It’s Friday night at a rehearsal at Smash Studios in Manhattan, New York, as Chantler Townsend goes over the melody for his original song “Dance on the Moon.” Soul and funk singer Townsend is accompanied in the studio by his manager Troy Smith, backup singers Lakesha Williams and Keyana Paterson, and a live band, forming his group New Music Race (NMR). Townsend and his group have been working hard on perfecting their sound for their debut album “Arrival,” set to be released in the early fall.
At age 31, Townsend is built like an athlete and speaks with a soft voice. He sits back in the chair at the recording studio, writing lyrics in his notebook, while to the side of him, members of the band practice the melody they have been working on for the last hour.
The band’s music has elements of funk, soul, and gospel to it, giving it an almost otherworldly feel. Townsend’s smooth yet high-pitched singing voice is reminiscent of musician Cee Lo Green from the music groups Gnarls Barkley and Goodie Mob. His lyrics usually carry messages about relationships and social justice.
Townsend, originally from Richmond, moved to New York in 1996 to seek more exposure for his career in music and dance. He began his singing career at the age of 12 by way of the musical theater stage. His mother, Sylvia Townsend, founded the Art of Ballet School of Dance in Richmond in 1974, and along with his two sisters, Shannon and Roquisha, there Townsend learned strong classical ballet technique and dance versatility. After he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School, Townsend continued to help out at the ballet school as a teacher and choreographer.
“The Bay Area was a good spring-ground for me to get started with my career,” said Townsend. “Working in New York City makes you thick-skinned. There are thousands of people trying to make it just like you, so you have to be ready for rejection.”
While still in the Bay Area, Townsend was cast in the role of Travis Younger in the 11th Street Players Theater Company’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” and he would continue to perform on stage with Berkeley Black Repertory Theater, appearing in “White Fog” alongside actor Danny Glover.
As a teenager, Townsend sang in musical theater productions, and realized his potential as a solo singer when he was cast in the title role of “The Wiz.” Townsend, then in his early twenties, received a scholarship and contract soon after to train and tour with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Townsend took a hiatus from the musical and theater stage and spent the next six years as a dancer, performing and touring with the company.
After a serious leg injury in 2005 forced Townsend off the concert dance stage for a year to recover, he began working behind the scenes as a theater arts director of physical therapy. The theater’s lead sound technician and music producer, Craig Tindel, noticed Townsend’s vocal talents and decided to work with him in the studio writing and recording songs as well as developing and managing a band with Townsend as its lead singer.
For the next four years, Townsend toured with NMR, developing his talent as a lead singer and songwriter. “Finding myself as an artist—never really feeling that complete emotional fulfillment that others get when they are truly doing something they love—was what I searched for,” said Townsend. “I didn’t find that until I started singing again.”
Back in the recording studio, WIlliams rests her voice while Townsend continues to sing under his breath, writing out lyrics on a small notepad he keeps with him whenever he thinks of song ideas. The sound engineer works quietly on the other side of the room, mixing the music to Townsend’s song “You.”
“He’s very friendly and easy to work with,” said Williams as she took a break from rehearsal. “The hardest part about being in a band is getting familiar with other peoples voices and being taken out of your comfort zone.”
After the break, the band practices a song a few times, experimenting with the tempo. Williams and Paterson work on harmonizing their voices. But Townsend doesn’t think the song is quite there yet, and wants to keep going until everyone’s voices are meshing. “This album is a labor of love,” he said. “Whenever I’m in the recording studio, I won’t want to leave until I finished what I started.”