She’s been to hell and now she’s back again. For those unfamiliar with Jessica Willis Fisher, she was once at the center of the Willis Clan, a family band that gained a semblance of fame in 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals of the America’s Got Talent competition and then scored a “reality” series on the TLC cable channel. That program supposedly charted the challenges parents Toby and Brenda and their 12 home-schooled children faced while navigating their day-to-day lives, but what the audience saw and what the family experienced were not one and the same. Father Toby was controlling and abusive—and not just physically so. In 2018, a year after he pleaded guilty to four counts of child molestation, Fisher penned a lengthy blog post (available here) in which she shared, “As far back as I can remember, I was sexually abused by my father.”
In 2019, Fisher launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for her solo debut and, in the fall of 2020, entered a Nashville recording studio with noted producer Ben Fowler; Brand New Day, released yesterday, is the result. It’s a mix of Celtic, bluegrass, country and country-pop, aka what we now call “Americana”; echoes of Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris (circa the Nash Ramblers) and the Corrs, among others, can be heard throughout. Of the 10 tracks, she wrote eight and cowrote another with one-time Nash Rambler Jon Randall; the last is a cover of “You Move Me,” by Gordon Kennedy and Pierce Pettis, which was a hit for Garth Brooks in 1998. Some songs date to her years in the family band, while others find her processing everything in retrospect. It’s music-as-therapy. It’s powerful.
The Randall cowrite, “Fire Song,” is one of the highlights. It was inspired by a recurring nightmare that plagued her prior to leaving her family. “One part of me is speaking to the other part of me,” she explained in this video, which delves into how the song came to be. She’s said that the rousing “Gone” was the result of an in-studio confrontation with her dad; she wrote it on the treadmill while trying to burn off her anger. The chorus is clearly aimed at him: “And I’ll keep walking down this road I’m on/Knowing you’ll be gone and I’ll be fine/And I’ll keep going till there’s no more fear/Knowing I’ll be here and you’ll be gone.” (This video delves into how the song came about, though she leaves her father unnamed.)
The acoustic-driven “My History,” meanwhile, finds her contemplating how history is written by the winners, which is how she finally sees herself: “All my story now belongs to me/I will try to build a better life for me.” Not all songs are about overcoming her childhood traumas; some, such as the fanciful “Hopelessly, Madly,” focus on the good that’s come in the past few years, including the love she shares with her husband, Sean Fisher. “You Move Me,” too, is directed at him.
In some respects, Brand New Day reminds me of Allison Moorer’s brilliant 2019 album Blood, which was inspired by a traumatic incident that occurred when she and sister Shelby Lynne were young. The songs are crafted in such a way that all but the most hard-hearted will hear aspects of their lives in the lyrics; and the melodies will linger in the heart and soul long after the music has faded to silence. It’s a compelling song cycle.
The track list: