For his latest album, R&B veteran Will Downing decided to flip the lyric. On Black Pearls, listeners will find the crooner covering a staple of songs made famous by Chaka Khan, Deniece Williams, Cherrelle, Jean Carne and Phyllis Hyman, among others. We spoke with Downing to get his thoughts on breaking gender stereotypes, the mental challenge of covering famous songs and feedback from the divas he celebrates.
On challenging gender roles through song:
“People are used to hearing songs like the first single, “Everything I Miss at Home” by Cherrelle from a woman’s perspective. My sister heard it and said, “I never thought about it from a male perspective. Sometimes the woman may not be doing the right thing at home to make the person feel loved.” She realized it goes both ways and probably a lot of folks never looked at it from that perspective. We are not different but a lot of times we don’t have an open mind to think of another perspective. Some women look at men as having to be strong and when you see a man break down it’s a wake-up call.”
On finding his place in the shoes of divas:
“It wasn’t easy because each song is tied to an iconic performance. People can only hear it a particular way. Finding your space on an iconic piece is unbelievably hard. Some songs I shied away from because I didn’t think I could match the original. For others it took me a minute to find my perspective to make sure I was being convincing enough. It’s a mental game but that’s what recording is.”
On feedback from Khan and others:
“Chaka sent me a quote saying that my version of ‘Everlasting Love’ is very smooth. She loves the fact that I added a jazzier chord structure to the song. She also never thought of the song from a male perspective but she said it makes sense. Most of the women I know like Brenda Russell and I am waiting on her feedback. I’m nervous because with “Get Here,” Brenda is the writer and originator but Oleta Adams’s version is amazing as well. So there are two quintessential versions of one song and I am anticipating what they have to say about me.”