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INSIDE STORY

 

Meet the

WILLIS
GIRLS

Shermaine and Romaine Willis are like any other young Sri Lankan women of a certain kind. They are strong, confident and ready to make their mark on our little island home. While the sisters are undeniably beautiful, their beauty is not what we’re here to highlight or discuss. Rather, it’s their powerful voices and even more commanding personalities that interest us.

Humming tunefully along with the radio as they strut through their fashion cover shoot, the Willis sisters come across as happy-go-lucky girls who wear their love of music on their sleeves – that much is evident from our first encounter with them.

But while these sisters may share their passion for the performing arts, it’s clear that they are also two totally different people.

There’s a fiery determination in both sets of eyes, which one can only admire. From controversial videos to rocking the stage in Colombo with their soulful voices, the Willis sisters have been cooking up some serious buzz in the world of Sri Lankan music and entertainment.

These young artistes have proven time and again that to ensure creativity has a future in Sri Lanka, one needs to be bold and brave to break through the barriers and obstacles.

Ashwini Vethakan sits down with the dynamic duo – and suffice it to say that things get real in next to no time as they discuss their lives while growing up, individual tastes and preferences, and personal goals for the future.

"I consider myself a seeker,
a free spirit who’s trying
to understand the purpose
and mission of life"

Life

Q: Who are Shermaine and Romaine Willis?
SW: I consider myself a seeker, a free spirit who’s trying to understand the purpose and mission of life – be it through the arts or human connections. And I will always be a fearless student of life.

RW: I’m an absolute creative and feel that being able to express myself through my creativity gives me real purpose in life. I’m a recovering overthinker and perfectionist – both of which are a blessing and curse. Music means everything to me and being able to pursue it as my career is amazingly rewarding.

Q: How would you describe your introduction to music and who found her voice first?
RW: As kids, Shar began before I did because she is three years older. And honestly, though we grew up wanting to pursue this talent as a career, we never thought we could.
We accepted that to some extent, and took on the task of finding normal jobs and working like everyone else. It was Shermaine who was brave; and since she didn’t overthink things, she took the lead in this respect.

SW: I decided one day to take my chance and actually quit my day job. Initially, it was scary and my parents didn’t seem too happy about it; but after watching the ‘short wins,’ they gradually accepted it.

RW: On one occasion, I remember sitting at my desk, and staring blankly at my computer screen and thinking: ‘Here I am and there she is living her best life.’ I asked myself why I wasn’t out there on that stage with her. And since I greatly admired my sister’s courage, I too felt motivated to quit my job and join the fun. And now, here we are!

Q: Tell us about your childhood…
SW: As a child I was an introvert, sheltered and conservative; but as I grew older, I became more open, bubbly and over-friendly. That obviously got me into trouble because I was so trusting of everyone.

RW: On the other hand, I was a tomboy… and at some point people felt I was turning into a boy. I wanted short hair, was never into sleeveless dresses or tops and in school, I had a really tough time because I couldn’t stay in one place.

I was that kid you saw running around and always being outdoors.
This impacted my teen years because I became quieter and more insecure about who I was, and withdrew into myself. I used to watch Shermaine and think: ‘How is she doing this? How is she so confident?’

Q: Your most memorable moment in life…
SW: For me, it was when Romaine graduated from university in Malaysia.

RW: We’d been separated for about four years by then. Shar left our home in Seeduwa and relocated to Colombo to pursue a career in music. After that, we never had a chance to really keep in touch and this was worrisome because we feared that we’d never be close again as we had once been. So after my graduation, I begged her to come to Malaysia and she did.

SW: With that trip, we basically got back to the old us. We bonded well and I realised that this is what I needed – my family and sister being there with me.

RW: My best memory was the last gig we did together; it was also our first gig together and had a whole different vibe that I absolutely loved.

Q: Which of you is the romantic and who is the cynic?
RW: I’m the romantic.

SW: I think I’m a more pragmatic romantic as well as being a cautious person.

Q: What’s your happy place?
SW: My bedroom!

RW: I feel I’m at my best when I am travelling so that’s definitely my happy place. The idea of climbing a mountain and taking in the view is the best thing for me.

Q: If music wasn’t what either of you had pursued, what do you think you would have been doing now?
SW: I may have been either a chef or dentist.

RW: Something creative such as photography or design – graphic or even interior

“I’m an absolute creative and feel that being able to express myself through my creativity gives me real purpose in life"

"As a child I was an introvert, sheltered and conservative; but as I grew older, I became more open, bubbly and over-friendly"

Career

Q: When working on music together, which of you is the lyricist and who comes up with the melody?
RW: I’m the lyricist and Shermaine creates the melody.

Q: Having experienced this journey together, was it tough to grow up sharing the spotlight?
SW: Not really. I guess since we grew up singing together from an early age, we find it easy to share the spotlight now.

RW: We also feel that we know each other’s strengths; and because we’re different, we complement each other’s voices.

Q: Your best advice on reacting to criticism...
SW: Sit on it, think about it and use it to better yourself. You need to keep an open mind and not take anything too seriously.

