Multi-instrumentalist Wil Key wanted his new record to be a tribute to the women in his life, but it also represents a biographical travelogue. “But A Woman” was recorded in Louisville, New York City, Denver and Los Angeles, all cities that Key has called home at one time or another. Key says his recording schedule had more to do with work demands than a desire to revisit his roots, but admits that reconnecting with musical friends changed the direction of the project.
“Music is a non-stop hustle. I’ve played theaters, hotels, festivals and even house parties,” Key says from his home in Los Angeles, where he is preparing for yet another tour. “I was in Bermuda all summer and now I’m going to Australia for a month. But all the traveling did allow me to add some different voices to ‘But A Woman.’ On my first album, ‘Gypsy,’ I played everything: guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. For my second album, ‘Satisfy My Soul,’ I worked with other musicians and I liked the different perspectives they brought to the songs. ‘But A Woman’ is an extension of that.”
Key’s new album is composed of the kind of jazz-influenced R&B that most critics classify as neo-soul, but while being a gifted singer, he lacks the vocal pyrotechnics of artists like Maxwell or Erykah Badu. What sets Key apart from his contemporaries is his intense musicianship and the deep blues feeling that comes through in his lyrics. Even the songs that use spoken word (“Beautiful”) or hip hop (“Rising of a Star”) have a classic soul quality about them.
“I was trying to look backwards and forwards at the same time on this record,” Key asserts. “It’s in the tradition in a good way. It has real instruments and the music is inventive. I’m not using your typical chord changes. But at the same time, I’m trying to make music that everyone is going to enjoy. You can hear where I came from and where I’m going with the sound.”
Key, 42, grew up in West Louisville, between Shawnee and Chickasaw parks. He lived with his mother during the school year and with his father in New York City during the summer. He attended the Youth Performing Arts School and started producing local rap and R&B groups while he was still in high school. One group Key worked with was Playa, a band whose 1998 Def Jam Recording debut “Cheers 2 U” was overseen by super producer Timbaland (Justin Timberlake, Nellie Furtado, and Missy Elliot). Former Playa member Jawaan “Smoke E” Peacock is one of the familiar faces that show up on “But A Woman,” He adds background vocals to slow jam “Yeah.”
Key admits that until recently he didn’t appreciate how much Louisville had impacted his music. “I have traveled the world as an adult, and I realized that people in Louisville tend to be more authentic and down to earth than in other places,” he says. “That ‘down home’ feeling grounds me and grounds my music. I try to come from the heart with my music. I also think that the sound of gospel music in West End churches there has a southern-tinge to it that you don’t hear on the coasts. That sound and feeling made a big impression on me.”
Other collaborators on “But A Woman” include: recording engineer Ryan West, who has worked with Beyonce and Jay Z; poet Ayinde Russell of Denver’s Slam Nubia, winners of the 2011 National Poetry Slam; and Key’s wife, Laura, who also accompanies him on some live performances. Key says he opened this album up to more collaborators because the inspirations for the songs came from so many different places around him.
“There is a song called ‘Butterfly’ that is about my photographer’s daughter,” Key says. “I was just watching her play one day and she’s such a free spirit. It made me think about being like a child and just being in the world without some of the baggage that adults have. That’s what I wanted for this record. It’s just me having fun.”