“I always look at the music as a conversation between melody and harmony,” Billy Davis tells me over our Zoom call. It’s apparent in his music; as each different instrument tells the same story in conjunction, whether it’s a tale of vibrant, dance-ready positivity like the Denzel Curry assisted ‘Goldfish’, or the somber, smooth soul of ‘Front Porch’ with Hancoq. The sonic stories he narrates are what made his album A Family Portrait such a hit, never conforming to the box of a genre, and always complemented by his band The Good Lords that help enhances his vision. But in 2021, with his new album This Is What’s Important, these conversations have become more honest than ever.
As the title of the project entails, This is What’s Important is Billy’s personal opus, all centred around the notion of focusing on what’s real, and what means the most to him. It’s reflective, as the songs spiral through emotions like paranoia and depression, as well as gratitude and love. Billy’s inner monologue comes pouring out through collaborators like Genesis Owusu, Ruel, Farrah, Jordan Dennis, KYE, and plenty more, with each unique voice and style representing the complexity of being an open-book with your feelings. It also serves as a homage to his late mother, celebrating her life with an emphasis on how family is precious to him. Sonically, it ranges from sad, stripped-back ballads to bright flourishes of soul and funk, serving as the vehicle for us listeners to accompany Billy on his journey.
In our interview with Billy, he took us through the process of focusing on what’s real, finding creativity in conversations with his collaborators, and the unique live experience he’s bringing to Melbourne inaugural Square Up showcase,
Congratulations on your new album, my man. How are you feeling?
It’s been a long time coming, man. I’ve been working on this album for such a long time, and it feels good to finally drop it because it’s a family project, where there were a lot of people involved; people I’ve been working with for a long time. Because of the contents of the album, there was a lot of fear in the air, with people asking if they should redo their verses, or if it was instrumentally cohesive and stuff like that. But this album has been such a release of emotion, and the amount of love it’s getting is amazing.
It’s been over 3 years since the release of A Family Portrait. How do you think you’ve grown since?
I feel like with this album, all of the bullcrap, the hype behind doing big shows with big artists, getting sent clothes, it’s all out of the way, and I now feel like I’m at a point where I know what type of artist I am. I’m still growing, but I’ve realised that I’m just here to create art that makes people feel something. I’ve evolved from a business standpoint too, where I know how to hustle and get stuff done now, as opposed to just feeling lost in the music industry. Music-wise, sonically, harmonically, melodically, my vocabulary has increased to the point where I just have a library in my brain where I know what to do and reference.
The album title I think alludes to something we should all do once in a while: figure out what’s important to us. When creating this project, what did you realise is important to you?
I think it relates to what I was just saying, where after A Family Portrait, things started happening. I had a collaboration with Denzel Curry, I opened up for a secret Anderson Paak show, I was working with this person, having lunch with someone else. I’ll be straight up, it got to my head a bit, to the point where I wouldn’t rock up to rehearsals because someone cool was in town, and I wanted to hang out with them. You eventually realise that those types of situations are superficial, and that’s when you reflect on what’s important. My family, friends, bandmates, OGs, and loved ones are everything to me. My music as well, because it’s so easy to get caught up with things, and that’ll pollute your art.
With these types of realisations, I can imagine the type of mature conversations you had with your collaborators throughout creating this project. Are there any that stand out to you?
‘With Me Or Not’ is an important one to me, because it was the last song I finished for the album, and it’s very different from everything else on there in terms of how reflective it is. I was talking about the point I was at where I was just done with all the bullcrap, and I had been touring, doing all this type of stuff, and going through grief due to my mum’s passing. This spawned a conversation with Aodhan King, Ware, and Guvna B that was just very open and real. Even with Jordan Dennis, who was involved a lot in the project and is like my family, I was super open. For ‘Paranoid’, one of the first songs we made for the album, I was talking about my mental space where I thought everyone was trying to take things away from me, and I wanted to write a song about that. Then there’s the opening track, where I talked about wanting to pay homage to my mum, which was a really hard process creatively. The thing is, I never want to put makeup on my music because people only resonate with what’s honest. So even in collaborating with people like Farrah, who I only know briefly, I was speaking my truth, pouring my heart out. It’s so that they can understand it.
You’ve said that this album encompasses the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Musically, it all fits cohesively together here. Was it hard to balance these opposing emotions together?
