Singer/songwriter Michelle Willis dives into the intimate depths of her beautifully therapeutic, captivating sophomore album ‘Just One Voice,’ a record of reckoning and rejuvenation that is as musically radiant and soothing as it is emotionally turbulent and raw.
Stream: “Green Grey” – Michelle Willis
This album is about giving voice to the thoughts that make you feel small. I thought I needed someone else’s voice to pull me out of whatever I was in, but in the end I needed my own.
An intensely intimate and vulnerable record, Michelle Willis’ sophomore album is a deep dive into our shared human condition: One of putting a mirror to, and coming to accept our imperfections, weaknesses, shortfalls, demons; of learning to live with our flaws and work on ourselves, rather than constantly reject and ignore the side that so often brings us down and, as she describes, “makes you feel small.” As musically radiant and soothing as it is emotionally turbulent and raw, Just One Voice is a beautifully therapeutic record of reckoning and rejuvenation, warmth and connection.
It’s silly to say
Maybe you make everyone feel this way
I’m telling my heart
This ain’t no place for love to start
Ever since I met you colour’s been creeping in
Flirting in shadow, painting light on an old sin
Every line you draw I bend
Every glance you give I linger in
Grey shades, waiting on your beckoning
Ever since I met you
I’ve been holding out to brush against you
But you got someone at home
Released April 8, 2022 via GroundUP Music, Just One Voice is a sweetly seductive upheaval – and one that ultimately leads us to the freedom of a cathartic promised land. The follow-up to 2016’s debut album See Us Through, Michelle Willis’ sophomore effort sees the Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter and keyboard player coming to life with a singular and captivating voice: One she carefully cultivated over the past several years spent touring in not one, but two bands led by the legendary David Crosby (David Crosby & Sky Trails and David Crosby & Lighthouse), and a third led by pop/jazz composer Becca Stevens.
Produced with Fab Dupont (Andre 3000, Gregory Porter) and featuring performances by Crosby, Stevens, Michael McDonald, Taylor Ashton, and Grégoire Maret, Just One Voice marks Michelle Willis’ triumphant ascent into a spotlight of her very own. The album’s sweet, lilting pop songs find her blending rock, folk, R&B, and jazz influences together in a stirring melting pot that warms the ears and feeds the soul. Meanwhile, Willis’ lyrics reveal a heavy heart searching for absolution, healing, and strength.
“These songs are really a deep dive into feelings I was often afraid to say out loud or even admit to myself,” Willis tells Atwood Magazine. Being petty, indecisive, jealous, small, alone and lost. The songs became a safe world for those thoughts to be worked through and wondered about. They all emanate from our basic human desire to be loved, which can sometimes exist as a small childlike voice inside that gets twisted and tied up along the way. Songwriting has always been a form of therapy for me, and these songs were borne from my need to give voice to that small feeling, understand and shine any kind of light on it.”
just one voice is all I need
and I know we’re gonna be alright
just lock your eyes with mine
and I know, I know everything’s gonna be just fine
so smile and reach your hand to me
I know that you mean well
don’t tell me it’ll be okay
I know that you mean well
– “Just One Voice,” Michelle Willis
They all emanate from our basic human desire to be loved, which can sometimes exist as a small childlike voice inside that gets twisted and tied up along the way. Songwriting has always been a form of therapy for me, and these songs were borne from my need to give voice to that small feeling, understand and shine any kind of light on it.
Just One Voice was written almost entirely during Willis’ nonstop touring life – on buses, planes, and “countless green rooms” – and as she candidly recounts, her vision of the record shifted considerably over the creative process.
“I thought the album would be about me being strong and tough on my own, but it turned out I had a little bit more growing work to do before I got there…” Willis explains. “In terms of production, because I was curious about how both a live and studio format would affect the impact of the arrangements, I planned to make a double album: One live, one studio, two bands, two locations, and different special guests. I’m very proud to say that I did all of this. I made the live record (which was released in mid-May) in Toronto featuring David Crosby and my Toronto bandmates, and the studio record in New York with Fab Dupont, my NYC band and special guests (like Michael McDonald and Grégoire Maret). Lots of small changes along the way, but ultimately I’m immensely proud of all the work and music that has come out of this project, and much in keeping with the original vision. In the end it was clear the studio record was really the record, so that would be the biggest change from the o.g premise of a double album.”
