This year’s Songwriters Hall of Fame GALA will take place on June 14 in New York City. “It feels great,” she admitted. “This has been a whole month of awards. I am feeling very good indeed.”
When asked what motivates her each day, she responded, “I do a lot of things besides music. My motivation is to combine everything I do into one big, giant expression. I’m usually pretty motivated. I have a decent attitude towards life.”
Willis began writing songs in 1972, when she worked at Columbia and Epic Records writing advertisements, radio commercials, and liner notes such esteemed artists as Laura Nyro, Barbra Streisand, Santana, Simon & Garfunkel, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Her first song was recorded in 1974 by Bonnie Raitt. Her big break came in 1978 when R&B queen Patti LaBelle started to record her songs on a regular basis.
In 1995, Willis scored an Emmy nomination for her chart-topping hit, “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts, which is the theme from the popular television sitcom Friends. Willis also co-wrote the Tony and Grammy award-winning musical, The Color Purple, which was produced by Oprah Winfrey. “I am very grateful for having written that song,” Willis said, about “I’ll Be There for You.” “It is the quintessential ’90s song, I have to say. Everybody does the clap to it, it’s great.”
Several other notable smash singles that she wrote include “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as “Neutron Dance” by The Pointer Sisters, among countless others.
On the key to longevity in entertainment, Willis said, “I have always created my own vehicles, and then I have been blessed to have written with virtually thousands of people. I am always hopping around. I have the same energy, and I approach things, as if I were 21 years old.”
Digital transformation of entertainment
On the impact of technology on the entertainment business, she said, “I got into technology excessively early. I started prototyping a social network back in 1992, with my partner Mark Cuban. I went around warning people that things were back to change. I feel that I’m at a very different spot technology-wise than most of my peers, since I was on it about 15 years before the rest of them were. Some of the changes are for the good, in that anyone can do anything they want, and they have a means of distribution. With technology, there is so much out there, which makes it hard to stay focused, and it puts on a lot of social pressure. The problem is that you have human nature mixed in there, and human nature is competitive, and it gets mean. At its purest, technology has been incredible, but it brings out some not so great qualities in humans, and that has made it a little gruesome.”
Regarding her use of technology in her daily life, she said, “I have been digitizing everything since the late ’80s. I have one entire room in my house as a server. I have 600 terabytes of information. I am constantly active in everything. My house was the very first fully-wired networked house in Los Angeles in 1991, and in 2004, it was the first all-fiber house. I am excessively technologically hooked up.”
Most recently, Willis completed writing, recording producing, directing, and animating “The D,” a song in honor of her hometown Detroit, Michigan. Most impressive about this tune is that it features 5000 vocalists, more people in history that have ever been on a song before.
“Coming from Detroit and doing music, it feels like you are descended from royalty. Detroit was getting such a horrible reputation over the last few decades, and it just killed me, because it is such an important city to the world. There is a soulfulness to the whole town that I’ve never felt anywhere else,” she said. “The two things I do well is that I write songs and I’m a big party thrower, so I threw a series of parties in singalongs and I got more people on a record than ever before in history. 5000 lead singers mixed in with Detroit singing celebrities. It is meant to a song by and for the people.”
Willis also started performing her series of one-woman shows, which are a combination of music, comedy, art, videos and technology. “I approach these shows, not as a singer-songwriter, but as a party host. They are very funny, and I do all of the songs as singalongs, since everybody knows all of my songs. I throw candy out to the audience, and it is very much a party, and hopefully somebody laughs from one end of it to the other. I like to make people feel like they are in my living room,” she explained.
Out of her entire musical catalog, she listed “September” as her personal favorite song she has ever written. “It’s not necessarily the best song, but it has a completely different trajectory than most records. It literally gets bigger every year. Every weekend people send me videos of their weddings, graduation and bar mitzvahs. It just makes people happy,” she said. “Last year alone, it was cut by Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and TLC. I find it as exciting today and when it came out.”
Willis defined the word success as follows: “Success means having a very blessed life, and you get a chance to express yourself, which a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to do. Truly being successful, is figuring out who you are, and living your life that way. I have always been a very visual person, and having the success from the Songwriters Hall of Fame now makes it legitimate to everyone else as well, so it makes me want to live my life even harder. I live a pretty fun life.”
To learn more about iconic songwriter, multi-disciplinary artist and visionary Allee Willis, check out her official website.