Ben Williams and Syndee Winters join together to create Butterfly Black
New York City's The Jazz Gallery has long been an incubator for the youngest generation of jazz musicians. It was there that I met Ben Williams in 2007, upon his arrival in New York City at the age of 22, working as a sideman with pianist Gerald Clayton. Two years later, Ben won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and had his first concert as a bandleader at the Gallery a few days later. It has been a joy to witness his rise to being one of the most sought-after bassists. Ben, who currently resides in Los Angles, has teamed up with Syndee Winters, the Broadway stage singer, dancer and actor, who has performed in such defining productions as Hamilton, The Lion King, Pippin, Motown The Musical, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Together Ben and Syndee have teamed up to form an exciting new duo—Butterfly Black—that delivers upscale R&B and draws upon the legacy of iconic male-female soul duos, such as Ike & Tina Turner, Ashford & Simpson, René & Angela, and Peaches & Herb. They recently stopped by the WBGO Studios to talk about this new project.
Listen to our conversation, above.
Lezlie Harrison: I had a chance to see Butterfly Black back in January when we were sailing on the Blue Note at Sea Cruise. Tell me about the birth of Butterfly Black.
Ben Williams: We actually met about five years ago when I was doing a show with Keyon Harrold at the McKittrick hotel. The venue is inside in the same place where they do Sleep No More, an interactive theater space. At the time, Syndee was in Hamilton and a mutual friend of ours who I went to high school with at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C.—Tanairi Vazquez—was also a dancer in Hamilton. Tanairi brought Syndee to the show so our first meeting was very casual.
We stayed in touch over the years via social media and then came 2020. We all know that's when all the drama started. Like most artists, Syndee and I were at home because at that time the rug had been pulled up from under us. But we also had this sort of unprecedented amount of time that we had never had before which really afforded us the opportunity to collaborate. I had been checking out Syndee's music and her social media and she had been doing the same with my music. We started chatting via Instagram and we were like, “None of us as artists are doing anything…let's figure out a way to collaborate and maybe get together if possible.”
In 2020 getting together was a big deal, being in the same room with somebody. We finally had an opportunity to link up in New York where we both were at the time. I was doing a lot of writing during that downtime and creating a lot of production that wasn't really so much jazz focused, but more in the R&B pop genres. Collaborating with her sort of fit where I was creatively at the time.
When we got together, we started writing right away. It was like instantaneous chemistry. I had some ideas that I already had sort of prepped for her and she came by and listened to some of the tracks I put together and she was like, “Okay, I got something,” and we're only a couple of minutes into it. We just pressed “record” and started going for it. A lot of that music that we made during that first hour of getting together is some of the music that we're releasing right now. It was pretty instantaneous on the creative tip.
This is still at the point in COVID where we couldn't pull the band together. The only thing we could really do together was play a few virtual shows, very small productions, just doing duets. We really got to hear how our voices sounded together and to blend. It felt pretty effortless like when you're singing with somebody and they understand your phrasing and know what you're going to sing before you do it.
It just got deeper and deeper and we were just piling a lot of music, a lot of songs. We got to the point where it just sort of felt like it was more than me being the producer and her being an artist. It started to feel like a group, like a real collaborative effort. And that’s how Butterfly Black was born.
I actually saw during the pandemic a video of the two of you, and I was like, “Okay, now I see what you were up to” because everyone was out doing whatever they could to keep this music going and keep our spirits alive. Syndee, you seem like you showed up at that first gathering prepared with the songs in hand. Tell me about your first day collaborating with Ben on the birth of Butterfly Black.
Syndee Winters: I started when Broadway closed and the only thing that I felt I could do was take control of my songwriting and that this would be a good time. I went back home to visit my parents in Miami and ended up staying for seven months. During that time, I got to remember what life was like uninterrupted and I dove into things that I remembered loving as a kid, like my crush on Usher. That was a real thing. I also did a lot of songwriting. We lost a few friends during the pandemic and we were doing these virtual memorials. My community was asking for an original song to be written in their honor, so I put my songwriting skills to the test. After that, I said, “I think I'm going to get back into songwriting because it feels like it's the only thing that I can control right now.”
I would find little beats on YouTube because I'm not a musician that plays an instrument besides my voice. I would go on YouTube and I would try to find these tracks, and I would post on social media whatever I would come up with. I shared a song that I was working on with a friend, Rafael Casal, who is an incredible songwriter, producer, and executive showrunner of this show called Blindspotting. He said, “Syndee, you sound good, but I think you need a bass player to really bring out your voice as well as your songwriting. It's easy to write with a bass.” I never thought about it because I always worked with a guitarist.
Then I realized that there was one bass player that I had been trying to get his attention starting in 2019 when I reached out to Ben to see if he would be open to collaborating on my solo project. But he was booked. Even on the Blue Note at Sea cruise, he was playing with three bands and in his own band as just a snapshot of how available he might have been. He said, “I'd love to, but I can't” and I took it personally because that's how singers do.
Tell me something. You say part of the mission of Butterfly Black is, first, to help bring soul back into pop music and second, to restore the close relationship that once existed between pop music and jazz and its musical theater roots. Who were some of your soul music influences and where do you fit it into bringing soul back into pop music? How does Butterfly Black plan on doing that?
Syndee Winters: I'm a product of the pop music of the ‘80s my so influences are pulled from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Prince. Then we have Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey in the 90s, and Bob Marley whose family is from Jamaica. My parents are Jamaican. When I was in high school, my father would bring me around Stephen Marley and learn how to be in a recording studio and learn how they wrote songs. I would be in rehearsal sessions with them and go to concerts and watch them perform. I took that learning with me as I was also in my journey on Broadway through the Lion King and through Hamilton.
Coincidentally, the world changed and so I fit right into it. The historical context of musical theater is pop music put into story so being able to write in short form these songs and connect with Ben on topics as millennials, we were saying, “Okay, what are sort of the things that you want to address?” Through these conversations came the music. The song, “I Just Want to Love You” is literally just saying, “Hey, I really want to connect again and I just want to feel that feeling.” and I channeled my crush on Usher.
What about you, Ben? What about your relationship to soul music and bringing soul back to pop music?
Ben Williams: Just like Syndee, I grew up as a child born in the ‘80s and I grew up in the ‘90s so of course, Michael Jackson, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey were influences. In addition to the music that my mother was playing in the house, like James Brown and Motown.
What about the go-go music of DC?
Ben Williams: Oh yeah. Growing up in DC, go-go was our indigenous music. It was just born and created right in DC. Go-go was just like water and air. We were surrounded by it all the time. A lot of Black music at the highest level is really pop music. According to Barry Gordy, the intention of Motown was to really break that color barrier that existed in the music industry. Black people were marginalized, in society in general, and especially in the music industry.
Gordy intentionally wanted to expand beyond that. He knew the music that they were making was just great—that it defied demographics. I think that's what essentially pop music is—music that defies demographics. I grew up listening to that music. Motown, Michael Jackson, Prince, these are artists that weren't confined to just one demographic. Their greatness couldn't be confined.
As a jazz artist, the legacy goes back even further than that. Nicholas Payton talks about this a lot—such as Louis Armstrong being the first pop star and an innovator of jazz as a genre as we know it. I think it's interesting that Syndee and I both come from this kind of niche market. If you look at the overall picture of the music world, Broadway exists mostly here in New York. It travels, but you can almost say the same with jazz. We have small but very, very devoted groups of people who have a deep love for both of these genres which have a deep history with each other. There are a lot of the jazz standards that we perform which come from musical theater and that were interpreted by the great jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane who adopted music from that world and those were pop songs as well.
Tell me about the duo, because I'm a big fan of the male/female duos, especially the soul duos such as Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell and Marvin Gaye & Diana Ross and the beautiful duo of Ashford and Simpson. So now it's Ben and Syndee—the new soul duo who collaborate. You have a new album coming out on August 25th. I understand there's a mash up of “Beauty and the Beast” and the “Beautiful Ones.” Tell me about that.
Ben Williams: Yeah, that was one of the songs that we did as a duet with just the two of us during COVID. We did a show, I think it was in Vegas actually, and I think it was called Broadway Mixtape. The concept of the show was doing mashups of Broadway songs and popular music, R&B or whatever music that we love and grew up with. We were just playing with the theme and the word “beauty” and we put “Beauty and the Beast” together with “The Beautiful Ones” by Prince. We smashed them together.
Syndee Winters: We wanted to create this mashup because a lot of historical Broadway music that is coveted is primarily seen with faces that don't look like ours. I learned about Disney music through R&B when I heard people like Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle and Vanessa Williams. I just learned that Dru Hill did a Disney song. Thinking about how it was reaching me, my entry point to Disney was through R&B music. Being an official Disney princess—I played Queen Nala in the Lion King—I'm still true to that. When we were asked during the pandemic to do a show that was live streamed, we couldn't bring a band so Ben and I partnered up. Together we created Broadway Mixtape and put together our favorite songs with Disney songs as well as Broadway and musical theater. We did it our way. There was a funky bass line in every song.
You have two singles now off of the album called “Lifetime” and “BRB.” Who wrote those? Did you co-write those together?
Syndee Winters: Yes. I primarily write the lyrics for Butterfly Black and Ben co-writes as well. And he also does all of the production. We still do like to keep it in-house. We do a lot of our recording at a home studio and we collaborate with an incredible sound designer, Brian Bender. He's sort of the third ingredient here to Butterfly Black. Before we really had a lot of music out, we were performing in these shows and we would ask the audience to vote on their favorite songs just to get an idea of what they found more attractive.
We let them vote on what singles we were putting out and it's been fun just having an experiment and the experience with our community. We started a crowdfunding campaign because we're completely independent artists and this product is a hundred percent independent. We’ve had so many supporters from all over wanting to know how they can help and support Butterfly Black during this journey of owning our own music. Having our community be a part of selecting some of the songs and sharing the topics that they want us to write songs about has been really fun.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.