In the 1980’s, Brooklyn-bred Nicole Willis (born 1963) performed as a singer in her hometown of New York City with many locally trending but short-lived bands, such as Hello Strangers, Blue Period and Disco Donut. The last-mentioned act included Adam Horovitz on bass, who earned his reputation later on rapping as Ad-Rock in the world-widely known rap group Beastie Boys. During the same decade Nicole Willis paved way for her career in London in bands such as The The as well as in American neo-soul group Repercussions, who recorded for legendary Mo’ Wax music label in the early 90’s. With Repercussions she recorded two albums Earth and Heaven (1995) and Charmed Life (1997) and also got to work together with Curtis Mayfield. As a solo artist Nicole Willis also gave his personal effort to the sound of British Leftfield in 1999.
In the Finnish soul and funk scene, Nicole Willis has gained respect and her status especially since the new millennium together with The Soul Investigators focusing on retro sound. Until that she had alread performed on Jimi Tenor’s album Out of Nowhere (2000) and Nu Spirit Helsinki’s self-titled debut in 2002. She also released her first two solo albums Soul Makeover (2000) and Be It (2003) around that period.
Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators released three albums altogether and the first one of these titled Keep Reachin’ Up in 2005 was an international breakthrough which got widely acknowledged and has been streamed only on Spotify way more than one million times. Among many others, the legendary deejay and music connoisseur Gilles Peterson chose “Feeling Free” as the Track of the Year in his World Wide Awards in 2006. Later on, it was the president of the United States Barack Obama who picked the title track of the album on his re-election campaign’s official Spotify playlist bringing even more publicity. The two latter albums, including Tortured Soul (2013) with its harder rhythm’n’blues edge as well as Happiness In Every Style (2015) received critical acclaim and praises as well, but not the similar sales and headlines.
After the period with The Soul Investigators, Nicole Willis released a well-respected collaboration album My Name Is Nicole Willis together with Helsinki-based UMO Jazz Orchestra in 2017. It shed light to a more jazzy soul side of the singer. EP release Soul Sensation with a brand new band Banda Palomita in 2019 was a certain kind of return for Nicole Willis back to the disco soul she used to do earlier on her career. Thus she has been also collaborating with the Finnish producer Kalifornia-Keke for new material.
Text: Joonas Kervinen / Funky Finland
Main photo: Sami Mannerheimo
2nd photo: Lassi Lehto