In a corner lounge tucked away at the back of the historic Irving Plaza in downtown Manhattan, I caught up with Canadian-born singer Billy Raffoul.
We camped out on the deep red, leather sofas while soundcheck for his tour mates carried on upstairs. New York represents the midpoint of his more than twenty show tour across North America. This isn’t the first time I’ve met Billy Raffoul, but it is the first time I had a chance to hear about what first made him want to pursue music.
The singer’s desire to perform was first evoked by seeing his father, a musician as well, play shows in their hometown of Leamington, Ontario. “They would pack the whole football field with a bunch of people,” he described his old high school where they did annual summer concerts often attended by hundreds of people. “It was the interaction between him and everybody else. Everyone was singing along. It was the experience of it all. I fell in love with music when I was young, but not like that. That’s why I’m doing it. Because of the live aspect.” said Raffoul who was 13 or 14 at the time. The moment has stuck with him ever since.
It was around the same time that he first played his family a song that he wrote himself. “It was all with borrowed equipment and borrowed gear and a borrowed laptop from a family friend who was a big influence on me,” he recounted. He grew up in a household where creativity and artistry was “the family business.”
He spent his teen years performing at talent shows, open mics, and coffee houses before meeting his future manager during a session as a demo singer. “I ended up singing an original song for the people I was supposed to be singing demos for,” revealed Raffoul. “One thing lead to another. Everyone thinks it happens right away. That was it and now you’re here, but it’s a longer process.”
Signing with his manager four years ago was a turning point that jumpstarted his career as a musician. “Wow, that is kind of crazy to think about,” he said with brief astonishment at how fast the time has passed. “That was the first time I thought this could be a big deal.”
His debut album is set to be released later this year. The pressure for a new artist to make a lasting and memorable first impression is not something that is lost on the songwriter. “I think what I’m trying to do on the album is something that sets me up so that I could take it in a couple different directions while still being one identity,” Raffoul says adding that while the album has an unmistakeable rock influence, there are introspective moments more in tune to that of a singer songwriter as well.
Artists are presented with the challenge of wanting to show versatility while also presenting a united image and style. Complete creative freedom does not often fit within the confines of a recognisable brand. “They say it’s a bad thing. You need to be selling people on one thing. At the same time, I want to be all these different things,” says Raffoul. Still, he sees the whole process as an opportunity for growth. “They can always be better,” he says self-deprecatingly of his songs.
If there is one thing he knows with certainty, it is his love of performing for an audience. Like the many moments he watched his father connect with a crowd of strangers, Raffoul is eager to show people what he is made of. “I don’t know when I’m going to break out of this stage that I’m in, I don’t take it for granted, but I go into rooms and the majority of the people in front of me do not know who I am,” he shared.
It is an opportunity he relishes in. “Obviously, when you start that is what it is supposed to be like. I haven’t gotten to a place where there’s been anything different than that. I love it. You go on stage and no one knows who you are, and they’re not expecting anything. It’s your job to get them involved. Once you’re big, you don’t get to do that again so I’m trying to appreciate that as much as possible. Just going out there and getting people to experience something and feel something. That is the goal at the end of the day.”
Later that night he opened the show to an unfamiliar audience ready to be someone they would remember. His soulful, story-filled voice won the crowd over before the first chorus concluded. Looking out over the countless people with their eyes transfixed on the stage, each thoughtful verse was met with more bobbing heads nodding in approval to the beat. With each song, cheers grew louder, and strangers swayed as they became new fans.
Words by Sarah Midkiff