Local artist’s debut release celebrates traditional gospel and family

Chino Villatoro with ALTVRA Company David Billingsley

The origins of David Billingsley’s music will forever be linked to family. Introduced to piano at the age of six in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, Billingsley’s journey to music began in his grandmother’s living room where she sang spiritual hymns to the delight of the impressionable musician.

Paying homage to this time and the spirit of his grandmother, Billingsley has constructed a debut album that is steeped in traditional gospel with elements of soul.

Affectionally titled “Hymns from Grandma’s Living Room,” this 14-song release is an ode to classic gospel as told through the instrumentation of Billingsley and his piano.

“The title of the album comes from cultivating my gifts in my grandma’s living room, literally,” said Billingsley. “I practiced there every day and my grandma would stop and listen. She’d start crying when singing songs, which made the experience very spiritual and transformational.”

Although the entire project is inspired by his grandmother, who passed away in 2006, there is one song, in particular, that reminds him of her.

“’It is Well with my Soul’ is the hymn that reminds me of my grandma,” Billingsley shared. “We sang it at her funeral. It tore the church up and it tore my family up. It’s a moment we’ll never forget as a family.”

 Notable gospel hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “I Surrender All” are also prominent fixtures on the album. 

Since its May release, the album has slowly gained traction across the Twin Cities and throughout the world amassing more than 10,000 streams thanks to the artist’s online presence. While he has called the Twin Cities home since 2004, Racine, Wisconsin will forever remain dear to Billingsley’s heart as it set the foundation for his career as a musician. 

“I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a musician,” recalled Billingsley, who began performing music professionally at the age of 11.

“At six and seven years old, I would go to church and see dudes up there on their instruments and would imitate anything they did. I’d bring my saxophone, tambourine, whatever instrument I had, just to join in with the music.

“Once I started playing at my grandma’s house, she would sing right away. The first song I made was ‘This is the Day’ and when I played it, she began to sing along.

“That changed my whole perspective on life to where I thought, ‘Wow, you can actually do this! This is an actual communal thing that you do with people whether it’s to help them feel better, be creative, or enjoy life.’ But the first steps to creativity happened right there under my grandma’s tutelage.”

Along with his grandmother and a collection of hometown artists, he also cites gospel and soul heavyweights, Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker, Richard Smallwood, and Faith Evans as some of his earliest musical influences.

As one of the co-founders of the Twin Cities-based band #MPLS, Billingsley has collaborated with some of music’s most accomplished artists, including Mint Condition front man and St. Paul native, Stokley Williams, whom he has worked with as a keyboardist since 2017.

“I remember getting a call from Stoke when I was on vacation in Arizona visiting my family,” said Billingsley. “I was on top of a mountain and he called and said, ‘Hey man, you want to be in the band? You ain’t got to audition or nothing. I’m giving you the throne.’

“So, working with Stokley is like being on a mountain—it’s a dream come true. I tell people that working with Stokley is like working with Adrian Peterson. His work ethic is not human. I’ve never seen anything like it before.” 

The mentorship he’s received from Stokley and other trusted figures have enabled Billingsley to educate the next generation of artists through the Billingsley School of Music and Arts, a non-profit organization he established in 2012.

Chino Villatoro with ALTVRA Company

“The inspiration behind the school started when I was 14 years old in middle school and didn’t see Black kids like me. I told my family that I was going to start a school for people to study music who were like me.

“So far, we’ve served thousands of kids through performances, educational workshops, summer pilot programs, private lessons, and group instruction. Our kids have also performed in front of thousands and have been featured on the front pages of newspapers. I’m trying to create the next Minneapolis Sound because the Sound is in the future.”

With a debut album that is being positively received, Billingsley noted that there will be more work on the way in 2020 including a series of follow up albums. He also intends to bring music directly to the people by connecting with the community.

“I have a piano and one thing that I’ve thought about doing is creating a protest piano and putting it on wheels and performing music around the city kind of like a Kanye West Sunday Service.

“With everything going on, it’s made me think about how can I reach the people, how can I impact them, and be part of the community? There are a lot of people in Minnesota that don’t know about me, so I want to look for ways to push the music here and globally.”

David Billingsley’s debut album, “Hymns from Grandma’s Living Room” was released in May 2020 and is available on all streaming platforms. To learn about David Billingsley, visit his official website www.billingsleymusic.com.

To learn about the Billingsley School of Music and Arts visit www.bsoma.org.