Interview with CARVIN & IVAN, producers for Will Smith, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott - Dec 23, 2002
“First create value for your name, then you can talk about getting a publishing deal”
Based in Philadelphia and starting out as in-house writers/producers at Jazzy Jeff’s production company A Touch of Jazz, Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias – Carvin & Ivan – have written and produced songs for Musiq Soulchild, including the ASCAP’s 2001 Song of the Year, “Love”, Jill Scott and Angie Stone, among others. Under the direction of Jerome Hipp and Michael McArthur’s Mama’s Boys Management, the two have now started their own production company, Carmui (pronounced Karma).
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become songwriters and producers?
CARVIN: I was working on commercials for a local radio station. There I met Jazzy Jeff, who told me he was going to start a production company and I decided to be involved.
IVAN: I followed a path similar to Carvin's. I was an MC for a while and I had trouble getting tracks from the people who were supposed to be doing that for me, so I just started making beats out of necessity. Through a mutual acquaintance I also met Jeff and got down with the camp and that kind of led to where I am today.
What key events have led you forward?
CARVIN: The Musiq Soulchild project, which was important to both of us because it allowed us to show developing artists where we had come from and gave us the chance to create a song.
IVAN: It gave us the credibility we needed to launch ourselves.
What did you do early on in your career to showcase your material?
IVAN: When we collaborated with Jazzy Jeff's company, A Touch of Jazz, a lot of what we did was cutting demos for up- and-coming artists. Some of those artists were Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, AAries; basically, a lot of the artists that are out now.
CARVIN: We did some stuff for Will Smith and other artists.
How did you meet Jazzy Jeff?
CARVIN: I met Jeff at a record pool in Philadelphia. He had heard the commercials that we were doing on the local radio station.
IVAN: I met him through a mutual acquaintance. I had a cassette with beats on it, I played it to him and he liked it. He invited us to come back the following week and it became a weekly thing. Before we knew it we were all part of the camp and I started collaborating with some of the guys.
Do you have your own studio?
IVAN: We have our own facility in Philadelphia now and it's called Home Cooking. The most important pieces of equipment are, to me, the turntables, even though we don’t really rely on them anymore, and the Akai MPC 3000 sampler, because they are symbols of how we started. Now we just put a record on, listen to it, and then get ideas and a vibe from it. We don’t sample as much as we used to, in fact we rarely do, but those two pieces of equipment are a reminder of where we came from, even though we’ve become more hi-tech since then.
CARVIN: Our studio is co-owned by Carmui, which is our company, and our management, Mama’s Boys.
What are you currently working on?
CARVIN: We just did a Musiq Soulchild remix and a record for Justin Timberlake. We also worked with Joe Jaguar.
IVAN: We’re currently finishing AAries's album and the single should be on the radio any day now. Also Syleena Johnson, and we’re currently developing Carol Ridick.
Do you accept unsolicited material from unsigned artists?
IVAN: We’re open to people who started out like we did.
CARVIN: If we received a demo that was really good, we would contact the artist and probably have him or her come down so we could meet and see if he or she fits our vibe. We like good vibes and energy and people that love and respect music the way we do.
Do you think contacting producers and sending them demos is a good tool for unsigned artists and songwriters?
IVAN: Yes and no. Our company is called Carmui, because we believe that what goes around comes around. We think it’s important not to take advantage of people, but there are people out there who will take your stuff and, before you know it, you’ll be hearing it on somebody’s album. So it’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. That’s why, if we hear something we like, we like to meet the people behind it and see what they’re about, before we move on to anything else with them.
Do you think artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
CARVIN: Right now everybody should have the attitude that they are students in this game, including artists, producers and managers, because it's a game that is constantly changing. You have to be a chameleon, and you have to be way more knowledgeable than you used to have to be.
IVAN: You can’t learn it in a book either. This game is hands-on and you learn as you go along. No two situations are alike. You've got to get as much musical knowledge as you can and be prepared to deal with things as they happen. But don’t let this discourage you!
What makes you take on a production?
CARVIN: It depends on the artist. We’re very choosy about the people we decide to work with, and that's because we need to make sure that the artist can represent our music and make it sound the way we want it to before we leave the studio. So the best thing is to meet the artist in order to know what they’re about.
How much do you charge for a production?
