★★★  Inter Act  ★★★
with
David Whitley
David Whitley
photographed by Ulrich Wolf
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Emma:
What are your earliest recollections of singing?
David:
I was born in Washington, D.C. and I started singing in the church from the age of 4 years old, in Washington, D.C..

When I moved to New York, I was 17. I went to Manhattan School of Music, where I got my Bachelors; then I went to Juilliard School of Music where I got got my Masters but when I was at Juilliard, I was asked to come sing for The Boys Choir of Harlem - because they have adults, as well as kids.
Emma:
I see.
David:
I was about 22 when I sang with the Boys Choir of Harlem.
Emma:
So when you were 4 and singing, that was predominantly an adult choir or community choir, or all-age choir? How was it?
David:
All-age choir - it started out by doing the Easter performances, like ‘Noah's Ark’....
Emma:
Oh yes, lovely.
David:
...and then I realized (well we all realized) that I had a gift for performing and I loved it. I loved the adulation and the applause!
Emma:
And why not?
Laughter
David:
And I still do! But at the time, it was really just about the message of the gospel and being part of the church; that's how it all began.
Emma:
Fabulous, a really good place to start. So obviously gospel and faith culture is at the back of it a lot, as well, for you?
David:
Absolutely, yes.
Emma:
It's kind of difficult to talk about now, the world is in such a mess - I think mentioning faith sets a lot of fires going for people, doesn't it, and it's really awkward...
David:
It makes people feel uncomfortable but at the same time, we have to realize that this pandemic is not God's fault; he didn't sanction it to destroy or hurt people. Actually, you can see how we are handling it - some people believe there is a pandemic, some people don't; and some people wear masks, some people don't.
Emma:
I think it's very mixed, yes. I think people become more of what they are, so very good people become even better and not so great people just kind of separate themselves from it.
David:
Wow, that's a great way of looking at it - I never thought about it that way - but it is that way.
Emma:
But there have been positives - it's just a very surreal experience, obviously.
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Emma:
Right, the next question is about ‘The Voice’ and obviously that's the one people will identify with perhaps more readily, because of the screen interaction and seeing you through that. What was it like getting ready for it and in the middle of the process - and then how did things change afterwards?
David:
There was a friend of mine who had done it the year before, named Dennis Legree, and he kept asking - he said, “David, they're coming to audition in Europe, in Stuttgart in Germany, where you are” and I said, “I don't want be on a reality TV show. I already know I can sing; I don't need anyone to tell me I can sing” - and it was up until the two days before the audition, he said, “Did you register yet?” I said, “No” - he said, “Do it now!” and I did, just because he was really pestering me - and I'm so grateful he did because it was an amazing experience and I honestly did not know if anyone would turn around - it is not that I doubt my gift, it’s just that I thought these things were rigged.
Emma and David
Emma:
There are a lot of variables, aren't there, on these programmes?
David:
There are a lot of variables and you don't always know if you're good enough for what they are looking for - because at the end of the day, they want to sell a product.
Emma:
Of course - and the programme has to show a whole range of things for different reasons, doesn't it?
David:
It has to, or it doesn't work. I did the audition, the regular audition, and I made it to the show - and then actually to do the show (answering your question more specifically) I realized, wow, when they all turned around and then they started questioning me about where I came from and ‘alles auf deutsch’, everything in German! It was a great experience, it was very real but at the end of the day, it’s not just based on talent but on what they can sell.
Emma:
Of course and the appeal factor, I think, and the variety of the appeal as well.
David:
Exactly.
Emma:
That's useful for youngsters to know because a lot of them think that that's the career. That's the one thing I have an issue with, sometimes, with things on television - it's that they only see one person in a box and they don't realize that there's a whole bunch of people that you've got to work around...
David:
Absolutely.
Emma:
...so that's a really useful thing for them to hear, I think.
David:
Yes, I hope it helps someone.
They gave me really great songs - you don't pick your songs!
Emma:
No, that's the other thing that can be not so great, I would think, probably?
David:
Also, there's another misconception, like “Why did you choose that song?” and they don't even ask you during the interview with you! You come up with something diplomatic “well because...” - but they gave me great songs, so I was grateful.
Emma:
I mean if you really didn't like something, could you actually say “I don't think that's going to work”, or not really?
David:
You can say it; I did, for the last song. I sang ‘When Love Takes Over’, by Kelly Rowland and David Guetta; I said “that's not a good song for me!” - and of course it wasn't! That came right after having sung ‘A Song For You’ (which had been sung by Donny Hathaway), which was magical.
Emma:
Yes, beautiful.
David:
“And if you really want to help me continue to go forward, give me songs like a slow ballad - not these techno songs!” - but it was my time.
Emma:
Yes; and I think if you can embrace all of it and take with it the slightly unknown elements as well and, as you say, separate it from what you know you're capable of doing - because if you have good self-knowledge (which I think you have to have if you're going to perform), you've got to know, yourself, when it's okay and when it's not; then the other things bounce off you more, don't they? - you can cope with them better.
David:
You can cope with them better but I will have to be very honest with you, it did hurt, to not go forward - because it's a big shock, you don't expect it. You're going along, you're going along, you're going along, you're competing and you're doing your best and you're giving your best - even when you know the song is not for you and even in the moment. If you look back at the videos, I still sang better than people I was against.
Emma:
Oh that's often so true though. People sit at home, watching the telly, and go, “No! Why?!”
David:
Exactly - it's that element of surprise and also the unknown.
Emma:
Yes; but overall, you think it was a good thing to do and you're glad you did it?
David:
I'm glad I did it, overall. I wouldn't do it again, not now, and to further answer your question “how has it been afterwards?”, that was 2013 and I'm still getting job offers, having simply been on ‘The Voice’.
Emma:
Wow, that's great; OK, that's really helpful, thank you.

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Emma:
So my next question is: I love teaching singing everything from jazz to opera and always have done, which is very similar to your scenario. As you've got experience of all these different genres: gospel, jazz musical theatre, pop and opera, do you have a favourite, for you?
David:
For me, R&B and soul and gospel, that's where I live. Everything else has been learned.
Emma:
Okay.
David:
Opera I don't sing anymore but musical theatre is really what pays my bills. In fact, right now, I'm supposed to be at the Semperoper in Dresden, doing a musical but that's been cancelled - but not cancelled, it's just been postponed because of the Covid situation.
Emma:
That's good, so it should come back.
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Emma:
My next question is about uniqueness of singers and having to tailor things to a person. There are certain givens that you can give people as a general thing but, on the whole, I think everyone comes at it their own way. Do you agree with that?
David:
I absolutely agree with it and I'm not a fan of trying to make one person sound like another person because there are so many unique qualities about your voice that are different from my voice. If you put them together, that could be so electric but if you just take your voice and do what you do, it's perfect as it is.

So when I teach, I try to find the individual because a lot of people come in and they are so disillusioned - there are the Adeles, the Whitney Houstons, the Mariah Careys, the Beyoncés - those are the exceptions to all the rules.
Emma:
Yes, I know - and that's the thing that makes it great for some people to hear - and that's their kind of guiding light and then they only listen to that - it's hard.
David:
I think all those artists should be taken off every karaoke machine!
Emma:
I think certainly Whitney! Never, ever, ever try a Whitney song! The girls come in and I go, “No, don't do it, ever!”
Laughter
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Emma:
What useful things came out of 2020 for you?
David:
It's been an eye-opener for me and, of course, there's been a lot of hurt that I've experienced from people I've lost, personally. Of course, loss of income but that's the least of it all.

What's opened my eyes is the humanity. I've seen so much beauty around me, the love that's pouring out, I could cry. There are so many people who have just stepped up that I didn't know would step up - and they're hurting as well - but we're making it all happen and working with each other.

So I've seen the humanity in people and also just the creative ways... for instance, everything is closed but I still want to sing, so every week I go somewhere where I can sing safely and that I'm allowed to go. I sing everything; I just go through my repertoire list - not every day - I just do five songs and then the next time, I do five different songs. So I've been doing that for months now. It's so good to keep the voice going because it WILL be over!
Emma:
It will, I know. At the beginning, there was no promise of anything, was there? I couldn't make a noise. I was so stunned, to start with; then later on, when I started to sing, it was so emotional, as a release. I thought, “For goodness sake, why haven't I done this straightaway?” - but your brain kicks in, doesn't it?
David:
Yes, you don't have to beat yourself up about what you haven't done; just be grateful that you got to a place where you can say, “I'm going to go forward with this, now” - and I do. Also vocalizing; I still teach, so that's helpful - but not enough for your actual voice.
Emma:
I think it's very hard for people who like live interaction. It's very unreal, a very strange way to be at the moment, isn't it?
David:
It is. It can be daunting and there's a lot of depression. I had a friend who killed himself, I'm sorry to say. He's in Berlin (well was in Berlin) and it’s devasting.
Emma:
I think, for most people, the having no sense of where it's going is what's got people; this sort of endless..., like we don't know - it's very hard to get your head round and, as you say, some people just didn't manage it at all; very difficult.
David:
Very difficult, yes; the thing is we don't see the end, we still don't see the end.
Emma:
It's got to move. We can't all stay like this forever, it's mad!
David:
Did you receive any kind of help at all?
Emma:
Yes, our government did us various schemes for... well it fell for some people and not for others. So luckily, because I have done this for a long time, I'm the kind of person they could do an estimate for and do a support thing, based on what I've done before - but for people who are only freelance and do single unit jobs, rather than the same activity, some of them have not had the best time at all. One of my performing friends is probably at a point, now, where she could exist on a rough year or half-year but she's got a lot of colleagues who, perhaps, have done more spaced out work and they've just had the worst time and no money; and some people have been on TV programmes saying “I'm selling my house because I can't survive...”; it's just monstrous what's happened to people - really, a very mixed experience. Some people have carried on - but many people in our realm have had absolutely hideous years, so it's been very different for everyone; it's really strange, really strange.
David:
Can you imagine how devastating it is? - I have friends who were going to make their Metropolitan Opera débuts - you work your whole life for that one moment in time and it's taken away.
Emma:
Awful. It is a very, very weird time and I think we will look back and see it in a lot of different ways as well, probably - but we're getting through it, somehow
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Emma:
So the next question was going to be: do you sing everyday? Well you've answered that one!
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Emma:
And the next one you've also answered a bit already: your tone is gorgeous and there is a truthfulness in it...
David:
Oh, thank you.
Emma and David
Emma:
...is it easier, live, or would you say easier when you do recordings? I was wondering because I have done some studio work; when you've got cans on, I find it quite weird because you're hearing it very differently - and I never thought I was so much a ‘live’ animal until I started doing more recording and then you realize that you get so much more back, live. So I like both. Do you feel that they are very different, or do you like one more than the other?
David:
They're very different and I need both. Both of them are very important: studio work and also live stage; and with the cans, what I do is I have one on and one off, so I can hear it live as it is being produced - it's a different way of singing. I have a student - he's always loud! I say “Why are you screaming? You don't need to scream the words: ‘I love you’, you can say ‘I love you’ gently!” The colours as well - I find that in studio singing, I try to embody that a little bit more, so that you can feel it - because you don't see the expression, you don't see the movement of anything, so you have to bring all of that to the voice.
Emma:
Exactly. It's a bit more structured internally, isn't it? You're thinking it, aren't you, not in a venue, giving it, but kind of painting it here.
David:
Absolutely.
Emma:
I like both but I just find them very, very different - and it's interesting that you say you like doing both and you need both.
David:
I like both and I need both.
Studio's a very special place, I never get bored in the studio, I never get tired of it. I love it because you can always do stuff over - whereas live, once it's done, once it leaves you, it's left.
Emma:
I had a really funny experience with some students actually - centering around the sorts of habits that you highlight to them about 15 times; you get them to do one session and play it back and they go “Do you know, I do that 'thing'” and you go “Yes, I've told you 15 times!” but when they hear it, they go “Oh yes!”
David:
It's very true. You know what's interesting? I started studying voice when I was 15, with Dorothy Dash in Washington, D.C. and the things that she told me about breathing and just technique - that's finally starting to make sense now! It's a total life-long process and people shouldn't get discouraged - I'm fascinated at people who get coupons, especially during Christmas; a lot of people have paid me to teach their husbands for one lesson and he would have the lesson and realize, “okay, this is not as easy as I thought it would be”.

Everyone wants to sing - but you don't have to do it for a living. I encourage everyone to sing: it's healing.
Emma:
Oh gosh, I think that's the most important part of it, it's entirely that and, even for people who don't know what noise they're making or care very much, if you get a noise out of your body then it's a really healthy thing to do because it's getting something away from you that you don't need, at the moment, and it's so good to do it. That's why I think it's awful that people aren't - but WE WILL!
David:
And it's therapy, it's healing. Even the Bible says “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. It doesn't say “You have to sound like Luciano Pavarotti”.
Emma:
No, exactly, although that's nice!
David:
There are many different levels to making a noise!
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Emma:
Now the next question is about your training: how did it shape your path, with Juilliard and the other institutions; did each place have a different impact, or did it just take you along a different bit for a while?
David:
Great question. What I've realized is that I do some jobs where I think “I went to Juilliard to do this?!” - like I did a jingle, for example - but I never forget one teacher saying “Success has nothing to do with what you reach, it's about sustaining yourself and being creative and also finding ways when there are no ways”. So I feel that each rôle has played a part; I never look back and think “I didn't really need to do that” - because they all led into the next thing.
Emma:
Of course - brilliant; that's a brilliant way to think.
David:
The people you meet along the way... you only meet in that one institution, or that one gig, or that one circumstance that you happen to find yourself in, so it's all different.
Emma:
That's such a great answer and its right because it's people, really - you're about connecting with people through the thing that comes out of your mouth, so that's a lovely 'link' to have with people but you still need the people - and that's really what it's for. So that's a great answer, thank you.
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Emma:
What positive thoughts do you have you for any singers who are starting out now? I have some great girls who've really kept going and tried their darnedest this year but, when you're thinking down the line for them, it's quite hard to imagine what we're going to be doing.
David:
True. I think one thing (that you know) is something about this passion - even if I wasn't paid (don't tell a soul! no you can, you know I'm just being facetious!) I would still do it, even if I wasn't being paid because I love, enjoy everything about singing. I don't know if I was born in a different life and I said, “God, when I come back, I want to be a singer“ and I was told, “Okay, you can” because I feel I've been blessed to do exactly what I do.
Emma:
I'll tell you a funny thing, I have a friend who is a past life regression therapist.
David:
A past life regression therapist - that's amazing.
Emma:
It is amazing and it's a funny thing - it's a similar story. I did my music really early and I've never really been very surprised by anything. I've always thought, all through my life, that I reckon I've been here before, a couple of times at the least, because nothing is really really shocking to me. Anyway, through a very complicated route, I ended up meeting this person and having some sessions with her and it has been mind-blowing - nothing shocking - I don't know what the universe is, or what's there or anything, I don't presume to say - but it kind of consolidates things that I've felt and understood before but not known why; and I do think there's a strong possibility that at least the energy of a person goes round and round and you gather stuff as you go - and I think singers are here to actually declare quite a lot of it and they don't even know what they're declaring, half the time.
David:
True, wow.
Emma:
So maybe you were. So who knows, you could have been, I don't know...anything!
David:
Who knows? So, to encourage your students who don't really see the light at the end of the tunnel, if there is a passion, a real-life passion, you can't stop them.
Emma:
That's true, actually. One of my girls was applying for opera courses and she's a really lovely girl. She got very depressed last year and she stopped for a bit. Then she stood in the garden and we did some lessons, then we did some online and then she decided “I'm going to apply anyway, I'll just have a go” - and she's got a place, she's going. Fantastic.
David:
That’s fantastic!
Emma:
...and because of that, she's blossomed now in a way that is even better than I would have seen - because she's got this fire and this strength in her, from what she went through.
David:
That's really what it's about. Stay motivated. Of course, not every day is going to be as sunny and bright and cheery as the last but I hold on to the fact that it has been sunny and cheery and bright in the past and it can come back.
