Singer Michelle Willis on the ‘joy of knowing’ late David Crosby, a mentor and friend

David Friend, The Canadian Press
Singer Michelle Willis on the ‘joy of knowing’ late David Crosby, a mentor and friend

TORONTO — David Crosby was an acclaimed musician to many, but for Michelle Willis he was also a surprise mentor who became a friend in recent years.

The Ontario-raised singer-songwriter says she first met Crosby, who died Wednesday at 81 years old, during a recording session for the instrumental band Snarky Puppy.

Both of them had been invited to record on Snarky Puppy’s 2015 album “Family Dinner, Vol. 2,” a collaborative project that attracted musician friends from around the world.

Once in the studio, it was clear she shared a spark with the founder of the folk-rock group Crosby, Stills & Nash.

“We just had a really good blend,” recalled Willis, who used a nickname for the veteran rocker. “Croz is a lover of chemistry and he’s like a scientist as far as knowing when something is really good.”

Those sessions left an impression and when Crosby began planning a tour with his Lighthouse backing band a year later, he got in touch with Willis about the possibility of her joining the group.

Not long after, she was on a tour bus with Crosby, the sort of tight quarters that quickly give you a sense of the quirks of the people you’re bunking with each day.

Crosby’s sense of humour was part of the “joy of knowing and loving him,” she found, and he turned out to be quite a “mischief maker” on the road.

“He loved playing practical jokes,” she said. “He loved food fights.”

“And he’s the king of banter and great insults that you’ve never heard in your life,” she added.

“The same mind that creates those incredible word patterns and poems is just on and working all the time.”

Crosby became an oft-outspoken, sometimes stingingly truthful friend to Willis. If something musically didn’t suit his fancy, he’d be the first to tell her, a characteristic she came to cherish as time passed.

Beyond that, he was a man of generosity and encouragement, she said.

One day while on the road, Willis played him a couple of her live recordings she had been sitting on for a few years. Crosby was instantly excited about the music and told Willis to stop delaying and move forward with the project.

“I think he said something like, ‘This sounds like you. Nobody else sounds like you, so you have to make this,'” she said.

It was the push Willis needed to finally complete her 2022 album “Just One Voice,” which features collaborations with Michael McDonald and jazz harmonica player Gregoire Maret. A live EP of select songs from the album would feature Crosby on the performance of “Trigger.”

Other musician friends took time to remember Crosby’s influential roots in folk and rock music circles.

Neil Young, who joined as the fourth member in the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, said that the musician’s “voice and energy were the heart of our band.”

“We had so many great times, especially in the early years,” Young wrote on his website.

“Crosby was a very supportive friend in my early life, as we bit off big pieces of our experience together. David was the catalyst for so many things.”

For Willis, news of Crosby’s death came as a shock. She had just spoken to him by phone Monday morning and heard from him by email on the day he died.

Over the years, their creative ties built a stronger friendship of mutual respect, she said.

“I could call Croz even if I was feeling super low — I wouldn’t tell him,” she said.

“He was always demanding to know what I was writing and working on, telling me what he was working on, what artists he was listening to. Our calls were never very long and I’d always hang up the phone just feeling better.”

Crosby and Willis have a final project together that was recorded with their Lighthouse Band tour mates Becca Stevens and Snarky Puppy founder Michael League.

It started with the four of them sharing countless file transfers over the internet in the midst of the pandemic. Eventually, they reunited in late 2021 at the Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, a space where everyone from the Beach Boys to Prince has laid down tracks.

The untitled album doesn’t have a release date, but Willis hopes to follow through with Crosby’s wishes to get it out sooner than later.

“It’s a beautiful album and he sang better than I’d ever heard him, at times,” she said.

“He had so much power, like magnitudes of depth on this record.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2023.

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