by: Thomas D. Mooney
Erick Willis is just one of those guys who has one of those voices that instantly make you filled with jealousy after hearing him sing a few lines of, well anything. Phone books. Google Maps directions. Drive-thru menus. The fine print of your cell phone contract.
You get the point.
It just comes across so smooth that it can sometimes feel as though Willis isn’t even putting any effort. It’s just going to sound good regardless of what he’s saying. Sometimes that can be a problem with golden voiced artists.
On Willis’ first full-length album Please, thankfully we don’t really run into that problem. There’s plenty of songs that wouldn’t have a problem brushing elbows with radio singles with a few concrete ballads sprinkled in that really show Willis’ growing range as a songwriter and not just songsinger.
At this point, Please is not just Willis’ best collection of songs, it’s the best representation. It’s not an acoustic set. It’s not a Texas Country record. It’s not a bluesy rock or singer-songwriter record.
It’s a genuine blend of all those things–things that Willis is able to really capture and emanate during various moments. It bounces between all these things without feeling too awkward in transition.
Willis is still figuring it out. Trying find that proper blend of that and this that works best for him. Is Please a perfect Erick Willis record? No, but it’s a pretty damn good Erick Willis for this moment right now though. And that’s a good thing.
We caught up with Willis earlier this week to speak about the record. Willis is playing The Blue Light tonight (Thursday, Sept 4) with full band in tow. It’s an Album Release show in which you’ll be able to get a physical copy of Please.
In addition, he’ll be playing David Wilde’s West Texas Live show on Rebel 105.3 and at Diablo’s in the Lower Depot from 6-9. Other guests will be Lubbock songwriters Randall King and Danny Cadra.
Listen to “Please” from the album below.
New Slang: This is your first full-length album. What kind of mindset did you approach this with? Did you have an idea of what you wanted the album to sound like going in or were you more open with the idea of figuring out what it needed to be when you got in there and started recording?
Erick Willis: I didn’t really go into it with a theme or specific route. I think it’s kind of evident in a lot of the songs. It goes from a slow waltz to a four on the floor rock and roll song. I had a few songs–probably three or four–that I knew for sure that I wanted to put on this album. I did a lot of writing with Ben Atkins, a buddy of mine from Henrietta as well. Ended up writing a few of the tunes with him. Three of them we put on there, we wrote in one night at his house. He was someone great to bounce ideas off of. You know, it’s so different going in there this time than before (working on his previous EPs) with a bunch of hired guns. They had come out a little more generic than what I really wanted I think. I don’t think I really knew what I wanted at the time.
NS: Yeah. This one, there’s a bunch of people who you’ve been playing with in some capacity. What’s that like? Recording this with people you’ve played live with.
EW: I think it’s definitely made it easier. I think a big part of that, when you’re getting into the studio with people you don’t really know, there’s that getting to know you stage. In the short amount of time they’re there, you don’t really get to know someone who well. I liked having people who I’ve played with all the time–or at least a couple of times–that kind of knew the direction I wanted the songs to go. They were familiar enough to know what I like and what I don’t like. It made that just easier.
NS: The song “Ordinary Day,” the first time I heard it, it was during the Fall songwriter competition at Blue Light. I remember I wasn’t actually a big fan of it when I heard it. But as time’s gone on, I’ve felt that it’s actually something that’s very different from anything else you’ve written.
EW: Yeah. I’ve actually had that chorus written for probably, I want to say about six years ago. When I really tried to start writing. I’ve had literally seven or eight different verses and versions for that song that I played here and there, but never really liked any of it. It was one of the ones that I ended up rewriting with Ben. When I linked up with him, I just sang him the chorus and felt that he really understood what I was trying to say. I love the final cut of it. I wrote that when we had a big snow storm here in Wichita Falls. We were stuck in the house for two or three days. Everything was shut down–stores, restaurants, schools. I started writing it then and just felt it was a beautiful time. No one was out in the streets. Snow was coming down hard and it was just complete silence outside. There wasn’t any construction noise or cars driving by or anything. It was just so peaceful. And you know here in Texas, when it snows, it’s nice for a couple of days and then it just melts away in one day and disappears so quickly, it’s like it never even happened.
NS: Yeah. That entire description is just perfect. It’ll be cold and snow everywhere and then in an afternoon, it’ll be gone. Another song that you’ve been doing for a while that’s on the album is “Broke Down Dreams” written by Red Shahan. Obviously you guys are friends and everything, but is it intimidating to cover a song by him?
EW: You know, it was a first. When I first met Red, it was at the Blue Light and we became friends and started playing shows together and everything. That had always been one of my favorite songs of his. After the second or third time playing with him, I started to really get all the words of the song and just thought it was a great song. He had told me he had written it for his mom and never really said more about it. Months down the road, he asked me when I was going to record one of his songs. I was like “Shit, dude. Whenever.” He said to just pick one, but I wasn’t just going to choose “Broke Down Dreams” since it’s this real intimate song he wrote for his mom. But then he said “You know, you should do ‘Broke Down Dreams.'” That was a good while back, but I started playing it and got him to sit down and write out all the lyrics [laughs]. With Red’s voice and singing style, you can only make out so many of the lyrics sometimes. It’s been in my set since I learned it. I definitely have felt privileged to get his approval on it.
NS: Yeah. I was going to say that it’s probably a much easier song to do when he asked you to. A real good thing about it is that you’ve made it your own too. It’s not a copy cat version or anything.
EW: Yeah. That’s always how I’ve played it. I’ve never played it with the band or anything. It’s always been an acoustic version. Then on the album, we added the violin on there. We thought about adding a few other things, but the violin was the first session. It’s actually the only song we cut straight up live. I played guitar and sang it at the same time. We took one complete cut of that song instead of trying to piece anything together. Then the next session was with that violin player and after hearing it on there, I said there definitely shouldn’t be anything else added. Lyrically, it’s so great and I didn’t want to take anything away from that.
NS: Yeah. That violin just adds so much to it. It really just takes it to another level.
EW: Yeah, I thought that too.
NS: I also didn’t realize that “Dirty Water” was a Buddy Miller tune. I was looking through the liner notes and noticed it. Went and put it on and was really surprised by how different the two versions are. Like his, it’s this slow acoustic song. I was really not expecting that. Your version is so dirty, blues rock.
EW: I had always listened to a lot of Buddy Miller, but that record he did with his wife Julie, it’s not all acoustic, but it’s really bare. A lot of it’s just them two singing two-part harmonies on every song. Ben had gave me that record to listen to and I got stuck on that “Dirty Water” song. I added it to the acoustic set and we played it with him playing a dobro and that lick, he always played that and when we started doing it full band, the bass line just mimicked that. It just turned into a rock song. I didn’t realize how different we were playing it until I went back and listened to their version. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
NS: Looking back, was there ever a point you got worried about the album?
EW: I never got really worried. The majority of this record, we knocked out in a solid four days. Like a week. We did all drum tracks, all bass tracks, all rhythm and vocals. We got final takes on about 80% of the record in four days. But then when we started adding all the specialty parts and that kind of became a hassle. Basically because everyone who played on the record is so freaking busy. Getting them in there at a time that worked for them and the producer, that got to become a pain in the ass. But once everything was recorded, it really flew by. So really, just scheduling–which is always going to be a hard part.