When a family of 14 singing children rose to prominence on the ninth season of America’s Got Talent in 2014, a lesser-known fact was that most of the act’s songs were written by the eldest daughter, Jessica. Indeed, even as the family’s popularity led to them receiving their own reality show, The Willis Family, on TLC, Jessica Willis Fisher’s true musical talent had long flown under the radar.
Following the group’s fall from grace as a result of their father being arrested for child rape in 2016, Fisher took some much-needed time to find herself again after both having had a taste of the spotlight as well as years of her father’s abuse. The remainder of her siblings reunited to tour and record an album two years later, but Fisher declined.
“I was doing the hard and painful work of deep diving into my trauma therapy and being in the public eye would have been extremely detrimental to my wellbeing. There was no solo career being planned,” she told me. “My family had goals and a vision that I did not share and we didn’t see the story of what had happened to us in the same way.” Last spring, Fisher released her debut solo album, Brand New Day, followed by her memoir Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice at the beginning of the month.
Born in Chicago and homeschooled in a Christian fundamentalist household in Nashville from the time she was nine, Fisher’s musical talents were encouraged by her parents from a young age. “Initially, I was happy to do what was expected of me, to fit in, and be valued in my family culture,” she said. “Looking back, I think I later fell deeply in love with writing and composing as a way to express myself and try to make sense of the world and my experiences.”
Now, however, she acknowledges that the toxicity of being raised within Christian fundamentalism is something she’s going to be recovering from for the rest of her life, as she believes many teachings within her family’s interpretation of religion created and enabled the abusive dynamics she experienced. “I hope every day to keep rising above my statistical prognoses to build a better, safer, healthier life for myself. I feel very lucky that music can be one of the most beautiful parts of this new chapter.”
As a solo artist, she doesn’t believe that her inner creativity or prowess has been altered—rather, Fisher sees herself as being liberated from the confines of her younger self. “I don’t feel the writer within me has changed; she’s been freed. Nor do I go through my life trying to avoid triggers from my childhood,” she told me. “If I did, I wouldn’t return to music or performing at all.” She sees the years of involvement with The Willis Clan as strange and inauthentic, a time when she did not have control of her life or her voice. “I see myself [now] as reclaiming my original creativity and power that existed within me before.”
Fisher sees both her first album and her memoir as being vehicles of healing. “Writing and music continue to be wonderful tools with which I am choosing to build community, speak truth, and heal wounds,” she said. “The book and the album are the same stories told in two mediums, different but complimentary.” But she’s also well aware that the past cannot be changed, as the lyrics of “My History” poignantly explain.
“I am only able to be in charge of where my life goes from here,” Fisher asserted. “Initially, speaking out against my abuser made my life extremely dangerous and terrifying. I almost didn’t make it out. The pressure that is put on survivors is immense and easily misunderstood. I think we do not owe anyone our stories. I have made the decision to share and, honestly, some days it feels like stepping back out into a battlefield. I want to see things change; I want to see abuse and abusers be stopped. I believe sharing my story can help make a difference.”
She’s aware that how the general public as well as her fans will interpret and react to her work is also out of her control, and she’s fine with that. “Art is wide enough for us all to see and hear and be moved by unique parts within the whole. What a marvelous and beautiful thing!” Fisher exclaimed. “People constantly call out totally different parts of my story or a lyric that resonates with them, and I just feel grateful to know we all get to feel more seen and understood whenever that happens.”