Interview with SHAMORA, songwriter for Monica (No.1 USA) - Nov 20, 2006
"I don’t think it’s important to pay $1,500 a day to demo a song in a studio. As long as you have a good mic, good pre-amp and can run Pro-Tools, you can’t go wrong"
Shamora has written for Monica (No.1 US), Jennifer Lopez (Top 10 US), Victoria Beckham, Blu Cantrell, and many others.
Her music has also been included in major movie soundtracks such as 'Pandora’s Box' and 'Barbershop'.
She talks to HitQuarters about the fine details of the songwriting process in a professional environment.
How did you get into the music business?
I got my first deal when I was 16. Now I’m 25. I was singing at a wedding and this really phenomenal songwriter/producer at the time, Artie Hoyle, was also singing at the wedding and he asked me to come and sing some demos for him. I went by his studio and he put on a J Dubb and I wrote a song. And that kind of did it.
He took it to a publisher at the time, Albert McKissack with Groundbreaking Music, and I ended up signing a joint venture/co-publishing deal with Ground Breaking and Sony.
So how did you get that first contact to the guy? How did you convince Artie that you could write on his song?
He just played a track and I was just like, ‘you know what? I think I have an idea.’ So it was really the first song that I had ever completely written from start to finish and put down on a demo. That got me that publishing deal.
What were your influences before? Did you do some songwriting on your own? Or was that really the first time you wrote a song?
When I was younger, I’d kind of fiddle around with a hook idea or something like that. And when I was around 15 I used to be in a group so I did a little vocal arranging - just the parts and harmonies and stuff like that. I never actually just sat down and 100% wrote a song. That was the first time.
You grew up in church singing Gospel, how did that influence you?
I’ve been to church my whole life. My father’s a musician and he’s also a Minister and I grew up singing with my younger sister in church. So I think it was just that I’ve always been around music.
I actually grew up playing the violin for eight years, through middle and high school. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven or eight and I still play. I fiddle with the drums a little bit. But I’m not the best…
How did you get in contact with the business side, how was that first deal?
The first deal was cool. I got into it because they just approached me like, ‘we really like her! We think she’s amazing!’. I guess they were just really impressed with my song writing and me being so young and I guess they just felt like they had a lot to look forward to as I grew up.
That opened the door for a lot. Then they started placing me with a lot of different writers and I just grew as a songwriter from there. I’m still with Sony, actually.
Who did they put you together with?
Mostly other producers. I flew off to LA after I graduated high school and they linked me up with SoulShock and Karlin and I worked with them for about five years pretty much on and off. I was in-between LA and Atlanta where I live all the time.
Who paid for all of your expenses and what was the deal like then?
Sony pretty much paid for everything. Usually, there’s a budget and your publisher will take care of that for you.
How do you write a song when you start off from scratch?
I usually sit down with another producer. If it’s a guitar player, he just may sit and play some chords, we’ll kind of vibe and I may sing. Usually, once I start singing and vibing, it’s like words and music happen at the same time. So as soon as that idea hits us, that’s what we run with and build the whole song around that.
I usually just come up with something off the top of my head. Every now and then I may have something that I know I want to write a song about, but for the most part, it hits me when I sit down and start writing.
I’ll either sit down and I can 100% write a song or produce a track. But usually I’ll sit down with another producer and we’ll either work from scratch or they might have sent me a track already or they might play me a track that I like and I’ll just sit down and write all the lyrics and the melody and arrange all the vocals.
I can engineer everything myself. I have a studio in my house and I can run Pro-Tools. But anything that I work on, I get co-production anyway because I’m in there producing the vocals on the artist and pretty much running Pro-Tools and what not myself.
When you write a song, what do you come up with first?
I always start with the chorus. Usually, everything comes in at once. I’ll hear the music, I’ll start to sing and usually the melody and the words all come to me at the same time. I mean, every now and again there may be one or two words that I kind of fumble over or I’ve got to find something to fit there, but for the most part I’m just singing a melody and instantly have words.
How often do you go back and change stuff around? Do you go for the first take?
Sometimes the first idea is a pretty solid idea but a lot of times I’ll sit there with the skeleton or the leading idea of what I have, and I’ll think it over. I’m a perfectionist. If it doesn’t sit right with me then that means I have to change something. Until it hits me and I’m like, ‘Ohhh, that’s it’.
