Singer, lyricist and producer Nicole Willis first emerged as an artist in the 1980s, performing across clubs in her native New York City. Willis joined the American acid jazz combo Repercussions in 1990, and they subsequently became the first artists to release a single on the cutting-edge label Mo’ Wax (later the home of DJ Shadow and Unkle) with 1992’s “Promise.” Three years later the band signed with Warner Brothers and put out the much slept-on Earth and Heaven LP. In 1997, after dropping their sophomore project Charmed Life, the group disbanded and Willis moved abroad.
In her adopted home of Finland, she joined forces with The Soul Investigators and, in 2005, delivered the soul album Keep Reachin’ Up, which contains the haunting track “No One’s Gonna Love You.” In 2013, the song became a hit after it was played in a first season episode of the Showtime series Ray Donovan. Later the same year, the group released their second album Tortured Soul. With their forthcoming Happiness In Every Style, due in stores October 2nd, the funky Finnish combo returns with one of the finest soul records of the year.
Our Michael A. Gonzales recently sat down with Willis to discuss her career and Happiness In Every Style, the highlights of which appear below.
soulhead: The first time I saw you perform was in the early 1990s with Repercussions. Talk a little bit about the New York City music scene during that era and some of the groups that came out of that scene?
Nicole Willis: Well, I can barely remember the names of the bands. We always opened for artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Massive Attack, Tricky, among others, because Giant Step/Groove Academy were our management. They brought the Brits over and we’d kind of do our Acid Jazz thing before. I was pleased to be on the Mo’ Wax label. It was an interesting time.
soulhead: When the Repercussions came out, it was a few years before the neo-soul movement. What was your approach to soul during that period? Also, please explore the group’s association with Mo’ Wax as well as a glimpse behind the scenes of making Earth and Heaven with producer Gary Katz.
NW: Yes, Repercussions. In the 1990’s there were still bidding battles for bands and stuff like that, big recording deals and budgets. It’s probably the worst thing a young artist can commit to, I can say that now that I know myself. We got signed for an awful lot of money and yet Gary Katz managed to spend twice the budget. If I had been a more confident singer at the time, the whole thing could have been different. We had a lot of aspirations. I much prefer my lo-fi studio set up these days with total artistic control.
soulhead: Happiness In Every Style is your third album with The Soul Investigators, but can you tell us how you all came together as a unit? Are there a lot of soul/funk players in your adopted home of Finland?
NW: We were introduced by a friend that I have released music with in the past, Tommi Grönlund. We met in Barcelona. We started working on individual tracks for 7” singles and then we went on to record the bulk of Keep Reachin’ Up later in 2003. I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of funk/soul players. I think as far as it goes that The Soul Investigators have it covered. Helsinki’s a small town, for a capital city and not so big a country.
soulhead: Happiness in Every Style has a very connected style as though the songs were conceived to be together as opposed to being material simply put together and called an album. I’m not suggesting that the songs sound the same, but they flow together like a good DJ set. Tell us how the project was conceptualized and how the collaboration came together with The Soul Investigators?
NW: For Happiness In Every Style we discussed briefly how we would write in the studio together, which is what we did. The band would literally be jamming and I sat there and wrote lyrics while they jammed, asked them to make new parts if they hadn’t already, etc. I guess I first started singing melodies, then wrote words as mentioned before. We worked really quickly like this and it turned out a pretty positive experience. It was totally new to work this way and I think all are happy with the results.
soulhead: The new single “Paint Me in a Corner” is a song about people who put limitations on others. What was the lyrical inspiration behind that track? Also, can you talk about the music which has a wonderful ‘60s pop vibe that sounds like Herb Alpert doing Motown? Were you a fan of pop radio station WABC as a kid?
NW: That’s interesting that you would note that because it is indeed about that. I guess that is from experience that I wrote that. Been having these dysfunctional relationships in which boundaries are crossed and I feel boxed in. I think every individual finds their own path in life and this song says, “now’s the time to express.” Without really intending to, my songs often reveal my personal experiences. I loved WABC, sure, but being a black kid from New York City, there was always the standard WBLS and WWRL. I really like Herb Alpert, Tijuana Brass, Burt Bacharach, all that kind of stuff. I don’t listen as much now but listen to Rotary Connection more these days.
soulhead: What I love about your voice is that it is soulful without being overwrought. Your voice is like a controlled fire on “Where Are You Now” and “Angel.” Who were the singers you listened to when you were developing your style?
NW: I’m one of these singers that is old enough to not have gone for that super-embellished sound, that didn’t follow suit when everybody started to imitate Stevie (Wonder). I technically couldn’t do it and eventually realized I wasn’t interested in doing it. I listen to all kinds of genres of music and I especially feel like the music industry expects black vocalists to “stay black.” You have these new metal and indie acts that are young black kids doing their thing and the Afropunk scene, which is great. It’s kind of an oddity. People want singers to keep it “smooth” or be so-called “authentic.” That really cracks me up. I think if you don’t go for what you are feeling, you might as well hang it up. I don’t think it’s clever to list singers that I base my style on because I don’t know if that ever actually happened, it just is what it is. I’ve been told that I sound like myself!
soulhead: Beginning in 2013, you started working with your husband Jimi Tenor as the electro-duo Cola & Jimmu. Tell us a little about the name, as well as recording as a family affair.
NW: I kind of liked Cola as a nickname and Jimi’s pseudonym comes from a legendary emperor in Japan. We just got really inspired in January of 2013 to do a house record and that’s how it took off. We’re working on some disco tracks these days, so we are going to keep it dance oriented, and have electro and other instrumentation happening.
soulhead: You’re from Brooklyn, which many people don’t realize has always had a very vibrant jazz, soul and disco scene, particularly so in the ’70 and ‘80s. Who were some of the early musicians and fellow singers that you worked with? Did you play any shows with the Black Rock Coalition bands or the M-Base collectives? Also, please tell me about the last time you went home. Listening to your (Cola & Jimmu) song “Brooklyn Girl,” it sounds as though you’ve seen the many changes.
NW: I was just in New York City in June this year. It is really different and I have changed as well. It is a bit disturbing how Brooklyn feels like a playground for the rich nowadays. I feel less possessive of it because it’s starting to get unrecognizable. I used to go to the Mudd Club and Danceteria, those were my spots. In the 1980’s, I had this electro-bossanova duo with a musician from New Haven named Spike Priggen. Then I did a one-off thing with Jenn Vix, Adam Horowitz (of the Beastie Boys), Phil Painson, and David Strahan. We did a disco cover. Later I worked with Repercussions who were members of Groove Collective. That was mainly it in NYC.
soulhead: Back in the ‘80s you worked at Danceteria, which was one of my favorite clubs during that era. Can you tell us a bit about that side of your life and some of the other clubs where you worked in New York City? Who were some of the memorable people that you recall from Danceteria?
NW: Yes, I saw Madonna for $3, never knew Keith Haring but Jean-Michel Basquiat apparently wanted to paint my portrait. The group Suicide were frequenting while I worked, met Terry Hall (of The Specials), a number of people that I have been in touch with recently that are pretty cool people. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons were friends that I’d chit chat with, well, Rick was kind of quiet but always said hi with a certain amount of affection which I appreciated. I remember speculating the second Madonna album with Russell, very funny to think of now. Adam Horowitz was a nice friend at the time, we watched a Birthday Party gig there together, I think we were pretty impressed.
soulhead: You appear in Soul II Soul’s “Keep on Movin’” video. Did you ever record with Jazzie B or Nellee Hooper? Besides reading The Face and hanging out in nightclubs, what were you doing in England at that time?
NW: I didn’t record with them and would probably not have met them if not for the video director who had hired me for a Julia Fordham video before. Never met Nellee Hooper. The “Keep On Movin’” video was shot in New York City. I was in London for about a year or so in 1985. I was living with a boyfriend, working, doing a little music, hanging around.