David Oyelowo Worked With His Family to Write Music for His Directorial Debut ‘The Water Man’

The Water Man
Courtesy of Karen Ballard/RLJE Films

The theme at the heart of David Oyelowo’s directorial debut, “The Water Man,” is the strength of families. Opening May 7, the feature revolves around Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), a boy who ventures out to find the Water Man — a mythical figure with healing powers who might be able to cure his terminally ill mother, Mary, played by Rosario Dawson.

Family also played a central role when it came to creating the film’s sonic landscape. While composer Peter Baert crafted much of the film’s score, Oyelowo’s wife, Jessica, had already contributed some songs.

“David wanted my character, Missus Bakemeyer, to be playing the piano when Gunner comes to the bookstore,” explains Jessica Oyelowo, a musician and composer who makes a cameo appearance. “We were trying to find a piece of music that I could play where we wouldn’t have to deal with all the licensing. I said, ‘Why don’t I write something that I can play?’”

She ended up making an even bigger contribution to the movie when her husband was looking for music that would connect Gunner and Mary on an intimate level. “Caleb’s Lullaby” was a deeply personal song for the Oyelowo family, since Jessica had sung it to their son when he was a toddler. For the film, she added new lyrics to reflect the scene.

The family affair didn’t stop there. “David was looking for something uplifting and upbeat, but not something like a giant hip-hop beat that would hit viewers over the head,” Jessica Oyelowo says of the end-credits song. She wrote and produced “My Son,” which features a collaboration with their elder son, 19-year-old aspiring musician Asher.

“David could hear the song in his head, but he couldn’t create it, so the three of us sat down and we talked it through,” she explains. The song “was loosely based on the same chord sequences and ideas [as the lullaby], but it has an Afrobeat.”

With those notes, Asher Oyelowo created most of the music in his bedroom. “Asher’s voice is on there,” Jessica Oyelowo says with pride. “He sings the vocal breakdowns.”

The songs, says Baert, boost the score, which focuses on two motifs, “the motherly energy and the Water Man energy” that help tie the film together.

Baert contributed to the final song from a COVID-safe studio in Belgium, with a live ensemble.

“We had nine musicians,” he says, “four strings, two woodwinds and two brass, all in separate rooms, and added this nice African sound that pays homage to David’s Nigerian roots.”