Usually whatever I start in a session I finish. It’s rare that I’ll listen to a song and then two or three days later go back and change it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I’ve only done that for artists when they maybe wanted the lyrical content to be a little different.
Then I may change it to suit the artist or every now and then maybe I’ll manipulate the melody a little bit depending on the artist or how they need to sing it. For most of the time whatever the idea, whatever I lay down, that’s pretty much it.
When you think about song structures, do you stick to a certain concept normally, like A B A B C B?
99% of the time you have that verse, you have that hook, then you go back to the verse. Then sometimes you might go to a bridge or do a little breakdown and it’s usually almost always the same structure. Every now and then, there’s maybe one or two songs that I’ve written that didn’t really have that structure. I was just a little bit freer and not so much ‘inside the box’.
It’s always either sitting down with another producer or musician or I’ll sit at a piano or a keyboard and I’ll play around and come up with an idea and a melody and maybe a hook.
But I’ve had kind of strange things happen though. Actually, one or two times I’ve dreamt about a song in my head, a melody or a hook, and then woke up remembering it, hooked up with someone and wrote it.
Did you ever try to write in a jam session situation?
It’s usually working with one counterpart but there have been a few occasions where I’ve gotten into the studio with a few musicians and we’ll all sit down and jam and just have fun. I like the whole live concept.
I have my own album out called ‘How It Feels’, and actually on my next album I want to incorporate some live stuff, like record a song completely with a live band or just going in from scratch, raw, with a band and just catching that, just seeing what comes up.
How important is the sound of a demo you give the publisher?
It’s more about the label or whomever we’re shopping it to. I don’t just rely on my publisher to go out and pitch songs. We pretty much do that ourselves, between myself and my manager, Tonia Kempler of Emerge Entertainment. She, her team, the other producers I’m working with, or myself – we’ll all pitch the songs together. But the sound quality is important.
Unfortunately, I think sometimes A&Rs need to hear something that sounds incredible but not too incredible that it’s intimidating to the artist, but good enough that they know you can give them a really, really great finished product.
I don’t think that it’s so important book an amazing studio and pay $1,500 for the day to demo a song. As long as you have pretty much the basics, a pretty good microphone, pretty good pre-amp and be able to run Pro-Tools or Logic, you can’t go wrong.
How do you look for the artists? How do you find out who is looking for songs or how do you find the right ones?
There’s usually a ‘who’s looking’ list that they’ll send out or just having your relationships in the industry so you kind of know, or talking back and forth to labels so you know who they have coming out and you know who they’re looking for.
Sometimes they’ll reach out to you and say, ‘hey, do you have something for Monica? I really need a song for her.’, or, ‘can you submit some stuff?’. So that’s kind of how it works usually.
Do A&R people come up often with changes to the songwriting?
Every now and then. I’ve never really had an A&R say they want to completely rewrite a song. Maybe a change of one line as an idea, a suggestion. They’ll say, ‘maybe you could come up with a little bit of a different melody or the hook can change’.
Sometimes they’ll have more concepts. They’ll say, ‘it would be really cool if you could talk about ‘this’ in the song or if you could maybe change the concept to go along with ‘this’. That’s about the extent of changes that I’ve experienced.
When an A&R picks one of your songs do they choose different producers?
No, usually the record company will use the same person that originally produced the song. They’ll reach out to the original producer of the song (be it someone else or myself) and we’ll go in and get the song finished. Sometimes they’ll reach out to a producer of their choice if it’s a really new producer and they’re not sure of how great it’s gonna turn out.
I thought it would happen much more that they have ‘their producers’ that do the production and the songwriters are kind of separated…
I definitely used to work more like that, but I don’t do that anymore. At the end of the day, most songwriters aren’t just songwriters. They don’t just come in and ‘write the songs’. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t know that a lot of songwriters are responsible for quite a bit of the production.
Production does not mean that ‘you just did the music’, it’s 100% producing the music and the vocals. So a lot of times the songwriter is the person who originally produced the vocals anyway. So I don’t really like to call myself a ‘songwriter’ anymore because I’m really a ‘producer/songwriter’.
It doesn’t mean that I necessarily produce the music, but I’m coming in to produce the vocals. So I’m doing 50% of the work. That means that we collaborated, we’ve come together as a team to produce the song.
You have one person and they’ll focus on making sure the music is tight. I’ll focus on making sure the vocals are recorded and everything is laid out the correct way and then we’ll come back together on the mix and make sure that everything sounds amazing.
