Interview - Mar 3, 2003
“Having a publisher can be useful, but being in direct contact with A&Rs is your best bet.”Based in Los Angeles, Damon Sharpe is a songwriter and producer, who has had cuts with Jennifer Lopez, Anastacia, Kelly Rowland and Monica, among others. Here he tells us about the realities that songwriters face, how one of his songs, “Love Don’t Cost A Thing”, was created and how it became a Jennifer Lopez track.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a songwriter and producer?
I was a performer and singer in various bands for a couple of years. Then I met Ric Wake, who owns Notation Music Publishing, where I’m now signed; he became my mentor and partner. He was the executive producer for a boy band I was in, but after a while I realised it wasn't what I wanted to do and I walked away from it. I was writing a lot and he brought me into the company. I've been working non-stop for the past couple of years.
What important events have led you forward?
My first worldwide No.1 hit, and the song that boosted my career, was “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” with Jennifer Lopez. Often, you'll write a song with a certain artist in mind and then it just doesn’t work out. But with that song we had her in mind and it ended up making its way to her. Everything else just snowballed from there.
What did you do early on in your career to showcase your material?
I was mainly doing the vocalist thing and writing material exclusively for myself. So I showcased my material through myself as an artist. Then I just kind of fell into placing songs with other artists. But at the time I was beating down doors more as an artist than as a songwriter.
Do you write both music and lyrics?
I mainly write lyric and melody, but on some songs I definitely contribute musically.
What instruments do you play?
Do you have your own studio?
I work out of a studio run by a partner of mine here in LA. I do almost everything in Pro Tools, even the programming. I use the AKAI MPC 2000 sampler/sequencer, the Marion MSR-2 synth and various Roland rack synths.
What are you currently working on?
Mark Feist, one of my newest writing and production partners, and I are getting ready to do two songs with the J Records artist Mario. I’ve written something for a group called Play and for a solo artist called Coco Lee, who are both on Sony Music. I've just had a song on Kelly Rowland’s gold-selling album “Simply Deep”. Two of my songs are on the Chicago soundtrack, which has been in the Top 10 for the past month. In the past, I’ve worked with Jennifer Lopez, Monica, Ginuwine and Anastacia.
How did “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” come about?
Greg Lawson, one of my writing partners, called me and said he had this great idea for a track. He had the concept, and the shape of the melody for the first couple of lines, and he sang a little bit into my answering machine. He told me to think about it and then call him back. The first two lines of the hook immediately popped into my head, so I called him and he said, “That’s it!” I drove over to his house and while I was driving I put down the verse and b-section melody on my little recorder. When I got there we wrote the hook and it literally came together in about ten minutes. We tweaked it a bit, added some melodies, and within an hour and a half we had written the whole song.
How did the demo sound in comparison to the finished Lopez version?
The demo was pretty similar and it had the same vibe. Ric obviously took it to a whole other level in terms of the sound, but vocally it was similar and the arrangement was the same. We used an MPC 2000, somebody played a guitar line, which we chopped up and sampled, and I believe we used a Roland 1080 or 5080 rack synth.
How did it make its way to Jennifer Lopez?
Ric Wake was trying to place another of my songs with Jennifer Lopez, whom he had worked with before. I sent him a copy of “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” and he was actually going to cut the song with Anastacia, but he played it to Jennifer. She was into it and he got her to record it without the commitment of putting it on the market. Once they had recorded it, they turned it in to the label and then we found out they were going to ready the album within a month and that it was going to be the first single.
How important is it that the demo's production is already of a high quality when pitching it to an A&R, manager or artist?
When I record demos, I try to make them sound like records. I don’t think you can turn in something with minimum production, because I don’t think people get it now. Unfortunately, they don’t have the ears they used to have, although some obviously do. You have to lay down the blueprint for the arrangement and deliver a professional sound.
How did you come to write songs for Anastacia?
