For the past 20 years, the smooth voice of Will Downing has been a steady presence in the R&B world. Born in Brooklyn, the Grammy-nominated artist has released 13 albums and is well-loved for his synthesis of jazz and soul. But in January, four months into his latest recording project, Downing, 43, was diagnosed with polymyositis, a rare muscular disease that causes weakness and is often debilitating. There is no cure for polymyositis, though patients often show improvement with steroids, immunosuppressants and physical therapy. Still, from the start, Downing refused to be defeated. Though he found himself unable, at times, to stand up, he was determined to keep working. His 13th album, After Tonight, was released on October 30.

How has your life changed since you were diagnosed with polymyositis?
It’s changed in every way possible. I was an extremely independent person, always on the go, and this has sidelined me in a major way. I’m working my way back, and I’m learning to be more patient and dependent on people. But, trust me—I go kicking and screaming when I can’t go by myself. The other day, I was in the car with my wife, and I was moving my feet like I was pressing the accelerator and the brake. I’m not accustomed to sitting on the other side of the car.

Is your artistry different since developing polymyositis?
There are so many ways it’s affected my body. It doesn’t allow me to do the things I’m accustomed to doing. As a singer, breathing is everything. It’s the core of it all. I can’t hold my breath as long, and I can’t hold notes as long as I’d like to. But you have to find all kinds of interesting ways to keep doing what you do.

How did you find those new ways?
It’s very difficult. I can’t always do the things I hear in my mind. I have to breathe into different areas of my chest. It’s very frustrating. But it’s all about challenging yourself and not settling. I’ve never been one to give up. If I can’t find one way, I’ll find another. It really challenges your mind. And when you’re in this position, you have to do things to keep yourself occupied—if not, you’ll go crazy. In that way, this project [the album] was a godsend.

Did you ever think you wouldn’t finish making the album?
The thought never even crossed my mind. It’s funny, the people around me were more apprehensive, you know, “We don’t have to do this now.” I was like, “No, no, we can get this thing done.”

You have also done work with the American Stroke Association, and you’ve been in touch with the Myositis Association. Why did you first become involved with health causes?
The work with the American Stroke Association came upon me in an odd way. At the time, they just wanted me to do a voice-over for them, to try to attract an African-American audience. But in the process, I learned how seriously African Americans are affected by stroke, and I instantly said, you know, I want to get more involved. We put together a health initiative called Strike Against Stroke to get people to come forward and get information about stroke.

You’ve said that you have come to deal with the circumstances of this illness, but that you don’t accept it, because you know you’ll overcome it.
That’s right. I’m hoping for 100 percent recovery. It’s a slow process—your mind and your body are two totally different entities. Your mind might be saying, Get up and run! And your body’s saying, Hell, no. But what keeps me going is seeing improvement. If there’s something I did today that I couldn’t do yesterday and that I want to surpass tomorrow, then I can wake up every day. I can fight back. Like everyone else, I have my good and bad days. But when I have my bad days, I don’t let them bring me all the way down. I’m too young for that. I’m fighting every day.