In the honesty and assurance of her new album FLY, it’s easy to observe singer-songwriter ELIZABETH WILLS’ own appreciation of the classic American novels by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, and the photography of Ansel Adams and Margaret Bourke-White, which, she says, capture both important specific historical moments, as well as the timelessness of their subjects – the “perfect and imperfect, all at once,” as Elizabeth puts it.
Along with treasured music of Joni Mitchell, which even at a young age resonated inside her and helped make sense of her world, Wills finds that art and expression of every kind “have influenced my life, the way I see the world; my mortality, even, and my desire to make a difference.”
Often, the most revealing and motivating art is the manifesting of a burning, conscious and committed resolution to put into the world what the artist sees is needed in the world. That moral and creative compass is plain in every note and word of the album. “The whole concept of the album, FLY, is a reflection of the crossroads in my life,” explains Wills. “We come upon crossroads everyday: the choices we make about happiness, trust, faith, love, loss, everything. It was important to me to give this piece of my soul – the album – a name that symbolized the absence of fear. And that conveyed the image of freedom.”
“Things I’ve taken away the times of my life weave in and out of the music I write,” Wills says. “This album is about what it truly means to spread wings and fly. Fly out of a cage. Fly out of dark. Fly into light, into joy…into the unknown. And fly with a faith in something more.” Like a letter from home that you’d been waiting and waiting for – or a phone call exactly at the moment you really needed it, from the friend who’s always understood you the best – FLY arrives just at a time when pop music is looking to rediscover its higher self.
The album combines the soul of a confessional songwriter and the panache of a world-class production team helmed by the platinum hit makers Track Masters: neither understated or overstated, FLY showcases a warm, generous, searching, life-sized emotionality, and a deep musicality firmly in the tradition of Carole King, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Armatrading and Norah Jones. The album, the initial release of the Erian label, represents a creative leap for the artist, too.
“When I was first starting out,” Wills observes, “my music was folk, and finding a rhythm in it – the heartbeat – became a real integral part of FLY.” Recorded at New York’s Battery Studios, FLY features co-writes by Corey Rooney (Brian McKnight, Santana, Jennifer Lopez) and Ryan Toby (Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown) and the playing of multi-instrumentalist and musical director Alex Moseley.
Integral also to the album’s heartbeat, are the many shades and facets of Wills’ voice, calling to mind angel-voiced chanteuses like Sarah McLachlan on the acoustic/pop “Sweet,” hinting at the British pop of the Cocteau Twins and Annie Lennox in the breezy, bossa nova-spiced gem “One of These Days,” and conjuring smoky urban jazz in “Where’s the Fire,” and pop-soul in “No I Won’t.” As a whole, Elizabeth says, the album is about “spreading your wings, and coming into your own and coming into a higher place — letting go of fear and expectations, and just allowing yourself to catch the jet stream, and fly.”
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Wills grew up in a house full of good music: Aretha, Joni, Stevie. Her father and brother are both drummers, and she was encouraged to sing. At age 6, when she started playing piano, she wrote her first song, she says, with a laugh: it was about her favorite stuffed pet elephant, Peanuts. While singing in church and school choirs, she began writing on piano, and in her late teens—as she was falling in love with records by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris and the Cure—her parents bought her a guitar, which led her to open-mike nights and then gigs at such esteemed rooms as La Zona Rosa with her trio at college in Austin.
At 19, she and her friends assembled her first self-released album, Rivers, a collection of coming-of-age songs that she performed at coffeehouses and bars in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. In 2004, with the help of producer, friend and multi-instrumentalist Mitch Marine (Brave Combo, Dwight Yoakam, Tripping Daisy) she cut the rootsy Call It What You Will, which she dubs sort of a “trip into the hill country of Texas, kind of a way to access the place I’m from, and the deep soul of where my music is from. It’s pretty much heart, and love, and God, and everything.”
Thereafter, seeking a greener life, Wills relocated to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, working in Aspen in youth sports and playing only occasionally. A local friend, Melissa Wight, learned of Wills’ musical gifts, and, hearing her songs, felt an immediate conviction that Wills needed to return to full-time writing and performing. So convinced was Wight that she arranged local gigs, including an opening spot for Dwight Yoakam. Wight then launched an independent label, Erian, to release a new album by Elizabeth, partnering with Universal’s independent distribution arm, Fontana.
Elizabeth says that she’d some time ago heard, and gladly accepted, her mission statement from a young woman she noticed following the band through their Texas gigs. Troubled by a feeling of isolation and unwelcome in her own church, the fan sought out Elizabeth to tell her she’d found solace and emotional community in her performances. “She will never know the impact she made on me that night,” Wills says. “I knew then that this was my place.”
Like the novels, photography, music and painting that has touched her, Elizabeth Wills’ music is made to capture the living and breathing truth of the world. Just listen, and you won’t be surprised to find many of your own truths in FLY.
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