Michelle Willis on Working With David Crosby and Michael McDonald
Singer-songwriter and keyboardist Michelle Willis first met David Crosby by way of Snarky Puppy's Michael League, who produced Crosby's 2016 album, Lighthouse. He asked Willis to contribute vocals.
The artists clicked immediately, and Willis would soon become a member of Crosby's Lighthouse Band, which included League and fellow singer-songwriter Becca Stevens. Willis appeared even more prominently on Crosby's 2018 album, Here if You Listen, on which the quartet dove deeper into collaborative songwriting, as well as the veteran's most recent release, 2021's For Free.
"She's probably one of the best singers I've ever heard in my life," Crosby said of Willis in 2018. "Of all. Ever. Anybody. One of the very best, one of the top handful. ... I live in the same world with Joni [Mitchell] and Aretha [Franklin], Bonnie [Raitt], women who could sing. She's in that league."
It was Crosby who encouraged Willis to pursue another solo album, a follow-up to her 2016 debut, See Us Through. "No one else sounds like this. This is you," he told her. "You have to make this record.”
The result is Just One Voice, Willis' latest album, which includes appearances by Crosby and Stevens, as well as Michael McDonald. Written the past few years — through breakups and a move to New York City — the just-released Just One Voice finds Willis as a tender yet resilient and thoughtful songwriter.
"You have to believe in it yourself the most," she tells UCR. "But it really helps when someone else that you respect and admire says, 'Yeah, do this.'"
How would you describe your relationship with David Crosby?
Haphazard, a wonderful friend, huge inspiration. And crazy person.
Do you have a favorite song of his that you perform live?
There's two, actually, there's three. I always love playing "Laughing" from If I Could Only Remember My Name. We don't play it that much, but when we do, it's always really magical and he tells the story of how it all came about, and you can always feel the audience be like, "I can't believe it!" So it's just a nice moment, and I love the imagery and the meaning behind that song. And I also really love playing two songs that we all wrote together. One is "The Muse," or I guess he calls it "By the Light of Common Day," which is a song he wrote with Becca. And I think that song really solidified the love between the four of us, it tells of what inspiration is and the beauty of it and the free nature of it and the life of it. And every time we sing it all together — we're so inspired by each other and with one another — it always makes one of us emotional. And then the last would be "Glory," which is one that was mostly written by Croz and myself. However, it never would have been finished had it not been for the four of us all together working on it.
Watch David Crosby and Michelle Willis Perform 'Laughing' in 2017
Do you ever encounter any challenges working collaboratively?
There's always gonna be challenges. It's always gonna have conflict. The thing that we all put as a top priority is that Croz is happy. That's it. [Laughs] I mean, we all speak up for our artistic value and sense and opinions. We all will say what we think, but at the end of the day, Croz has to be happy with it. And that as a guiding force really works. We all really love and respect each other.
I get the impression that Crosby has the right sort of personality for writing in that fashion.
He's incredibly open ... open to the very second that something is inspiring to him.
What would you say is different about this new album from your last one?
What would you say is different?
Well, not to quote your press release, but in it, you mentioned that you had initially thought about writing these sort of "rah-rah" strength songs, but that's not really what happened. These songs sound much more vulnerable to me.
I think the first album was very ... it was like a warm hug to me. Music and writing, for me, has always been an escape. ... And what really happened was that I moved [to New York City] and within six months was constantly on the road. I was never home for more than two weeks, if that. Most of the time I would be home for three days. And I had friends here, but I wasn't a good friend — I was never home and I was never steady enough to think, like, 'Oh, I wonder how this person is doing.' And the repercussions of that are never feeling like you can really call someone to vent if you haven't been there to answer the phone when they call, you know, and not feeling like I was really rooted in anyway. And I had just ended a big relationship, I started a new one that ended really quickly. Just a lot of things that contributed to an overall sense of anxiety and doubt and loneliness, you know? ... I think every album you start off thinking it's going to be this and it becomes something else.
Crosby appears on a few songs on your album.
He's sort of drifting through all these different background vocal parts. He's on the outro of "Liberty" with Michael McDonald. Michael sings the majority of the background vocals in that song, and Croz also sings in that part. He also sings at the end of "How Come" with Michael.
Listen to Michelle Willis' 'Liberty'
How did "How Come" become a duet with Michael McDonald?
I never envisioned it as a duet. The funny thing is, though, when I hear the background vocals of "Liberty," I always heard it in a Michael McDonald voice, just completely unrelated to ever thinking that it would be him. They sound like parts that he would have sung. So you can imagine how surreal it was when we were tracking him on "Liberty." ... When I was in high school, one of my teachers said, "I think you would like this song." And it was [the Doobie Brothers'] "Minute by Minute." I practiced that left hand — that whole pattern, that piano pattern — over and over, and it was the coolest thing I had ever played. With "How Come," the duet ... when I asked him, I didn't even know yet what part I wanted him to sing. I just knew that he could slay the outro. And I think originally, I thought it would just be him, just improvising over the outro, but in the end, I was like, 'Actually, we could have him also on the background vocals throughout the rest of the song.' I also didn't want to put too much on him. I didn't want to ask for too much. But yeah, we had that idea — I woke up like, the idea was quite sudden. I just thought: 'He could come in after I start the outro and do the lead!'
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
I don't know if anyone can ever answer that question. But the truth is, and this is such a pattern, I think your favorite song is always the most recent one, and "Black Night" is the most recent of the songs on the album. And it points to a new direction in writing for me. After I wrote "Black Night" in 2019, I wrote 10 or so new songs on guitar, really diving into tunings, a lot of inspiration from Joni and from Croz, for sure. But I kind of avoided doing tunings because of Joni for a long time, because people so often recognize her influence on my music. I was like, 'I can't also get into tunings.' But the more I worked with Croz and was just around his guitars and hearing that sound, at some point I just had to go for it.