“I don’t know what I’m doing,” says artist and composer Allee Willis. Yet her output ranges from Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September” to the theme song of Friends. If you don’t know Willis, you should – and her story might inspire yours.
Behind all the cheery social media these days, most artists you talk to have struggled. They’ve struggled with creativity and sobriety, mental health and creative blocks, unfriendly industries and obscurity. And sometimes they’ve struggled just to get by – which is where Allee Willis was in 1978, living off food stamps and wondering what would happen next.
What happened next is a career that led to an insane number of hit songs – along with plenty of other fascinating side trips into kitsch and art. (There’s a kitsch-themed social network, an artist alterego named Bubbles, and a music video duet with a 91-year-old woman drummer on an oxygen tank, to name a few.) But what it hasn’t involved is a lot of widespread personal notoriety. Allee Willis is a celebrity’s celebrity, which is to say famous people know her but most people don’t know she’s famous.
At least it’s about that gap. The odds that you don’t know her? Decent. The odds that you don’t know her songs? Unlikely.
Let’s go: Earth, Wind & Fire “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done To Deserve This.” The theme from Friends, recorded by The Rembrandts (if you knew that, which I suspect you didn’t)… all these and more add up to 60 million records. And she co-authored the Oprah Winfrey-produced, Tony and Grammy-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple. More songs you know in movies: Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid (“You’re the Best”), Howard the Duck.
The Detroit native is an impassioned use of Web tech and animation, networked together machines to design an orchestration workflow for The Color Purple musical, and now lives in LA with … Pro Tools, of course, alongside some cats.
But this isn’t about her resume so much as it is about what she says drives her – that itch to create stuff. And for anyone worried about how to get into the creative zone, maybe the first step is to stop worrying about getting into the creative zone. We value analysis and self-critique so much that sometimes we forget to just have fun making and stop worrying about even our own opinions (or maybe, especially those). In the end, it was that instinct that has driven her work, and presumably lots of stuff that didn’t do as well as that Friends theme song. (But there are her cats. Not the Broadway kind; that’s Andrew Lloyd Weber – the furry ones.)
There’s a great video out from CNN-produced Web video series Great Big Story:
And her site is a wild 1999-vintage-design wonderland of HTML, if you want to dive in:
How she wrote “What Have I Done to Deserve This” gets into her musical thinking – and incongruity (and she does sure seem like she knows what she’s doing):
Plus how she hears and why she needed a Fender Rhodes: