WILLS (Formerly Gordon Voidwell) Takes A Fine Art Approach To Funding His Music Will Johnson is a successful producer and songwriter who found himself questioning the music industry and his place in it. So this time, he's trying a business approach from the world of fine art.

Can Musicians Avoid Commercial Pressure And Still Make A Living? WILLS Is Trying

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You've heard this before - do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. Sounds simple, but fitting artistry into industry takes compromise.

As Frannie Kelley reports, a Minneapolis musician is resisting commercial pressure with the help of funding from the art world.

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Will Johnson has seen some things.

WILLS: I got approached by Silicon Valley dudes. And they basically were like, yo, we have created a formula to make a for-sure No. 1 hit - literally.


KELLEY: Johnson, who releases music under the name WILLS, did not get involved with those Silicon Valley dudes. They approached him because he was already a successful songwriter with a publishing deal that had him co-writing with Grammy-winning names.


KELLEY: And it was a good deal, but...

WILLS: All of those co-writes are always like, I'm asking you to lend your voice to this beat that I made. And I'm like, well, what's my role in this? How am I writing this?

KELLEY: Asking questions about what's happening under the surface is WILLS' whole thing. When he moved out of the Bronx, where he was born and raised, on down to gentrifying Brooklyn...


WILLS: (Singing) Got to. Got to. Got to. Got to look the part...

KELLEY: What he saw led him to create a black-masculinity-tweaking performance art persona named Gordon Voidwell.


WILLS: (Singing) I wanted to be wild. Remember what to wear. I want to dress like you. We could be quite a pair.

KELLEY: Lest you believe that making songs that are half intellectual exercise, half release from an alienating environment isn't commercially viable, it was Gordon Voidwell that landed WILLS the publishing deal and made those Silicon Valley guys think that he could run a hit factory.

But he was in love with a girl from Minnesota, and he moved there. Success followed him. One of his songs got picked up for an Acura commercial.


WILLS: (Singing) You going to make me turn back, back, back way back to the oldest me. Guarantee that you notice me. You don't work on my soul for free.

KELLEY: Disquiet also followed.

WILLS: Part of the irony in using black music in car commercials is the amount of deaths of black dudes who get killed as a result of being pulled over.

KELLEY: Just before WILLS released the song used in the commercial, Philando Castile was killed in his car by a police officer about 20 minutes from WILLS' apartment.

WILLS: The thing that I can do is do the work to interrogate what I'm making so that I'm not just unconsciously making a thing that makes people feel like s**** so that they buy products.

KELLEY: So WILLS made another move - he wrote a proposal...

ELEANOR SAVAGE: For a solo voice and electronic acoustic project connecting American spiritual idioms and contemporary sound design and composition.

KELLEY: That's Eleanor Savage, the program director of the Jerome Foundation, reading from a summary of WILLS' application for a fellowship to help him make an album of original work based on obscure gospel records from the 1950s to the '70s.


WILLS: (Singing) Swing low sweet chariot. Take me hand in place from where I land.

KELLEY: By sampling and reimagining gospel music, WILLS was trying to figure out how it works, what makes it so powerful and not just on Sunday - every day.

WILLS: When you listen to old Baptists and Pentecostal preachers, they can't help but deliver the words in a musical way. That's part of the tradition of delivering a sermon. There are ebbs and flows in the soul of a human being. There are these dynamics. There is a range.


WILLS: (Singing) Woke up in the trance of a sleepless Sunday. Praying for the rain in the heat of summer. I've been running...

KELLEY: But WILLS wanted to dig even deeper, go even further back. So he wrote a second part to his proposal, says Eleanor Savage.

SAVAGE: A sound-based composition for a collaborative theatrical work exploring the dancing plague of 1518 that manifested in uncontrollable movement and dancing.


KELLEY: And in the foundation world, that, apparently, is a for-sure No. 1 hit.

SAVAGE: He wrote about this dancing plague, which, of course, I'd never heard of before. And everyone who read that application had the same response. Everyone wanted to see it. Everyone wanted to hear that. You know, I think that's what makes WILLS so successful is his imagination.


KELLEY: The Jerome Fellowship is meant for early-career artists, and WILLS is in his mid-30s.

WILLS: In art world, maybe early-career, that's real. But in music industry world, for being a black dude, people don't get signed when they're 35 or when they're 40 or when they're 45 (laughter) - that doesn't happen.

KELLEY: Yet his management company backs him 100%. They're British rock and punk execs who presume he'll be earning until he's 70.

WILLS: That's different than the young black rappers. Part of the model of young black youth is like, there is a good probability that this person will die out before they reach 30 years old in like, epic, capitalized way (laughter), you know what I mean? Like Biggie and Tupac. Like, I grew up watching that happen.

KELLEY: What's happening now is that WILLS' collaborative theatrical work exploring the dancing plague of 1518 is getting a workshop at the acclaimed Public Theater in New York, the same place that helped develop "Hamilton." And he's in the final round for another prestigious fellowship.

WILLS goes to the Mall of America to remember the world outside of his studio and his own head. It was cold the day we went, so the mall felt like an ark - an ark with roller coasters in it.


KELLEY: While we were walking around, I asked him if he thinks about how his deeply considered music fits in this place - all the branding with the playlists and the chains and the audience of families intent on consuming.

WILLS: I'm committed to doing this work. Whether it works on a commercial level, I don't know - truly, I don't know. And I'm at peace with that - partially, just because when you get older, you're like, I love doing this work. Like, if I have to become a teacher tomorrow, cool. If I have to become a garbage man tomorrow, also cool. I'm going to do this work no matter what.

KELLEY: He does have more ads in the pipeline.

For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.

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