Two forces have drive Chris Willis‘ career: the church and music. And, at time, they worked in tandem, like when the Dayton, Ohio, native sang in a gospel quartet with his three siblings.
Those formative years sent him on his aural way, but the experience came with a price: self-hatred. Once on track to spread the good gospel word – in fact, he had a record deal in the 1990s – Willis eventually broke with the genre to pursue more mainstream pursuits.
After singing backup for the likes of Ricky Martin and American Idol, Willis eventually fell in with a French pop group and, through them, met David Guetta, a bona fide house music super star. Since they began working together at the turn of the century, Willis and Guetta have had a string of hits, but none as successful as “Love Is Gone,” which recently broke the United States’ top 40 chart.
While he’s largely turned his back on organized Christianity, Willis’ religious roots definitely shine through when asked to discuss racism, coming into his own and rising above harassment.
The singer tells our editor all about it, after the jump…
Andrew Belonsky: You grew up in Ohio, where I also came of age. While a fine state, it’s not always the most progressive place. What was it like for you growing up gay in a religious environment?
Chris Willis: Torture! Torment! Pain! Shame! [Laughs] But music is really what kept me grounded and believing there was hope. People always suspected I was gay, but they were like, “You know, he can really sing his ass off,” so there was just that love of the music and passion that came through in my work. I never knew where it would take me, but I always stayed close to the music, because whenever I was down or depressed or feeling bad, it was a really a great lift for my spirits.
AB: Do you remember any specific occasion when you were harassed?
CW: That was probably happening in my early childhood, but when you grow older, you kind of learn how to fit in and shift your behavior. There was more racial stuff that I experienced in my high school years.
AB: I can imagine…
CW: Yeah. So, there was that whole sexuality thing and racial thing. When I first got involved in music, my head was still full of negative voices, but, I always focused on rising above that and not really knowing how, but I just kept at the music. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to make these people love me for my music and my work.” And my anxiety shifted, because – you know, a lot of the time we do the things we do out of fear; we’re trying to hide and not be discovered – but I turned it around and really started being more empowered by my color and my sexuality. I didn’t see them as liabilities, but as assets.
AB: Have you been back to Ohio to perform?
CW: The last time I went to perform was – oh, it’s been years, it was probably when I was still doing gospel. But now, you know, I usually just go home and visit my dad and we just have family days. I’m very close with my family. Their support through the years – because in those days I believed that if I didn’t keep doing gospel, I was going to hell.
AB: You really believed that?
CW: I did, but I got to the point where I was like, “If God really is a forgiving and loving God and is open about creating us, why would he limit our abilities in that sort of way?” I gave myself permission to explore music – period. I did choir, industrial shows, gospel and I was singing backup – it was just a wide palette. That’s always a double-edged sword, because when you’re good at many things, people don’t know who you are, what you do, so thank God for house music, which really gives me chance to be so many different characters. I can do the rock and roll squalling, I can do the 80s-esque melodic stuff. I’m able to do all of that stuff, but I don’t think I would have been able to experience all that I’ve experienced had I limited myself to just one genre.