Tre Williams on Transitioning from Hip-Hop Hook Singer to Soul Powerhouse

In a musical landscape fraught with Auto-Tune, 808s and faux strings, The Revelations – featuring Tre Williams – continue to stay true to soul. Their ’60s and ’70s inspired songs explore issues like love and poverty with heart-wrenching lyrics and rich instrumentation.

The band debuted with The Bleeding Edge in 2009 and recently released their second effort, Concrete Blues, which was recorded at the legendary Royal Studios in Memphis. A great sophomore effort that fuses R&B with modern blues and soul, standout tracks include Johnnie Taylor’s “Don’t Wait,” “ How Could You Walk Away” and “Until You Get Enough of Me.”

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This month, Performer got a chance to talk with Williams, who got his start singing hooks for hip-hop artists including Petey Pablo and Nas, about the making of Concrete Blues, his songwriting process and misconceptions about the music industry.

When did you first fall in love with music?

I’ve been singing in the church choir since I was five. I wanted to understand it [music]. I wanted to lead.  It wasn’t until ten or eleven years ago that I got serious. I stopped drinking and smoking and hanging out all the time and put my whole life into making music.  I left Daytona for New York with a bag of dirty clothes and five dollars.

I know your background is in hip-hop. What made you change your sound?

I had my first mainstream song with Petey Pablo, but I didn’t feel like I’d put all of my effort forth. When I did the “I-95” song with Styles P, I felt like I was on my way in the industry.  I was getting my feet wet in the business.

Later, I signed a deal with Nas. I was signed three or four years with him. I did the “Let There Be Light” song on his Hip Hop is Dead album. Even after all that, I didn’t know where I needed to be until I met Bob Perry. Through meeting him, the idea of a full band was born. When we did the “I Don’t Want to Know” record, I knew this was it. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, let me change course.’ I felt something special. It’s bigger than me. God had a plan and I was going to follow.

“There are times when I’m sleeping and I jump up in the middle of the night and tell my wife I got a song to catch”

“If I have to struggle with writing it, then people will struggle to like it”

What’s your creative process for songwriting?

My view is that [a process] is routine. There are times when I’m sleeping and I jump up in the middle of the night and tell my wife I got a song to catch. I just let it come natural. If I have to struggle with writing it, then people will struggle to like it. Sometimes I get the melody but not the words, or sometimes I listen to a track and say, ‘Whoa!!! I can write something mean to that.’ Some other artists might sit down and drink black tea whenever they’re trying to write, but that doesn’t work for me. You should write whatever you feel. Write what you know about.

Tell me about The Revelations studio sessions.

Well, with Concrete Blues we did something very special. We all went to Memphis to record at Royal Studios. Al Green recorded there. We called in the Hodges Brothers, James Alexander and other musicians. We all sat down and I just started singing and everyone started playing. We recorded it live.  I told Bob that the experience is a story in and of itself.  I was in awe of these musicians. But, they were in awe of being with me. I told them that I’d done nothing compared to them. They told me that I’m the future of soul; I’m the beacon.

Did you give them the music before they showed up at Royal?

No. No rough drafts or anything. I just started singing. It was very powerful. There are no synthetic sounds. Everything is as it should be.

How does one become a great artist, especially when it’s so difficult to move units?

Consistency. That’s the only way. You have to constantly give the people something that’s worth their money. It used to be that you could give people two or three good songs and they would buy the whole album. I also think it’s important to do Facebook and Twitter yourself. First, it’s fun! But also, how can someone else do it for me? This is what we signed up for. If you can’t embrace Facebook, Twitter or whatever, what are we here for? You should have real conversations back and forth.  Imagine if we could have talked to Steve Wonder [in his prime] online and been on Twitter with our heroes? Imagine that. Now that we can do that, there’s no reason we shouldn’t take full advantage.

There are a lot of misconceptions about being in the music industry. What are some that you’ve had to deal with?

Honestly, people think as soon as you get signed you’re going to be rich and famous. But there’s a lot of famous hungry people. I have seen ‘stars’ walking down the street who are struggling to pay rent or living in their cars.  When I got signed to Nas’ label, I thought it would be a no-brainer. I’m as talented an artist as anybody else. I felt like there was no ceiling, no limit to how high I could go. But, suddenly the roof started closing in quick.

But lately people come up to me and say, ‘Man! You came out of nowhere. You made it, you’re a star.’ If they only knew how long I’ve been doing this. And, if I’m a star now, then who was I last year?   There’s no such thing as making it. This is a job. If you work at Burger King and get fired, you can go to McDonald’s and get another job. But in music, once the people have decided that you’re fired, there’s no other job. In this business you’re a work in progress.  You can sell millions of records in one moment and struggle the next. Didn’t Janet Jackson and Nelly sell millions of albums? Didn’t they ‘make it?’ They’re struggling to sell records now.

Photos by Doug Tubach

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