Will Downing Talks Longevity, Avoiding Trends and the Future of Music

Read Part I of our interview with Will Downing here.

If the music industry were like the NBA, Will Downing would be like Vince Carter or Kevin Garnett — easily one of its longest-tenured members. 

His career spans seven presidential administrations and predates smartphones, “The Simpsons,” and even Google — as a concept, company and verb. 

But Downing’s brand of sophisticated soul continues to age impeccably. This was evident at a recent concert he headlined at the Country Club Hills Amphitheater. 

On that night, Downing enthralled his audience completely. Women in the crowd sang along to his most notable ballads, including his smoldering 1992 duet with Rachelle Ferrell, “Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This.” Quite a few belted out Ferrell’s parts and closed their eyes as Downing crooned to them from the stage.

In Part II of our interview with Downing, he talked about his longevity, not bowing to trends and the younger singers he sees as the future. He also shared why he’ll continue to make music but will probably never release another album. 

Chicago Defender: Thirty-six years and 26 albums. That’s an incredible run. I know you get asked this question all the time. But I have to know, what keeps you going in this business? What do you attribute to your longevity?

Will Downing: Well, they keep sending bills to my house.

CD: Hahahahaha.

Will Downing: They just keep sending them. Honestly, this is what I enjoy doing. I don’t fall into that mindset of stopping because you’re of a certain age or anything like that. It’s like if you have something to say and if you’re artistic, then get it out. 

CD: Yeah. 

Will Downing: So as long as ideas keep coming to me, I’m going to keep recording. I’m going to keep releasing music, but quality music. The joy of the internet today is that any and everybody can do that. So that’s the great part. 

It’s not like I’m down at a record company, and I’m waiting on them to give me a budget to record or they’re telling me it’s not a good time. The internet is one of the greatest things that’s ever been recorded. It’s also one of the worst things that has ever been recorded. But it’s also one of the best things at the same time because it gives everybody an opportunity to say what they want to say, the way they want to say it, without having restraints. 

Write better songs, sing them better, produce or have them produced better. That’s always my goal. But I stay in my lane.

And that’s why I keep recording. It’s like, If I want to do this type of song, then I’m going to release this type of song. If it sells, it sells. If it don’t, it don’t. 

You can’t just hold it in. It’s not like the days when you release an album, and then you wait five years before you release another one. 

Those days are over. People have this insatiable thing. They just want new, new, new every month, every two months, every three months. You give them something, and then you turn around and it’s, ‘What else do you got coming? And I’m like, ‘I just released something.’ (Laughter)

CD: Yeah, that’s crazy. That’s really crazy. There used to be anticipation for an album for those couple of years. It was something you savored when an album was finally released. 

Will Downing: It ain’t like that no more. It’s like, [him addressing a fan] ‘Hey man, ‘I just wrote this.’ [The fan responds] ‘Okay, cool. That was yesterday. What we doing today?’ 

You have got to reinvent yourself all the time. It sounds kind of crazy, but it’s true. 

CD: Correct me if I’m wrong. But you seem very intentional about not succumbing to musical trends. Was that intentional?

Will Downing: I think that you have to know who you are. And, if you do this long enough, people will tell you what they expect from you. At the same time, you’ll get to know who you are and your strengths and weaknesses. So, my goal in every project that I release is to accentuate the positive and just be better at my strengths.

Write better songs, sing them better, produce or have them produced better. That’s always my goal. But I stay in my lane.

I watched the BET Awards the other day. And I couldn’t identify with a great deal of the artists that were there. I’m not going to conform to try to be that even though I might think or other artists might think that, ‘Oh yeah, I sing better than him or her or these people.’

The thing is, this is their sound. It’s their time. You’re not going to become that because that’s not you. And once you come to that real realization, it makes life a lot easier.

Once you know that trap ain’t your thing, or the new R&B ain’t your thing or rap ain’t your thing, it’s like that ain’t my thing. There’s an audience out there that I grew up with who appreciate what I do. 

And you know, young folks have to get older. When they grow up, I’ll always be here. There’s always going to be a good a** song that’s going to speak to your heart and say what you want to say and don’t know how to say it. And when that time comes, artists like myself become relevant. 

CD: Is there a young artist out there you’ve been following that you’re a fan of that people may be surprised to learn?

Will Downing: We all know extreme talent when we hear it. So like a Jazmine Sullivan. You hear her, and you kind of go, ‘Got damn.’ (Laughter) Man, that chick can sing! And we all recognize it. Or, even on the jazzier side, like a Samara Joy.

CD: Oh yeah. 

Will Downing: You hear her, and it’s like, ‘Ahhh, all is not lost.’ The future is here, and the future looks bright. This kid can really, really, really freaking sing. Or even for me, and this is going to sound crazy, but if you’ve had as many records as I’ve had, I look at someone like a Gregory Porter, and you know, he’s still young to me. Even though he may not be young as far as his actual age, but as far as his artistic journey, he’s just getting up the road. 

For me, I’m at the end of the road. He’s going to carry the torch. Samara Joy is going to carry the torch. They are the future to me.

I hear Samara, and I think Sarah Vaughn. And I hear Samara, and I also hear Lalah Hathaway. So it’s like, okay, you’re the future. When I hear even a Fantasia, I also hear Patti LaBelle — the early years. When I hear Gregory Porter, I hear Bill Withers.

So there are a lot of great artists. When I hear PJ Morton, the future looks bright. It’s just someone else’s turn.

CD: Yeah. So, here’s my last question here. What’s next for Will Downing?

Will Downing: I’m working on album number 27, even as we speak. I’m really happy with it so far. Yeah, I’m excited to see where it goes as well. I’m about four songs in. I have no idea what the other ones are going to sound like. It just depends on what hits me musically. But I’m excited about where we are. I’ll probably release something in October, November.

CD: Is it a full project or just a single?

Will Downing: I don’t think I’m ever going to do a full album again, like eight or ten cuts. I think we’ll just stick to just EPs, so it would be six or seven songs — something. 

In my opinion, if you release more than that, the only thing you’re going to do is get your feelings hurt. 

CD: Hahahaha. 

Will Downing: It’s true. People don’t have the patience to listen to a complete album anymore. And they’ll just skip over stuff. There might be some gems on the album, don’t get me wrong. But people go through albums, they listen to two minutes, and they go, ‘I like that one. I like that cut. I like that cut. I like that cut.’ And then they throw the other stuff aside. 

They very rarely revisit, or they very rarely listen to the whole album as a complete project. And there are very few outlets for the album itself or other songs on the album. 

That’s why people concentrate so much on their singles. They’re going to push the single and push these two singles. You don’t get your feelings hurt with the other five, six, seven, eight cuts that no one, as far as the majority of people, is going to hear. They’re just not going to hear it. CD

 

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