As musicians, we love to collaborate, co-create, and out-and-out jam. When singer, songwriter, arranger, conductor, teacher and community activist Michael Solomon Williams harmonized a musician’s love of combining forces with his desire to offer a healing option to a torn world, Common and Kind was born.
Musicians worldwide flocked to his virtual side. Michael conceived and wrote the single “Human Kind”, which includes performances by literally hundreds of musicians:
We spoke with Michael about this monumental musical, technical, and humanitarian achievement:
Q: Greetings, Michael, and welcome to Musical U. One of your participants has recently shared your fabulous project with us. How and why did you come up with the idea?
It’s a bit of a crazy story, looking back over the past year. In short, I was shocked by what happened to MP Jo Cox and by the EU Referendum – not just the result, but the whole impact of the campaign. With the world seemingly riven with division and extremism, I posted on Facebook on the morning after the referendum, asking if people would like to come together and create a positive musical response to all the division.
I did not at all anticipate what would happen as a result! Hundreds and thousands of people responded, shared and all of a sudden people were writing to me, asking to be a part of my “project”.
At that time I had no project!
So the most effective way to channel all these offerings from across the world was to make a music video single, either covering a suitable message (e.g. John Lennon’s “Imagine”), or to write an original song with a catchy chorus.
Q: That’s amazing! Tell us more about the single: what is the concept? What was the compositional process?
Two days later (Saturday, the 26th of June), that catchy chorus came to me in the shower!
An upbeat, 12/8 groove. 12/8 seemed to be the perfect time signature to bring together a wide range of genres. I started with the shape of the chorus, then set words to that.
Next, I thought it needed an anthemic verse, something very simple but memorable. I don’t really follow the latest mainstream pop, but actually thought of the repeated notes in Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”, and went with that approach – repeated notes to help the words come across, with descending bass and gradually evolving harmonies.
Q: It’s cool how a mathematical musical detail can take on a deeper meaning. The 12/8 meter takes four beats and divides each one into three, combining the two basic musical metrics into one rhythmic expression. How long did it take you to write this song?
I know it’s a cliché, but it did really all come in about an hour. Three verses, a connecting bridge, a sax/guitar solo (which I recorded on comb… ) and then what I call the “Worldwide Mix’ – a breakdown section before the third verse, which would be the blank canvas to send around the world.
I recorded a demo on Garageband – I play passable violin and viola, so recorded string parts, lead vocals, about eight different choir parts, strings and piano (plus comb solo… ). A couple of weeks later, a proper demo was recorded, with lead vocals from Cassidy Janson, a guitar solo sent from Austin by Chris McQueen of Snarky Puppy, real strings, voices, and rhythm section.
The Garageband original is still around somewhere…
Q: I’d love to hear that comb solo! Tell us about the lyrics.
I wanted to get across a message that, whatever external events might occur which threaten to divide us superficially, it’s impossible to divide us as human beings, from ourselves or each other.
I see the idea of nations as artificial, and problematic.
So verse one (“One world, we live in one world”) explores that, and hails those who put themselves on the line for what they believe in (“Banners are unfurled, what can they do? Bind us, or they remind us that we can find a way to get through”).
The bridge is clear (“We all belong here”), and the chorus suggests a love song (“We are together, not breaking apart”) – although if you connect it to the original inspiration, the point is clear.
There is a quote from Jo Cox (“More in common”), and the famous words of John Donne (“No man’s an island”). The words continue on the same theme in the second (“Borders, what have they taught us?”) and third (“Worldwide, I am by your side”) verses.
Q: While it came together quickly and through inspiration, the lyrics reflect a lot of thought. How did you gather the musicians?
The response was so huge that, I didn’t have to do much. They gathered themselves mostly!
Then, with so many on board, I invited a few more (Cassidy Janson, Sarah Connolly, Mark Lettieri) and they were very keen.
The UK massed choirs (around 200) were initially self-selecting, and then I put the word out and the numbers doubled.
Everyone was passionately keen to make it happen, so I had incredible friends who fixed the string orchestra and horn section. It snowballed fairly wonderfully. We ended up doing a concert about a month later, which itself was phenomenal – world class solo acts from a huge range of genres, massed a cappella choir, all finishing with Human Kind, which would be the base ingredient of the final thing.
Then I sent it around the world to the incredible worldwide choirs, and the guys from Snarky Puppy, who all recorded their contributions.
Jonathan Hoard was a wonderful gift. I know the guitarist and producer Brad Allen Williams (who plays acoustic and electric on the song). He plays for top soul singers like Bilal and José James, so I asked him if he knew a guy singer who might do the second verse. Jonathan was absolutely perfect. The final piece in the jigsaw.
Q: In Human Kind there’s this amazing, powerful point about [4:00] into the song where a number of different choirs from various places in the world are mixing and layering. It’s one thing to mix together a variety of voices and instruments, but this blending of entire choirs is a musical as well as technical tour de force. Please tell something about how that was accomplished.
