William Topley, born and bred in England, nurtured on a diet of blues and rock and roll, has been building a seriously dedicated fan base in the U.S. ever since the release of Prince of the Deep Water in 1991, his first album with his band The Blessing. Producer Neil Dorfsman (Sting, Dire Straits) described him as “the most original songwriter I’ve heard for years.” The influences, still recognisable in his music, were already there - The Stones, Van Morrison, the best of soul and southern rock. Topley was on his way. The album catapulted The Blessing into a world tour, videos in Jamaica, TV stations in Paris and hockey stadiums in Germany with Simply Red and Level 42.
Legendary Rolling Stones Producer Jimmy Miller, who produced The Blessing’s second album Locusts and Wild Honey, was equally enthusiastic. “They’re right up my alley. I haven’t had such a good relationship with a band since Traffic.” Ever looking for new challenges, Topley decided to go solo for his next album, the atmospheric Black River. And again the fan base grew. Producer Barry Beckett said of Topley: “He’s the best singer I’ve ever heard.” Not bad, coming from a guy who’s worked with Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon.
Next came Mixed Blessing, on which Topley worked with guitarist/songwriter Dominic Miller, best known for his work with Sting. “It’s only a matter of time,” says Dominic about Topley. “Watch this space!” Last year’s album, Spanish Wells, saw Topley straight off a US tour and straight into the studio. For the first time, Topley blended the premeditated songwriting process with the excitement of live musicians making it all happen. “It took me until now to understand the cryptic comment ‘It’s all in the joy of discovery,’ that Jimmy [Miller] made years ago,” says Topley. And this is what Feasting with Panthers is about. The songs, written on and off the road, are a journey of discovery, painted against a big sky… tracing the southern states down the coastline across the Triangle into the Caribbean and the patois melting pot… taking a white ship down to Portobello Bay.
So why Feasting with Panthers ?
“Working in music for 10 years has shown me a world far wider than I would ever have known,” says Topley. “It doesn’t take a poetic sensibility to appreciate Jamaica in moonlight or Spain on a sunny afternoon. But often the most moving moments have happened to me in Belfast or Hamburg or on the lonely highways of the Midwest. I’ve ridden shotgun on the private jet and washed my hair on a cold street in Chicago. I’ve hung out with the cats, seen the Mansion House Blues. When you’re Feasting with Panthers , you witness the extremes of the feast, but you don’t get to eat. And there’s another side to it. Feasting with Panthers is what it feels like whenever I get together with the band and they take the songs to their extremes.”
Topley went into labour with Feasting with Panthers hard on the heels of his last US tour, testing many of the songs live, getting the band (Luke Brighty – guitar, James Eller – bass, Jim Kimberley – drums, Mark Taylor – keyboards) more involved in the organic process of writing and cutting the tracks than ever before. The album was born between touring time with Mark Knopfler, who says of Topley: “He’s big-hearted, emotional and strictly legit.” So what gives the album its edge? Is it all in the voice, as some fans believe? Sure, he gives it some, this carpenter of sound, with his baritone tongue and groove that you just know has travelled some along the journey of discovery. Or is it the new sound textures? The hardened drive with the harp of Simeon Jones or his far from Buena Vista sax. The grace and sleaze backing vocals of Lorraine McIntosh, Rachel Brown and Melanie Redmond. The velvet brass of the Urban Breeze horn section (Niles Hailstones – trumpet, Winston Rose – saxophones, Trevor Edwards – trombone). Or could it be the culture-rainbow presence and guiding hand of producer Brian Tench, who cut the band live in the old Rolling Stones stomping ground of Richmond, Surrey, UK on their now-legendary EMI desk?
The songs endorse the sense of journey.