With a recognizable rich baritone voice that’s as smooth as butter with jazz fueled phrasing, Will Downing’s 20th album Soul Survivor celebrates his 30th anniversary in the music industry.
Downing started his career in the ‘80s and over the course of time, the industry has hit some high and low notes, sounds have changed, but one thing remains the same; Downing’s ability to lead any music lover into a euphoric state and take them on a musical journey.
Soul Survivor weaves together elements of contemporary jazz, house music, R&B, and soul throwing back to three decades of feel good music. The album features duets with Shanachie Entertainment labelmates Avery Sunshine, Maysa, Najee, and Phil Perry.
I got the chance to chat with the Prince of Sophisticated Soul about the new album, working with some familiar faces, and why making timeless music will always be his goal.
Shameika: This is your 30th anniversary, 20th album, so what is the key to Will Downing’s longevity in the business?
Will Downing: God, good luck, and musical consistency. From day one I’ve been pretty much doing what you are hearing now. A hybrid of R&B, contemporary jazz, a little bit of traditional jazz, and some soul all lumped in together. I think that what I’ve recorded over the years, are good songs. Good songs last forever. I’m very blessed and fortunate in that regard.
Shameika: Is that what prompted you to name this project Soul Survivor?
Will Downing: Yes, and actually I wasn’t the one smart enough to do that (laughs). Actually, a friend of mine Hollis King, we were talking and I was telling him that it was my 20th album, 30th year recording. I told him I was going to call the record 20/30 and the phone went silent. So, he said, “this is too monumental of a thing to be that cold and impersonal to just say numbers. You survived when others couldn’t because some people can’t say they have five albums out or seven albums. You are a soul survivor,” he said. So, that’s what made me run with it.
Shameika: The album is a tribute to the different eras of music that you have participated in, from each decade? Is it fair to assume that’s what you were going for when you put this album together?
Will Downing: Yes, see you aren’t as crazy as you think (laughs). We kind of went back to the original, the first song I released in America was a version of “Free” by Deniece Williams, then it was a version of “A Love Supreme” which was originally done by John Coltrane, it was kind of a house feel. It was basically a nod to God. So that was my thinking of ‘I just want to say thank you’ when it came to certain songs. It was basically taking little pieces of all the things that I’ve done over the years and we just sort of closed our eyes to what is happening musically in the world today since everything is so trendy. We said let’s just write some really great songs, remake some great songs, and really just make some music the way we used to make it, and that’s what we did.
Shameika: Talk about working with Avery Sunshine. The two of you singing together is just magic!
Will Downing: Avery and I worked together before on a duet in the past. The way I was introduced to Avery, was I had this friend call me and say “Will this is going to sound crazy but I just heard this woman that sounds like the female equivalent of you.” I said I have got to hear this. I did my homework, checked her out and found that she did remind me of me, like the phrasing is some of the stuff that I would do or even lyrically that they were writing. Out of the blue I called her and we’ve been buddies ever since. She’s incredible and has a great spirit. I love the marriage of our vocals together. It’s very easy to work with her. We are doing some shows together, we have a few dates lined up in November in December.
Shameika: That sounds like a great show! What is your goal every time you step into the studio? This is your 20th album, did you say you wanted to put out timeless music?
Will Downing: That was my mindset, to really not get caught up in the everyday of the music business or social media. I don’t hear enough music out here that represents music the way I remember it. You can call it old school, classic, or whatever, but there’s some good stuff and when people want to hear good stuff, they always go back to the classics. My job as an artist is to make something timeless and classic, to make it last more than three or six months. I like my records to be remembered like I remember Songs in the Key of Life or What’s Going On, or all the albums that I have loved over the years. We just decided to make what we thought was a good record. There’s nothing on this record where we felt like we had to do it just for radio, we said if it feels good, that’s what we’re going with. It all just worked out musically.
Shameika: The single “When We Make Love” has you tapping into your inner Barry White. Talk about that.
Will Downing: (Laughs) You can call me Barry Black! Well that pretty much sums it up, we were going for that Barry White. There are certain artists that have moved me over the years. When my voice changed at a very young age, Barry White was one of them. So, this is like a musical nod to Barry in a way.
Shameika: Talk about the remake you did for “Stop to Start.”
Will Downing: This is a song I’ve always loved. I kind of forgot about it for a while then a friend of mine called me and said she wanted to hear that song on my radio show. So, I put it on, then I thought this would be a great song to remake. I’ve always done the Stylistics in the past and I’ve always loved Russell Thompkins high voice and I can obviously do it a whole octave lower and give it a different spin.
Shameika: You also worked with Najee on this project. How did you decide which song to put him on?
Will Downing: We were doing two projects at one time. He was working on his album, Poetry in Motion, and I was working on that and we were doing a tribute song to Al Jarreau. We were driving somewhere and “Hurry Up This Way Again” came on and he said ‘I’ve always heard you singing this song.’ So, kind of as a surprise for him, I did an arrangement of the song and played it for him the following week in hopes of putting it on his record. He said since I was on another record on the album, they didn’t want to make it a duet album, so I decided to just keep it and put it on my record.
Shameika: What do you hope listeners take away from Soul Survivor?
Will Downing: I hope that this is an album that they can put on for years to come. Also, it’s an album from me, that if something happened to me today, that this would be a good representation of who I was and my ability as an artist. Hopefully there are some songs on there that touches your soul and identify with. That’s the goal, or it should be the goal for every artist with every record to create something that someone will pick up 50 years from now and go ‘Damn that guy can sing, or this lady is unbelievable!’ I think we achieved that on this record. I’m ecstatic. I have no regrets on this album. Every note, every breath, it’s the way I wanted to sing it, it’s the way I wanted to tell the story, it’s just right.
Shameika: Why do you think having a place like the National Museum of African American Music to celebrate and preserve our musical soundtrack is so important?
Will Downing: How can it not be? You need something to memorialize that we were here. There was something before today. We are standing on the shoulders of people who built the foundation for who we are. That’s exactly what I’m doing as an artist right now, building something so that someone can come along later and say they learned from me. You have to have something like this to let folks know that we were here and this was our contribution. This is what we are, and we want you to take this a step further and keep rolling with it. To me, that’s what museums are all about.
Shameika: What’s your favorite moment in musical history?
Will Downing: That’s a tough one. I’ve seen so many things that have moved me. I don’t know that I can narrow it down to one thing. I remember when I decided what I wanted to do. I was in high school and my parents dragged me to see James Earl Jones do a one man show on Paul Robeson on Broadway. I went kicking and screaming, but I remember that being the moment I decided after the show of what I wanted to do. Moments like the first concert I ever went to, meeting Stevie Wonder, and as far as things that changed the world, musically like albums like What’s Going On that made people socially aware and conscious. For me musically, the first time I walked on a stage under my own name. I had done many records under an assumed name. The first time I walked on stage was in London at the Dominion Theatre where people actually paid money to come see Will Downing. To me that is historical and monumental in my eyes.
For more information check out Will Downing’s website.