I’m really happy to hear that – thank you! That’s the heart of the song, so I’m really pleased it has the impact I was hoping for.
I originally wrote parts for four different types of choir, for the Union Chapel recording. That was designed to build in intensity over eight sections, with the band dropping in halfway through after an a cappella breakdown.
When I sent the song around the world, I asked the worldwide choirs if they wanted to add anything personal there, so we ended up with some beautiful things – I particularly love the Malaysian folk song “Rasa Sayang“, as well as Saida Tani’s snippet of “Manoosh Manushi Jonno“, which is all about human charity.
Raph Clarkson wrote amazing horn section parts, which the Snarky Puppy horns doubled from NYC, and ad-libbed on.
Jonathan’s ad lib also blows my mind.
Our mixing engineer, Dan Weinberg, had quite a time of it, with I think over hundred channels to mix! The whole tapestry was laid out on a lovely colourful spreadsheet, and revised a few times to get things to overlap as powerfully as possible. I’m thrilled with how it came out. For me, that was one of the most exciting compositional processes, designing that sequence.
Q: Amazing! I’m with you there! You have a concert coming up. What is your goal for this concert? Who will be there?
Yes, we’re coming back to the Union Chapel on the 25th of July, 2017. Last year’s concert happened after we’d started planning for the single, but it was massively powerful, and we were urged to develop the model, so that’s what we’re doing.
The goal is to bring together world-leading solo artists from a huge range of genres, and to bring together communities and individuals who might not interact otherwise. So we will have 400 in the massed choirs, all the product of partnership workshops between a range of groups, including chamber choirs, gospel choirs, community groups, Arabic centres and refugee groups.
On the solo roster, we’ve got Sarah Connolly, Thomas Gould, Bernhard Schimpelsberger, Ahmed Mukhtar, Mark Lettieri, Saida Tani and Jonathan Hoard.
Q: That’s quite the roster! What is your fundraising goal with the concert? Where will this money be going?
All profits will go to three amazing charities:
- Musicians without Borders use music to bring together communities divided by war in countries including Kosovo, Palestine, Rwanda and Uganda.
- Music Action International works in the UK, bringing refugees together with schools, improving integration and challenging prejudice.
- Amnesty International continues to be the world’s leading human rights charity, working across the world as advocates and defenders of oppressed individuals and groups.
Q: On your website, you express a strong belief in the power of music to change the world. How do you see this working and happening with your project?
Emotion and action.
Rhetoric directs the changes in society, and I firmly believe that political and social change is predominantly guided by those individuals or groups who appeal emotionally to the wider world.
We’ve seen a lot of very divisive rhetoric over the past year, and there are some wonderful individuals out there doing their best to counter it with positive words and actions, but music can do both:
It’s fundamental to musicians that we collaborate, listen, and reach out.
The response to my original post is itself a testament to the best of humanity. But then the question is, “What do we do?” The creation of this song, “Human Kind”, answers that question.
That’s what everyone has said – this project, and making music, gives them an opportunity to be actively and symbolically positive in collaborating across musical and physical borders. I want the world to see what we’ve done, to hear the words, to feel the deep impact of the world uniting, and reflect upon the absolute nonsense of artificial division, be it between races, countries, communities or even musical genres.
We’re all human, and we can all be kind.
Q: What’s happened so far? Where do you see this going?
We’ll see! I’m excited about the single release, and excited about the Common and Kind 2017 concert at the Union Chapel. Our friends in the USA, Vietnam and Northern Ireland are all keen to set things up in their respective countries, and there’s the possibility of expanding things in the UK.
I continue to be surprised at how many people out there don’t take collaboration for granted in the way that musicians do.
I think we’re lucky as musicians to have that world view ingrained, and I’d love to spread it to as many communities as possible, and do all I can to add to a future world where people really do celebrate the fact that we have more in common than that which divides.
Q: What is the experience of the participants? The experience of the audiences?
You’ll have to ask them! I do treasure these words from George Monbiot (British writer known for his environmental and political activism – ed.): “I don’t know how you did it. I really believe you’re onto something here. A group of us have been struggling to pull people together across the great divides in Britain, but I think you’ve just answered the question.”
That’s coming from a great thinker, a wonderful human being, but a non-musician. To me, that suggests the serious power and potential we hold as musicians.
Q: Wonderful, Michael! Rarely do we think, as musicians, how special our normal way of doing things is, especially when compared to the difficulties that seem to be facing our world these days. Thank you for giving so many musicians the opportunity to give back to the world, and to demonstrate the power we have when we work together.
So many times we look around and wonder how we can really make a difference. Common and Kind is a testament to the power of music, a power that just might change the world. Pre-order your own copy of Human Kind, and experience the power of the live Common and Kind concert in Union Chapel. And next time you’re making music with others, appreciate how special that connection really is.
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