IVAN: That’s undisclosed. It varies from...Ah! We can’t talk about that!
What is the work process typically like when you work with artists?
CARVIN: We basically have them come down and we talk to them. We see what their vibe is, where they’re coming from and who they want to be. Many artists are eccentric, so we try to make their vision and their vibe “normal” to the average listener and then we create from there. We don’t give them readymade tracks or songs: everything is a custom fit.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters?
CARVIN: Write what you feel and write the truth. Don’t exaggerate any of your stories and don’t just make things up.
IVAN: Often, what people say about our music is that it’s something that they would say, so say it like the average Joe would say it. Don't make it trite, but just keep in mind that the people you’re writing these songs for are regular people. You don’t have to bring out the craziest metaphors to say something that could have been said in three or four words.
What do you think is important to keep in mind when one co-writes?
CARVIN: Actually, it’s not even about that. It’s all about the music. Just think about creating a hot product and concentrate on what you’re trying to do. Once you start thinking about percentages and what may belong to you and what may belong to me, the record will probably end up being garbage.
Can you offer unsigned songwriters some words of advice on publishing contracts?
IVAN: Hold out for as long as you can because those deals aren't structured for you to make money. It's catalogue that creates a lucrative deal, so try to get as many good songs under your belt as you can. It also helps to have a few hit songs out there because ultimately that’s going to determine the type of the deal and the way it’s structured. So don’t even think about a publishing deal right now, just concentrate on getting a good product out there and it will come.
CARVIN: Also create value for your name: make your name mean something when it’s said. When you've got to that point, then you can talk about getting a publishing deal.
Do you have a publishing deal or are you self-published?
CARVIN: We haven't got a publishing deal right now, but we’re negotiating with Universal.
What do you think about songwriters' situation in the music business?
CARVIN: When you choose to be a songwriter, you choose a position, so you have to roll with what you chose. If you want to be a star, then be a star. If you want to be behind the scenes, then roll with that. I like being behind the scenes. Of course you want your name to appear where it’s supposed to appear, because you want your peers and the people that make decisions to know you. At the end of the day those are the people you want to be known to, not the public but the people who are making the business deals. If you choose the position of a songwriter, then you need to know everything that comes with it. If you’re not down with that, then find the position you want to be in and go after it.
What do you think of the current r&b scene?
IVAN: It’s pretty bland and sterile. I don’t have any problem with saying that; I don’t listen to modern R&B anyway—it’s trite. We’re not harping on about the past or trying to bring the past back with our music, although we try to incorporate our influences into what we dig now, because you can’t do what was done thirty years ago and expect it to fly like it did then. We're trying to inject the elements of what was good back then into a rather sterile atmosphere.
CARVIN: I think right now R&B is gimmicky, and there’s nothing wrong with that because there are lots of artists who are doing meaningful or cutting-edge stuff which is great. I’m not really a fan of "cookie" music but there are artists who are experimenting and bringing new stuff to the table. I look forward to helping change the industry into something more substantial: saying things that mean something, making music that makes you feel what the artist or musician was feeling that way when they played those keys. That’s what we try to give the industry.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
IVAN: The greatest moment of my music career was a couple of weeks ago when I was shown the sheet music of one of our songs: that meant a lot to me. It showed me that we were being appreciated on a greater scale, because I can remember buying other artists' sheet music so I could learn how to play their songs. I haven’t won a Grammy or been nominated, but it really feels like I had won an award.
CARVIN: My greatest moment was when someone chose to remake one of my records. It had come out last year and it was remade the following year. It was great!
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
IVAN: I would make it more artist- and music-oriented, and not so much about numbers and demographics. Right now, the music industry revolves too much around stuff that has no bearing when you’re making the music. I would focus more on the creative aspect, shifting the balance between the show and the business.
CARVIN: Yes, because right now it’s 10 % music and 90 % business, and I’d prefer to move it to a 50/50 split, which would be fair.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
IVAN: Being the first Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias. Hopefully people will try to emulate what we’ve done, not only from a creative point of view, but more how we got to where we’re going to be in ten years! We’re trying to follow in the footsteps of the greats. There’s some good, inspiring stuff out there and we've just got to follow it and do what we do.
CARVIN: Just still creating great things and changing the industry!
interviewed by Jean-François Méan