Listening to: Michelle Willis, See Us Through

Michelle Willis - See Us Through - Cover
Michelle Willis – See Us Through

That ache in your heart it don’t know what to do | But flowers in our door still bring a smile to you | So grab on to some light | Every corner that you can | The light keeps you going, though the dark helps you to understand

As I write this review, it seems that the world’s burning has accelerated. It’s not that it wasn’t already burning, but this moment in time has brought us, inter alia: Syria; refugees; Brexit; a coup attempt in Turkey and the unsurprising and merciless purge that followed; incessant and systemically rooted police shootings of black citizens in the US; Donald Trump; and — literally going on right now — a mall shooting in Munich where so far at least 8 people have died. An awareness of the greater context can help us understand (capitalism, neoliberalism, environment at saturation point; systemic “malfunctions” occurring more often), and remind us that others in a less privileged context have experienced nothing but this for years, decades, perhaps forever, and much more directly. Still, it feels as if there’s precious little in the world that’s worthy of our appreciation right now, so the things that are deserve to be emphasized.

Michelle Willis is an enormously talented singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Toronto. Her debut solo record, See Us Through, demonstrates her fine voice and keen ear for songcraft. It’s a quiet and relatively short record with very high production values (if you’re equipped to listen to it, you can get a wonderful high resolution audio version). It’s always a toss-up whether to provide references to other artists as stylistic anchor points, but it can also help highlight some of the subtleties. See Us Through exists somewhere along the spectrum between folk, R&B and a quiet version of “rock.” On balance, Willis’ songcraft occasionally reminds me of Sarah McLachlan (the good bits), Joni Mitchell (some of the more surprising key changes, e.g. in ‘Persimmon’), and a slightly out-of-time, gospel-informed R&B, similar perhaps to Lizz Wright’s.

The immediate standout track is the luminous ‘It’ll Rain Today,’ a slow gospel-like number that conveys empathy for those struggling to cope with what the world might throw at them, and finds courage in community and solidarity:

The choir really lights it up. Harmonizing human voices never lose their power to engage the heart and mind. The song’s plaintive quality, coupled with the choir’s message of perseverance in the chorus, indexes (unconsciously perhaps) Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ while holding its own against it. My next favourite piece is the opener, ‘Home,’ which hints at Willis’ work with Snarky Puppy, a “jazz big band” (is that what they’d call themselves?) who play a contemporary kind of thoughtful jazz fusion, and who occasionally collaborate with vocalists, among them Willis (she also shares a record label with them). The vocal harmonies, in a jazz chord register, are particularly lovely in this video performance from someone’s living room:

Michelle Willis makes music for grown ups, music that is unashamed of its musicality and the craft it takes to fully convey that. It flirts with genres but ultimately works hard to dodge being slotted into any one niche: it’s not pop; it probably holds limited appeal for “indie” rock listeners; it’s not quite “Americana” (though some of the spacious instrumentation could definitely pass for it); it’s not quite jazz (the songs are too “folk-y”); it avoids the simple earnestness of folk and country; and so on.

As such, it strikes me as a very “Toronto” album — this being the city of mass participation in Choir Choir Choir, for example, an initiative whose broad appeal and enthusiastic public support are touching and astounding in equal measure. We have much history here with, and a soft spot for, music that doesn’t quite fit into normative genre definitions — even music that flagrantly, joyfully disregards them. I think the “tolerance” of Toronto’s public imaginary (it is, after all, the “most fascinatingly boring city in the world”) helps its music scene, too: perhaps slotting neatly into a trend here is not as important as being recognizable as a deep music geek, as someone who works hard to define her own niche — a path Michelle Willis seems to be on. The downside is that it’s especially hard to gain visibility for this kind of work: Willis’ album seems to have garnered only two or three reviews from “the press,” and the Youtube videos should have more than a few thousands views each.

As the closer, ‘Solitude,’ rolls around for a second or third time in my headphones today, I notice that I’m breathing a little more deeply and that the burning world has, at least temporarily, been pushed to the outer reaches of my mind. And while I avowedly share Laurie Penny’s skepticism about the pursuit of “wellness” as a response to the world’s issues, I think Michelle Willis’ music offers solace and (temporary) reprieve in myriad welcome ways, “escape” being the least of them. We could all use a bit of musical self care right now.

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Here are two more Willis performances:


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