Catching Up With: Will Downing
With a recognizable rich baritone voice that’s as smooth as butter, Will Downing’s latest project Black Pearls pays homage to some women of soul and R&B.
The album features Downing’s trademark vocal stylings and his take on classic hits from Cherrelle’s “Everything I miss at Home” to Deniece Williams’ “Black Butterfly.” The women are Downing’s contemporaries and his inspiration as they too hail from an era when R&B love songs topped the charts.
JET caught up with ‘The Prince of Sophisticated Soul’ to discuss his new album and how being diagnosed with a rare condition has changed his approach to life and music.
JET: How did you come up with the title Black Pearls?
Will Downing: That was easy. I decided that I was going to an album that was basically all songs done by women, and all of the original artists just happened to be women of color. I believe that women are diamonds and pearls, so the album was named Black Pearls.
JET: How did you decide these 10 songs were the ones you wanted to remake?
Downing: Actually I recorded a whole lot of songs, but we just kind of whittled it down to 10. If you tell anyone that you know that’s into music that you are recording an album, everybody has an idea telling me what to record. (laughs) I had about 30 of those. But these songs just really resonated with me, either from a lyrical standpoint or musical standpoint. These are songs I have always loved and they just happen to be done by female artists.
JET: With you being a man singing these songs, it totally changes the perspective.
Downing: It changes the perspective on it a lot. For example, take the song “Everything I Miss at Home,” it’s one of those things that you primarily hear a woman say to a man. If you’ve been in a long relationship and things aren’t going right and you find yourself doing the same thing over and over and you tell your partner to step their game up or someone else will step in. It’s interesting to hear a man say that to a woman that, “Hey, there’s other fish in the sea and I can find someone else to give me everything I miss at home.”
JET: Music lovers can be a bit fickle when artists start messing with songs they deem as classics. What has the feedback been so far?
Downing: So far so good. Everybody doesn’t love everything because these songs are so iconic, and they are used to hearing them in a particular way. For the most part, folks love the album. I think I poured my heart and soul into the album and hopefully it shines through.
JET: What made you decide to release the album through Shanachie Entertainment instead of independently like your previous albums over the past few years?
Downing: When we started doing this record, we decided this project would have a lot of old school sensibility by using live strings and live horns. That stuff ain’t cheap (laughs). During the process it just made sense to work with someone that had a lot more capital than I do to kind of fund it and help with distribution.
JET: Why was it important for you to use live music for this album?
Downing: Well that’s my era. We’ve been kind of watering and dumbing things down because of cost. I think the quality of music has kind of depreciated because of it. No one knows R&B is anymore, no one knows what a classic sound is anymore. For someone that has been doing this as long as I have, you have to step up. People won’t do better unless they see or hear better. That’s my job. These younger artists aren’t going to realize how good music can sound live unless they hear someone do it.
JET: You were diagnosed with polymyositis in 2007. How have you been and how has that diagnosis affected the way you approach your music now?
Downing: For the most part I’m good. When you have something like that you’ll never been 100 percent again, but like anyone else, I have my good days and my bad days. For the most part, I’m pretty much back to normal so I’m good.
Going through something like that affects how you approach everything. It changes your whole outlook towards life. You never know when it’s really going to be over. It changed everything about me. I always felt that I had to chase after this music thing. It kind of makes you realize that life is more than the entertainment world. It makes you more real and well-rounded because you realize how important it is to spend time with others and giving back.
For more information check out Will Downing’s website.