It's yet another sweltering fall day on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, yet Billy Paul Williams stays cool as a cucumber, seemingly unfazed by the constant, sticky heat. The 37-year-old musician is dressed in typical SoBe gear -- shorts, a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and a Champion Athletic cap -- augmented by a stud earring in his left ear. He's sitting under a tent in front of Segafredo's, a chic café savvy enough to feature a sprinkler system on its canopy that blows mist on you as you walk in. Not that he would need it.
Williams has lived in South Beach for the past several years, and the city seems to have completely inhabited him. His road here was a circuitous one. He's originally from Jamaica and a musical family; his father was a minister who played guitar and sang. "There were six boys, so everybody played something," he remembers as he sips on a cosmopolitan while light jazz music plays from the café's loudspeaker. After spending his teenage years in England, he first came here in the early Eighties to attend the University of Miami, where he majored in physical therapy and music, while playing in a "New Wave funk" combo called Crisis. Then he traveled to Germany, where he started another New Wave group called the Walk. "I was influenced by that sound -- Robert Smith [of the Cure] and the Fixx," he says. "At that time, nobody saw a band like mine. Here's a black guy singing something that you would hear from the Cure or the Fixx. Everybody else [in the Walk] was German."
They toured around Europe for three years; by the time they broke up he found himself in Lausanne, Switzerland, and he "liked it so much that I basically stayed." There he found a production job working with local singers and recording spots for television commercials, and played in another unnamed band on the side. While in Lausanne, a friend from Miami invited him to put a band together and tour Taiwan, which lasted six months. Did he ever feel like a transient from moving around so much? "You do feel a little bit rootless, I guess," he says. "But I think if you have knowledge of yourself, you can be anywhere."
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After the tour was over, Williams returned to the Magic City. "Miami had changed a bit," he says. "When I first got here it was very laid-back. I mean, I lived on Ocean Drive and there weren't even any street lights. Very few people lived here. Then you had people like Madonna who found it as a place to get away to; they could hang out and people wouldn't follow them." Now, he mourns, "It's twelve dollars for a gin and tonic." Still the quiet that occasionally envelops our afternoon conversation indicates that some things haven't changed. For all the crowds that have descended upon South Beach in recent years, it can still be a relaxing, peaceful place.
Williams's background didn't portend the sound that his debut solo album, Miles to Go, would offer. A tribute to Miles Davis that he wrote, produced, and recorded himself over nine months, it's a mostly instrumental excursion that tastefully blends a downtempo aesthetic, cool contemporary jazz sounds, and the occasional dance cut like "So In Love," a duet with vocalist Charlotte McKinnon. Some of its tracks are directly influenced by his surroundings: "A Walk in the Park," for example, hearkens to the experience of "when you come out to Lincoln Road and there's people walking around. You just get the feeling of life." The Latin instruments on "A Walk in the Park" reference the city's multiethnic flavor, while the drum and bass rhythms trickling through "Dreaming Out Loud" pay homage to its open, European design.
Miles to Go is just a partial representation of his musical life. He spends much of his time "singing, writing, playing, and arranging" various projects for Pandisc, Subliminal, and other dance labels; last year he released a popular twelve-inch single, "Sex," with main floor house producer Robbie Rivera. Sometimes, too, he contemplates moving to other cities like Manhattan or Paris.
"I've always thought about leaving, but why? Where would I go?" asks Williams as the sun waxes and wanes above us. "Hanging out here at Segafredo's, it's such a laid-back place. You have this chillout music playing in the background. You'd have to be almost dead to not have this place give you an idea."