The word “songwriter” typically conjures a loner with a guitar or piano, or maybe two or three tunesmiths ensconced in a room at a publisher’s office in Nashville or L.A. But for Chris Willis and other creative sparkplugs of the dance and electronic music realm, it’s a wildly different game, played with trans-Atlantic emails, multiple studios, sample clearances, Skype and the high-tech wizardry of sequencing and beats — all the while carefully working to preserve the human element that makes the best club music percolate with soul.
Case in point: singer, songwriter and producer Willis’ smash single “Too Much In Love,” which is chugging toward the top of Billboard’s Dance and Club Play charts. The Atlanta-based singer with a golden, church-trained voice co-wrote and produced the tune around a sample of Lenny Kravitz’s solid-platinum riff from “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” creating an uplifting anthem that adds a jolt of rock-and-roll to his catalog of dance hits. Those include the BMI award-winning “Getting Over You,” a high-flying performance featuring Willis, Fergie and rappers LMFAO that was co-written by Willis and French DJ/producer David Guetta. “Getting Over You” was a No. 1 pop hit in the U.K. and has nearly 90-million views on YouTube. Add to those the U.S. No. 1 dance charters “Louder (Put your Hands Up)” and “Love Is Gone” and “Give It All You Got” — the latter two also collaborations with Guetta — and it’s obvious Willis is attuned to his art.
“Writing a song attached to a sample is exhilarating and intimidating, because you want to create something that lives up to the power and strength of the sample,” Willis offers. “For ‘Too Much in Love,’ Lenny’s guitar riff brought an organic quality to the palette of electronic sounds and let me add a rock element to my persona, and bring the raw gravelly edge of my voice out. As always, what’s most important is the melody. That’s what people relate to as much as a beat that makes their bodies move.”
Willis also sculpts songs for the high end of his range. “Not too high, though,” he cautions. “I like women to feel comfortable singing along, so I know they’ll be entertained — and the men in the audience who are interested in the women can also sing along.”
Easy-to-digest lyrics are another ingredient. “When I’m playing Brazil and Russia and the audience is singing every word, I know I’ve done my job. I really love that feeling of being a congregation. It reminds me of when I was singing in church.”
Willis began his career as a gospel artist signed to Warner Bros. and sang on sessions for Ricky Martin, Amy Grant and others before meeting Guetta and entering the secular music world. “I still use the vocal bag of tricks I learned in gospel,” he says, “but now I have more freedom to express myself lyrically and artistically.”