Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Elizabeth Willis gets praise from Newsweek magazine, NPR, URB and others for debut album of heartfelt ballads by classically trained child prodigy.

"This rich collection of soulful ballads couples raw lyrics with symphonic influence. Classically trained from the age of 4 in piano and violin, Willis is a folk artist in a class all her own. Standout track: ‘In Your Eyes.’ (MP3)"-- Newsweek

Elizabeth Willis makes powerful grown-woman music in the singer-songwriter tradition, her tunes propelled by dramatic string arrangements and an unmistakable ear for melody. “One” (MP3) is Willis at her mournful best, showcasing her ability to work wonders on heart strings and violin strings alike.” – URB

Newsweek magazine highlights Elizabeth Willis’ self-titled debut album in this week’s issue, alongside recent nods from URB (“Next 1000” pick) and National Public Radio (NPR.com review). Willis, now 21-years-old, began playing violin and piano when she was only 4-years-old. Clearly evidenced by her lush, meticulously structured self-produced album, Willis’ lifetime of training and discipline adds particular sheen to each song’s heartfelt delivery.

From the age at which most of us are still learning the alphabet and basic math, Elizabeth Willis was a prodigal musical talent destined for an impressive career as a classical violinist and pianist. Onward into her teen years, she trained vigorously -- forsaking a social life and the idea of a day off -- with an impressive array of instructors and schools, including Meadowmount School of Music (famed for former student Yo-Yo Ma) and the world-renown Mannes College of Music in New York. And, then she walked away from the classical music world after a lifetime of study and performance.

Driven by her interest in composing pop music works of her own, Willis changed her entire life in order to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. “I didn’t have a life,” she explains. “I didn’t have a weekend off since I was 5, and I always had an interest in composition. I wrote my first song at 12.” Armed with her immense skill and the knowledge she’d gained, Willis set out writing and recording what would eventually become her self-titled debut album. The 11-song disc is a powerfully emotional and musically lush outing filled with, as you might guess, elegant piano and strings underscoring her deeply moving vocals. Willis’ songs have been compared to legends like Nina Simone, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman and Antony & The Johnsons for both their emotional depth and musical warmth.

Recently, Elizabeth Willis came to the attention of rapper Ludacris, via his WeMix.com web site where musicians post their songs for others to remix and discuss. Ludacris told Rolling Stone magazine about his discovery of Willis’ music from the site, where he searches for talent to sign to his Disturbing Tha Peace label. Willis also recently won the 100% Music Award for “One”, the first single from her album. The songwriter admits that she’d never been a singer and at first had difficulty approaching the material. So, what does an artist accustomed to the finest training in her field do? She enlisted the help of renown vocal coach David Coury (who also trained Leona Lewis) and re-recorded all of her vocal tracks from the album.

“I was at first ambivalent about releasing the album,” she says. “But at the same time it was very cathartic. It’s OK that it’s very personal, because other people can identify with my experience.” Perhaps also influencing her admittedly pensive sound is her longtime love of Russian culture and composers (Willis is currently majoring in Russian Literature at Smith College). “I play generally in the lower minor keys, like Russian pieces,” Willis says. “But I also love Danny Elfman and Phillip Glass.”

Elizabeth Willis was born in Washington D.C., but spent her formative years in St Louis, MO where she started training on piano at 4-years-old, then soon went on to add violin. The violin she played on the album is the same one she had since high school, which was made by a luthier using classical renditions who only crafts three to four instruments per year. At 15, she was accepted to the prestigious Mannes College and moved to New Jersey to study full time. “Even back then I had a couple of songs,” she says. “I wrote ‘Remember You’ when I was really young.” She admits an interest in writing film scores or commissioning an opera and has not fully abandoned the classical music scene in New York. “The classical music scene is just like the punk scene or rock scene,” Willis explains. “People all know each other... but it’s also very competitive.”

To that end, Willis continues to follow the strict discipline of her education; constantly working on new projects and ideas, as well as performing live several times per month with a three piece backing band consisting of drummer Ira Grable, cellist Robin Pfoutz and electric bassist Jenny Hersch.

Elizabeth Willis Tracklisting:

01. Overture
02. In Your Eyes (MP3)
03. One (MP3)
04. Thoughts
05. (In) Love
06. Don’t Worry
07. 4am
08. Remember You
09. Stars
10. Blackbird
11. Move On

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