television studio with rather high ceilings, concrete walls that were covered in heavy curtain.  We got quality recordings, which were edited, thankfully from the initiative of Jimi Tenor.  He also recorded the vocals. Mixing was a combined effort.  I was quite insistant, and in the end was truly pleased with the result.

What led you to revisit some of the older songs in your catalogue, like 'One in a Million' and 'Together We Climb’?
Those two songs are actually from my last album release.  So yes, kind of newer, really.  It wouldn't make sense to work with UMO and not have these songs that are all arranged with horns originally.  In fact most of my catalogue with The Soul Investigators could have been ideal to perform with them.  Jimi has arranged extensively with the group and myself.  It just worked out.

How did the opportunity to include Ian Svenonius on the album present itself?
We pursued it.  I had been in touch with Ian from time to time over the years and been his fan for about 20.  Social media, that blessing & curse, makes it easy to stay in contact.  I always look forward to what he does and return to his recordings throughout time.  A hero for me.

You appear to constantly be diversifying, from your work with The Soul Investigators to the 'Big Fantasy'/'Tear It Down' EP and now to this project: do these reinventions come naturally?
As a matter of fact, yeah.  I don’t like to pigeon hole myself. If one does not feel that they can do anything then they won’t.  Also must be careful of taking the reins on your destiny.  I would suggest that for anyone.  Make your own decisions about what you do.  I like so many genres of music, that it is easy to find inspiration everywhere.

Have you given any thought to what your next project might be?
Possibly some kind of future disco for record. I already have a new live band, Nicole Willis & Banda Palomita.  I’m really pleased with that.

Who would be a dream artist for you to either record or perform with?
I’ve just had that opportunity to work with Ian Svenonius on my recording.  We tried to set up him joining in live with UMO but it didn’t work out.  That would be me set for the next two decades!

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