It happened in a similar way to the Jennifer Lopez thing. We had written a song called “Why’d You Lie To Me?’ that Ric Wake heard. He had worked with Anastacia before and played it for her. She loved it, but she wanted to tweak a few of the lyrics, so we got together with her and we customised it for her lyrically, although everything else stayed the same. Ric flipped the production and made it sound a bit more acoustic as opposed to programmed. They added the song to the American version of her debut album “Not That Kind”. Then when it came to her new record, she wanted to work with us again, so we got together and collaborated on a song called “Paid My Dues”, which was in the European charts for thirty-two weeks. We recently did a track with her for the Chicago soundtrack, which will be a single: it’s called ”Love Is A Crime”. Greg Lawson, Denise Rich and I wrote it, and Ric produced it.
What are your most useful contacts when it comes to getting writing assignments?
Having a publisher can be useful and mine is certainly fantastic, but a publisher can only do so much, so being in direct contact and networking with A&Rs is your best bet. My management, Genuine Representation, does a lot of work for me as far as contacting people is concerned, but I also do a lot of it myself, because A&R people generally like having that direct contact with you as opposed to having to go through a middle man. Artists sometimes approach me, but it usually comes through the appropriate business channels. Occasionally you’ll be at some kind of event and you’ll strike up a conversation and somebody will say, “I like your stuff; let’s get together and collaborate.”
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters?
Be persistent. No matter how many placements I get, when I get one I’m grateful for it, and then I'm immediately looking forward to the next. As long as you’re creative and you’re constantly putting out material that you feel is strong, sooner or later you’re going to connect with the right person and once you do that, it snowballs from there.
On the songwriting side I’d say that lyrics and concept are key. Without a strong concept I don’t really feel that there’s a song. You could have this incredible track, but if you don’t have a great lyric and melody on top of it, you haven't really got anything.
What is the most important songwriting lesson you’ve learnt?
That there are no rules. I used to think that it had to be done in a certain way, but I learnt from working with strong songwriters that you have to flow with it if it feels good. If you worry about how it should be then you’re thinking about it too much. You should follow your inspiration as opposed to just a formula.
What are the most important points to consider in a co-writing situation?
That depends if you’re writing with another writer or if you’re writing with the artist. If you’re writing with another writer, you can be a lot more open, whereas when you’re working with an artist, you have to be careful because you might be dealing with a fragile ego. Often, the artist doesn’t have the same reality as you, so you have to word things a little differently and be careful about where you go. You have to consider what they do and you have to think about whether that person would say the kind of lyrics and use the kind of melody you’re writing, and whether they want to go in the same direction they’ve been going or take it somewhere else.
Can you offer some words of advice to aspiring songwriters who want to showcase their material?
There are numerous ASCAP and BMI events where you can have your material heard by different A&Rs and publishers. Obviously it isn't always the best bet to send your stuff unsolicited to labels, because then it just sits in a pile. You can get lists of management companies and publishers and submit your material directly to them. Entertainment lawyers can sometimes help you get your stuff heard by publishers, because in general you’re better off going through someone who knows them, like a manager or a lawyer. Publishers are often afraid that if somebody sends in their material there will all of a sudden be something on the radio that has a similar concept and then they’ll get sued. Nine times out of ten, they'd prefer it to come through management or lawyers.
Anger, hate and disappointment seem to be recurrent topics in current r&b and pop/r&b, more so than in other popular genres. Why do you think this is?
I find I generally write more positive lyrics if I can and those songs seem to be what people take from me. Anger, angst, disappointments and break-ups are often what artists empathise with, because those are things they really feel. I don’t know if they would want to take that kind of song from an outside writer, because you’re not accurately portraying what they’re feeling at the time. Also, many kids are angst-ridden and pissed off with the world, and they want to have their little anthem.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters with regard to publishing contracts?
Don’t sell yourself short at the start: if somebody comes to you with a contract and they want 100% of your publishing, don’t go for it. Think of the bigger picture. Obviously, you have to start somewhere and pay your dues, but don’t let somebody take advantage of you, because a lot of people will try to do that at the beginning. Your best bet is to find a strong management company or a good attorney.
