The Willis Clan could definitely qualify as a modern-day Von Trapp Family. Parents Toby and Brenda and their twelve children have carved out quite the reputation for their musical skills, landing on such television series as America's Got Talent and The Today Show. Their talents have also won them the attention of the Grand Ole Opry, where they have performed many times during their career.
This month looks to be a busy one for the family. They are about to embark on a brief tour of Ireland and will be releasing their third album, Heaven, on May 19. Tuesday night they will also be the subjects of a brand new reality show on TLC called The Willis Family, which premieres at 10 p.m. EST.
Billboard had the chance to catch up recently with the group's Jessica Willis, who reflected on all the good fortune that has been coming her family's way as of late. The attention and support given by the Opry came up early on, with Willis noting it as something the Clan deeply cherishes.
"Our manager at the time had some connections there and got us on the show in 2011, then we didn't do it again for about a year or so," she said. "We really didn't do a lot of country or bluegrass; we actually started in Irish music, which is kind of related. It wasn't until the last two years that we became so connected. It's a variety show and it's a very amazing place. It's changed a lot recently to include not only the legends, but also contemporary artists as well. We have had some amazing opportunities there. We got to perform with Little Jimmy Dickens a few times before he passed away. Things like that will blow your mind every single time. We are so glad to be a part of that."
The family returns to the Opry stage on May 12.
To say that the Willis Clan approached Heaven in a hands-on manner would be an understatement, according to Willis. "We decided to stick to our guns and do it pretty much ourselves," she said. "It's all originals and we arranged everything. Everybody played their respective instruments. We recorded it all in the master bedroom of our house. We have our own studio and we have kind of also taken the engineering reins."
The new disc also reflects somewhat of a change in the family's sound. "I would say that the new album is the culmination of our musical journey so far," she said. "Our first album was Irish, the second was country and bluegrass and this album reflects more of our pop and rock sound. It's what we've always been driving toward as a band, but felt like we needed to grow into it just a little bit. It's been a long time coming and we're so excited. The reaction we have had from people has been so positive. I can't wait to get it out there."
Putting their lives on the screen for all the world to see might seem like a risk to a lot of people, but Willis said if you choose to go that route, there's only one way to do it -- be real.
"We are very close and tight as a family. We help keep each other grounded. We're kind of each other's biggest critics, but also the biggest cheerleaders at the same time," she said. "We want to be the same people on camera as we are off-camera. You don't want to go through life not being yourself. So, we just want to be as genuine. We're not perfect people. We make mistakes. Every band -- or family -- has things that they have to work through and we're doing both at once. We're not the first people to do that. We just want to give people the reality of what our life really is. It will be a great chance for us to show people what our life really is."
Billboard is excited to bring you an exclusive listen to "Fair Weather Love," a track from Heaven.
Of writing the song, Jessica said, "It's a great example of the sound of the album. It starts as a very serious track and then there's harmonies and then by the end, we are rocking out. It's one of our favorite songs on the album. I wrote the song a couple of years ago. I get inspiration from all over -- movies, books I read, conversations that I have, current news, all kinds of stuff. Sometimes, I will write the first line of a song and I will have no idea where the story is going. I can be just as surprised as everyone else. I thought it was a clever idea that I wanted to explore -- about a fair weather friend. You know they're not going to be there when the going gets rough. It was just a play on those words. There's also a mysterious groove to it that ties into the message of the song."
Listen to it here: