Artist at work

Songwriter and composer Allee Willis' new video, "Editing Is Cool," is funky and fun -- and provides a rare window into the creative process.

Published August 8, 2008 3:30PM (EDT)

Sometime on Thursday night, the creative dynamo known as Allee Willis launched the next phase of her own personal 15-year-plus "power to the people" interactive media revolution, with a new song, video and window into the creative process called "Editing Is Cool" by Bubbles & Cheesecake, aka Willis (Bubbles) and the terrific torch-soul singer and songwriter Holly Palmer.

"The video is honestly the best thing I've ever done," said Willis. "The whole thing is eight parts, so you can see every single stage of the song and video coming together, along with work logs and lyrics and lots more. It's the first time I got to go this deep into everything I stand for."

The release is a rare look inside the process of one of the most prolific and tenacious interactive media artists working today. While Willis is well known as a mega-hit songwriter and composer, she is also a painter, a sculptor, a videographer, a party impresario, a builder of motorized objets d'art and furniture and an avid collector and aficionado of '50s atomic and "soul" collectibles -- all of which make their way into her work.

So if the funky, homemade aesthetic of "Editing Is Cool" looks familiar to you, it probably is. In 2007, Bubbles & Cheesecake's first video, "It's a Woman Thang," got more than 900,000 YouTube views.

The real visionaries of almost any cultural revolution rarely get the credit they deserve. They are usually so far ahead of their time that by the time the wave hits, they've gotten bored or frustrated and moved on. Willis is one of the rare few who has persisted in bringing her vision to fruition, even though she frequently abandoned her songwriting career to do so.

I met Willis in 1992 when she spoke at one of the very first Digital World conferences, which themselves were instrumental in gestating the yet-unborn interactive media industry. She floored a rather staid crowd of industry executives with a passionate entreaty to support the new generation of artists who would be using digital tools to create the next generation of media. Interviewed later by the Hollywood Reporter, she said:

It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to redefine entertainment. Interactive media is a unique opportunity for artists like me who do a lot of different things and have had mainstream success but whose product is still considered "different" to take the ball and run with it. I think that Hollywood is running after very obvious technological uses of CD-ROM, CD-I and interactive movies. Traditional pop culture mediums are out of touch with the masses, now finally it can be self-empowering for the ultimate user as it is for the artist. The right combination of fresh ideas and brilliant technology is the ultimate revenge. This is a new world. Power to the people and I want to lead the revolution.

By then, she had already been working for two years, with her longtime partner and collaborator Prudence Fenton and funding from Intel, on willisville, a combination of story-driven virtual world (with Willis' trademark outsider-art aesthetic) and social network, long before the latter concept existed.

Willisville was built for fluid, persistent connections to and from television programming, shopping, e-mail, creativity tools and more. But in the five solid years they shopped the project -- to some of the biggest media moguls on the Internet today, I might add -- the reaction was always the same.

"Everyone was really excited to see it," Willis said. "Then their eyes would cross as soon as we'd start talking about it, and they'd start talking about 'Web-isodes."'

But, thankfully, that painful period is over now. With so much technology available to produce virtually every kind of media, Willis is in control of her art and her destiny in a way she has always wanted to be.

"'Editing Is Cool' was perfect conceptually, because I got to get my philosophy about process in there," she said. "I used to always be creating for someone else and that was great, but writing music and seeing someone else's visuals attached to it is totally disjointed for me. What I'm doing now, in whatever medium -- linear, non-linear, virtual, physical -- I can execute on all those different planes. And that's what I always wanted to do."

The next project for Willis is the result of a "fantasy trip" to her hometown, Detroit, when "The Color Purple" (she was one of three composers) opened there. "I went to my high school, Mumford High, for the first time in 43 years," she said. "I thought I was going to give a 10-minute speech, and they surprised me with Allis Willis Day."

The marching band, the chorus, the glee club -- all had prepared tributes for her. "They asked me if I would write a song for them and I said no," said Willis. "I said, I want to write a song with you. So now I'm doing music, video, artwork and promotion online, with 500 black kids from my alma mater, because I'm obsessed with mass collaboration. It's everything I wanted to do in willisville, come full circle."

By Denise Caruso

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