Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
John Willis has been playing piano since he was 3. When he talks about it, it's as if this kind of discipline is a part of everyone's life. He shrugs when I exclaim, "Three?!" and says, "We all got piano lessons," referring to his three siblings. "I'm just the only one who stuck with it."
We met up for dinner recently to discuss songwriting, relationships, the future and his band's new EP, "Bad Boyfriend," coming out March 21. They recorded it at Jason Weinheimer's studio, Fellowship Hall Sound, and it's Willis' first release with his band Late Romantics, which includes Jack Lloyd (bass), Mike Motley (drums) and Sarah Stricklin and Sydney Hunsicker (backup vocals, additional percussion).
The band came together to participate in the Arkansas Times Musician's Showcase last year, and "gradually," Willis says, "we've transitioned into a band where everyone is collaborative, rather than one where everyone just plays my songs. So all of the songs were written by me, but it's the effort of everyone involved."
The EP includes the songs "Sensitive Man," which they recently entered in NPR's Tiny Desk Concert Contest; "Bad Boyfriend," a fan favorite at live shows, and "Hands on You," which has been stuck in my head for months. Light, poppy, danceable: The band's individual creativity is apparent, clearly not just as back up to a solo artist.
But this band is not all that John Willis is about, either. "Will you explain to me what to call you?" I asked him. "You aren't just a 'singer/songwriter,' sometimes you are a 'piano playing crooner.' Are you a 'band leader,' like Ricky Ricardo?"
"No, I'm not a band leader like Ricky Ricardo," he said.
"What's the difference between you and Ricky Ricardo?" I challenged him. "He sang, wrote, had the band behind him at the club."
"True, true," he conceded. "In that way, I'm like Ricky Ricardo, although, my personality is a lot more like Lucy."
The first time I saw John Willis play live was at Easy Street, on Seventh Street, back in 2006. He was taking requests on a grand piano, responding to shout-outs from a packed happy-hour crowd for The Beatles and Sinatra. He wasn't playing many of his own pieces publically back then. He would occasionally slip his song "6 Bridges" in between a Joni Mitchell number and a string of jazz standards, and while he was too shy to feature his work, his music held its own against the familiar songs to which we knew all the words.
Willis' piano playing has a rare personality. It's flexible, like he is, gliding easily from boogie-woogie into long classical strokes and back again. The notes become secondary to the style, and before the listener is aware of it, we are taken inside the song. Willis loves music and shares this love with everyone equally, paying little attention to genre, generation or venue. Whether he's playing his own music with Late Romantics to a rowdy crowd at White Water Tavern, or for celebrities at South on Main, or doing mostly covers at Vesuvio, Willis' style is uniquely his own. Why not transition effortlessly from Lady Gaga to Burt Bacharach? Willis makes it seem like the logical next step in a two-hour set.
Willis knows over 200 songs written by other people — "A conservative estimate," he said — and he has written over 100 of his own, "although most of them have not seen the light of day."
Recently we were leaving a party and passed John's friend, Brittany, in the doorway. "I heard you on [KABF-FM, 88.3's] Big Gay Radio Show today!" she squealed. "I loved it!" She then recounted a story about when they were roommates, "back in the day," remembering him writing music behind his bedroom door, too shy to play it in front of people, even his friends. "And now look at you!" It might feel like overnight success, but there was nearly a decade between Willis playing quietly in his room and filling every venue in town whose stage is large enough for a piano.
Not long ago, at Pizza D, a woman came up and excitedly tapped Willis' arm. "I'm sorry to bother you, but are you John Willis?" She was from Memphis and had seen him live over a year ago. "I play your CD all the time and I made all my friends buy it, too," she gushed. He was, as always, a real Southern gentleman, and the woman hugged him before returning to her table. This is becoming a thing. It's a thing now. When John Willis is out in public, people stop him and want to say nice things.
There is no specified demographic for Willis' fan base. He'll play every type of venue or occasion you could think of: Harvestfest, White Water Tavern, The Lobby Bar, the Big Gay Radio Show (Fridays from noon to 2 p.m. on KABF). He's also the music director at Argenta Methodist Church in North Little Rock. Whatever the crowd, Willis has a set list.
Willis is a wonderful autobiographical storyteller. His first EP, "King of the Cocktail Party," (available on iTunes) is about walking through heartbreak and daily life dramatically but bravely. "Bad Boyfriend" is a series of songs about being steadfast in situations that used to be baffling. But Willis' own life situation is pretty smooth at the moment.
I asked him, "Now that you've got an awesome boyfriend, has that changed your approach to these songs, especially 'Bad Boyfriend'?"
"Right!" Willis laughed. "That's the thing. Writing that song was a way of exorcizing that whole attitude, because I realized, that's not right, there's something not right about my approach if it's all about how good I look when it's over.
"In this current thing, I catch myself thinking about what he will enjoy. I mean, it all just needed to be perfect, you know, to quote the song, 'so that when you're finished with me I won't be accused of being the bad boyfriend.' Because, you know, I made all that happen. So now, when I perform that song ... well, it's nice to look back and see growth!"
"So, now that you're in an actual good relationship," I asked, "what are you going to write about? I mean, can you think of a single decent song about a good, stable relationship?"
Willis thinks for a moment, but his mental catalog of music is vast, so he quickly has an answer.
"I really love the old jazz standards," he says. "There's a song Gene Kelly made famous, 'Almost Like Being in Love.' It's a love song, but it's just one toe in. Like, I think this may be the real thing, but I'm not sure, I'm gonna just see how it goes.
"But all those in-praise-of-love songs, I don't think that they resonate with any of us anymore. I mean, 'I've Got the World on a String'? I've got no tolerance for it. I love Frank Sinatra, but the sentiment of that song, I mean, I like a little darkness with my light. Maybe that will be my goal for this next album. I think it's limiting to look at one relationship with one person at one moment in time and base your entire happiness on that. I'm bored of that. I'm in my 30s now. I'm learning that great love is just one part of a happy, whole life, that it is not the whole of life itself. I am so fortunate to be happy in a relationship, but I'm happy in other areas of life, too.
"I go through phases in writing songs," he said finally. " 'King of the Cocktail Party' was, 'How do I go through this, glass-in-hand, without making a fool of myself?' Before that were what I called salvation songs, my own view of what it's like to look for happiness. And now this new thing, I don't know what this new thing will be about. But it's nice to be happy."
The "Bad Boyfriend" release party will be at White Water Tavern on March 21. Everyone who comes to the show will get a free download. After that, the record will be available on iTunes.
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