RW: For me, it’s all about perspective. You need to ask yourself why they would even say something like that and take it positively. Learn from it.

Q: If you look back on international singers who were siblings such as the Jonas Brothers, No Doubt and Oasis, they rarely continue to produce music together. What’s your secret for staying together?
RW: I think it’s perfectly understandable that siblings performing together can end up going their separate ways.
But having said that, the way we see it is that when we work together, there needs to be compromise. Our styles are different – I’m more into soul and jazz while Shar is more plugged into electronic.

So if you’re not allowed to be yourself, things can slip. We believe in working together and finding that perfect balance through compromise.
SW: It’s the same with our band Ms. Willis, which is the merging of our personal brands to bring in new and authentic sounds.

Q: If you were asked to pick an artiste whom you would like to work with, whom would you choose?
SW: Chris Martin from Coldplay. His music and band are so inspiring since their music is spiritually based. Chris is an amazingly talented musician and you can honestly say that only Coldplay can sound like Coldplay.

RW: Amy Winehouse because her energy was amazing. When I watch someone perform, I’m inspired by how freely they move and capture their audience. There’s a lot I would like to learn from her performances.

Q: When it comes to fostering new talent, what do you think Sri Lanka lacks?
SW: There is no real support and encouragement in this country. Young talent should be nurtured in school first.
But even then – and particularly since Sri Lanka is so small – the chances of being noticed or gaining international attention in this industry are slender.

RW: I also feel like we lack our right to freedom of expression. I understand that Sri Lanka has a strong cultural background but it is limiting artistes. What might be seen as bizarre to someone may appear enlightening and awakening to another.
But in Sri Lanka, anything out of the norm is immediately shut down and that’s not fair to our artistes because we are asked to remain in a box and talent can’t be contained that way.

QUICK-FIRE ROUND

SHERMAINE

Sunrise or sunset
Sunset

Beach or mountain
Beach

Ride or drive
Drive

Fight or flight
Fight

Truth or dare
Dare

Dogs or cats
Dogs

Chocolate or vanilla
Vanilla

Mocktails or cocktails
Mocktails

Dress up or down
Dress down

ROMAINE

Lipstick or mascara
Mascara

Diamonds or pearls
Pearls

Bath or shower
Bath

Men or shoes
Shoes

Work or play
Play

Colour pencils or crayons
Colour pencils

Radio or TV
Radio

Online or offline
Offline

Facebook or Instagram
Instagram

 

Lifestyle

Q: What’s your definition of success?
SW: Success is something you need to feel within you and it’s also about knowing who you are. The journey of discovery is painful but once you return a stronger version of yourself, that’s the ultimate success.

RW: I’d say it’s about finding that right balance. Everything should be in moderation. It might be difficult to find the right balance but I feel that if you have that goal, you’ll eventually find even a semblance of it.

Q: How would your friends and family describe you?
SW: I am considered the trailblazer because I’m not afraid to go after what I want. I do my research and because I’m pragmatic, I find out all I need to know before leaping headlong into something. But when I make up my mind, I stick to my decision.

RW: I’m thought to be extremely forgiving and tolerant. I give great advice and I’ve got a strong intuition.

"We also feel that we know
each other’s strengths;
and because we’re
different, we complement
each other’s voices"

THE BEST

SHERMAINE’S
FAVOURITES

ARTISTES
Foster the People
Ryan Tedder
Coldplay

DESIGNERS
Versace

GLOBAL ICONS
Sir Richard Branson
Steve Jobs
Angelina Jolie

ROMAINE’S
FAVOURITES

TRAVEL SPOTS
Elba
Amalfi Coast
Interlaken

CUISINE
Italian
Mediterranean
Sri Lankan

BRANDS
Tarte Cosmetics
Anastasia Beverly Hills
Bobbi Brown

Future

Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
SW: My tendency to overthink things.

RW: My obsession with perfection.

Q: Your advice to the future talent of Sri Lanka?
SW: Pay attention to your needs, don’t give up on your dream of music and work towards it.

RW: Find your passion and foster it. Don’t wait until it’s too late for you to work towards your career in music. Find what feeds your soul and nurture it. Detach yourself from the opinions of others and work towards building a career out of the passion you have. After all, it makes sense to work in a job that makes you happy.
As the popular saying goes, ‘choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.’
Q: So what’s next for Shermaine and Romaine – together as well as separately?
SW: We have a very exciting project coming up. We’ve been working on this for a while; it’s a song that we always wanted to release together. And our plan is on its way to becoming a reality.
I’m currently reading for my master’s degree in my newfound love of business and leadership, and have been working on a few projects with some businesspeople too.

RW: The song that Shar mentioned definitely tops the list. It’s been in the making for about two years and knowing that we are so close to completion is extremely satisfying.
I’ve been working non-stop at my first solo album. I found an amazing producer who is as motivated and passionate about the album as I am so it’s very exciting.

"I do my research and because I’m pragmatic, I find out all I need to know before leaping headlong into something"

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