It’s crazy, man. I was streaming on Twitch the other day, and a fan came in and said “It’s so good hearing ‘Headspace’ and ‘Wilderness’ in the context of the album because it all makes sense now.” That really hit home, because I put a lot of work into it. I love listening to acts like Hans Zimmer, and music that tells a story, so I was thinking about how from the tracklisting to the content, how I was going to tell my story. If you think about it, the album is pretty raw, like I have a voice memo from my late mum, I’m talking about subjects people don’t really want to talk about, and I’m being very genuine and honest about it. I went really crazy into making sure it all made sense, moving tracks around and stuff like that, so it was a hefty process. I feel like you have to listen to the album from start to finish for it to make sense.
I think one of the unsung components of creativity is the ability to curate. It’s something I personally admire about producers like Benny Blanco. What’s it like for you to put together all the factors of collaboration or composition while making sure it adheres to your vision?
For me, it’s all about two things. Number one: most politely, a song is like a painting, and the singer or rapper, whoever it may be, is just another colour in the palette that has to be right for it to be beautiful. The second thing: putting a part of yourself in, and trying out new things. For example, I’ve always championed unknown artists, like I’ll find someone on Instagram singing in their bedroom, and want to give them a platform. So I think you have to balance those two things, and I’ve always been very strategic and tedious with who I pick to collaborate with. Like, someone could have a great voice, but it doesn’t mean I just throw them on the album, because that person could be a full-on jerk, and I don’t want that person singing about my mum and stuff like that. I always look at the music as a conversation between melody and harmony, and you don’t just come into a conversation yelling; you go ‘Hey, how are you going?” That’s how I look at building a song. Everything needs to be right in place like a conversation so that people listen.
I was recently watching a Benny Blanco episode, where he talked about how one of the most important parts of being a producer, is being like a therapist for those you work with. Can you relate to that at all?
150%. I feel like with the amount of content that’s going out these days, people are starting to smell the bullcrap. There are so many filters on Instagram; you can see what is fake. So for producers like Benny Blanco and myself, it’s all about getting people to write what they want to write about. I’ll tell you what my number one pet peeve is: being in a studio session with someone and having them pull up the Spotify or Apple Music charts to write something close to what’s trending on there. It bugs me automatically, because it’s like, why are we trying to be like someone else? Two of my biggest heroes on the piano are PJ Morton and Cory Henry. I remember getting piano lessons, where I was learning gospel chords, and the teacher goes “Bro, can you stop trying to be a poor man’s Cory Henry and figure yourself out?” That was one of the best things someone’s ever said to me. This is why conversation between producers and artists is so important. I’ll go into the studio and go “Jordan, what’s bugging you right now?” Or with ‘Seen Better Days’, I told KYE that I was full-on depressed, and she went “Me too bro, let’s go for it!.” That’s how you get songs like that, where they may be sad, but there’s a tinge of hope in them, and they are 100% real.
Now that the world is slowly starting to return to normalcy, the pleasure arises to bring these songs to life with a live show. You’re performing at Square Up in Melbourne next week. What do you have planned for us?
I’m super excited because I’m doing something different. A couple of weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity of performing at Piano Day, where it was just me, a piano, a string section, and my feelings. There was no sort of pre-rehearsals on how a song should go, I just hopped on and did what I felt. With Square Up, I’m going to do the same thing. I’m going to do what I feel on the day alongside some strings, and it’s going to be a crazy, unique side of my artistry that I’m keen to further explore.
Are there any artists on the lineup you’re personally excited to see?
Well, Jordan Dennis is my boy, so I’m excited to see his face no matter what day of the week. Also Blush’ko, my boy Jaydean, KYE of course. Honestly, the whole lineup is super crazy.
Just lastly from me, my man, what’s next for Billy Davis?
I’m going to smash out the rest of this tour with Tones and I. I’m going to write a lot. I have a gospel album sitting ready to go, I’m just waiting for the right time to drop it. And yeah, I really want to work on another album man, I want my output to be much quicker from now on. I’m thinking for this next album, I’m going to explore basslines and N.E.R.D style drums; that’s the tip I’m on right now. I also want it to be more vocal-focused, with all the best vocalists. So yeah, expect basslines, N.E.R.D drums, and vocals as an exclusive preview of my next album. Let’s go!
Billy Davis performing at the inaugural Square Up showcase on May 14th at The Forum in Melbourne, head here to grab your tickets. In the meantime, you can stream This is What’s Important below.