Brooklyn-born, Helsinki-based singer/songwriter Nicole Willis has had a lengthy and storied career that goes back to the mid 80s, when she first became known as a vocalist working in London with the act Washington Week in Review, which featured future members of the Brand New Heavies, as well as New York-based acts Hello Strangers and Blue Period. In the late 80s Willis was a touring vocalist with The The, and she can claim a stint in an early iteration of Deee-Lite.
In the 90s, Willis was a co-founder of the NYC-based acid jazz and soul group Repercussions, an act that released two albums, Earth & Heaven (1995) and Charmed Life but the biggest highlight of that period was a duet, through Repercussions with the legendary Curtis Mayfield. “Let’s Do It Again,” which appeared on the Curtis Mayfield tribute album, A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. Additionally, she collaborated with the UK-based dance act, Leftfield on the single “Swords.”
After some time, Willis eventually relocated to Helsinki, Finland where she resides with her partner and frequent collaborator, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jimi Tenor. Tenor has assisted with Willis’ solo work and over the past couple of years, they’ve also worked together as the house music duo Cola and Jimmu. (Interestingly, Tenor plays flute, vibes, tenor sax and contributes background vocals on Willis’ latest album — but more on that in a little bit.)
Comprised of Jukka Sarapaa (drums) and Sami Kantelinen (bass), the Helsinki-based The Soul Investigators formed back in 1998, and the duo have released a number of soul and funk instrumentals, as well as a number of collaborations with a variety of vocalists. And the duo may be best known for running the vinyl-centric, soul and funk label, Timmion Records.
Nicole Willis teamed up with The Soul Investigators for their first album together, the critically acclaimed Keep Reachin’ Out, which received praise internationally, as renowned tastemaker and DJ, Gilles Peterson named their “Feeling Free” as his “Track of the Year” in his 2006 World Wide Awards — and MOJO named the album their “Urban Album of the Year. After the album’s release, Willis and The Soul Investigators performed consistently throughout Europe during the end of the ’00s — and in subsequent years, Keep Reachin’ Up has been released in France, UK, Japan and North America. In fact, President Obama had album title track “Keep Reachin’ Up” as part of his re-election campaign’s official Spotify playlist in early 2012, which (naturally) expanded the act’s profile internationally.
Their sophomore effort, Tortured Soul was reportedly a refinement in their sound, as their old school, soul sound possessed elements of rock and blues with album tracks “Break Free” and “Time To Get Business Straight” becoming favorites among fans, DJs and bloggers. Building up on the wild amount of buzz they’ve already received, Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators’ third album together, Happiness In Every Style will see an October 2 release through Timmion Records and distributed by Light In The Attic.
The album’s first single “Don’t Paint Me In A Corner” is arguably a return to form for Willis and The Soul Investigators, as the sound is reminiscent of the straightforward soul sound that contemporary soul revivalist acts including Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Lee Fields and The Expressions, Sonny Knight and The Lakers, The Right Now and others across the world have specialized in, as clear, soulful vocals are paired with soaring organ and horns, vibes and a persistent and funky rhythm. The song has a profound message of encouraging the rejection of dehumanizing stereotypes and labels — and you can do a little two step to it. Call that a win. But seriously, the song reveals that soul and funk are the lingua franca of the entire world.