“I think it showcases what I’m good at: My voice, my ability to evoke a feeling, and my love of harmony, soul and groove,” she adds. “Sonically, it sounds rich and full, and is recorded, mixed and co-produced so masterfully by Fab Dupont. In terms of artistry, I’m not sure; time will tell. That word alone is still one I’m adjusting to. What I do know is this album is just the beginning, and the next record will feature writing that is even more in tune with what I’m capable of as a writer.”
The album’s title itself nods to Willis’ own intensive journey of growth and discovery: One that found her shedding a light on all the things she had otherwise swept under the rug over the years. “This album is about giving voice to the thoughts that make you feel small,” she says. “I thought I needed someone else’s voice to pull me out of whatever I was in (which the title track attempted to pursue), but in the end I needed my own. I learned over and over again while making this record to just say what I needed, and say it clearly, and that the premise of so many of my problems lay in not asking for what I need.”
I learned over and over again while making this record to just say what I needed, and say it clearly, and that the premise of so many of my problems lay in not asking for what I need.
Highlights abound on a record brimming with passion, purpose, and direction.
The lilting, ethereal instrumental (plus vocal hums) opener “10ths” sets a scene of cinematic ease and dreamy release. From there, “Liberty” stuns with deep, pulsating grooves, soaring, sweet vocals, and lyrics of hope, renewal, and possibility. Both David Crosby and Michael McDonald can be heard in the background, supporting Willis as she basks in her reverie:
Like liberty’s beacon in the distance
It could be a false omen after all
I think that I’ll let it be
Until I can’t refute it
And that’s just the way it’s gonna be for now
A city takes me by storm, I want everyone and all their warmth
Further standouts include the buoyant “Green Grey,” the feverish capital J Jealousy anthem “Janet,” the driving and dramatic “How Come” (featuring Michael McDonald), the smoldering, harmony-rich “On & On” and “Black Night” (featuring Becca Stevens), and the utterly enchanting, achingly tender title track “Just One Voice.”
“I wrote this song at my apartment in Toronto, on the upright piano my Mom bought when she was 18,” Willis recalls. “At the time, I was at my wits’ end, feeling lonely, isolated, and unable to be real with anyone. I had just left an important relationship, and whenever I talked about it I felt like I was exhausting people, and didn’t even understand it myself. Everything felt dizzy, circular, and too much all the time. I looked for connection in all the wrong places, which only exacerbated the negativity. This was my attempt to touch that feeling of connection from a desperate but honest place.”
Willis is quick to note a few of her personal favorite moments on the album as well.
“I love the way ‘On & On’ turned out,” she says, beaming. “It’s got this dream dark magic just floating all the way through and is exactly how I hoped it would feel – heartbeat dream. The end of ‘Liberty’ just soars. Michael McDonald taking the lead on ‘How Come’ still makes me shake my head in awe. ‘Janet’ has a great story that is too long; suffice to say, the final version, once it arrived, required us to counteract our espresso and caffeinated selves with a long, tired studio day, multiple takes, and Macallan 12.”
As for her favorite lyrics, Willis cites a particularly powerful line from her album closer: “‘A promise to yourself is a promise that shall not be undone.’ It’s a line from ‘Black Night’, the last track on the record, which was placed as a coda both as the last song written of this group, as well as a hopeful end to that period of my life. I wrote ‘Black Night’ on New Year’s Day 2019. I was letting go and looking ahead from all that had been holding me back. I felt like I was finally capable of keeping my promise to myself, to move ahead and not let fear get so in the way.”
Have I changed somehow?
What’s the use in me asking?
No one ever sees this coming
Have you already found
Someone new to whet your appetite?
I hope they’re strong and nice for ya
How come you don’t call me anymore?
How come, how come?
Have I become a bore to you? Do I not say the things
You wish I’d do (Do I say what you want?)
Now that we are turning up in circles?
Oh your circles leave me numb
But it’s up to you, pick and choose,
See me fading from view (you can choose what you want)
From your picture perfect frame of you
And the who’s who
You and me, we both feed off of change
Recreating something known
I don’t wanna fade into the wall
Like pictures you used to love
From start to finish, Just One Voice is a comforting blanket of cathartic reflections and warm grooves.