Do you have your own publishing company?
Yes, I have my own publishing company that I formed with Michael Mavrolas, who owns Genuine Representation. We're in the process of signing three writers at the moment.
What are its pros and cons?
The pros are that you have all this talent to work with. There’s a creative buzz to it and you also get to run your own show. The cons are that you don’t have people busting down doors for you, you have to do it all yourself, which is actually an advantage as well as a disadvantage.
What led you to start your own company?
I've known many talented people without a deal and I wondered why this was. Generally, it’s because they still don’t have future projects. They have great talent but they just haven’t had their break. We’re trying to sign people that are going to blow up and are going to become the next Neptunes or Babyface.
How did you first come in contact with your management, Genuine?
We had heard of each other through mutual friends and then we met a party and after that we just started working together.
What made you sign with them?
I deal with a very trustworthy person, not just a hustler who gets up there and tries to get his clients work, but a very trustworthy person who has had long-term clients. If somebody has been in this business a long time and hasn’t even come close to hitting the ground, then obviously they have to be doing something right.
At what point were you able to live off writing and producing?
Two and a half years ago. I reached a point while I was in the boy band, where I was getting advances every month to live off and I just wiped my hands clean of that. I let myself fall, let go of the safety net and as soon as I did that, everything just opened up creatively. Once I signed my publishing deal with Notation, I was sufficiently stable financially to live off writing.
What qualities should an aspiring songwriter have?
You have to be motivated, positive, able to adapt to different environments and situations, and you have to hone your networking skills. You have to be able to go into a room and strike up a conversation with people and charm them. If you’re not good with people then you have to get somebody to represent you who can do that.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, I occasionally get stuff from people who want to co-write with me, but it’s hard to set up if it's someone who's out of the state. I've just recently started accepting material, although I don’t get much because I don’t advertise much. But occasionally people will send things through other people I know. Sometimes it’s good and some of the stuff just needs work. If it’s from people who are green and are just starting, I’ll send them an e-mail and give them tips.
Do you think contacting and sending demos to songwriters and producers is a good tool for aspiring artists and songwriters?
It can be, but I would say you’re better off going through a management company, a lawyer or a publishing company. If you’re going through other writers or producers they often have their own agendas and those are not necessarily going to be in your best interest.
What is your opinion about putting a song on hold?
It depends on the person I’m dealing with at the label. If it’s someone I know is serious about it and is really going to make this cut happen, then I’ll hold it. But if I’m dealing with somebody who has put three of my songs on hold before, left them on the shelf, and nothing has happened, then I'm likely to tell them that I'll give them x amount of time, and if they don’t get it cut within that time, then I’ll take it elsewhere.
Should there be a standard contract that stipulates rates and time periods for holds?
That would be a great idea.
Do you ever have to give up some of the publishing in order to get a song placed with a big artist?
I’ve done it. It’s not so much a financial standpoint, it’s more an ego standpoint because I’m proud of the work I do and I want people to know it. When somebody else takes the credit it can be a bit of an ego buster. But then again, you have to look at it in the long run and tell yourself that if you place the song with a big artist that could really help your career, it might just put you in a financial position where you can relax and focus, and other opportunities will come out of it. If the song you conceded to the artist sells, they might want to work with you on the song after that. If I tell them they can’t get a piece of the publishing, then they’ll probably try to get a song from somebody else. Chances are they won’t, but a bird in the hand is a bird in the hand, as they say.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
A high point was when “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” got to No. 1.
What aspect of the music industry would you change?
When you don’t have anything going on, nobody wants to give you a shot. But then all of a sudden when you get one or two things going on, everybody wants to kiss your ass! I wish everybody could get a fair shot, but then that would mean we were living in an ideal world.
I think it would be good to put some kind of paperwork into effect for holds, and I wish there was a way to make fairer splits for artists and writers on the publishing side.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Right now my main focus is songwriting and production for artists, and I’m starting this publishing company. I’m trying to get the label situation moving as well. I want to branch out and become a company that handles all aspects of music.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan