Country Next: Jessica Willis Fisher
We take pride in introducing fans to country music’s brightest new stars through our Country Next series. Here, we chat with Jessica Willis Fisher.
Jessica Willis Fisher; Photo by Sean Fisher
Americana singer/songwriter Jessica Willis Fisher reclaims her voice and shares her brave story of survival with her debut album, Brand New Day. The upcoming collection, which features 10 tracks – eight of which are entirely written by her – is the first musical offering from Fisher since appearing in her family band, The Willis Clan.
The lead-off single from the forthcoming solo project, “Fire Song,” represents a vulnerable chapter in Fisher’s life, as she sings of an intense struggle to find a new beginning and escape a dark and tumultuous situation. Co-written with Grammy-award winner Jon Randall, the bold new track gives listeners a glimpse of what to expect from Brand New Day, due out on April 13, 2022.
Before setting out on her solo career, Fisher was the oldest child of The Willis Clan, which included her 11 siblings and their two parents. The children, who were all homeschooled, were also the stars of two reality TV shows (TLC’s The Willis Family and America’s Got Talent). Fisher played a major role in the family touring group as the lead singer, fiddle player, and principal songwriter. She abruptly parted ways in 2016 around the same time her father, Toby Willis, was sentenced to 40 years in jail for child rape and has mainly stayed out of the public eye.
Ready to share more of her story with her fans, Fisher spent time with Country Now to talk about her return to music, her powerful story of survival, her upcoming album, and more.
Read on to find out more about Fisher in this exclusive Q&A below.
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Did you always know you would eventually return to music as a solo artist?
No. It was not a given that I would come back to music. There was this period when I did not think it would ever be possible or healthy for me to do that. There are many amazing things about playing music with your family and traveling. But everything that was toxic was toxic enough that I needed to get out and re-find the good. When I left The Willis Clan, the hardest part of my life was that I could not write any more; even performing felt impossible. How do you get on stage and try not to be seen? It is the exact opposite. So, at that point, I was living in this strange and unhealthy world, and I went into some very needed and intense kind of therapy. It was like I was being put into this padded box but in a good way because there were no sharp edges. And I was no longer around the environment that I was raised in and had worked in for so many years. That helped because it allowed me to get to the healing, I think, a lot quicker. I started saying, ‘Okay. I want to transition from having survived this to thriving and saying, ‘What gives me passion? What can I accomplish? What am I going to do with this new life that I have and this second chance?’ And, I found that I still really loved music.
Was there a particular moment that stuck out for you where you knew it was time to start performing again?
When I began having the internal interest and openness to making music again, the writing started flowing again, and that door opened back up for me. I was not sure what that would look like or how it would go since I hadn’t done anything musically for a while. I knew I wanted to play music in a completely new way. I have to give a shout-out to my Kickstarter backers. I did this Kickstarter campaign in 2019, and 670 people all said, ‘Yes. We want to support you in making music, and we want to hear it, and we want to go on this journey with you.’ At that point, I was testing the waters. I am not sure what I would have done if that did not go well. So, when that happened, I was like, ‘I cannot let these people down.’ So that was this big push for me to be like, ‘Alright. We’re doing this.’ It also allowed me to go into a studio and make a complete record. So, that was huge! We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for that part of the story. So, I met my producer, Ben Fowler, who believed in me and was ready to jump in. And I recorded the album in 2020, which was such a strange year, as we all know. So it’s been a long time coming to finally put it out this year.
The title of your album is Brand New Day. What is the significance behind that title?
So, with this title, Brand New Day, I see that and feel that on so many levels. I think this would have always been the record that I would do if I came back to music. In some ways, it’s 30 years in the making. I’ve written so much since I was young. And, I’m pulling from my whole story up to now. The last five to six years have been this inward process that got to a point where I needed to make changes in my life to survive and thrive. That is the main source of this whole idea of renewal, starting over and beginning again. I’ve done that in my real life too. Not just in my musical life. But, going into this album, I didn’t necessarily have that title. As we went along the process, it became the theme that ties everything together. So, each song is a different way that I understand and identify with the theme of renewal and starting over. I never want to make music or do anything publicly that isn’t authentic and vulnerable. My first release, ‘Fire Song’ is about starting over. Starting over can be a deeply emotional thing, a surrender, or a mundane beautiful thing. Sometimes there are big moments too. For example, I will have these signposts in my life where things diverge. But I also think that every day is a brand new day and a chance to make choices and begin again in the smallest or biggest ways. So, I hope as people listen to each song, they explore how they resonate with its idea and how that idea shows up in different ways.
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Was it difficult to return to the studio to record music without The Willis Clan?
I still encounter anxiety sometimes in reacquainting myself or going back into situations where the last time I was there, things were not great, or I have actual traumatic experiences that took place in an otherwise wonderful setting. But, whether it is being on a stage or being in the studio, dropping all of those things and leaving them behind, and going into a completely different environment, I now tend to think it is helpful for me. As excited as I am about this, I know some things will be challenging because I am going back to these same places and environments that I went to with The Willis Clan. However, I do not want to lose music. I have to reclaim it and go through that, which can be hard. At first, I was nervous that it would be an overwhelming process. But, we just did it in a different way than I had ever experienced. I worked with my producer, Ben, to put it together. And it was so novel for me, but it is common in Nashville to work with professional studio musicians. So, it was wild! They are so good at what they do, and it was so impressive and astonishing to me. I had half of the songs arranged out where I could, in contrast to before, put my ideas out there and have control of all of the decisions. That felt great. It was like freedom and independence. Then, I didn’t have fully fleshed-out ideas with some of the other songs. It was so fun to collaborate with the band and give up some control to people who added to the song in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. So, it was a nice balance between that strength and clarity of vision.
Did you record the tracks in the order that they appear on the album?
No. We started with the song ‘River Runaway.’ And, just as a fun fact, that was a suggestion from my producer. I’m so glad we went that way because there are areas on the album that lean a little more bluegrass or country, but there’s also some Celtic. Overall, if you pinned me on it, I would classify the whole album copy as Americana. ‘River Runaway’ has a long fiddle section, and I think it harkens to the Irish and Celtic music roots that I love. So it was fun to start with something, in my mind, that was unique so that everybody understood and got excited. I don’t remember the entire order, but we went with the flow after that first song. Then, we played around with what we thought the best order was for the album.
Tell me about your recently released track, “Fire Song”?
‘Fire Song’ is the only co-write on the album. There are 10 tracks total, and I wrote eight of them. I co-wrote one of them, and then there’s one outside song. With ‘Fire Song,’ I had never had an experience like that before. I had never collaborated quite in that way. But, Jon Randall was my co-writer. He is a wonderful writer, singer, musician, and producer. I first recognized him as the co-writer on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ by Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley. ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ is so dark and sad. and I love it! So, when I met Jon, I was so honored. Then, he was open to working together, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness! I’ve got to come up with a great idea. I don’t want to tank it.’ I want to make something great with him.
I had this idea for ‘Fire Song,’ but I hadn’t been able to get it out myself yet. I had some chords, and I had a melody that ended up being like a fiddle solo. I also had two specific inspirations. So, my childhood home burned down when I was a kid, and I felt like I could paint that imagery well because I had seen it, smelled it, and watched it. Then, in 2016, I was having these nightmares that I was inside a house that was on fire, and everyone else thought everything was fine, and they were going about their daily lives. I was freaking out and thinking, like, ‘I am going to die. Everyone is going to die. We have got to get out of here. Why don’t you see?’ That was my brain fighting and trying to make sense of a very tough situation. So the way we wrote the song, and the way it came out, what it stands for on the album, to me, is sometimes you reach a point where there is nothing you can do but try to escape with your life. So, that was the other inspiration, and Jon got that. So, we just played. We tried to make people smell the smoke and see the flames and all of that. So, it was fun, poetic, and dark. I just loved it so much. So, I knew it had to be on the album. It wasn’t until we were sitting down and looking at the album as a whole that we thought, ‘You know, this is a good place to start because it kind of picks up where I left off publicly.’ It also represents a chapter that I had to experience to get to the other side of my brand new day.
Take me through the concept of the video for “Fire Song.”
So, being on camera isn’t my favorite. I’m still getting used to that all over again. Quinton Cook was the video director, and he made it so fun. I loved working with him. So, even though I was a little nervous, I’m still really proud of what we made. I do see my songs, almost all of them, visually. I knew I wanted to make a video that matched what the song was telling. So, if you watch the video, you’ll see what we’re illustrating is that I’m both the person singing the song and the person that is being sung to. I play two different characters. I think that many people can probably identify with the idea, like if you’ve ever struggled with yourself or thought about two things at once. Sometimes we’re in denial, or we’re trying not to look at the thing that we have to look at. So, ultimately, those are different parts of me that struggle. At the end of the video, both of me, so to speak, escape together. We had this big – the wood itself was taller than my husband. Then we lit it all on fire, lit some objects on fire, and then went from there. It’s so much fun to watch it back!
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How about your song, “Gone.” Can you tell me about that one?
‘Fire Song’ is like a cliffhanger, where you’re like, ‘What happens next? Did they get out?’ Then, ‘Gone’ is one of the other strong and upbeat songs on the record. I have such a special place in my heart for it. I wrote it when I was still with my family band, and it just came at a moment when I was in the studio, and I had a humiliating and frustrating experience. I just went and wrote this song in defiance and wasn’t quite there yet. The song says, ‘One day I will be free. I will be strong. I will be doing this on my own. And, I will survive.’ When I sing this song now, I am fulfilling that. So, it’s very empowering and anthemic. ‘Fire Song’ is like a warning, and ‘Gone’ is like a victory. Gone’ also has the fiddle and Irish roots peeking through it, and ‘Fire Song’ shows more of my bluegrass side. I always want to make music that has roots to it. So, if someone tells me a song sounds like it’s 100 years old, I take it as a huge compliment! I want to be a part of that tradition and storytelling. Although I am speaking out of my experience, I am also aware that we all go through those things. I want to share that with people and help them understand that we are more the same than we are different, that we can all go after what we dream and what we believe, and we can be victorious in that. So ‘Gone’ has a lot of powerful and positive energy!
Now that you’ve accomplished recording for this project, what is it like being a solo artist in comparison to having been in a family group?
I am just super grateful to be somebody’s sister and daughter. I am no longer a bandmate or a co-worker at this time. I think that’s been great for our relationships. I’m proud of everybody in their own right. I think that just living and being healthy is a victory. I think any time you say something publicly or undertake a public service or share yourself with people, it’s risky and hard. I don’t think it’s just glamorous, especially for everybody in my family. It’s complicated. So it feels good to be doing this on my own. It’s scary too. I’m not a one-woman band, and I’m not doing this alone. I have a wonderful team. But it feels good, and it’s been wonderful to cheer them on in what they‘re doing as well?
What’s next for you?
Brand New Day coming out in April is a combination of so much work by several great people. There is a lot more to come! I love sharing behind-the-scenes footage of videos and albums, and I have plans to share more of my story. I think that music is so healing. I would credit music for saving my life at certain points. Some things can’t be said in three minutes, and sometimes there are better ways to say those things. But, I love that I’m starting all of this with music because it’s new, and it is a return and a reclaiming of something that I love. So there is much more to come, and it’s only the beginning!
Fans can keep up with Jessica Willis Fisher on Instagram.
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