Willis Clan rebuilding their career after father’s crimes
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Willis Clan, a musical family that starred in their own reality TV show and competed on “America’s Got Talent,” are now ready to sing again and tell their stories through a new album called “Speak My Mind” a year after their father was sent to prison for child abuse.
The Tennessee-based family was introduced to the world through the NBC talent show in 2014 as 12 singing and dancing siblings with ages ranging from 3 to 22. In 2015, they got their own reality show on TLC called “The Willis Family,” portraying the homeschooled, religious family with varied artistic talents.
But that all came to an end in 2016 when their father Toby Willis was investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for years of abuse against underage family members. He pleaded guilty to four counts of child rape last year and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Six members of the family, ages ranging from 16 to 25, collaborated on the new record out Friday, in which they address the pain and abuse and their fear of speaking the truth about their ordeal.
“We were just writing them for therapeutic reasons,” said Jeremiah Willis, 25. “And after enough of those songs have been written by various members of the band we realized, ‘This is good for us. I wonder if it can help other people.’”
But even for a family that spent so much of their lives together and performing on stages, writing the songs was a difficult process. Jackson Willis, 20, said some of the songs were written through tears.
“The content of the songs that are on this album, it’s not an easy subject,” he said. “It’s not an easy life experience that we all had.”
The title track, “Speak My Mind,” was written by the eldest daughter of the family, Jessica Willis, long before their father’s arrest. Although she is no longer in the band, her siblings saw the song in a new light as they worked on the new music.
“The song really is that just internal struggle of if I speak my mind, one, can I do it? Do I have the strength to? And if I do what will the outcome be?” said Jennifer McDowell, 23. “And I just resonated so well with it and I knew that it really just could work so well with the project.”
After a lifetime of being under the control of their father, McDowell said they are each rediscovering their individual voices.
“There’s definitely days where I personally I feel like, yeah I totally have the courage to speak my mind and to tell my story,” McDowell said. “And there are days that are just really hard and it’s hard to talk about it at all. And I realized that it’s going to be a process for the rest of my life.”
For Jeremiah, the oldest of the boys in the family, he’s struggled to understand his father’s impact on his life. He said he no longer has a relationship with his father.
“The song, ‘How Much Of Me Is You,’ is a question I will be asking myself for the rest of my life,” he said. “I was raised a certain way and I question every day, is that right? Was that right? How much of that do I keep? How much do I leave behind?”
With the MeToo movement dominating headlines, the Willis family knows that their message of resiliency, hope and encouragement is really timely and important.
“This album is being released at a time when people are being more open and telling their stories,” McDowell said. “This is not an issue that can be talked about enough.”
She said they just want to encourage people who identify with their experience to seek out professional help or even just supporters that will listen.
“You can live beyond any traumatic experience and you can live a life that is full of joy and peace and just happiness,” McDowell said.
Follow Kristin M. Hall at Twitter.com/kmhall