Emma:
That's wonderful, you're right. If you love it, you'll probably weather it, won't you?
David:
You'll weather it, yes.
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Emma:
How would you describe your sound?
David:
Warm, healing, calming, not loud. Warm - I'm going to say warm.
Emma and David
Emma:
Perfect.
David:
I've never been asked that question!
Emma:
I think it's interesting because I use a lot of visuals with people. I sometimes think, with the thing I'm saying, they might be thinking “What?!” but I know it's more how you feel and what people can get from it, isn't it, as much as what the text is. It's the feeling of the quality of the voice, very important.
David:
And the timbre.
Emma:
Yes, very important.
David:
I love my timbre. Then we get into the vibrato - it's not artificial, it's not too too much, not too little.
Emma:
No, I have a real issue with overdone vibrato. It's a lot of formal training that really encourages it and there's a really fine line - when you go beyond that and you're only in that gear, you can't get your original thing back - and it's a shame, I think, very often.
David:
And right along the same vein, Emma, when you get into a riff - a lot of people ask me “How do you riff?” I find riffing to be - if you sing R&B and soul - to be like salt; you put a little bit in the pot, you don't have to over-salt it. You destroy the dish if you do, too much is too much.
Emma:
Again, that's the thing of doing something so many times that you know you have choices - the ‘practice’ word, which people don't like! You're just doing it, finding out the best way, with lots and lots of trying.
David:
Absolutely, so true.
Emma:
That's brilliant.
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Emma:
What music do you listen to, if you either want to wind down or kind of boost yourself up?
David:
I listen to a lot of classical music for both reasons: to wind down, or to boost myself up. That's just what I'm so connected to and always have been. I love gospel - that inspires me and gets me so connected to my soul, so I love gospel.
Emma:
Fabulous.
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Emma:
Right, next question: do you have any standout moments, singing or otherwise, that have shaped your life or singing path particularly?
David:
Being on Broadway was a huge thing for me, with The Boys Of Harlem. It was called ‘The Boys Of Harlem with Friends’ and it was at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. So we did that for a while and that was so amazing. It's like you literally count the times that you walk out of the stage door and you count down backwards because you want it to last forever. That was a high moment for me - that was one of those moments that I realized something good was happening, in the moment.
Emma:
Beautiful, that's fab.
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Emma:
Right then: what have you planned for this year, or done, or are in the middle of?
David:
I would like to go home. I'm in Germany right now but I'd love to go home to my mother in Washington, D.C.. I'm just here; not stuck because I'm thriving, I'm doing well, I’m happy and healthy, I can't complain really.
Emma:
We're still here, upright, and able to talk about it - that's probably enough at the moment.
David:
I think we're okay.
Emma:
It's just a weird, weird, weird time. I think there's a way to go, I think there'll be a few more bumps and I think it will...
David:
What's that book in your right hand?
Emma:
Oh it's my questions - but I put it on an old booklet, something called ‘Presents For Men’ but it doesn't exist any more! It's just like a catalogue of things, like blokey presents - so things like compasses, watches and stuff.
David:
Okay, okay, gotcha!
Emma:
There was one in there that I was going to get for one of my goddaughters, which is something called ‘owl puke’, which is disgusting but she's really into animals.
David:
They sell owl puke?
Emma:
Yes but it's disinfected! What they do is they get one with a mouse skeleton inside; because she loves looking at things to do with animals. I thought I could send it to her, to do an experiment at home. When I told her mum, she was really revolted, so I haven't done that!
David:
Owl puke, who knew?
Emma:
Yes, who knew? Every day is a schoolday!
David:
‘Everyday is a schoolday’ - I love that.
Laughter
Emma and David
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Emma:
As an environment for singers, how does Germany differ from the US?
David:
I've felt Europe in general treats artists as artists; they realize it's not a hobby, it's a job.
Emma:
Okay, that's interesting.
David:
In America, I find that you really need to be like... I don't know of artists who get the same help that you spoke of earlier - I received as well - and I have friends on Broadway and when their show was closed, that's it, they got unemployment insurance benefit but they didn't get something from the government that will help them sustain their lifestyle. Friends of mine, colleagues, nobody knew this pandemic was coming but they weren't prepared, really weren't prepared. I wasn't prepared for it, I just paid my taxes and do it every year but if they haven't done theirs for five years the government has nothing to base your income on - they got nothing during this time.
