Cleveland’s Orlando Watson Blends Soul, R&B and Hip-Hop on Sophomore Effort

click to enlarge Orlando Watson. - Courtesy of Orlando Watson
Courtesy of Orlando Watson
Orlando Watson.
Music runs deep in Cleveland native Orlando Watson’s family.

“I grew up around music,” says the local singer-songwriter in a recent phone interview. At the end of last year, Watson released Corner Stories, a terrific album of tunes that draws from soul, R&B, spoken word and hip-hop. “My grandfather was a pastor in Painesville for 40 or 50 years. My mother played organ and my aunt played piano and my other aunt was a choir director and sang and I played drums. I was around music on my father’s side. Everyone could sing, and they were involved in an R&B group called the Determinations.”

Watson didn’t start writing seriously until he was 16 and took a creative writing course. With “a notebook full of poems,” he went to the Lyrical Rhythms open mic night at the B-Side Lounge in Cleveland Heights, and that was the first time he did a public reading.

“I fell in love with spoken word there,” he says. “I took a liking to a lot of the poetry. My cadences and rhythm patterns come from the drums; it’s all very percussive.”

It took a minute, but accolades and recognition finally started coming Watson’s way. In 2015, he received the prestigious Kente Cloth by the Office of Diversity & Inclusion at Ohio State University alongside political commentator Dr. Marc Lamont Hill. His 2017 debut EP, Everything’s Personal, peaked at No. 18 on iTunes R&B/Soul charts. Tours with Lalah Hathaway and Chantae Cann’s followed in 2018. The following year, Watson was selected as a finalist to compete at the Jazz in the Gardens poetry slam in Miami, FL. His poetry has been published in Linden Avenue Literary Journal as well as Five 2 One Magazine, and he currently serves as the Associate Director for the Tri-C JazzFest.

Corner Stories, his sophomore LP, peaked at No. 14 on iTunes top 200 R&B/Soul charts upon its release on Watson's independent label Well Said Records. He recorded some of the album at the Gil & Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts located at Tri-C Metro campus.

“My son motivated me to start my own label,” says Watson. “I have two little ones, and I’m always thinking about legacy and longevity. When it’s all said and done for me, whether or not I can maintain the tone and timbre of my voice and whether I can walk and perform on stage, I want to leave them with something. I called it Well Said Records because my son’s name is Maxwell. It’ll help if he takes a liking to music, so he’ll have something from it.”

For Corner Stories, Watson aimed to create a “melting pot” of styles and sounds that defies categorization.

“My motto is ‘stay distinct’ and people tell me that I walk a very ambiguous line between poetry and hip-hop,” he says. “What I decided to do was incorporate my love for different genres. Poetry will always be the root and the foundation of who Orlando Watson is. It’s the foundation of my brand. I can rap when necessary, and I can hold a tune when necessary. I don’t ever see myself labeling myself as a singer or rapper or anything like that. I’m content to be a lyricist and writer. I just know words. They’ve become like tools on my belt to the give the record or song what it needs. Corner Stories is a melting pot of styles and sounds and directions.”

Watson says he wrote “Glory,” a funky tune with a slapping bass riff and a Prince-like vibe, with local singer Bri Bryant in mind.

“I wrote that song in 2018, and I wanted her and husband to sing on the record,” Watson says. “I’ve known Bri and her husband Jon for a long time. We were supposed to record in 2018, and we had this studio session scheduled, and they had an emergency, so we had to scrap the session. I write with a distinctive vision in mind. I knew I wanted one or both of them on the record. Instead of moving on with a different artist, I just shelved the song. I reached back out to Bri. The blessing about the pandemic for me was that everyone was home. I was able to get these records done with locally based friends who were looking to stay creative and stay sane.”

Bryant’s husband Jon appears on a separate track on the album.

While much of the album takes a serious tone, Watson lightens the mood with “Sunday Moanin’,” a good old-fashioned hip-hop skit.

“Man, I have all types of characters and voices in my head,” Watson says. “I miss the incorporation of skits on albums. I grew up on Outkast and 2Pac and stuff like that. They always had skits on their records. I have a faith-based background, so I’ve always had that preacher’s voice and I just added some sexual innuendo behind the whole preacher’s thing. People get a kick out of that one.”

Next month, Watson hits the road with Chris Coles’ 9 Lives Project dedicated to the victims of the South Carolina church shooting. He’ll also participate in a week-long residency at the Joyce Theatre in New York for internationally renowned tap dancer Michaela Marino-Lerman and will perform with Cleveland’s Bobby Selvaggio at Severance Hall in May, a few days before he hits the road with Emmy award winning saxophonist Braxton Cook to play at Massachusetts Institute of Technology alongside Terri Lyne Carrington and Sean Jones.

And if that weren’t enough, he’s collaborating with Northeast Ohio native Dominick Farinacci on Modern Warrior, a piece about Staff Sergeant Jaymes Poling.

“It really addresses the stigma that comes with the trauma of war veterans as they try to re-acclimate to civilian life after that life is behind them,” says Watson. “It’s a very moving production. I helped write some of the script and I’m also performing in that production.”

On top of all that, Watson recently became a father for the second time.

“Those are just a few things on the docket,” Watson says rather humbly.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.