Allee Willis is a GRAMMY, Emmy, Tony and Webby award-winning and nominated songwriter, live performer, visual artist, director, multimediaist, collector, social artist, and party thrower. Her hits, which have sold more than 50 million records, include Earth, Wind & Fire’s "September" and "Boogie Wonderland"—both prominently featured in the acclaimed 2012 film "The Intouchables"—The Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance," Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield's "What Have I Done To Deserve This," and The Rembrandts’ "I'll Be There For You (Theme From Friends)." Willis also co-authored the Oprah Winfrey-produced 2005 Broadway musical "The Color Purple"—Alice Walker, the original book’s author, has called Willis "A force of nature."
Willis is also an internationally shown visual artist whose paintings, ceramics, motorized sculptures and furniture are widely collected; were done in tandem with her fearless alter-ego, Bubbles the artist. Willis’ first solo gallery exhibition, 1985's "Wear The Right Clothes Even At Home," featured kinetic sculptures, some named after her hits, including "Neutron Dance" and "Boogie Wonderland." Willis’ body of work further extends to art direction, set design, and animation. In a feature on Willis, "People" magazine once called her artistic overdrive, "a multi-threat creativity that itself seems like a Godzilla out to conquer Lalaland."
Most recently, Willis has been performing live, including sold-out runs of "Ba-de-ya, Baby!"—her "one-woman-show-with-25-people-in-it"—and "Allee Willis’ Super Ball Bounce Back Review," which have both drawn raves. After a long hiatus from performing, Willis celebrates her life in music and art with greatest hits sing-alongs, stories, a live band, dancers, special guests, motorized art, games, videos, and mid-show foot massages from Manly Handz, all delivered with her signature party vibe. People magazine has written that "tickets to Allee Willis’ ultra-exclusive parties…are the campiest hot tickets in LA."
In 2009, she designed and launched the Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch at AWMOK.com, a social network that’s the largest collection of pop culture kitsch on the planet, and home to her popular Kitsch O' The Day" blog (Dictionary.com once included Willis in its definition of kitsch). Her proudest musical kitsch discovery, The Del Rubio Triplets—mini-skirted octogenarians who toured the world and appeared on more than 20 network television programs—were introduced via Willis’ late-1980s column for Details magazine, "Some Like It Smog."
In a career marked by constant reinvention and embracing of new technologies, Willis’ accomplishments also include developing willisville, the first social networking portal, in the early to mid-1990s. During that period, Willis also consulted for Intel, Microsoft, AOL, and Disney, created virtual worlds for diverse companies, and keynoted the first Digital World conference with Steve Case and Andy Groves. In 1997, representing 3,000,000 BMI songwriters, she addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property regarding artist rights in cyberspace.
Willis first returned to live performing at the University of Wisconsin (where she earned her Journalism degree), conducting the school’s marching band through a medley of her hits during halftime of the 2010 Homecoming football game. In 2011, she launched "Allee Willis Marches on Detroit"— events dedicated to her hometown—with a marching band performance in Detroit’s Fox Theatre. It benefited her alma mater, Mumford High—the school made famous in "Beverly Hills Cop," for which Willis won a Best Soundtrack GRAMMY. The cast from the national touring company of "The Color Purple" sang with the students as Willis conducted.
"Marching on Detroit" part two took place in 2012 with Willis’ "Last Call Before the Wrecking Ball" greatest hits concert at Mumford, just a month before the school was demolished. Willis was also honored at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, the first high school in U.S. to license, and second to produce, "The Color Purple." With future Detroit-related plans in store, Willis and writing partner Andrae Alexander wrote “The D,” a new theme song for Detroit and its renaissance. In 2013, Willis will record the song—which is also a love song to the city—at locations all around Detroit, with the participation of literally tens of thousands of Detroiters, and film the proceedings for a series of accompanying videos and films.
Many of Willis’ events have taken place at "Willis Wonderland," her art deco home and studio in Los Angeles, where she’s lived since 1980 (she grew up in Detroit, a city she cites as the source of her creative inspiration, and broke into the music business in NYC with the 1974 Epic album "Childstar"). The house—previously featured in the LA Times and NY Times—was built in 1937 as an official party house for MGM. Willis continues the tradition with A-list parties and thematic soirees through which she freely expresses all her multimedia talents to serve one festive end. James Brown once said "This is a museum" in praise of the way Willis Wonderland also showcases Willis’ world-famous collections (which are celebrated on AWMOK.com as well).
Journalist Anne Stockwell has written that, "To understand where Willis is going, you have to open your mind to a degree of inventiveness that's frankly a little scary." As Willis continues to make art out of life, and make living an art, she is going stronger than ever. "Ba-de-ya, Baby!"
Due to high demand, on November 8th & 9th, Allee is bringing "Ba-de-ya, Baby" back for 2 nights only. A greatest hits concert including sing-alongs, party games, prizes, dance, and of course the foot rubs. "Ba-de-ya, Baby" will play NoHoPAC in North Hollywood (11020 Magnolia Blvd) at 8pm (Doors open at 7pm). Click here for tickets!
1. You have worked in many aspects of the arts: performer, songwriter, director, visual artist, multimedia artists, etc. Who or what inspired you to want to work in the arts? No one thing inspired me. Making art, regardless of the medium, is just always what I did. I grew up in Detroit when Motown was coming up so listened to the radio religiously. I was always running for some kind of office at school, not because I had any particular interest in the office but because I loved making the campaign posters. I actually have never learned how to read, notate or play music and I certainly had no formal art training. I just always figure out some way of doing what interests me, like banging pencils together to begin the rhythm of a song, and just go from there. I've always been driven by a passion to create. My motto: If you have a weakness, turn it into a hook!
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Any and all hip-hop artists.
3. On November 8 & 9 you will once again be presenting your show "Ba-de-ya, Baby!" What are you looking forward to most about this upcoming show? I only recently started performing in order to get over an almost 4 decades long bout of stage fright. I used to throw a lot of parties in my backyard - my house was built in 1937 as the party house for MGM and I have carried on that tradition. The parties were the only way that I could combine everything I do into one space. I do everything from design the invitations, to hand make all the merchandise for sale as well as all the signs and art on the wall, make souvenirs, write the show, star in the show, direct and produce it, write all the music, sing all the songs, etc. It's really one big interactive performance art piece that's built around a whole lot of hit songs. And now doing the live shows, it's a gigantic relief to finally have an avenue to express it all. What I look forward to the most is having fun and giving the audience a type of show they've never seen before.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? I always say that anything I do is part self-help, meant to be very uplifting and inspirational. I've built a career on making up my own way of doing things, a supreme combo of very high levels of art mixed in with very low levels of kitsch. My shows aren't so much of "look at me and everything I've done" so much as "if I did it you can do it too." I love when people e-mail me after the show and tell me that they went home and started painting after wanting to do it for 10 years, or that they severed an unhealthy relationship, or wrote their first song in years. My show is very much about doing whatever it takes to live a happy life and have the guts to pursue what you're interested in. But unlike most other places where this message is delivered it's all in an environment of a crazy kids party and singing along to songs that have been on your playlist for years.
5. What made you want to return to live performance? What do you enjoy most about it? I really felt that performing live would give people a chance to see everything I do and how it all works together so that I would have a chance to do more of it. Combining everything I do into one art form is always what I've wanted to do in my career. I have long been dissatisfied with writing a song for this one, building a set for that one, designing a website over here and writing a story over there. For me, an idea has always been something that I can express musically, visually, theatrically and technologically. I thought the only way I'm ever going to chance to do this on a larger scale than in my backyard is if I get up on stage and show people.
As far as what I enjoy most about performing, first is that I've gotten over this terror that has gripped me all these decades and has been THE big gaping hole in my career. Second, I love making people laugh and the stories I tell are not your normal songwriter stories. I don't know how many people have been named "one of the most dangerous subversives living in the United States" because one of their songs enflamed the Communist government ("Neutron Dance" which they mistranslated as "Neutron Bomb"). Third, I love seeing the joy people get from my songs. I do everything as a sing-alongs so everyone becomes the star.
6. You've written songs for some of the biggest artists in the music industry including Earth, Wind and Fire, The Pointer Sisters, Dusty Springfield, and Pet Shop Boys, just to name a few. What was the best part about working with these artists? The best part of being able to write with the caliber of artists listed above is that you meet seriously interesting people whose life is dedicated to expressing themselves. With the number of parties that I threw I was always more interested in whether people would make great party guests, able to carry on interesting and fun conversations and indulge in all of the games that I would create to break down barriers between people. It also didn't hurt that artists such as those you mention put a few coins in my coffers, allowing me to create more and more.