Emma:
It does hold a mirror up to all the things that you do and how you could maybe do them better, or differently, or what you might change. It's done that for everyone, I think, with lots of things.
David:
It's been a mirror, very well said.
Emma:
And Germany is very open to different styles as well, I mean you find enough to feed you?
David:
Yes, they are open to different styles - and, of course, being African-American, they love hearing the spiritual, the gospel - and they even have the choirs that are amazing, you'd be so surprised!
Emma:
That's good to know. I guessed that but I just wanted to check.
David:
I feel embraced, to be honest; I feel embraced living here.
Emma:
Was it ‘Miss Saigon’ that took you there to start with?
David:
Yes it was. It brought me here to live but I'd been here before and during the ‘Best of Broadway’, which was a tour that went all over Germany.
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Emma:
There are only two more questions. One is: what you do when you're not singing?
David:
Ooh, great question! I love to do yoga, I do a lot of yoga.
Emma:
I love yoga, it's so good.
David:
I practise. And I cook a lot. I cook for friends, of course; the social distancing and the rules are you can have one person from one other household. So I just deepen my relationship with the people that I love.
Emma:
Brilliant, brilliant. Cooking, I think, has become a real focus for other people - and sharing, as you say, and taking things to people, if you can't have it with them. It's been an interesting thing; I've done cakes a lot this year (!) and taken them to people, which is cool.
David:
That's so cool. My new thing is I make pasta now! I have a pasta maker, with the ‘KitchenAid’; they have an attachment that makes fettuccine or spaghetti and it's so delicious, so fresh.
Emma:
Lovely, cool, that's great.
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Emma:
The last one is: does your songwriting always happen in the same way?
David:
No - and that's the crazy part because there is no one formula.
Emma:
I don't. I get things in all sorts of ways, that's interesting; and do you do the words and the music?
David:
I just do the words. I have producers that do music and I say how something sounds and how it feels and I write to it. There's no one way. That's why you have to stay open to the moment; you can't say “this worked last time” or “that worked last time”. I try not to let myself get stuck in habits.
Emma:
Yes, that's interesting.
David:
Habits can be deceiving.
Emma:
And they can clamp your creativity as well, somehow. Your brain thinks it's going to go a certain way and it's often not like that at all, is it?
David:
You can miss the point totally because you're not open to what can actually be right in front of your nose. You think you have to search somewhere else, or do what you did in the past, and it can be so much more simple. And sometimes, it can be harder!
Emma:
But that's the point of that experience in that moment, isn't it, to see what it is. So interesting; this is great, David, - thank you, it's fascinating.
David:
You're welcome.
Emma:
Brilliant. So that's all the areas I thought of. Is there anything else? You mentioned about the depression thing a little bit - it's been hard, I think, for some people.
David:
For a lot of people; and I would say I've been really blessed and I'm grateful; like now, we've been through that period in winter when it gets dark at three o'clock, so I'm grateful that the sunshine's brighter and longer that helps a lot. And I've just met with people that I haven't been speaking to for a long time, just to say “Hey, how are you?”
Emma:
That's a lovely aspect, isn't it?
David:
We can ask each other, “How are you?” but not listen to the answer.
Emma:
You're right and I think people who you haven't spoken to for a long time - which may be because sometimes we are being ridiculously busy when we don't need to be - those moments are there, at the moment; it's good just to check in and just say “Hi”, it's important.
David:
Absolutely; very, very true.
Emma:
Fantastic, this as been so fun!
David:
Thank you for asking me, Emma. Take care - bye.
Emma and David
David Whitley
photographed by Tom Eggert
David Whitley is a lovely man with a great take on the world. There is so much to gain from his thoughts here and I thank him so very much for sharing them with us.

You can find out more about his work, his albums and a clip from ‘The Voice’ on David's web site, at:

https://www.david-whitley.com

He is also on Instagram and Facebook:

Instagram: davidbwhitley

Facebook: David B. Whitley

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27th. April, 2021