Allee Willis’ resume is the kind of thing people can only dream of. A GRAMMY and Emmy-winning songwriter, she’s penned hits for everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire (“September”) to The Pointer Sisters (“Neutron Dance”) to Pet Shop Boys (“What Have I Done to Deserve This?”). Then there’s the fact that she wrote one of the most beloved theme songs of all time: “I’ll Be There For You,” from Friends.
Still, songwriting is just a fraction of what she does. She’s also a multimedia artist, producer, music video director, set designer, art collector and curator (if you haven’t already, you must visit The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch, her very own virtual wonderland of one-of-a-kind artifacts), tech pioneer, and all-around epic party host. In truth, those are all extensions of her creative spirit and they all feed into each other.
Although the Detroit native long ago made southern California her home – and quite a fabulous home at that – her influence is felt far and wide. On Dec. 5, The Color Purple returns to Broadway with a cast led by Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo and Danielle Brooks, and music by Willis (she also co-authored the musical’s first run from 2005 to 2008). And that’s just what she’s got cooking in 2015.
BMI caught up with Willis to reflect on her career successes, the inspirations behind her unique songwriting process, and what’s she’s most excited about right now – including a documentary in homage to her beloved Motown.
The Color Purple is being revived after having a run from 2005 - 2008. How did you approach the music this time around?
We didn’t have to approach the music at all. This is a version of the show that had an incredible run in London two years ago. There was only eight bars of music cut from the original Broadway production, so for this Broadway run we can just sit back and enjoy it, as all the work is done.
Tell us about your alter ego, Bubbles, and how she plays into your work.
Bubbles has actually been in high demand lately despite the fact that I made her retire right before The Color Purple originally opened on Broadway in 2005. I always loved bad art, collected it and presented it, but never did it myself. Bubbles is an alter ego “bad artist” I created for myself in 1999. It started off as a joke. I couldn’t think of a less appropriate name for a serious artist than Bubbles the artist and I was looking for a way to get back into music and art after I took most of the ‘90s off to try and build a social network online, a prehistoric time on the Internet. Bubbles painted things very out of proportion in exceptionally bright colors. But her paintings started selling like hotcakes, selling close to 1,000 of them. I would do, excuse me, Bubbles would do one original piece and then anytime anyone ordered one she would make a dead on copy. The paintings themselves weren’t very expensive, usually $200 or less. So I/she was putting much more time into it than it was ultimately worth. Her ceramics especially took major amounts of time. But I had a great time being someone else, even though just about everyone who bought her work knew it was me. But officially I was just her manager. Lately, so many people coming over to my house to be recorded or filmed for my huge Detroit project who see Bubbles’ work hanging around my house have begged me to bring her out of retirement, so I’m considering having her clean her brushes and get to work. Once I inhabited Bubbles and she inhabited me she affected everything I did because I started having much more fun with my work. It was all about passion and expression and ceased to be about having hits, a far healthier mental state to be in.
What can you tell us about your upcoming doc about Detroit and how did the Motor City shape you into the person you are today?
Detroit completely shaped me as an artist because I’m completely untrained in everything I do. I learned to write songs by sitting out on the lawn at Motown every weekend as a teenager and listening to the music seep out of the walls. Detroit teaches you how to be fearless.
My Detroit project is much more than a documentary. “The D”/Allee Willis Loves Detroit is a project I created to collaborate with the people of Detroit, my hometown and a place that so much of the world had written off when I started working on it in 2008, though the project really kicked into high gear in 2013. I think Detroit is the most soulful city on the planet and I really wanted to change the impression the world had of it. So I wrote a song with one of my favorite collaborators, Andrae Alexander, and went back and recorded it at a series of 50+ sing-alongs all over the city with anyone who wanted to be on the record. We also filmed everything for a music video and a feature length documentary, which I do everything on from shoot to production design, score, edit, direct, star in, etc. The song, “The D”, features more people in history than have ever been the original artist on a record, over 6,000, as well as almost every living Motown star and many. many more contemporary artists, writers, singers, songwriters, actors, and celebs.
We came back from Detroit with 5,000 tracks, each with 10 - 250 voices and instruments on them. It took over a year just to log the tracks. The record is pretty much finished other than I’m still adding Detroit born or bred celebrities as I meet them. The music video, which came from over 20,000 hours of footage we amassed at the sing-alongs, is insanely uplifting and pumped full of animation and some of the most unique visuals I’ve ever turned out. As for the documentary, Allee Willis Loves Detroit, we are still logging tens of thousands of hours of footage as we actively edit it. We also shot every inch of the process of trying to figure out how to put it all together. We’re also still shooting celebrity interviews and recording vocals here in LA. It’s a MASSIVE undertaking as there are only four of us working on everything. I should stress that this is not a film about Detroit. It’s about human spirit as seen through the people of Detroit and how I see my life and career paralleling their trials and triumphs. It’s the epitome of my motto, “From the ashes come the miracles,” that against the greatest of obstacles the greatest things can happen, if you only have the imagination, creativity and guts to try. Which is the story of my career and exactly what is happening in Detroit now. There are also over twenty GRAMMY, Emmy, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize-winning and nominated non-Detroit artists in the film, all of whom or whose work exemplifies triumphing over incredible odds.
