Willis: Who's that girl?

No one knows much about Willis, whose debut album is causing something of a stir. That's fine: she's happy to be recognised only for her music, she tells Simmy Richman
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The Independent Culture

Knowing very little about Willis other than that I love her debut album, I have no idea what to expect as I set off to meet her. Willis and her record company have, you see, decided on the lowest of low profiles. In the absence of her photo, and with little biographical information on the album or press release, I guess (wrongly, it turns out) that she is black. In fact, I know so little about her that - in place of the standard list of questions - I decide to start off the interview with a joke and see how things develop.

"So..." I venture a little smugly as I take a pew in the Elk in the Woods café in Islington, north London, "whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

Willis looks at me, momentarily confused. Then the penny drops - but in place of the half-expected: "Yeah, yeah, heard it before", she says: "Oh, that television programme! When people started saying that to me, I didn't know what they were talking about. We didn't really watch much TV in my house when I was a kid."

So, with the Diff'rent Strokes references out the window and my killer gag turned to dust, Willis then tramples all over it by telling me that Willis is actually her surname. In real life, she's called Hayley ("Nothing wrong with it; it's the name my mum gave me"). The entire exchange has taken maybe three minutes. My coffee hasn't even turned up yet, and I have no questions in front of me to bandy back and forth.

A little background: it has taken Willis - who grew up the youngest of six children, in Feltham, south London - roughly 14 years to get this album, Come Get Some, out of her system. In the meantime, she has worked in record shops and on market stalls. She has shared flats, and she has crashed at friends' houses all over London.

In 2002, after two years completely away from singing ("It was getting to the point where I wasn't even making music I liked"), Willis pressed 1,000 copies of an EP (a mix of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Etta James and Aretha Franklin, said Uncut magazine) on her own record label . It caught the attention of more than one record company A&R man, but the one Willis trusted and felt she could work with was Nick Worthington, the man who spotted and signed Badly Drawn Boy, The Streets, Basement Jaxx and The Polyphonic Spree.

Today, Willis is happiest talking about music. She is the living embodiment of the High Fidelity record-shop geek, even if she is more down-to-earth sarf London than Islington literati. "Although people might not hear it, the music that influenced my album ranged from The Band to Barbra Streisand. It's funny that people think I'm black - whenever a woman sings with depth they want to put her in that package. But nobody can tell me that Streisand doesn't have soul. Or that Willie Nelson has less than Ella Fitzgerald."

On Pop Idol: "It's trying to create a load of androids who can sing and dance and do that hideous Lloyd Webber wobble at the end of each line. The girls are all push-up bras and lip gloss. They look like they are auditioning for Hollyoaks."

But Willis, surely this record ("a dead cert for a Mercury nomination", according to The Face magazine) is going to make you a star and you will have to consider investing in push-up bras, lip gloss and the like? "I don't want to be famous," she insists. "It's here one minute and gone the next. I'm 32, and I've got this far without money. Yeah, it would be nice for my family to have nice things and to go places in the world I've not been to, but I don't think I'm pop-star material. I don't do dance routines. I don't like having my photo taken. I can't think of anything worse than being recognised in Sainsbury's. But if you go out jogging surrounded by 30 blokes, what do you think is going to happen? I will honour the record company and promote this record, but I'm not some Duracell bunny with an overriding urge to sing and dance for the masses. If there's one thing I've learnt, it's that you can't perform for the dangled carrot."

But surely fame is less the dangled carrot and more the perniciously addictive drug? "Yeah," she says. "And I've sampled some of it. I've been to those parties and they're really dull - and it makes me know that I don't want to do this forever. I think I'll always make music in some context, but maybe I'll just move to Alaska and play in some hokey little bar there."

So that's Willis, then. One of that new breed of pop stars who - like Badly Drawn Boy before her - are over fame before they've tasted it. On second thoughts, it might be wiser to put your annual Mercury flutter on someone else. But then Willis says this: "The thing I like best about the record company I signed with is that they do things as they should be done - with a sense of humour. They don't go to work thinking they are creating the aural elixir for a generation."

As I'm getting ready to leave, it occurs to me that that is exactly how the "aural elixir for a generation" is always created.

'Come Get Some' is out on Monday on 679 Recordings