Monday is Water Seed rehearsal day at Lou Hill’s house—every Monday at 11:30 a.m. The strictly observed regimen is just one example of the New Orleans funk-pop band’s quest to excel.
Water Seed’s final rehearsal in the month of May happened on the Memorial Day holiday, when many people were taking the day off. “Not too many people gig at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, so it’s a great day,” band leader and drummer Hill said that afternoon as he sat in his living room with Water Seed singers Berkley the Artist and Shaleyah (who also plays percussion), and singer-flutist Cinese Love. Many people, Berkley said, “aren’t awake at 11:30 a.m. on Monday. We are.”
Wide awake. Eyes on the prize. Working while others are sleeping. Striving to make their dreams come true. “Our rehearsals are focused and demanding,” the upbeat Hill said. “They’re different from rehearsals I’ve done with other bands. We may come to rehearsal and work on an intro for 30 minutes. And then we’ll run dance moves for an hour. Then we’ll talk about an arrangement and what worked and what didn’t work on stage. And if you come into our rehearsal and haven’t practiced the music in advance, or you don’t know the tunes, you won’t last long. I think of it this way: If you have intense rehearsals, you can have more fun on stage.”
A few days after Water Seed’s Memorial Day shedding, the band performed at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Ogden After Hours series. Despite the show’s early 6 p.m. start time and the unconventional venue, a full house attended. Seats covered much of the floor in the museum’s 130-year-old, church-like Patrick F. Taylor Library, but many people preferred to stand up, dancing and grooving. The concert included Water Seed’s original songs—a gumbo of R&B, pop, gospel, funk, jazz fusion, even prog-rock—as well as reinventions of “Thank You for Being a Friend” (more Golden Girls theme than the Andrew Gold original) and Radiohead’s “Creep.”
Following the Ogden Museum performance, the band launched a nine date tour of the West Coast. On July 5, the group will perform at the 25th anniversary Essence Festival. A veteran of major New Orleans festivals, Water Seed is delighted about its return to Essence, its third appearance at the event. “We’re playing Friday,” Berkley said, “when a lot of big New Orleans artists are performing: Ledisi, PJ Morton, Luke James. I’m so happy to be in the Superdome with people who are from this ground who have made it. That’s what’s up. We’re getting super tight and ready for this big moment.”
“Like Rocky training for the big fight,” Shaleyah agreed.
“We’ll pull out all the stops,” Hill added, “Go crazy and just have a great time.” In 2013, Essence was the first major gig Water Seed played after New Orleans native Hill’s return to the city, following years of post-Hurricane Katrina exile in Atlanta. Hill founded Water Seed at Xavier University in the early 2000s. It evolved from a songwriting project to a national touring act that’s sent two albums into the Billboard charts. Tours have taken Water Seed to the Apollo Theater and The Bitter End in New York City, The Mint in Los Angeles, and Martyr’s in Chicago. The group also played a three-month residency in the Russian resort city of Khabarovsk. “They love American culture,” Hill said of the Russians. “Michael Jackson passed away while we were there and, everywhere we went, for two months, people were blasting ‘Beat It.’”
Meet Water Seed
On stage, Berkley, Shaleyah, and Love form Water Seed’s theatrical front line. Dressed to impress, they sing, dance and strike dramatic poses. Priority though the music is, the band also features the old-school showmanship of Morris Day, James Brown and Prince in its party mix. “We pay attention to every detail,” Hill said. “I remember watching documentaries about Motown greats and James Brown. They left nothing untouched. You weren’t getting on Michael Jackson’s stage unless you were looking good. And you had to move right and sound amazing. They laid out the blueprint for how it should be done. We’re just following it to the best of our ability as indie artists. When we get some real money, we will bring in the elephants, tight ropes, and pyro. I can’t wait.”
Like Hill, Berkley is a New Orleans native. The band’s newest member, he returned to the city to stay in May following several years in Los Angeles. “Water Seed sucked me into the Water Seed universe,” Berkley said. “And I feel good about being in this band. I work with the most relentless dreamers. We have fought every arrow and bullet that came against us. I’m part of a team with three partners who I can go to war with, and we’re going to all come back with all of our limbs.”
Hill first saw Berkley perform more than a decade ago at The Chocolate Bar on South Broad Avenue. “He put on this crazy show,” Hill recalled. “This dude flying across the stage, doing all kind of stuff. He was not like any other person I’d seen performing in New Orleans. His performance was operatic, a full presentation, not just standing in one spot—very exciting.”
In 2009, shortly after Water Seed’s three-month engagement in eastern Russia, Hill contacted Berkley about joining the band, but the singer was committed to another project at the time. In 2013, Hill reached out to him again after Water Seed’s move from Atlanta to New Orleans. After some negotiation about how they’d work together, Berkley and Hill began co-writing. “Unlike a lot of musicians,” Hill said, “especially here at home in New Orleans, we didn’t play on a stage together at first. We began recording first, just to see if it would work. We focused on one tune and went back and forth. There was push and pull and a lot of compromise—but we still got an end result that both of us loved.”
“There are times,” Berkley said, “when you have to put your ego and pride on the side. You even have to put your idea aside, because that may not be the idea that gets us moving forward. We constantly submit ourselves, in humility, to one another, in order to reach our goal.”
Hill and Berkley’s first writing collaboration became the elegantly funky “Open Sesame.” Featured on Water Seed’s studio album, We Are Stars, as well as the band’s in-concert release, Say Yeah!! Live at The Blue Nile, it’s among the band’s most successful songs to date. “From there,” Berkley said, “it’s just been figuring out how to make it all work, no matter what.”
Love and Shaleyah joined Water Seed during Hill’s post-Katrina era in Atlanta. Love, a native of Pasadena, California, moved to Georgia’s capital city in the wake of being downsized from a corporate job in Washington, D.C. “I just decided to pack my stuff up and go to Atlanta,” she said. “I dreamed about getting back into music. I wanted to play flute again. I put an ad on Craigslist and Lou hit me up.”
At the time, Hill was living in Atlanta’s Fourth Ward. “I was broke after Katrina, and the outside of my house looked like an abandoned building,” he said. “But inside was nice.”
“I went to Lou’s house to audition,” Love recalled. “This was before the Fourth Ward became gentrified. I was by myself and the area was real suspect.” Approaching Hill’s red front door, Love said, “I had a knife in my purse. But Lou opened the door, and I walked in and auditioned. I’ve been in the band ever since.”
Hill moved to Atlanta in 2005, displaced like thousands of other New Orleanians by the flood that followed Katrina. He’d returned to his hometown the previous year following two-and-a-half years in Washington, D.C. In August 2005, as Katrina approached, the drummer and songwriter initially had no intention of leaving town. “But a friend of mine made me go with him to Atlanta,” he said. “I’m thankful he did. I grabbed all the stuff that I was working on, grabbed my instruments and got in the car. I have the same story everybody has. You think you’ll be gone two weeks, but it turned into several years.”
Making lemonade from Katrina’s lemons in Atlanta, Hill expanded upon the music business knowledge he’d gained in D.C. Unlike New Orleans, he said, “The record labels and booking companies are right there in Atlanta—not 1,500 miles away. If you were on your game and you sent the proper email or you met the right person, it was great. I made a lot of connections that, still to this day, sustain our business.”
Hill’s residence in Atlanta led to the addition of longtime Water Seed members Love, who joined in 2007, and Shaleyah, a member since 2009. When Hill told his bandmates he wanted to come home to New Orleans, they agreed to make the move, too. “I just said, ‘Whoever’s game, come with me,’” Hill recalled. “And everybody said ‘okay.’ And I’ll always come home. This is New Orleans. It gets in you.”
Love was quickly down with the idea of moving with Water Seed to New Orleans. “For a few years, we were coming here to play once a month,” she said. “And I had never been to New Orleans prior to Katrina. So, I was, like ‘What is this place? Oh, my gosh.’ I fell in love with the culture. And I felt like I’d stayed in Atlanta too long. I was ready to go. When Lou brought it to the band, I was like, ‘My bags are ready.’”
The move wasn’t so easy for Shaleyah. Originally from Houston, she’d moved to Atlanta to attend college and be a singer-songwriter. “I hadn’t foreseen myself moving here,” Shaleyah said. “But Lou thought it was best for the band, and it was in conjunction with a major opportunity we had with Essence Festival. I didn’t have any family here in New Orleans, but I took the leap. Water Seed, that is my family. We’re down for each other.”
Hill had made his first move away from New Orleans immediately after his college graduation. Berkley had left town to attend college in Minnesota. They both wanted to expand their horizons. “I packed a Honda Accord,” Hill recalled, “with everything I had, and moved to D.C., without a job. New Orleans taught me a lot, but when you’re comfortable in the womb of New Orleans, you don’t grow.”
“Very much like Lou,” Berkley said, “I needed to leave and become a bit more sophisticated and be able to compete.”
Hill’s D.C. experiences were eye-opening. “D.C. was the first place I moved to where it didn’t matter if you could play or not,” he said. “No one really cared. And the people around me who were breaking into the industry, they weren’t necessarily talented. It was about who they knew, their brand, the image, the look. They were okay singers, but in New Orleans, the average people get wiped out because people here are amazing. But in D.C., an average guy who can barely sing in key was on the radio. That was culture shock. I’d been taught all my life to not even knock on the door until you reach a level of mastery. But in D.C., people not only knocked doors down, they built houses off of not even level-one mastery. So, I had to put two and two together. ‘Okay, I’m missing something.’ And it was the business part of it.”
A few years later in Atlanta, Hill continued cultivating his music business knowledge. “I always describe it like this,” he explained. “D.C. was high school music business school for me. Atlanta was college-level. And music is a hard-ass business. You need thick skin. You’re going to get knocked down, but you’ve got to get up and get up stronger.”
Besides strength and perseverance, the commitment to growth that’s expressed by the band’s name, Water Seed, is key to the mission. Hill’s passion for the music of Earth, Wind & Fire inspired his band’s moniker. “In college, I loved the fact that the words ‘earth, wind and fire’ had no musical meaning before the band Earth, Wind & Fire. “I wanted to create something we could build the sound for. It came to me in dream. Water, seed. Water represents knowledge. Seed represents growth. We’re always striving to grow, refine ourselves as people, musicians and as a band.”
“Living up to the name,” Shaleyah agreed.
Billboard chart showings for Water Seed’s two latest albums show the band’s progress on a national scale. The group’s 2018 album, Say Yeah!! Live at The Blue Nile, debuted on four Billboard charts, including a Top 20 spot in R&B albums. The Billboard chart entry for We Are Stars, made the year before, surprised Water Seed. “Somebody called,” Hill remembered. “They’re like, ‘I think you guys are in the charts.’ I checked the charts and, bam, it was there. And then our live album put us on tour again, sending us around the country.”
Water Seed, Hill said, “is a funk-pop thing. That’s a category that I guess we’re coining. If you want to call it R&B, that’s cool, but it has different edges on it. It’s everything about being New Orleans, about being Black, about everything we are and our journey. It’s danceable music, but it’s also heartfelt music that tells a story. And it’s about the human experience. The culture that we’ve created is the future funk stars. It’s a society of people who belong. They’re like us, a little different but proud of whom they are. They unapologetically represent everything that’s true to them. That’s our tribe, those are our people. If you’re talking about the sound, it is funk-pop, but ultimately it’s a movement.”
“The music represents all of our influences,” Love said. “People refer to it as a gumbo. It’s a multilayered sound and very inclusive. We’re the bridge.”
Beyond the band’s far-reaching artistic and professional ambitions, Berkley notes that Water Seed is, all the while, on a mission to deliver a good time. “It’s fun, sexy music,” he said. “It’s what your mama wanna hear and what her daughter wanna dance to. It’s just boom-boom. At a Bruno Mars concert, you have 13-year-olds and their grandmothers at the same show, because it’s just good music. That’s what we do. We give people a show for their ears. Make you wanna dance, make you wanna fall in love, make you wanna go fight for what you want. All of us are strong people, but we’re tender people at the same time.”
New music from Water Seed will sprout soon. The band’s collective songwriting has been flowing enough to yield material for two new albums. That means a return to the charts may be in the band’s future. “It’s gonna be so good,” Berkley said of Water Seed’s forthcoming recordings.
“But we’re perfectionists,” Hill added. “We’re refining the songs. We’ll sneak one or two of them on stage and perform them and be like, ‘How did the crowd respond?’ Stay tuned.”
Water Seed will appear at ESSENCE Fest on July 5.