Outside of a small crowdsourcing campaign I’ve financed everything myself. Although I’m an artist who’s used to putting everything I have into my work, this one has brought me closer to the edge than ever before, with almost a year left to go. And all of the profits go back to two arts organizations in Detroit, Mosaic Youth Theatre Of Detroit and The Heidelberg Project. Though I can’t stand being this broke, it’s the ultimate multimedia project I’ve always dreamed of doing and it’s for a city I LOVE so I am there till the end.
What is your earliest memory of a song moving you in a meaningful way?
Oh, boy. I remember becoming aware of melody with the Theme to Dr. Kildare, “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight.” And I remember being swept away by the strings on “Theme from A Summer Place” by Percy Faith. But without question songs moving me in a meaningful way began with Motown. ANY Motown song. Growing up in Detroit in the ‘60s when that was happening was a gift from the gods. And it’s something I very much explore in the documentary I’m making now.
It’s been said that your creativity is unlike anything else. From a process point of view, do you have a habitual way of approaching new work? What do you absolutely need to do your best work?
I could have given you a clean cut answer to that years ago, but everything I’ve been working on in the last few years is so complex it forces me to constantly adapt my process. I will say that I am happier than I’ve ever been being captain of the ship and not having to adjust things for an artist’s or collaborator’s taste, as a songwriter so often has to do. Because I do so many different things besides music, I’ve kind of got a system set up that works in all areas I work in. I basically look at myself as someone who arranges objects in space. It can be melodies, words, pieces of furniture, colors, shapes, whatever. My approach to everything from writing a song to painting to throwing a party, decoraing my house, getting dressed in the morning is all the same. First I spread as wide a net as possible, doing research, collecting things, taking everything in. If it’s a song, I like to know as much about the subject or artist who’s recording it as possible. Lyrically, I like to write something as deep as possible. I love accompanying bouncy music with a heavy lyric, where you wouldn’t expect it. When it comes to the music, because I’m completely untrained and couldn’t play the first note of any song I’ve written if my life depended on it, I tend to take chances and put incongruent pieces of music together that normally writers would split up into separate songs - “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield is a good example of that. I love to work with people who are spontaneous and can just flow. Today everyone is in record as soon as they start writing, but I was that way from the time I wrote my first song. Just turn on the mic and machines and let me go. I rarely work on things in sequence. I just wait to be inspired and then work with it as long as the ideas keep coming. I have great faith that if things are created in the same moment in time and space they will somehow miraculously fit together when it’s time. It’s next to impossible for me to work with people who stay inside a box, follow the rules, or try to create something that sounds like “today.” It bores me and I don’t feel inspired.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received for your music?
I think the best compliment a songwriter can get at is that a song has changed someone’s life. Or that it makes someone so happy whenever they hear it. I get both of those a lot. I guess the fact that every single weekend I get sent at least a couple videos of people at parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. dancing to “September” makes me feel great. That song seems to defy the laws of gravity and gets bigger every year. That ultimately is the best compliment a songwriter could ever receive.
How was the idea for the Museum of Kitsch (your California home) born? What is your absolute favorite object in it?
The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch is actually an online destination at AWMOK.com. My friends have always called my house Willis Wonderland. But so many people think that The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch is my house that I have finally given in and accepted it as such. The idea was born because I prototyped the very first social network starting in 1992. It was of course way too early, at a time when most people didn’t even understand what the Internet was, let alone trying to explain what a social network was. My CEO for much of those early days was Mark Cuban. No one ever knew what we were talking about. We predicted literally everything that happened to the music industry but in the early and mid ‘90s people just thought we were crazy. They couldn’t wrap themselves around the fact that the Internet, this thing they considered to be temporary, nerdy and clunky, was actually going to be a place where people socialized, collaborated, got their information from and quite literally lived. Over a decade later when MySpace and Facebook launched, I had a hard time dealing with it because if you took Facebook, eBay, Amazon and YouTube and jammed them all together that’s what our social network, willisville, was. Though it was also surrounded by an ever-evolving fictional shell with characters who served as your guides into cyberspace and introduced you to new “friends” and technologies. We were over a decade too early. And, just like with the Detroit project I’m working on now, I was financing my vision myself. So I was a little bitter when things finally took off in the mid 2000s. But at some point I thought that building a social network around the crazy things that people collect and see every day - whether it’s an object, a person, song, whatever-would bring together a great collection of people who had a particular view on the world. So in 2009 I made The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch/AWMOK.com a reality. But just as with Bubbles the artist, curating a museum that people submitted things to every day became overwhelming. So earlier this year, I finally just left a post saying I was taking off for a while but would be back one day soon, as I will never lose my love for kitsch.
As far as my favorite Kitsch object that’s really impossible to say as every single thing in my house, down to the screws in the light plates, is part of the collection. I guess I would have to say my house itself, which was built as the party house for MGM in 1937. It’s classic Streamline Moderne design and is the perfect showcase for my collection.
Was there a point when you realized “I’ll Be There For You” would become ingrained in pop culture consciousness for all eternity?
I only wrote that song to get out of my publishing deal. It was 1994 just a few weeks before the show launched. Michael Skloff had already written the music and they just needed someone in on the lyrics. I never liked coming in just on lyrics, mainly because oftentimes I didn’t like the music they were being written to. I also hate that a lot of people just think of me as a lyricist, which couldn’t be further from the truth if you tried. So I tried to discourage just being brought in to fill in the words. But at the time of Friends I had a quota to fill and I owed 1/7 of a song before I could get out of my deal. I was itching to stop writing songs to concentrate solely on the Internet. Which didn’t mean I was going to stop writing music. I really wanted to concentrate on what a song was in the digital age. I thought that the fate of a song online was more than just downloading it. I was interested in what a song was when people from all over the world could collaborate on it and it would never end. A lot of this thinking was very much at the root of conceiving the Detroit project I’m working on now. Anyway, in 1994 I thought if I write this TV theme I will finally be done with linear songwriting. I never ever thought “I’ll Be There for You” would be a hit. But it was evident almost immediately that the show took on a life of its own and the song helped propel that. The irony is that although it was one of the biggest airplay records of 1994, it was never officially released as a single, so there were no royalties to collect from sales.
What is the work you’re proudest of and why?
That’s really hard to answer. Without question, the cherry on the sundae is “The D”/Allee Willis Loves Detroit that I’m working on now, because it involves every field of art I work in from music to art to party throwing, performance, the web and more. It’s also unlike anything anyone else has done and it’s being done under the craziest conditions an artist could work under - no budget, a team that needs to be 50 times as big as it is and no precedent before it to guide you. I’m also exceptionally proud of my work with Earth, Wind & Fire because it’s not only a group that gave me the break of a lifetime but that also endures. I’m particularly proud of “September” because I still hear it multiple times a week decades after it was first out. And I know how happy it makes people. And I’m very proud of The Color Purple because I think it’s an amazingly important story that we captured in music. It’s the ultimate triumph over struggle, and that’s a topic I’m eternally exploring. It also constantly gives me the opportunity to make amazing new friends as so many new casts perform it. Not to mention it’s completely thrilling to see your work reinterpreted every performance. It’s an entirely different experience than having a record out. And it’s opening on Broadway again, coming back faster than just about any musical in history. So this will be yet another new life for it.
Can you tell us about your relationship with BMI?
Except for the very first year I wrote songs I’ve been with BMI. I treasure my relationship with BMI because when I first started doing things other than music I felt that a lot of people in the music industry assumed I didn’t have it anymore. When in fact it had to do with being bored writing the same song over and over again, and songwriting wasn’t enough of a creative outlet for someone who was as visual or social as me. But I never got that impression from BMI. I always thought that everyone there actually got a kick out of and respected what I was doing and really encouraged me. When I started trying to combine things from all fields of art into one cohesive artistic expression there really was no such thing as a “multimedia artist.” Back then, the only people who really got an opportunity to do everything from write the song to sing and produce it, direct their own videos, design their own clothes and sets, and build their own online universes were really huge performers like Madonna, Prince, and David Bowie. So the fact that BMI actually saw me and recognized what I was doing as worthy, despite the fact that most of world didn’t/don’t know about it, was really something I appreciated more than you will ever know. Thank you, BMI!
As the queen of parties, who is the most interesting person you’ve ever met at a party?
OMG, I would have no idea how to answer answer that. Party people spot other party people and are drawn to them like magnets. I don’t mean partiers. I mean people who understand that throwing a great party is about a lot more than having a great band or caterer. It’s not about either of those things at all. It’s about knowing how to create an environment where people will loosen up and all become one swirling ball of energy and have an incredible experience together. It’s knowing about how to put a guest list of like-minded people, regardless of occupation, together. That’s how I met Timothy Leary. As much as I loved being friends with him and getting to experience what an extraordinary being he was, I hate singling him out because I’ve had that kind of experience with so many interesting people at parties.