Let’s say the record company wants another producer, do you say then ‘you don’t get the song’?
I’ve only run in to that one time and we kind of had to stand firm with the record label and we were able to work it out. But that never really happens.The record company doesn’t really fight over who’s in the room producing the song. They don’t necessarily care about that.
That’s usually between yourself and the producer. Usually I avoid situations like that because the best thing to do is to just handle your business upfront. Whoever I work with, we all have our own personal agreements with each other.
If we agree to produce everything together then that’s what we do. If we split everything evenly, then that’s what we do and we don’t run into those problems at the end of the day.
Do you write with a special artist in mind?
If the record company reaches out and asks to submit something for a particular artist, then we’ll sit down and try to keep that artist in mind. Or, every now and then, if we’re just trying to get something on an album, we’ll sit down and say, ‘OK, let’s write it with this person in mind’.
But it’s rare that I do that. I probably spend 15% of my time on that. Usually I just write freely and if it fits someone then it fits them.
Do record companies send their artists to you to co-write?
Yeah, sometimes. They’ll send in the artist to the studio session and you’ll sit down and do a song with them. It’s becoming more popular in the past few years because more artists want to write. I guess they realize that they need to be a little bit more behind the scenes. In order to make a little money you probably need to have a little publishing.
Unfortunately a lot of these artists can’t write. So sometimes it’s a little bit of a tug-of-war in the studio. Sometimes you run into an artist who can really write but unfortunately they don’t get that recognition. So it’s really good to have them have the opportunity to come in and be able to collaborate with you, so they can get those ideas out on paper.
How do I get a co-write with you if I’m an unsigned artist?
First I have to listen to some stuff you did to find out at what level of songwriting you are, and then we just sit vibing. The best is to get in contact with my management, Emerge.
Have there been situations where you were sitting in a session and fought over who’s idea is better? How did you solve the problem?
You do get artists that are a little particular about the melody or the lyric being a certain way and sometimes you’ve got to choose your battles. If not really that big of a deal, sometimes you compromise.
We’ll say, ‘maybe we can keep your melody in the first half and then maybe we can change it up here’ or, ‘I like that lyric, but maybe we could say it a different way’. Or sometimes you have that one writer who comes in and is kind of an amateur.
We’re professionals and we have to say, ‘Listen, you have to trust me and this idea is better than what you’re coming up with. Not that your idea’s not good but you have to trust that we’re professionals and we’ve been doing this for a while and we promised that we wouldn’t let you put an idea down that wasn’t good.’
Do you talk about the publishing split before you sit in with somebody?
Usually, yes. But I don’t really have to worry about the publishing so much because I usually write everything myself with another writer which means, there will be somebody who comes in and they’ll get their 50% for the music and I get 50% for lyric and melody.
So it’s always understood that way. The only times there will have to be a split or discussion is when someone comes in and we’re co-writing the lyric and the melody together. The only other thing that I make sure to get understood ahead of time before we go in there is how we split the production fees, whatever we’re gonna charge and stuff like that.
So if you sit in a session with somebody and the guy who was supposed to write the music comes up with a great idea for the lyrics, when do you talk then about the business stuff?
We usually just handle it afterwards. If there are two professionals working together and they’re used to doing this, it’s usually not a problem. After the song is finished and we go through and fill out our split sheets we just know.
You may say, ‘you came up with a really good concept’ or ‘you came up with the verse, so we might as well give you another 10-15% for that’. We talk about it and negotiate it and figure out whatever everybody’s comfortable with.
Would you say certain parts of the song have a certain percentage? Like, for example, the chorus is 20%?
I would definitely say that certain parts are worth a little bit more than others. The hook or the chorus are the meat of the song and the part that everybody sings along to and what everybody knows and that’s usually where your concept and your title come from.
I’d probably say that that’s worth more than the rest of the song. Then next I’d probably say that the verses are worth the next amount and next would probably be your bridge.
If we would write a song, you write the hook line and I write the lyrics for all the verses and the bridge. What share would you propose?
I’d probably say something like: 25/25 or maybe 30/20 - either one of those splits from the 50% lyric and melody.
Do big name artists want to have a share from the publishing, if they take a song?
I heard about this but it never happened to me.
What is your biggest released song?
Probably any of three the songs on Monica’s ‘After the Storm’.
How did you get your music in the movies?
My publisher pitched it for one of the movies and it happened.
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Interview by Jan Blumentrath
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