Greatness, Goldlink & Good Lords: Inside Billy Davis' Headspace
When he's not working with some of rap's biggest names, Billy Davis is positioning himself as one of Melbourne's essentials.
Billy Davis is a busy man. He's a pioneer of Australian R&B and soul-intwined hip-hop; a collaborator, working closely alongside The Good Lords crew which itself, include many others amongst Melbourne's essential hip-hop names; a music director and performer, enlisted by BROCKHAMPTON and GoldLink to create their triple j Like A Version videos and GoldLink's NPR Tiny Desk (which he also performed as a part of); a good friend and figure amongst Melbourne's tight-knit R&B scene that keeps him constantly elevated and inspired; and, last but not least, he's proof that all it takes to become someone in music is ambition and dedication - something Billy has a damn lot of.
Over the last three years, the West Melbourne-born multi-instrumentalist and R&B heavyweight has used this commitment and ambition in music to blossom into one of the country's most in-demand names amongst our bustling hip-hop scene. His signature, sleek touch has been felt on tracks by Ruel and the aforementioned live performances by BROCKHAMPTON and GoldLink - two of hip-hop's most defining and forward-thinking acts internationally - and while his own work holds incredibly strong (something we'll talk about more in a moment), the Good Lords crew he's created - a constantly evolving and expanding collective that join him on stage and occasionally through recording - includes members that have blossomed into their own forces; all brought together by Billy's' knack for finding beauty and talent and fleshing it out.
Take his 2017 debut album A Family Portrait, for example. Across 14 tracks and collaborations with Denzel Curry and Jace XL, Billy's is able to pinpoint and flesh out several takes on his distinct, soul-inspired sound. There are moments more rap-centric and commanding contrasting twinkling soul ballads just a few tracks later - regardless of what sound Billy attempts, he nails it out the park, and that's something that's held true since day dot. It's also an example of how Billy works as a songwriter, masking vulnerability and emotive lyricism underneath accessible hooks and shimmering productions that sweep you off your feet; A Family Portrait, as its name suggests, sees him reflect on his family in the literal sense (his father died when he was three, and much of his family reside in the Philippines) and in the sense of The Good Lords, who have built themselves up as an impenetrable support network Billy can turn to when pressures or life issues get too much. "Being an only child with just a mum it was crazy that with this project I was able to find and build a family of my own," he told Red Bull with the album release. "All my Good Lord homies [were] strangers at the start of this project, and [now they're] one big family - it's wild how things turned out."
However, even the closest of families sometimes need some time away from each other. Headspace - Billy Davis' new song, out now through Sony Music Australia - reflects on a period late last year when musical and personal pressures became a bit too much, and Bily had to step away from his band momentarily to regather his thoughts and clean his mental slate. "It was the end of November, I pretty much told my band, The Good Lords, I didn’t want to see or hear from them until I was ready," he says. "My head had pretty much reached a point of explosion. The pressures of the many things I do had reached a breaking point."
He stepped away for a few months over the New Year break and came back refreshed and re-energised, armed with a collection of tracks worked upon over the break that would come to form the basis of his forthcoming second album - due for release later this year. Headspace is the first we've heard from this time and musically speaking, you can feel the traces of Billy's refound energy within its slick funk grooves and earworming top-line. Production-wise, it spotlights the change of pace debuted on his last single Shoulda Known (which features hype US R&B duo VanJess), focusing on a slick, bass-funk groove and foot-tapping percussion section that groove and dance underneath RYE's intoxicatingly smooth choruses and Billy Davis' focused and commanding verses, which lyrically, tackles the importance of having some time to yourself when the point of burn-out feels near. "[Headspace is a] song exactly about the importance of having some time to yourself, some time to disconnect and recharge away from the pressures of people, social media and the rest of it," he continues. "I came back with this song and more importantly, refreshed. I encourage anyone who resonates with it, to not only listen to it on repeat but embrace disconnecting and giving yourself some time… some headspace – you won’t regret it."
For Billy Davis, Headspace comes at a time where its lyrical theme is becoming more and more important. The single's release follows a last-minute charity show to lay his mum to rest in the Philippines, which turned around a 400-capacity Melbourne venue with just two days notice and a lineup including himself, Ruel, Dylan Joel and more. There's also a full album on the way, which means your stock-standard affair of work on top of this - last-minute touches, touring, press time and everything included. However, Billy Davis is gonna stay on top - all he needs is his headspace.
So, I want to kick this off by going right back to the very beginning and talk about your early introduction to music. I was reading how your first introduction to music in a performative sense was playing in church as a kid, which then introduced you to gospel and soul and so on. I know this time in your life came with a lot of learnings you still apply to your music, so what are some of the things that you've taken away from these beginnings in music that shape you today?
I think a lot of the stuff I take away from my upbringing on my early days - playing in church and all that stuff - is the fact that playing in church, there's a lot of emotion behind the music. Nowadays, every time I'm playing chords or playing a melody, there's always a bit of emotion about it that I've taken from the days of playing in church. Every chord, every note, every melody; there has to be sort of a purpose behind it. I'll always be thinking about each note I play. You realise what adds, and what takes away and placement and stuff like that. That's definitely in there.
Obviously, besides church, my uncle showed me Doobie Brothers and MJ and stuff like that. My work has always had a slight, 70s/80s groove that comes from growing up on the Doobie Brothers and all that. All that funk has always been in the back of my brain, because of the records my uncle used to pump into me. My dad passed away when I was three. So, [my Uncle] was the go-to father figure other than my mum. He got me into the cool music which really influenced me today.
What were the steps from there that led to you eventually falling in love with acts like The Internet, which combine that sound with more hip-hop elements?
I was the kid that always used to like the music that no one else was listening to. But then come grade nine and ten, people like Usher were big, and I got crazy into R&B and hip-hop.
I was so into it. Probably being Filipino too helped, with B-boy dancers and stuff. Everyone wanted to dance to R&B. I think the combination of all that 80s funk I used to listen to with my uncle and then being overloaded with R&B finds a similar sound to bands like The Internet and stuff like that. Even in GoldLink, you can hear the heavy R&B influence of the early 2000s, but then they're drawing on something way more. The Internet especially, they're drawing on 80s funk. Just a combination of those two things that really refined my taste in music.
You mention the Philippines in there and their own wave that's coming out of that sort of area. For those that might not be so introduced to that sort of world, what is the culture like over there?
To be honest, it was so refreshing to be able to go back home and see my roots, especially in this trip because I had my purpose and my head was really screwed on and I really got to realise the cultural side of myself that I didn't even realise I'd neglected a bit. I was like 'damn, I'm not a full, proper Filipino,' you know what I'm saying? The culture there, is just really family orientated, but it's heavily musically influenced too.
I remember I took up all my nephews and my cousins to an arcade and there was like a full karaoke machine, and this lady full screaming with the kids there - terribly, and out of tune. You wouldn't find that in a Timezone here, but that's a common thing. Any opportunity for someone to step into music is highly encouraged and any opportunity for someone to dance like crazy. They're family orientated, food orientated - especially rice and pork - and then crazy music orientated. It explains a lot about myself.
I know family does play a large part in your music, even in the sense of the debut album - how you had the cover art as your close family and the title being A Family Portrait. How do your family inspire your music and what you do in that regards now?
It's crazy you said that, especially after coming back from this trip overseas and getting to meet my family as a whole. Obviously, the reason for going to the Philippines wasn't good - I was going there to put my mum to rest - but being able to do that and then have every single family member on my mum's side come down and meet me and hug me and say they love and get to meet absolutely everyone. Family's always been a big thing for me, but now, seeing how my family lives back home and then realising that through my music I can really make a difference in their lives, really inspires me.
It's really changed the way I think about things because now, it's almost like I'm a UFC fighter, you know what I'm saying? I'd rather keep working hard because this is how I'm gonna put bread on the table for my family back home and stuff like that. It's crazy, man. It's always influenced me - my mum and my dad and my uncle, stuff like that - but now it's like in everything, I'm legacy thinking now. I want to provide for my family back home in a country that doesn't have it as well as us. I can do that by doing music and doing stuff there too.
I'm sorry it was under those circumstances, but it's inspiring to hear that you came out of that experience with that sort of mindset.
It is sad, man. But there's been so much music from it, and it's happened at the right time. Crazy. She passed away here, and her last wish was to go back home and be laid to rest with my grandparents. I started a concert, and I put on a concert on two days notice - all proceeds to go to sending my mum home and it all happened, the venue filled up. Crazy. The love was so real down here in Melbourne, it's unreal.
You've spoken about your connection to the rest of the Good Lords crew and how even as someone who takes the word family so meaningful, that you've become your own little family. How does having that really close connection help?
Man, it's crazy. When the project first started, every single member of the Good Lords were strangers. It's a crew I found on Instagram when I was writing songs, where I'd just think 'hey this guy raps good. I'll hit him up' and to see how far we've developed, it's just crazy. It makes it so easy. Now, I know I can go on stage and I don't even have to look at my drummer or anyone. Everyone just understands each other and looking at each other, it's so much like a family.
We all know the part we play in the family portrait of sorts. I'm the uncle that talks too much. My drummer is like the crazy brother that brings KFC home because my Aunty's cooking sucks. Everyone plays their part. We're tighter than ever, especially with everything that's happened with me. Like it's really highlighted how much the Good Lords are like a family to me. They've been there the whole time, supporting me, giving me love and stuff like that. It's been unreal, man.
Going into Headspace, it came about after the pressures last year just got too much, and you just needed to disconnect and spend time away from the rest of that crew just to refocus. How did doing that and taking that time to disconnect lead to that refined inspiration?
It's almost like trying to be a painter and having all these options - orange, yellow, blue, red, green - and then having to make a decision with what to pain with. I've got a thousand choices, but I know what I need to do - you've just got to start with something simple, grey maybe, and take away all the colors. It's going to be a bit of a distraction at times, but you just go back to basics. That was really important for me. Not only musically, but mentally too. When you start touring, and you start hearing crazy language and you've got such an intense schedule - you've got a show here and there. You've got that plus you're a human being that needs to go home and pay a Telstra bill. It really helped a lot.
The first thing that was really important, was just being honest to my band. 'Hey, I'm going to have a meltdown if I don't take this time away. This is our next show. It's like a month and a bit 'til then. Until then I'm just gonna take some time off. I'm gonna clock off and hit me you're ready. I'll hit you when I'm ready.'
It was really good. It was really refreshing because I really got to refocus all the other things going on, and then that song came out of that space too. It's really been where my head's been at lately, especially with my mum passing away. Just going away, zoning out, getting my head space right - it's all so important as a musician and as a human being, especially with social media and the unrealistic expectations on yourself. It's important just to switch off and that's definitely been important for me and helped me focus.
How did having that time away impact your songwriting, the upcoming album and how you work with The Good Lords in that sense?
Headspace is one of those things, it wasn't just a song. It was legit what I was going through, and it was legit me talking, saying "yo, I need some headspace. I need a reset." and yeah, it was really legit. I think it was just Jordan I working alongside each other when I came back and bouncing production ideas and such off each other, but the picture was already painted.
I learnt a lot from the last album, so I've definitely raised the bar for myself. I feel like it's where I need to be, and I'm probably not quite there yet. so that's why this one's taking a bit of extra time. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like at the moment, for me, the most beautiful masterpiece has come with time, and there's so much to it. There's a lot happening. Ever since the last album, stuff's just blown up a bit too big for my brain, so it's good to be able to work on new music and not having to rush it. It's just being able to stop and look at every piece of that. It's been good man. I could have rushed this whole album and dropped it now, but then it wouldn't really be where it needed to be, and I think it's been good that I can now see it's probably not going to work out the way it should be if I don't pause and have some headspace, so that's been really good.
That ties in again with what you were saying about social media. There's such a big demand for stuff, like you would drop an album one day and the next, everyone like's "Oh yeah, this is great. When's the next one?"
When's the next one? It's been two days. It's just the reality of the world we live in, but the thing is a lot of people forget that they still have an option to disconnect. You can still delete your Instagram and Facebook app on your phone. That's actually a thing and people seem to forget that. When you're plugged in, you just submit yourself to the horrors of social media and expectations like that.
Across the years you've had the chance to work with some musicians who are constantly referred to as the next generation in hip hop - GoldLink, Denzel, BROCKHAMPTON, Callum and the Free Nationals gang and so on. What have you taken away from working with these names that you've been able to throw into your own processes?
It just goes back to the fact that time is your best friend. You have to realise that you have a lot of it, and that you don't need to rush a million miles per hour. I think it's very easy nowadays to have a dope beat and just do something good, but like, taking the time and everything and making a decision that even when a track is amazing to be 'oh this track's okay' - and then spend another four months on it to make it great - can make a big difference.
Something will be amazing to me and they'll be like, 'Nah, it's not quite there yet.' I just sit there like, 'What the hell? Are you freaking serious?' The thing is that's pretty powerful in itself - being able to not just settle for second best. I think that's a hard thing for artists, because what we create is so important to us, it's very precious. Your heart will be in that thing that's not quite there yet. It's up to us as creatives, whether or not to decide to take that and refine what we do or do we just run with it and then we've dropped something that potentially could have been great. Taking criticism and just spending extra time with stuff and making something beautiful and not just settling for second best. That's been the biggest thing I've learnt.
What's the thing that you want someone to come out of the upcoming Billy Davis album knowing or feeling?
Probably two things. The first thing is to realise right now what's important to you and who's important to me and not to forget that, especially when stuff gets busy. It's very easy to forget your family. You forget your friends, you forget your cultural heritage and stuff like that. That's the number one thing. And you can find out what's important to you by just looking at the time because time's the greatest currency.
The second thing? I just want to encourage that each one of us is unique. Everyone brings something to the table. There's so much I miss out from different people, and that's a beautiful thing. If there are any up and coming musicians, don't try to copy anyone else. Find out who you are and go from there.
Billy Davis' new single, Headspace, is out now via Sony Music Australia.
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