The Prince of Sophisticated Soul, Will Downing, is back adding another layer to his contributions to America’s soundtrack with an inspiring message on his 21st album, The Promise.
In 2007, Will Downing faced the unthinkable; a sudden onset of the auto-immune disease polymyositis that left him nearly paralyzed. During this trial, Downing says he didn’t curse God, but instead offered a prayer, “Lord you see me through this and I promise I will give you all the honor, and the praise wherever I go.” Over a decade later, Downing is making good on his promise with a 10 song thank you letter on his first ever gospel album, The Promise. With his distinctive rich baritone, Downing infuses his inspirational message with R&B and Jazz overtones, making it a departure from traditional gospel sounds.
Will Downing spoke with the National Museum of African American Music about crafting a praise worthy album that fulfilled his vow and how the illness changed his perspective and has influenced his music moving forward.
What inspired you to do this first gospel album and talk about the title, The Promise. What took you so long to do a gospel album?
Will Downing: The Promise is a promise that I made to my mom years ago that I would do a gospel album. So that’s one inspiration, and the other was obviously when I was sick and you know, you’re making that negotiation with God, like ‘hey, you get me out of this one, I’m going to do this.’ I’m one of the few people that actually make good on their promise. I’m making good on my promise because I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve said ‘Lord, please get me up out of this bed, I got you, trust me, I got you.’
So, I’m making good on my word there and the reason that it’s taken so long for me to do it and because this is actually one of the first few times that I’ve had kind of musical autonomy to do what I wanted to do musically. Not that they [record labels] tell me what to do, but when I was at Universal, I was contracted to do an R&B album or contemporary jazz album. I always had to fulfill the contractual agreement. Now that I’m kind of doing the independent thing and able to kind of do a one offs with a label like Shanachie Entertainment. If they’re interested in buying it then that’s what you get. You automatically know what you get. There’s no contract with me saying I have to do an R&B album, I have to do a jazz, or whatever. This is something that I have done, self-financed, and then sold it to them to distribute.
In an interview with JET Magazine, you mentioned that you used live instrumentation on your Black Pearls album. Did you do that for The Promise as well?
Will Downing: Oh yes. There’s a lot of live instrumentation on there. I’d probably say like 70 percent. It kind of really brings the spirit of the music alive to me. You know, there are certain things you can program, but then there are other things you just can’t get that feel. This is supposed to be a feel- good record. It’s supposed to be an inspirational record. It’s supposed to be informative and heartfelt, so you need a lot of musicians to kind of bring stuff like that to life.
How would you describe your gospel sound for fans that are expecting to hear that traditional gospel sound?
Will Downing: I stayed in my lane. I know who I am, I know what I do, and I know what I do best. I’ve made enough records to know what will attract people to the music. You have to be yourself and that’s the type of record that I made. I made it so that musically, it didn’t really deviate from what I’ve always done. What I did was put a message on top of that and that is the inspiration.
How was the process of putting this gospel album together different from your previous albums?
Will Downing: Well, with albums like this, I mean you really have to be vulnerable and you have to open up and you know look at yourself for real. It’s really no holds barred. You have to let it all out. I think that I’ve been able to do that in the past with songs. I think with this album, you really take a good look at yourself and, and you can’t be ashamed because you may find yourself crying and letting it all out that way. It’s very therapeutic, to let it out and you know that there’s other people out there in the world that feel the same way and maybe they’ve never heard someone say it and say ‘it’s okay.’
Was there a moment while you were recording that you literally had to step away and break down?
Will Downing: Well, it’s interesting because when I listen to the album as a collection, sometimes I find myself breaking down now. I mean because it really puts you in touch with yourself. You know, all the things that I’ve gone through throughout my life, I mean, it’s not just really just 2007, but it’s everything going forward. It’s your whole existence, you know, you are putting it out on whatever this digital format is now. So, you’re really saying what’s on your heart, going through the whole process of how you’ve been your entire life and how grateful you have been throughout the ups and the downs. Hopefully people can identify with the album and it makes them feel good about themselves as well.
Let’s discuss some of the songs on The Promise. Talk about the song “Look at Yourself in the Mirror.”
Will Downing: Well, it’s one of those songs that’ll make you think twice about doing something because you have to look at yourself and know there’s someone, a greater or higher being, looking at you as well. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you should be pleased. It just makes you rethink everything before you do it.
How about the song “I Hear Your Voice?”
Will Downing: That is one of the only ones I didn’t write. I hear it and lyrically, I hear a voice ringing in my ears, and wonder ‘is that you Lord?’ Don’t you always question yourself or when something’s going and wonder if you are supposed to be doing this? Am I supposed to be here? Is it God guiding me? I don’t know about anyone else, but I find myself questioning a lot of the things that go on in my life, karma, and all that stuff. If I do something wrong, or if something wrong happens to me, I think, ‘Lord is that you giving me a little light tap saying like, don’t do it again?’ When things go right, it’s the same sort of thing. I would assume there’s a lot of people that feel the same way.
What about “You Blessed My Life?”
Will Downing: It’s an acknowledgement of all the things that have gone right in my life. The worst things that have happened to me ended up with a blessing attached to it, you know. So, the song is just being grateful for the good and sometimes the not so good, but even just the lessons. I’m still here to talk about it where there’s a lot of the people that haven’t had that opportunity to wake up this morning. I’m grateful for the life that I have and for what I do, because to me, this isn’t work. I’m blessed to be able to do this for a living and support myself and my family.
The song “God is So Amazing” is really a full circle moment for you.
Will Downing: Most artists will never rarely say that they have a favorite song on a record. This one to me is my favorite because I recorded that song originally back in 2007 when I was really, really, really sick. That is when the doctors had pretty much written me off and it was like the last song that I recorded off of the After Tonight album because I didn’t think that I was going to make it, to be honest with you. And if you listened to the original recording, you can hear the strain in my voice. You can hear the weakness. I mean, it was just something I just did the best that I could with what I had and to be able to come back 11 years later, and re-do the song while upright as opposed to sitting in a wheelchair or laying in a hospital bed like I was when I did the original recording is a before and after picture, to show you that God is truly amazing because look at where I was then and where I am now.
Looking back over the years, with your experiences with your health, and finally coming full circle with this album; has your approach to music changed?
Will Downing: I mean it affects everything you know, because like most young people you think that you’re invincible, because you never think anything is going to happen to you and then when it happens, that’s the wake-up call. So, you start realizing that that your time is limited and what you say and what you do is impactful and important and how you spend your time and what you say is also very important. So, you just can’t throw anything out into the universe the older that you get. It makes me think about everything that I’m doing. As opposed to in the early days, the ulterior motive might have been to just do this or that and get a check, like I’m going to sing this song and get this money. So, as you get older, you start thinking that maybe that wasn’t as important as you thought it was and you start trying to get yourself together and making changes. You become more about society- based things and people, and how you live your life. The less time you have, the more meaning.
Social media has been blowing up with young R&B singer Jacquees making the declaration that he is the King of R&B of this generation. What are your thoughts on this?
Will Downing: The King of R&B? Please (laughs). There are so many artists that are really starting to come into their own and they have had several records out. I often ask myself who is the future? You look at Raheem DeVaughn who has been around for a minute, then you look at someone like myself, then it’s like you’re still just starting to me. So, it’s like a bunch of artists who could stake claim to it and they are really good, but this Jacquees, I’ve never even heard of him. He’s got more work to do.
Who do you think is the King of R&B?
Will Downing: I don’t consider what these artists do today as real traditional R&B. There’s a new face to R&B that I don’t even recognize to be honest. I mean R&B is more than just a beat and a baseline, it’s a way of life, and a mindset. The traditional sense that I know R&B to be, these kids haven’t even touched that and it hasn’t been touched in a while. From a lyrical standpoint, these guys aren’t finding a slick way to say I want to get with you, they just get straight to it without putting some polish on it. Even with the female artists, it’s the same sort of thing. Every song these days is explicit. As R&B artists, we are supposed to be the slickest talking, smoothest, educated, and putting the high gloss on what we’ve laid down, so why are you making the music raw like this? I don’t know what to call this but it’s not the R&B I remember.
Someone puts out a record and it lasts a month or two months maybe, and then they’re gone. It’s just a new day and it’s hard for like old artists like myself to identify with it. I mean I have a real problem with it. A real problem. Obviously, there are some extremely talented people out there that aren’t getting their due, and then these new folks come out and sort of brand themselves. So, you became big because someone pressed “like” on your page. (laughs). If you go back in history, people put in work and I don’t see a lot of work being put in today. Don’t get me wrong, they are cute, look good, but you have to say something. There’s a lot of people out there that put it down and put in a lot of work.
My music matters because (fill in the blank).
Will Downing: My music matters because I was here. It’s changed people’s lives. I’ve had and am still having an impact on the world.
For more information, check out Will Downing’s website.