On both the musical and emotional fronts, Michelle Willis held nothing back in creating this album. The result is a majestic and sweeping collection of songs that soar and stir, lighting a fire in all who listen. After truly cutting her teeth on the road with a who’s who of A-list, all star talent, Willis has come into her own, found her voice, and delivered a triumphant record that picks a soul apart, only to put it together again stronger, more empowered, and more self-assured than ever before.
“I have grown so much between starting and now releasing this album,” Willis shares. “One takeaway is that you never really know all that you’re going through and learning while you’re in it, even when you’re literally writing and focusing on it. Meaning takes time to reveal its whole self. I hope listeners find a home in any and all of these songs, for them to feel safe in acknowledging some of those feelings, be they everything or nothing to do with what I originally wrote about. Music is a place, and I hope this album is a place for people to exist in, feel enveloped by, and let go.”
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Michelle Willis’ Just One Voice with Atwood Magazine as the artist goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of her sophomore LP!
Stream: ‘Just One Voice’ – Michelle Willis
:: Inside Just One Voice ::
10ths was written as a place to let go, needing a release, catharsis. I wrote this after a petty fight, thinking I could’ve handled it better. To me it feels like both a bath of compassion and a centering in the chaos of all that can swirl around us in shame and confusion.
I wrote Liberty on my last trip to New York before I moved there. I was questioning how much my need of change was just green grass chasing. I was falling more and more in love with the city, seeing myself there, while still carrying memory, grudges and hopes deferred from home. I was thinking about all the people for whom the Statue of Liberty was a beacon of hope, new life, new chances, but upon getting here their lives were far from the dream, and yet I couldn’t help but fall for the energy of the city (edit: five years on, I’m still very much in love with NYC). The vocal harmonies here may as well have been taken from a Michael McDonald background vocal arranging class. I’m certain that subconsciously I was writing with his voice and style in mind. In the outro it’s both him and my mentor and friend David Crosby singing “a city takes me by storm”, which is a beautiful beckoning to me of all that was to come. I had no idea I was about to begin a career writing and touring with Croz.
Just One Voice
I wrote this song at my apartment in Toronto, on the upright piano my Mom bought when she was 18. At the time, I was at my wits’ end, feeling lonely, isolated, and unable to be real with anyone. I had just left an important relationship, and whenever I talked about it I felt like I was exhausting people, and didn’t even understand it myself. Everything felt dizzy, circular, and too much all the time. I looked for connection in all the wrong places, which only exacerbated the negativity. This was my attempt to touch that feeling of connection from a desperate but honest place. That is Todd Caldwell on all the tasty organ waterfalls.
This song is meant to be playful, fun and flirtatious, in the (sort of?) innocent first moments of attraction. I spent a few years following the trope of being a young fun escape to other people’s sadness. That got old, and thankfully so did I. I originally heard this as a combo of Bonnie’s Something To Talk About but with the energy of Simon & Garfunkel’s Cecilia.
Trigger is about being your own worst enemy with a chip on your shoulder, acting like a victim. It was written for those of us who have all the love and support in the world, yet still find ways to blame everyone else for their problems. It’s much easier to avoid the terrifying reality that we choose our day to day lives. Similar to the song Janet, it’s an attempt to talk some sense into myself and people I love, to “wake up” and recognize no one but themselves are holding them back. Turning it into a duet with Taylor Ashton gave the song more of a story, like two people in a relationship calling each other out. I’ve always been such a fan of his and wanted him on the record in some form. For years I carried around a demo of this song with just acoustic guitar and vocals. We tried to record it several times but it never had the right vibe. Interestingly, this version is from a rehearsal a few weeks before we tracked the album. We’d recorded it for reference, and in the end, despite multiple attempts in studio, the energy was so good that it became the final version.
Janet is a song about capital J Jealousy – the sickness of it, and how it makes you feel like a victim even when you’re not. This song is an attempt from my bigger self to lay down some wisdom to my smaller self. I felt jealous of somebody and knew it served no purpose, nor did it feel good. It all came back to regret, and feeling like I didn’t say or do what I should’ve. This song took many forms to get here. I first demoed it with a 70s Stevie Wonder vibe in mind. David Crosby heard it in our Lighthouse writing sessions and said “Gimme!!” so we tracked an acoustic-style version of it on the album Here If You Listen. When it came time to make it with my band, I wanted to bring back some of that oozy Stevie sound. We did soooo many takes on tracking day and had a lot of decent ones, but still didn’t feel like we landed it (in retrospect – it was early morning and we’d had a lot of coffee – we were rushing). We moved on, and started on the next tune. Later in the day I asked one of the staff to pick up some bourbon and a bottle of Macallan 12. The bourbon was to keep some of the band hanging around, while the Macallan 12 was for us all to celebrate in style (it was the last day of band tracking). After a long day and a few long sips, I asked if we could try one more pass at Janet – we did, and finally nailed it, greasy and stanky. It was a triumphant take and a triumphant end.
