Interview with CHUCK HARMONY, songwriter and producer for Rihanna, Ne-Yo, Chrisette Michele - Aug 15, 2011
“A&Rs tell you what they want for the artist. I try to do the opposite. If that’s the direction they’re giving everybody then your song won’t stand out.”
When Rihanna heralded her fourth album ‘Rated R’ with unsettling ballad ‘Russian Roulette’ (UK & GER No.2) it marked a surprising but successful career left-turn for the R&B star, setting her apart from the mainstream pack and attracting plaudits and raised eyebrows in the process. Chuck Harmony, the major writer-producer behind the Rihanna smash and hits by Ne-Yo (US & UK No.1), Chrisette Michele (US No.1) and Fantasia (US No.1) and this week’s interviewee, specialises in taking artists where he thinks they should be heading next rather than where they are already, and says that it’s how he wins cuts with A&Rs.
Harmony talks to HitQuarters about his career breakthrough with Ne-Yo, why Coldplay are his favourite band, and how singers and songwriters looking to sign with his Harmony House Entertainment can impress the man of the house.
Your major career breakthrough came when Ne-Yo heard one of your instrumental tracks, loved it and then wrote a song around it. How did that come about?
I started out making tracks for jazz people to improvise on. That’s how I started to learn how to produce. One of these tracks eventually got into the hands of Ne-Yo through one of his managers. A guy I knew who was trying to get into the music business played it for him.
After Ne-Yo heard the first track he wanted to collaborate on more. I then signed to Ne-Yo’s production company, Compound Productions, and that’s how we started getting placements together with various artists.
Ne-Yo wasn’t the first to recognise the non-jazz appeal of your tracks because other people had already found them ideal to sing and rap over. What was it about them that was so well suited to singing to?
My tracks are very melodic so it’s real easy for people to find melodies to sing on top of them.
At the beginning did you feel a certain amount of pressure with creating and playing music for such a high profile artist like Ne-Yo?
Oh yeah, it was nerve-wracking. I mean, you always want people to like your stuff, but with Ne-Yo it’s more of a pressure situation because when you’re in the studio with him he’s ready to write, and so you have to provide something for him to write to. That could be very, very hard sometimes. But it’s rewarding when it works - and it’s always worked.
If you had a background in jazz, how were you able develop your style into something more pop-orientated?
Basically through listening. I’m a sponge - I listen to everything, and so my actual style of music is really a combination of everything that I listen to. It was just a matter of really trying to understand what’s necessary to make it in the marketplace and then combining that with my musicality.
What equipment did you start out recording with?
For a long time I was using a Korg X3 to do my tracks, and I was doing them on the multi-track recorder on the keyboard, and then I would transfer them to DAT or whatever.
My first equipment where I got placements off it was a MPC and a Roland Keyboard X6.
Once you’d started working with Ne-Yo and Compound Productions, what was your professional breakthrough as a songwriter and producer?
It was a song I produced on Céline Dion’s ‘Taking Chances’ album called ‘I Got Nothin’ Left’. It was actually my first placement.
What impact did that have on your career?
I got a publishing deal through EMI because of that song - I was signed by Big Jon [Platt] (HQ interview). And right after that I got opportunities to work with Janet Jackson and Mary J. Blige.
Also in it being a very musical piece, people came to me for the more musical stuff.
Are the more musical tracks your speciality?
My specialities are melodic tracks, and really just caring about the overall sound of a production. I’m very musical and the more notoriety I get for that the more musical I can be. People accept it from me now – it’s become my thing.
Do you have your own personal breakthrough?
I don’t think I’ve reached it yet … No, I take that back. I executive produced an album for Chrisette Michele called ‘Epiphany’. It went to No.1 in the United States Billboard 200 chart. That was my personal breakthrough, to know that I could do every song on an album that would go No.1.
How would you advise a young songwriter looking to showcase their skills and make connections within the industry?
There’s so many cool ways to make connections. With the internet the world has become so small – at least as far as the music business is concerned, pretty much everybody you need to meet is somewhere on the internet, and accessible ...
Plus they always search on sites like YouTube for acts, and songwriters and producers. There’s a new website called Blazetrak.com where up-and-coming talent can get a video response from their favourite producers, songwriters and artists.
Do you think up-and-coming songwriters should seek management to work on their behalf?
Yeah, at some point management can be very helpful. But it can also be a hindrance.
I really feel like people give away too much before it’s time. If you’re honing your craft and you’ve exhausted all the possibilities as far as the internet and YouTube goes and then still can’t reach that connection then you’re probably at a point where you need to start looking for management.
How does the process happen of choosing which projects you work on?
At this point in my career I’m not chasing money and doing every opportunity I get, I’m just choosing projects I’m really passionate about - such as with artists that I really feel like can bring something special to the marketplace. I’m being selective with how I feel about the artist and how I feel about their movement.
What artists would you like to work with that you can help to bring something special to the market?
I would love to work with Beyoncé at some point. I would love to work with Fiona Apple, Coldplay … I’ve pretty much worked with everybody in R&B that I can work with, so I’m ready to expand and do other stuff.
You’ve previously said that Coldplay are your favourite band, which might come as a surprise to some people. What is it about them that appeals to you?
I just love Chris Martin’s approach to songwriting, his voice and the overall sonics of that band. When I say that to people sometimes they’re like, ‘Coldplay is generic! Coldplay are like McDonald’s!’ But I love everything about that band - it really gives me a good feeling.
When you collaborate at a session either as a songwriter or producer, how does the process begin?
Right now, most of the time I just start from scratch. I’m much more into the song than how hot or how tight the track is and so I start by either playing the piano or playing the guitar.
How best do you like to work in the studio?
I like to be in the studio with an artist. Sometimes artists can get in their own way, so sometimes it’s better to create it and then submit it to the artist, but either way it’s fine with me.
To get some idea of how you work together with Ne-Yo, can you talk us through how ‘Russian Roulette’ was composed?
It was actually a little different than normal. We had a session set-up with Rihanna. I was flying back from L.A. and managed to lose all my drum sounds in the process. I had to get to the studio two hours early to make the track for Ne-Yo - more often than not it’s Ne-Yo that writes the tracks. So it was me that did the track, and an hour and a half later Ne-Yo showed up and listened to it and loved it, and then wrote the song to it. We played it for Rihanna’s people and they loved it too.
You were surprised by ‘Russian Roulette’ being chosen as the lead single from Rihanna’s ‘Rated R’, why was that?
I didn’t even think it was going to make the album. I loved the song but concept-wise it was far out … That day me and Ne-Yo did two songs for Rihanna, and I actually thought the other song would be chosen because it sounded a little more like Rihanna. But they chose ‘Russian Roulette’.
When you’re working on song ideas, do you try to second-guess the A&R on, for example, what you think would perfect as a single for a particular artist at that particular point in their career?
Yeah. What happens is that A&Rs always tell you what they want for the artist and 9 times out of 10 I try to do the opposite, or if not the opposite then as close to the opposite as I can. Because if that’s the direction that they’re giving everybody then your song probably won’t stand out. I try to give artists something where I think they should go next.
Why did you decide to set-up Harmony House Entertainment and what does that project involve?
After my stay at Compound Productions I decided I wanted to set up a little boutique label where I can do more stuff that I’m passionate about and that doesn’t necessarily have to be mainstream. Whether we went major or whether we went independent with it, it was just something where people could put out different kinds of music, and not just the same old same old.
What is it specifically that you are looking for in singers and songwriters?
I’m not really too concerned about the genre or the songwriting, I just want somebody that brings something very unique and artistic to the table as far as vocally, style, concept ...
What level should they be at in order for you to start working with them?
They should be as close to professional as possible. I’m not really into developing people. When they come in I want them to already be at a point where we can at least record something or even release something. It don’t have to be perfect but it has to be something that I can work with.
How can people submit music to Harmony House Entertainment?
They can submit it to my email address. The website is harmonyhouseent.com. And they can seek me up on Twitter or on Blazetrak.
What does a songwriter need to have in order to stand out?
They just got to be professional. Professional people understand their craft - songwriting is not just all feeling, all emotion, it’s a craft. And you’ve got to study and perfect your craft, through listening to other people, listening to the great songwriters. A lot of people write songs but there’s not a lot that write great songs, and the difference with the professional is that they understand the elements that make a great song. The Babyfaces and Ne-Yos have perfected the formula for it.
Can you give us an idea of what those elements of a great song are?
A great song is first of all a great concept, and the song must be all about what you’re talking about. It then needs to have a great melody, and a memorable hook.
You’re really critical on rappers and the content they rap about, and you would only work with a certain kind of rapper. Which is?
I don’t like making music that portrays negativity. So I want to work with rappers that have something to say that is positive, uplifting, or something that’s deep.
I’m actually working with this rapper named K’naan - he had a song called ‘Wavin’ Flag’. We’ve been in the studio for like three weeks and it’s been the most memorable musical experience I’ve ever had, because he’s actually rapping about something – he’s provoking, and he’s actually critical about what he says.
What are you working on at the moment and what can we expect to hear from you in the near future?
I’m working on K’naan, VV Brown, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, Akon, Rebecca Ferguson … I’m working on a lot [laughs].
How would you like Harmony House Entertainment see develop into the future?
I model my company after Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. His is still a boutique label even though he’s got major distribution. He still controls what goes on and what comes out of that label, and he really cares about the integrity of music. I’m really excited about bringing new kinds of sounds to the marketplace. So my dream for Harmony House is to be known for that.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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