Archive for January, 2010
In general I’m far more interested in hearing a singer-songwriter deliver their own lyric than hearing a performer sing something that was penned for them by an assembly line writer. By definition, I think a singer who chronicles their own thoughts and feelings can deliver authentic human experience more directly than one who acts out lines crafted by another person. So I cherish the work of auteurs like Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, and I’ll take Alanis Morissette over Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige over Whitney Houston.
I can certainly leave a tradesperson like Diane Warren, who for many years was LA’s go-to writer for romantic schlock like Toni Braxton’s ‘Unbreak My Heart’ and Celine Dion’s ‘Because You Loved Me’. Warren claims never to have been in love, and she hates dating. In a way, her inexperience with love does show in the almost camp, overshot grandiosity of her lyrics. And while overshot sentiment sells because it gets its point across quickly and clearly, I just have a fundamental issue with pinning my own romantic yearnings to somebody’s calculated product.
But there are exceptions to my ban. One is the Motown assembly line of the 60s, in which Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote the most significant portion of the material for an entire stable of artists in Detroit. My theory there is that the momentum of the label’s fresh, exciting sound and the writers’ melodic gifts attracted every aspiring singer in the city…and then the universality of the lyrics allowed the singers to throw themselves into performances convincingly, as though the songs were confessionals from their own lives…similar to an artist choosing to record a cover version of someone else’s song because it has tremendous personal significance for them.
Another exception is New York’s Brill Building, which fostered a competitive atmosphere for songwriters, peaking in output in the late 50s and early 60s with Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Phil Spector all hanging around, pushing each other to be greater songsmiths. Again: an almost magical kind of momentum seems to have been present.
Those I would call auteurs appear to discover the chorus of a song organically from a personal feeling or event they’re describing. In contrast, assembly-line writing often involves first searching for one original, evocative central concept (ie ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman’ came out of the Brill Building for Aretha Franklin) that will serve as the chorus, and then fashioning the rest of the song outward from that…creating verses and bridges that will set up and support the story, always bringing us back to the point the chorus makes. Slightly cheaper than working from an original central concept, an unused pop culture catch-phrase will suffice as the chorus (Motown’s writers gave ‘You Beat Me To The Punch’ to Mary Wells). Today much top 40 rap is based around nabbing the most up-to-the-minute catch-phrases and creating a cool/dirty/funny track around that (see ‘Superman That Hoe‘ a/k/a ‘Crank That’ by Soulja Boy).
A few weeks ago Island/Def Jam artist Jenna Andrews played me a rough cut of her upcoming debut album. A gorgeous production featuring her instantly recognizable voice upfront, much of it was penned by the industry’s fastest-climbing new writer Claude Kelly. And I need to tell you…this guy’s crazy. Jenna described his pen-and-paperless process to me: he toplines (writes lyrics and melodies over instrumental tracks) by getting into the vocal booth, turning down the lights, balling up on the floor and having the engineer play the track on repeat for a while. He locks in to who he’s writing for and finds the sentiment. Then he gets up and writes at the mic, no doubt influenced by the freestyle process of many rappers…but he also mimics the voice of the person he’s writing for. He goes back and forth within the song as necessary, changing and filling in lines, taking about two hours to put down an entire song complete with background vocals.
Claude’s still in his 20s and he’s already written hits in several styles, including ‘Circus’ for Britney Spears, ‘Party In The U.S.A.’ for Miley Cyrus and Adam Lambert’s ‘For Your Entertainment.’ He’s written extensively for Akon and Toni Braxton, and for Whitney Houston’s comeback album. To understand the way he embodies the singer he’s writing for, check out the excellent ‘I Hate Love,’ a demo he recorded for Toni Braxton. The song’s unique central concept is the idea that someone could come to hate being in love because each day spent away from your lover is exceedingly painful. This oddly dark sentiment is somehow appropriate for her persona and his delivery is full of Braxtonisms. A quick search of his name on YouTube reveals an array of leaked demos of unreleased songs for a range of artists…judging by the sound of his delivery, some of them would seem to be for Akon, Whitney Houston, and Trey Songz.
We have modern-day net leakage to thank for this type of insight into a fascinating writing process. I hate to throw the phrase ‘bonafide genius’ around, but let’s say Claude Kelly is a talent to watch. It would be even more interesting to hear a Claude Kelly solo record, giving him the opportunity to step into the role of auteur…and to sing as himself.