7. You also wrote the theme song to the hit NBC comedy "Friends." How did that come to be? What was it like to know you wrote the song for one of the biggest TV shows in television history? This is the most unlikely hit I ever had. I was on the Internet in 1991 and as early as 1992 began designing and building the world's first social network, willisville. As soon as I went online I wasn't interested in writing linear songs for the radio anymore as I felt that not only was the internet the medium of the future but it would allow all art forms to be social because people from everywhere on the planet could link in and not only influence the art but form communities. And the one thing I knew I was good at from throwing parties was social directing. So all I was interested in in 1994, when Friends was about to go on the air, was getting out of my music publishing deal so i could concentrate on sculpting the Internet. But every time I thought I had fulfilled my song quota - a dreadful thing to do to any songwriter as it makes you focus more on quantity than quality - my publisher, Warner Chappell, kept finding small percentages of a song that I still owed. Finally it got down to me owing them 1/7th of a song. This commonly happens because although you may only write with one other person, if they're in a group oftentimes multiple names will show up on the label. Friends was a Warner Bros. show so they wanted the theme song to be written by a Warner Chappell writer. My publisher called me up and said if you do this you'll be out of your deal. The music was already started by Michael Skloff. I came in and finished it and was out of my deal. I didn't especially like the song but thought it worked great with the show. It was never meant to be an actual single but a disc jockey in Nashville made a cassette off the tv and played it on the radio continuously for 45 minutes. There was such a demand that the song was extended and became the biggest airplay record of 1994. Needless to say, I'm elated that I was looking for a way to get out of my publishing deal or I never would've written it.
8. Additionally, you co-wrote Oprah Winfrey's Broadway production of "The Color Purple." What made you want to be part of this project? I co-wrote the music and lyrics with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray. The book was written by Marsha Norman, although all of us basically wrote everything together. I was good friends with Scott Sanders, the lead producer, who originally just brought me in as a music consultant. I did that for about a year and then there was a competition to write a couple spec songs to hopefully become the writer of the musical. I was collaborating with Brenda and Stephen on the scores for a couple of animated series that I had co-created and suggested we compete as a team. The only advantage I had was that I chose who we competed against. But I did honestly pick who I thought would be the best suited for the job. We won the competition and then spent the next 4 1/2 years writing the musical.
As for reasons I wanted to be part of The Color Purple, most of my success prior to that came from writing black pop music. But when I stopped writing music in order to pursue the Internet throughout the 90s there was literally not a black person in sight on that scene. Maybe one or two, but literally that was it. So i missed working with black artists because of the esthetic match. I also missed collaborating with real artists as opposed to tech engineers who magically overnight became "directors" and "writers" because of all the power Hollywood gave Silicon Valley at that time. Add to that that The Color Purple is one of the greatest stories ever told, so going for it just seemed like the solution to a lot of creative problems I was conscious of.
9. You also co-wrote one of my favorite albums of all time, "Hat Full of Stars" with Cyndi Lauper. How did you and Cyndi come to work together? Looking back, what did you get out of this venture? I got very friendly with Cindy in 1991 after I was asked to write a cover interview story of her in Details magazine, where I had my own column for four years. It was a great way to get to know her. I spent most of the next couple years either with her in New York or her staying over at my place in LA where we wrote a whole bunch of songs, demoing them at my place, which is the form that a lot of them remained in on that album. But all of this was happening at a time when I was becoming more and more dissatisfied with writing music as I so wanted to be a multimedia artist. What I got out of it were some really good songs but more than anything I was very conscious of my creative struggle and finally had the guts after that to strike out on my own and try and execute my own creative vision as opposed to someone else's.
10. What is your favorite part of the creative process in writing a song or a show? Where is your favorite place to write? My favorite part of the creative process in doing any kind of art is at the very beginning where all you're doing is getting ideas and not censoring any of them yet, where everything feels possible. My second favorite part is once you get the instinct that you've stumbled on something great and you're just operating in the flow, open to anything that hits you that feels good.
As far as my favorite place to write, that's unquestionably here at my home, Willis Wonderland. I'm incredibly aware of environment and the effect it has on people when inside of it. I do anything I can to make my house an open garden to growing creative ideas. There is no question that my absolute best co-writes have happened when we work over here. I don't see how anyone gets inspired by a square room, usually without windows, that's dark and filled to the brink with equipment. My house is incredibly colorful, there are no square rooms, light floods in, and it's a very happy place to work.
11. What's the best advice you've ever received? I talk about this in my show. As far as songwriting, from Maurice White, founder and lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire - Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove. Even if it doesn't make sense, like the use of "Ba-de-ya" in the chorus of "September," if the melody and groove are right the spirit of the song will come across. So don't try and force lyrics in. Which is totally what happened with "September, which I'm eternally proud of as it's the happiest song on earth. The best life advice I ever got in Life was to think positive and forge ahead if you have the passion to do so, as you create your own reality. I have long said “Life is just an experiment to be happy." I totally live by those words.
12. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? Ooh, I don't know the answer to that and I rarely remember my dreams. I just want to be the best form of me I can possibly be.
13. Favorite way to spend your day off? Taking a drive and photographing kitsch, and going to thrift shops.
14. Favorite skin care product? A skin cream made by Octavia Ellington that you can only buy privately from her.
15. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? One which would let me get rid of any fear or self-doubt the second it appears. If I could print money that wouldn't be bad either!
Excellent questions. Thanks so much.