How Come is the duality of one’s petty, whiny reaction to change followed by taking ownership, walking away, letting go and (cathartically) moving on. This song “gets” me. I wrote How Come regarding a friendship that was falling apart that no one was really to blame for. When I hear it now I think of it as an anthem for being clear about what works for you and doesn’t, and that people will always do what’s best for them in the end. The beginning is a warning for how small and micro focused we can be, while the end is a promise of joy that comes from taking the high road, seeing the big picture, letting go and doing your best. This song was by far the hardest for Fab, my co-producer and mixing engineer, to corral in the mix. We tried half a dozen pianos, several drummers and drum takes, but in the end I think that Michael McDonald was the sweet strength we never knew we needed. I still sometimes laugh from shock when I hear Michael singing the backgrounds and leads at the end. What a love-bomb of musical mastery. It is an absurd dream to me that he graced us with his musicianship. It was a day of recording that I will never forget. David Cutler plays some stanky, stanky bass lines in this song.
Think Well is my daydreaming melancholy hideaway. I was seeing the writing on the wall with my relationship and languishing in a paused moment, knowing I wanted to be alone. It feels like an admission, that bittersweet moment when you admit you need to step away from someone you care about so much. Christian Almiron plays all the beautiful distorted over-arching synth sounds along with me here.
‘Til The Weight Lifts
This song has lived through many incarnations, written at various soundchecks with various bands, even on an airport piano, all over the world. I was looking back at a relationship and feeling like the memory and meaning of it shifted like views in a kaleidoscope. I kept playing with the words weight, wait and wading, and how memory tied into them. I was trying to understand why I left a good relationship, why something so good can still not be right, and if I’d been looking at everything blindly. I finally finished the song while watching birds in murmeration at the end of a long tour, taking a break in my friends backyard in Alexandria VA. The way the birds moved felt exactly the way my memories did, this undulating, unpredictable, shape-shifting idea that could never land on an answer.
On & On
Another song written from my better self to my smaller self. This was really a pleading, to take action and stop holding other people’s emotions out on a line. I was being childish and afraid. I wrote a lot of this lyric on a plane from New Zealand to Japan while on a month-long stint opening for Snarky Puppy in 2016. I love the feeling of the five chord that ends the refrain. The openness of it feels like you’re hanging over a cliff, but that cliff is actually the one chord, which, musically is home base. Once we take the risk and do what we know we should, we find ourselves relieved, at home and grounded. The dreaminess of the track and the time feel plays into this too, like I’m in a dream watching myself do what I know I need to correct (repetitive dreams are often the indicator for me to make changes in my life). The heartbeat that carries through the song is my favourite thing that Louis Cato plays on the album. It is so in sync with him as a person and as a friend. Supportive, steady, warm and grounded.
New Years Day, 2019. I had rented a tiny house in upstate New York for a few nights to spend some time ruminating the new year alone in the beauty of the Catskills. The night before (NYE), I’d written a list of things I wanted to let go of onto strips of paper and one by one burned them in a fire. The ritual of it felt so good. I’d been holding on to so much fear and people pleasing. Watching it all go up in flames was extremely cathartic. I wrote this song the next morning. Rain had poured down in the middle of the night and gave the morning this cloudy, murky, purple sky that felt both ominous and full of potential. Black Night is a promise to myself, of what I let go of, of taking action in my life, knowing my inner strength and power, and to not let fear get in the way. It’s also a bit of a call to those things that haunt me, like, cmon and try me, I’m ready for the night, the darkness and all it brings. It was the newest song to make it on the album, and one that points to a new writing direction for me. That’s why I placed it at the end. It seals the past and beckons the future.
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📸 © Dave Goddard
:: Stream Michelle Willis ::