I first met Allee Willis in the mid-nineties when we worked together on “Willisville”, a virtual world of 19 or so wildly amusing fictional inhabitants of a town by the same name, accessible only through the Internet. It was a grand experiment, funded by Intel, and like so many things that Allee creates, years before its time. Allee is one of the bravest, truest artists I know. Brilliant ideas come hurtling out of her faster than most of our brains can process. She seems to thrive teetering on the edge of either disaster or brilliant success, ready to leap fully into the next thing, forging ahead wherever her creative juices take her.
Recently Allee teamed up with recording artist Holly Palmer to create and publish their own music, skipping the established record labels all together. Their video It’s a Woman Thang was featured on YouTube and has had over 800,000 downloads to date. Allee is a grammy award winning songwriter, over 50 million songs sold, used to write a lot for Earth Wind and Fire, wrote a lot of the music to Beverly Hills Cop (remember Neutron Dance?). She co-wrote the music to the Broadway show “Color Purple”, produced by Oprah, based on the book by Alice Walker. I’ve always been awed and amazed by Allee Willis and am delighted that she agreed to be interviewed about what motivates her and the latest stage of her career:
Elise: After years of working with music publishers, you’ve decided to “go direct”. Why this route, and why now, at this point in your career?
Allee: I never felt like I fit into the Hollywood structure. Some people get a hit and manage to coast on it forever. But all a hit ever meant to me was that I had a little more cash to reinvent myself via whatever mode of artistic expression I felt was suited to express what I was feeling at the time. No one in the music, TV or film corporate world would me hire me to do anything other than recreate what I had already done. I always risk everything I have in order to keep moving artistically. Other than now I have a little better sense of how far down I’m willing to go as I try to figure all this Bubbles & Cheesecake stuff out as I’m not looking to lose everything I worked for my whole life.
Making money selling music is a thing of the past. Bands make money on performances and merchandise. But we’re not a touring band. Our dream is to be the soul man’s Martha Stewart. Bubbles & Cheesecake is less a band and more a lifestyle and attitude about living with matching music, products and ideas. If record companies can’t even sell music these days I can’t see where they would help selling anything else. Also, you can’t think about going direct without also trying to figure out how to sell music in this new era, not just make it. I love attacking things from multi levels so although I long for the days when all I had to think about was the songs, it makes it incredibly interesting to have to take business and technology models into consideration. It’s terrifying but it’s sure not boring.
Elise: Tell us about the message behind “It’s a Woman Thang”. What inspired you and Holly to launch with this song?
Allee: We launched with it because we loved the pulse, groove and message. We also felt it was a strong visual song and perfect for Bubbles’ style of art and animation as well as a great way of combining my music, art, animation and kitsch collection in one place. It’s A Woman Thang is a universal song about respecting and expressing yourself – it’s an everybody thang. The very founding premise of Bubbles & Cheesecake is to inspire people to build up their self esteem by learning to express themselves creatively in every aspect of their life – in words, lifestyle, dress, lawn ornaments, what’s in the pot on your stove, whatever canvas Life shoots your way. Where people are getting this notion that the song is a war chant about wanting to crush men is nutty.
Elise: Did you anticipate that this song would stir up so much controversy? How are you surprised?
Allee: It never dawned on Holly or me that that one little pop song and video could unleash such a firestorm of self expression, if that’s what you can call the diatribes, many of them incredibly illiterate, that have polarized men and women on youtube. THIS SONG HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MALE VERSUS FEMALE ANYTHING. It’s not even about girl power. It’s about personal power. After years of people telling me what my songs mean to them that have absolutely nothing to do with what I wrote it’s no surprise to me that people hear what they want to hear. A lot of times all they hear is the title and form an opinion based on what that means to them. That’s certainly a large percentage of what’s going on with “It’s A Woman Thang”. And then part of the nature of youtube comments is that they attract many disempowered, frustrated angry (probably 15 years old) people who have no other mode of expression in the real word. So once a few daggers are thrown it’s like cheese to a mouse. By the way I put a phrase-by-phrase what-we-meant-when-we-wrote-the-song lyric in our blog the other day. You can also actually hear us writing the song, line by line, discussing the intention of each, at http://www.bubblesandcheesecake.com/iawt/writingaudio.html.
Elise: With so many creative ideas bouncing around your brain, I imagine that some days you just feel like exploding. What do you do as a daily practice to keep sane? (Or is that even a goal?)
Allee: I stop and take a break on my back porch as soon as I feel my head begin to spin. I watch television and pet my cats. I also take rides. And going to the right party never hurts.
Elise: You’re doing the web “thang”. What do you love about it and what do you find most challenging?
Allee: I love and hate a lot of the same things. Because Cheesecake and I basically do everything – write, arrange, play, sing, record and produce the songs, paint and prep the art, shoot, animate, edit and direct the videos as well as create all the web components, it’s a delicate balance between the joy of creative freedom and learning something new everyday and the torture and frustration of constantly being lost or having to deal with something it never dawned on you was ever relevant. It’s the agony and ecstasy of creating for a medium that’s still defining itself, limited by technology you’ve got to figure out new and effective ways to use, dealing with immediate feedback from users, where you have to not just figure out new forms of entertainment and social interactivity but technology and business models that can sustain you. Complicated by, in our case, our core product, music, being something people don’t really pay for anymore. So I love that this complex batch of things brings freedom because it’s our world to figure out and then build whatever we come up with – something that could never happen if we were beholden to someone else. But it puts a lot of pressure on an artist when 70% of what stands between them and recognition has to do less with the creation of the music or art itself but, rather, with how to promote it, monetize it, grow it, etc. And when you’re totally indie like Bubbles & Cheesecake a load like weighs heavy on your shoulders.
Elise: What’s next for Bubbles and Cheesecake?
Allee: A lot more songs and videos, a constantly evolving web world and extensions via everything from books to clothing to new forms of entertainment into physical and virtual spaces that allow us to express the philosophy of Bubbles & Cheesecake. www.bubblesandcheesecake.com is designed to be a connection of song chunks, each song with it’s own visual universe of video, web and mobile components and matching products. And then promoting all of it any way we can. And, oh yes, we’d love to figure out some way to make money!
Thank you Allee for giving us a peek into what fuels your creative genius! For those of you who haven’t yet seeing “It’s a Woman Thang”, here you go:
Photos from http://www.bubblesandcheesecake.com