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Heritage, Community & Creative Vision: Musician & Pianist Extraordinaire Billy Davis On What’s Important

The Melbourne neo-soulster Billy Davis (aka William Rimington) has established himself as a keyboardist, arranger and music director for Australian and international superstars alike. In 2021 he’s taking centre stage with a major label debut, This Is What’s Important, chronicling the loss of his beloved mother, relationships, self-doubt, success, and resilience over gospel, jazz and retro-nuevo hip-hop-soul grooves. But Billy is already looking to the future.

Billy aired the album’s lead single ‘Shoulda Known’ – Kaytranada-esque deep house with Nigerian-American R&B sisters VanJess and Washington DC MC Matt McGhee – back in late 2018. He necessarily delayed last year’s LP roll-out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, days before the drop, Billy is nervous. “To be honest, I’ve been all sorts of emotions, right – full-on, aye,” he rattles off. “I’m excited. I’m terrified. I’m all of it.”

The auteur belongs to a multicultural Melbourne neo-soul culture that has attracted unprecedented global attention since Hiatus Kaiyote’s ascent. “I remember when I started, there was a soul scene there, but over the years it’s developed,” Billy observes. “I’ve definitely been part of a movement of younger artists coming through and doing their own sound.” Born to a Filipino mother and Irish-Australian father, Billy grew up in Melbourne’s Western suburbs and speaks glowingly about his old ‘hood. “My mum was a Filipino immigrant, she came from The Philippines, and she raised me – like my father passed away when I was young,” he reveals. “So I’ve always been surrounded by people [where] their parents had just arrived in Australia and [us] being a part of that hustle of, ‘Hey, our parents worked so hard to get us here – we need to work and be able to do something to obviously pay homage to them and what they’ve done.'” Then a primary schooler, Billy taught himself piano–playing in church. An uncle introduced the budding music nerd to vintage acts such as The Doobie Brothers. But Billy soon latched onto R&B and hip-hop. He would become a sideman, even gigging in Kimbra’s band. “I’m a piano player at heart.”

Inevitably, Billy assembled his own band – named Billy Davis. In mid-2016 he released a DIY EP, Bad Ending. The dynamo impressed visiting internationals, joining Anderson .Paak for an afterparty. The next year, Billy delivered an album, A Family Portrait, via Melbourne’s Good Manners Records – generating buzz with the bouncy ‘Goldfish’, featuring Florida’s Denzel Curry, whom he’d met Stateside on a Kimbra tour. Billy and his latest ensemble The Good Lords, fronted by MC Jordan Dennis, performed for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan, at Victoria’s Government House. Alas, he endured more family tragedy with his mother’s passing. Yet this ultimately sharpened Billy’s resolve to represent his community. He’d return to The Philippines, reconnecting with relatives – and his heritage.

In the meantime, Billy signed to Sony Music Australia. “It’s definitely been a massive learning curve,” he says of the experience. “It’s been adapting to realise, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve got a team now – I’ve got people that will know this better than me…'” Billy jokes how he used to implore industry figures to listen to his music, cut-and-pasting emails. The Sony affiliation has afforded him unique “opportunities”. Indeed, Billy has served as music director for acts participating in triple j’s Like A Version: GoldLink, BROCKHAMPTON, Tones And I, and, latterly, Amy Shark. He also accompanied GoldLink for a prestigious NPR Tiny Desk show. “Music directing is a passion of mine; being able to facilitate another artist’s dream and creative vision for their live performance has always been something I’ve been passionate about since I was young.”

Initially, Billy intended This Is What’s Important to be a collective neo-soul foray. But it became acutely personal after Billy lost his “Ma”, as he ruminated on the big questions of life, family, love, career and past “mistakes”. “This project ended up changing so much,” Billy shares. “It ended up becoming a letter from myself to my future self. It ended up being a homage to my late mother. It just evolved so much.” It’s because of this psychic rawness that he embraced the LP’s postponement. “I was able to stop and reflect on the whole album, and the whole process, and heal a bit. I feel like it probably wouldn’t have been healthy if I released the album and was still a bit emotional.”

This week Billy replayed This Is What’s Important for the first time in a spell and discovered that he had a new perspective on it. “I’m totally in a different place now, but it’s a journey.” Billy can discern his progression. “I’ve changed so much. I look at myself now and I definitely can say I’ve matured a lot and I’ve learnt a lot. I’m less reckless. I’m less just emotionally reacting live on the spot… I’m a lot more calculated and thinking stuff through.”

Similarly to Mark Ronson, Billy doesn’t sing, instead utilising guest vocalists as extensions of himself. Notably, when liaising with homegrown singers or rappers like Dennis, KYE and EMRSN, he ensures that they understand his sentiments. “I’m the type of person where I wear my heart on my sleeve,” Billy says. “So, with every song, pretty much every vocalist will know what I’ve been through or what I’m feeling.” He recalls telling Dennis and singer Rahel Phillips – his “little sister” – about the angst behind the psychedelic ‘Paranoid’. “I’m like, ‘Hey, at this point I have zero dollars in my bank account,'” Billy relates, “and I was paranoid that people were trying to take away my music career.”

Rather than a wish list of flossy cameos for This Is What’s Important, the tastemaker deliberately maintained a grassroots, and communal, approach. Still, there are international identities. ‘Wilderness’ is blessed by Chicago don Phoelix, renowned for his exchanges with Noname, while Billy recorded ‘I Ain’t’ alongside PJ Morton, Maroon 5’s keyboardist. And, symbolically, he solicited Filipino creatives – the rapper Massiah, down with 88rising, appearing on ‘My Girl’. “The whole concept of working with big artists – my band knows this – it did go to my head for a period,” Billy admits. “I did sort of go into this crazy, like, ‘I’m just gonna work with all the big names’ thing. I remember doing dumb stuff like sending cold messages to big artists saying, ‘Hey, you wanna do something?’ It’s just so not in my nature. I know, being an artist, too, there’s nothing worse than getting a forceful message from someone saying, ‘You wanna collab?’ when you don’t really know them. It’s always best to do stuff organically.”

Ironically, some of Billy’s Australian collaborators are themselves now high-profile. His February single ‘Dream No More’ – “an emotional piece about being better when it comes to a relationship” – features Ruel and Canberran polymath Genesis Owusu, the latter recently premiering with the acclaimed Smiling With No Teeth. (“I love it so much,” Billy raves. “Track two [‘The Other Black Dog’] is my favourite – it’s just, ‘Ah…’ Harmonically, it’s a dream come true.”)

Billy previously partnered Ruel for a jazzy, downbeat rendition of ‘Not Thinkin’ Bout You’ and opened his soulful labelmate’s 2019 tour. “Me and Ruel have worked with each other for such a long time. It’s been so amazing to be able to see his development as an artist, too. I remember when we did ‘Not Thinkin’ Bout You’, he had to go over the song a lot of times – run by all the vocals. And, to see where he is now when we did ‘Dream No More’, he’s just evolved so much as an artist. It was so easy. We’ve known each other for a very long time. So it’s great to see where he’s just now and everything – that’s fantastic.”

Following 2020’s cancellation of a European jaunt with Tones And I, Billy has eased back into live performances. In March, he enjoyed an intimate show for Piano Day with Woodes. Billy is currently supporting Tones And I on national dates. But, having previewed songs from This Is What’s Important for three years, he’s contemplating fresh material. “I can’t wait to start new music,” he enthuses. “This album has been a long time coming – and there’s a lot of heavy and, I guess, emotional, personal content to me. So to be able to move forward with my music and my life is gonna be amazing.”

Many artists are reticent when probed about future output amid promotional cycles, but Billy welcomes it – describing himself as “goal-minded”. “I do get distracted – and I don’t work well when there’s too much on my plate,” he illuminates. “I work best when I have a whiteboard which says, ‘Tick these things off.'” Billy has three demos in the can. The prodigy is also writing piano music that he compares to German electro-acoustic composer (and Piano Day founder) Nils Frahm. And the church boy is planning a contemporary gospel project, inspired by the Atlantan fold Maverick City Music. He only wonders how he’ll schedule multiple releases.

Naturally, Billy is keen to gig more as a songwriter/producer for others – his idols David Foster and Pharrell Williams. These days the wider public associates Foster with reality TV, his ex-wife Yolanda Hadid starring in The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. However, Billy stresses, the Canadian co-penned Earth, Wind & Fire’s “iconic” ‘After The Love Has Gone’. “If I was able to be something like David Foster in Australia or Melbourne – be able to be my own writer, be my own artist, but also be someone that helped facilitate some young artists coming through – I’d be very happy with my legacy.”

For the present, Billy is just relieved to finally be unveiling This Is What’s Important. Though he hopes the set resonates with listeners, the musician values “honest” feedback – entreating them to play it all the way through. “This album especially, I’ve put so much emotion and tears and a lot into it… There’s a lot of vulnerability. It’d mean a lot if people just gave it a proper listen and then let me know what they think. I don’t need no hype. I don’t need anyone to like it for the sake of liking it – that would be an injustice to it. Just give it a listen… I really appreciate that.”

Download or stream ‘This Is What’s Important’ here. On Friday May 14th, Billy Davis will play at Melbourne’s The Forum as part of new live performance event SQUARE UP. Details here.

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