- Sun, 2006-03-19 12:45
Ne-Yo is Def Jam’s latest RnB sensation. Already kicking up a storm in the US, his first single in the UK is So Sick, a beautiful (and Radio 1 playlisted) track, where he laments hearing love songs on the radio, after splitting with his first love.
Ne-Yo’s skills as a songwriter have already been proven, he is the man behind the massive hit Let Me Love You by Mario and he has also written songs for Mary J Blige and Faith Evans amongst many others. Now he steps out of the songwriting shadows and into the limelight as a huge talent for Def Jam (who are getting their new signings spot on at the moment, with the recent signing of Lady Sovereign), releasing his debut artist album, In My Own Words and So Sick single on Monday 20th March 2006.
I Like Music had the pleasure of chatting to this rising star about his music and Def Jam signing, writing songs for Mary J Blige and Faith Evans, and, how he escaped the boredom of Arkansas for creativity in Las Vegas.
“I Like Music because… music is who I am. Not what I do, but who I am.” Ne-Yo
ILM: Your fantastic new single, So Sick is out March 20th, the first single from your debut album In My Own Words. Can you give us your own personal description of it and its whole vibe?
Ne-Yo: So Sick is a true story (which is true of a lot of the songs on the record), but So Sick is one of the most personal ones, because it’s the story of the first girl I ever fell in love with. And the way I messed it up for myself, it was a really bad thing. I met her when I was 16 and we were together all the way up until I was 18. It was one of those situations where I let my friends convince me to do something that I otherwise would not have done. And the lesson learned from it was, your peers can be wrong, y’know, don’t listen to your friends all the time, because they will mess you up.
ILM: And you realize how important love is…
Ne-Yo: Absolutely, I was drop dead crazy in love with this girl, but the opinion of my friends and my friends’ opinion of me was so important to me, that I basically let them convince me to cheat on her. They were doing the whole, "this girl is controlling you," "you don’t hang out with your fellas no more," "you’ve changed." And I let that get to me and I cheated on her. But, me being the guy that I am, I confessed and told her that I cheated on her.
ILM: At least you were honest and learned from it. And heh, she probably knows the song is about her…
Ne-Yo: She definitely knows it’s about her. There’s a lot of very specific things within the song. July 15th really was our anniversary, and the whole thing with the answering machine, it’s all very true and very precise, so she knows it’s about her, but she hasn’t tried to contact me or anything yet.
ILM: Of all the tracks on In My Own Words, which one was the most fun to make in the studio?
Ne-Yo: There’s a track on the UK version called Girlfriend. This is one of the more interesting songs on the record, because it’s another true story, but it’s basically a song about my attempt to pick up a woman who was telling me that she in fact has a girlfriend. It was a fun song to record, because in telling everyone in the studio and my friends the story they knew it was gonna be a great song.
ILM: Your songwriting skills have been proven already. I mean, you wrote Mario’s huge hit, Let Me Love You and have also written songs for Mary J Blige and Faith Evans, among others. An awesome track record! Can you tell me how the Mary J songwriting came about?
Ne-Yo: I have a song on Mary J Blige’s current album, and it’s a song called Can’t Hide From Love. The way it happened was, I met Steve Stout at a party that Jay-Z took me to, and he introduced me to Steve who was like, "Mary’s about to put together a new project and she loves your stuff and wants you to be a part of it." And I’ve been looking up to Mary J Blige forever! So, of course, I was all for it. I didn’t get a chance to go in the studio with Mary J Blige, down to how busy she was with everything she was doing. So, they sent me the track and she’d already written the verses, so they wanted me to help out with the hook for the song. So I did a couple of versions of the hook. And there was one in particular that she loved the melody of it. She wanted her album to have one solid theme and the lyrics that I wrote weren’t following that theme she was going for, but she said she loved the melody so she wanted to take the melody and write different words to the melody. So I said that was fine and she did that. So I did melody-work on the song and she used my melody.
ILM: It must be great when you hear the final cut of the song, and are like, "that’s my melody right there."
Ne-Yo: Yeah it was. At first they told me that she’d used something that I’d done, but I didn’t know what, so then I got the album and listened to it, and I was like, "oh, ok yeah, there it is."
ILM: And how did you make the leap from writing songs as a youngster to writing hits and tracks for the likes of Mary J and Faith?
Ne-Yo: Well, I’ve been writing for a very long time. My first placement was with Marcus Houston. I did a song for him called That Girl; that was his first single from the album he put out before his current one. But it was just a natural transition. My first stint at writing was journal entries. My mum was the person who put the pen in my hand and the paper in front of me and said "write it down." And she did that because she saw that I needed an outlet, because I had a lot of pent up anger in me because of the relationship my mother and father had. So it started out as journal entries, and then it eventually turned in to poetry and I started putting words together that rhymed, then from poetry it went into short stories, and I started making up random short stories about stuff. I was also singing throughout this whole thing, because I grew up in a very musical household. But at aged 11, that was when I took the writing and the singing and put them together. I started reading my poem back to myself in melody and started thinking, "this could be a song." And that was when I started trying to write songs and the more I did it, the better I got and I guess that’s why I can do what I do now.
ILM: You’re clearly a master of storytelling, infusing pop melodies with rich, soulful lyrics. Plus you don’t use samples in your production, and have your own in-house crew, Compound, so please can you describe the Ne-Yo process of making such passionate and, well… lovely music?
Ne-Yo: There really is no set process, I just do it. From a singing standpoint, once I had told my mum that I wanted to get serious and do this as a profession I had to work to get my voice to where it is right now. I’m not even saying I’m this great singer, but to even get where I am now, I had to work at it. I’ve got a very naturally nasaly tip to my voice. So my mum said, "you can do one of two things, you can try to get rid of it or you can embrace it. If you want to try to get rid of it, you need to study Danny Hathaway and Eric Bonet and stuff like that, but if you want to embrace it you need to listen to Michael Jackson." I’ve always been a realist with myself, so I thought this is my voice and this is what it sounds like, there is no getting rid of it, so I decided to embrace it and started to study Michael Jackson.
Listening to the way he’d say certain words and the certain affliction he’d put on different words and way he’d put his harmonies together. So he became an influence on me as far as singing. Then as far as songwriting, I’ve always looked up to Stevie Wonder. He’s always been one of those people who can just make you feel whatever he chooses to make you feel through song; he can control your emotions through song. If he wanted to make you sad, he would get on his piano and write a song that would make you cry; if he wanted to make you happy, he would get on his piano and sing a song that would lift your spirits so high you’d be smiling all day. So, I definitely want to be able to do that.
ILM: Well, I can safely say you do that already. It’s about touching the person who’s listening. I think you can tick that little box. So are you continuously searching for the Holy Grail that is the perfect song?
Ne-Yo: There’s always room to grow, there can always be a better song written. I don’t think I’ll ever be complete even though complete is what I aspire to be. But I kind of set an unattainable goal for myself; I aspire to be complete, meaning that I want to be a singer, songwriter, dancer, actor, composer, and be the top at everything that I do. But this is a goal that I feel I will never reach because, once you reach completion, you’re finished. And I don’t ever want to be finished, I want to do this until I’m literally finished, physically. So, I set the bar very high, that way in trying to get there, I’ll just get better at whatever I’m doing.
ILM: Have you had the opportunity to meet Stevie Wonder or any of your idols yet?
Ne-Yo: I haven’t. Two people that if I were to meet them I would definitely be starstruck by would be Stevie Wonder and Prince. I saw Stevie Wonder at the airport once in passing, but I couldn’t get to him fast enough to express my undying love for his art, but I have seen him! I haven’t even seen Prince in person ever.
ILM: Well, I’m sure that’ll happen. And now you’re signed to Def Jam, that must be awesome? What’s been the best thing about that so far?
Ne-Yo: The coolest thing about being at Def Jam, beside the fact that Jay Z is the president, is that I can never say they don’t believe in me over there. They’ve given me something that a new artist doesn’t really get anymore. They gave me pretty much 100% artistic freedom with my record. They gave me my budget and let me write whatever song I wanted to write and let me work with whatever producer I wanted to work with. Of course Jay Z and LA Reid would come in every now and then and give their professional critiques, but they never said, "no, don’t do this, do that" and they never dictated to me what my album should be. And I just love them for that, for allowing me to be me. By doing that they’re showing me they believe in me and believe in what I can do.
ILM: Now, total props to your mum. You were born in Arkansas, but your mother relocated you to Las Vegas where you discovered your passion for music. So a wise move by your mum! Do you think your life would have panned out differently had you stayed in Arkansas?
Ne-Yo: Absolutely. The sad thing about Arkansas when I lived there, the town was so small there really was nothing else to do other than get in to trouble. We had a post office and a skating rink and that was it. If you weren’t at the roller rink you were at the post office in the parking lot trying to find some trouble to get into. There was a running joke in Arkansas, that there’s nothing to do out here but make a baby or kill somebody, and I wasn’t about to make a baby or kill nobody. My mum saw that it was a stagnant place and there was nowhere to go but down, so she got us out of there and we went to Vegas, where she saw that there’d be at least a chance to do something.
ILM: And now, your mum must be incredibly proud of you now? Plus she’s obviously done a good job raising you single-handedly too!
Ne-Yo: My mum is my biggest fan. There is no woman on the face of this planet, no 18 year old girl who can say they are my biggest fan – my mother is holding that title STRONG! She works at a bank in Las Vegas and if you were to go to her office you’d swear an 18 year old girl worked there, because there are posters of me all over the walls, all over the ceiling, she is truly my biggest and best fan. She’s so proud.
ILM: You’ve already had plenty of experience in the industry. Any tips or advice for budding artists and producers starting out, (or kids from Arkansas who are busting to get out and do something creative)?
Ne-Yo: One thing I would say to anyone trying to get into this business is, the misconception of this business is that it’s all fun. You watch TV and you see the videos and you see the girls and the cars, and the money and the clothes and the partying, and I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t exist, that stuff it’s definitely there. But what you don’t see is being in the studio for weeks and doing loads of interviews in a day, followed by a sound check for a show and a show that same night. You don’t see the hard work that goes into this business, so, KNOW that it is not fun and games all the time. It is not. You need to go in knowing that you’re going to work, it’s not going to be easy or fun all the time, as a matter of fact at the beginning it’s not going to be fun at all. It’s going to be all work. You’ll come across a lot of people who think that they know exactly what you should be doing and there’s a lot of drama in the beginning that you go through to get to that level, but if you truly want to get there, you’ll deal with it and keep moving. That’s what I did. Also, if you are an aspiring singer, rapper, producer and you come across someone you feel could help you; you need to be ready at any given moment, at the drop of a dime to do what it is you do. If you’re a singer and you come across Jay-Z coming out of a restaurant you need to sing something before he even says "sing something." If you’re a producer you need to have your CD with you at ALL times, because one thing people do not have time for is excuses.
[Ne-Yo lowers his voice and does an impression of what sounds like Barney from The Flintstones to feign dumness]
Ne-Yo: “Oh, my throat is a little hoarse right now,”…No, no no. “Oh, see, I left my CD in my friends car.” No. “Alright, well you go and find your friends car and we ever see each other again I might listen to your CD.” No. You have to stay ready. The words that I live by are, “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
ILM: Yeah, you need to seize those opportunities and be ready to do that.
Ne-Yo: Absolutely. Because they don’t come around often. I will say you will get more than one shot in life, but you won’t get five shots; that’s just not going to happen. You might get two, but that’s it.
ILM: And how are you finding getting used to being famous, after all you were in the background as the writer before, so what’s it like that transition into artist?
Ne-Yo: It feels good now, but it took some getting used to. I wasn’t in the background feigning to be in the foreground. I liked being in the background, I was content. It was a situation where I could make just as much money as the people I was writing for, if not more, but I didn’t have to deal with being concerned with what I looked like every day, or saying the right thing in interviews, just some of the drama that comes with being artist. So when I finally decided to be an artist I had to train myself to give up these personal freedoms that I’d fallen so deeply in love with. I can’t go to the movies or walk through a club by myself, there’s stuff like that I’ve got to think about now and it’s sad, but I’ve learned to love it now. I love signing autographs and taking pictures and knowing that my music is touching people.
ILM: And I guess now people get the chance to show you how much they appreciate your music, whereas before they coudn’t. Now, as well as music, you also like to draw, paint and do martial arts. Have you always been the creative type?
Ne-Yo: Oh yeah, always. I went to a Performing Arts high school. It was the Las Vegas Academy for the Theatre, Performing and Visual Arts. The automatic assumption would be that I went for choir or something, but I actually went for visual design: drawing and painting. I’ve always done that and I kind of use that now as my escape from music. I never thought I’d need an escape from music, but this industry will force you to need to get away from it now again. So I’ll go out and get some canvas and try to put something together or grab a piece of paper and a pen and draw something.
ILM: Does that mean you’ll do your own artwork?
Ne-Yo: I will at some point in my career. I wanted to do my album cover, but they said due to the fact that nobody knows me yet, it would be better to get a picture of my face out there first, and then once people get to know me, then I can do some artwork.
ILM: Can you describe your favourite place on earth?
Ne-Yo: Anywhere where there is quiet and my son. That’s my favourite place on earth.
ILM: If you just want to chill out, what track or album do you stick on?
Ne-Yo: Norah Jones. I like Norah Jones, I like that her music is very mellow and soothing. You can sit the hell down and let the day wash over you.
Ne-Yo’s album, In My Own Words is out now. Debut single, So Sick is released March 20th 2006.