Interview with KANDI BURUSS, singer and songwriter for N'Sync, Boyz II Men - March 12, 2007
"When it comes to a publishing deal the song commitment is more important than the amount of upfront money that youíre getting"Kandi Buruss started her career as the youngest member of the Top 10 US act Xscape. She won a Grammy for best R&B song for writing 'No Scrubs' for TLC.
She is the first female to ever receive the prestigious ASCAP Rhythm and Soul Songwriting Award, after having created a string of hits for multi-platinum and Grammy winning artists from N'SYNC to Boyz II Men.
Working on a star-filled comeback follow-up to her 2000 album Hey Kandi (included the US Top 40 hit Don't Think I'm Not) Kandi talks to HitQuarters about the differences between working as a singer and as a songwriter, and gives out some priceless professional advice.
Where does your passion to perform and entertain come from?
Since my childhood it was something that I always wanted to do. I always had the dream that one day I was going to be an artist and a star. And I was just lucky enough that it happened in my high school years. And thatís all Iíve known to do ever since.
What was key in finding your own musical vocabulary?
Working with Jermaine Dupri. When I used to write songs for our group Xscape I used to use our every day slang. It made a lot of young people relate to the songs more.
What do you like better - being in the public eye as an artist or behind the scenes as a songwriter?
Sometimes I say I love being an artist more, but at this moment I love being a songwriter more. I just love coming up with different ideas and being able to do any type of music and not be limited.
When youíre an artist you have to stick to whatever youíre known to do. You canít just flip out and start singing rock one day if youíre known for being a hip hop artist. As a songwriter you can write for any type of artist. You change your style in relation to the artist that youíre working with.
Do you remember when you wrote your first song?
When I was about 13, I had this little book with a couple of songs that I wrote in there. But I wasnít letting anybody hear those songs. When I was 14 our group got together and I wrote this song with a couple of girls in the group and it was like a parents-just-donít-understand type of song. I was rapping, and it was funny.
Your singing range is very versatile. Youíre able to sing in a very low contralto and also being able to reach high pitches.
Is this a natural gift or did you have special vocal training?
That was a natural gift.
How come youíre signed to both Devyne Stephensí Upfront Records, and Lilí Jonís BME Recordings?
I had stopped singing for a couple of years. I was really focused on songwriting. I talked to Lilí Jon and about possibly doing a record for his label for whatever reason if it comes together.
And one day Devyne talked to me about writing a song (ĎCanít Get No Ooh Weeí) for an artist named Tyra that he was working with. He asked: ďOkay, what do I have to do to get you out of retirement?Ē And I didnít really know if he was serious. But he went: ďLetís have a meeting. Itís all about just you.Ē
We met and he immediately had this vision of what he saw. We went ahead and put the framework together. Shortly after that I ended up singing on the E-40 record along with T-Pain.
After ĎU And Datí came out, Devyne talked to Lilí Jon and felt like it would be a better thing if both of them put the project together. At that time it looked like I was with the BME clique.
Your songs are based on Ďreal experiencesí. What is it that you tap into?
The first thing I do when I sit down to write a song is to come up with a concept. The concept makes the record. A lot of the times Iím trying to figure out what does this beat make me feel like. I just go from there and Iíll just write about one of the crazy situations that have happened to me.
Or, if a friend of mine has been going through something recently, and theyíve been talking to me about it. Sometimes I tend to like to write about something I went through on the day it happened.
Is humour a fundamental aspect in your writing, to keep things lighter?
Most people never really make a comment about that. But I love to take a situation, even if itís a bad or crazy situation, then make it funny. Itís like Iím laughing at myself. Everything Iím seeing is very realistic, things a lot of people can relate to, but itís funny at the same time.
What is your writing process like? Do you stick to structures?
As I said, I first come up with a concept. I can write a million melodies to the same track, but it means nothing without that great concept that catches everybodyís attention. From there I have a great melody.
And normally I put a B-section, or a pre-chorus as some people call it, in the song and then I have the hook. They donít always come to me in that order, but thatís normally how my songs tend to go.
And then I have either a breakdown or bridge at the end of the song, depending on if the person who did the track wrote a bridge in the music.
Do you have specific tempos in mind to best suit certain songs?
Certain uptempo records make me speak a certain way when Iím writing. Normally, for example, I donít like writing about being in a club because for me thatís just so boring, but if itís a feel-good record and itís uptempo then I could talk about that.
Can harmonic richness be an obstacle to reaching a wide audience?
Obviously, some music doesnít reach every audience. But nowadays, a hit is a hit. When a song is a hit it doesnít matter if itís real grinding hip hop, it still plays on crossover radio.
I donít really concern myself about would this sound good to this audience or will it sound good to that audience. I just do whatever feels good to me at the moment. If the concept is relatable and the melody is catchy and the hook is strong, then normally itís going to crossover anyway.
Do you ever disagree with the direction a producer is taking a song?
Yes. Weíre in the age of ProTools. If a producer gives me a CD with his track on there, sometimes Iíll be moving stuff around. I have my engineer and I move parts and change tracks around. When they get it back sometimes itís not the way they gave it to me. I just do what I think makes the song better.
Or if Iím still not satisfied once I play around with their track then Iíll call him and say he really needs to break this down. I had to do that recently. I felt like the producer made the track too busy.
It had too much going on. It was almost irritating. I asked him to break the track down a little bit more because I could not even write to it. He did and it was cool.
Is there a certain style your name stands for?
A lot of people know me for women anthems type of records. They say Iím pro-woman. But thatís not necessarily true to me. Especially lately, Iíve been trying to do some things that people wouldnít expect me to do.
Just because the biggest songs I wrote were for women and they were anthems, people think automatically thatís all I know how to do or all I want to do. Thatís not true.
Whatís your story that you want to tell?
My personality is a little strong. The message in a lot of the records is: donít take shit from anybody. Itís not like that on every record. Some records that I write are more vulnerable. But I noticed that people like the drama records more.
I wrote ĎSingle For The Rest Of My Lifeí for a group named Isyss a long time ago. It was about if I canít have this someone, then Iíll be single for the rest of my life. But if a woman is that strong, then why would she feel like she doesnít want to have anything else if itís just for that one person?
I flip it into any subject matter. But itís the drama ones that catch peopleís attention. Itís that shock factor. I do a lot of shock factor where people canít believe I said something, but they still agree with it.
Do you favor writing solo or co-writing?
I like to write for myself most of the time, but I do co-write. I normally like to write more with one other lyric and melody person. Because itís too much going on when you have like three or four people trying to put their stuff in the lyric and melody of the song.
I like to sit at home with a song for myself and fill in the story, but I donít mind writing with one other person. But I do write with more than one person sometimes.
How does it differ to write for another artist or for your own material?
For me itís easy to write for other artists. A lot of the times they really donít know what they want. I just sit down and I talk to them. I have just a regular conversation about whatís going on in their life. And they tell me things about themselves and I go and write their whole life story in that one song.
And when they come back in a year, theyíre like: O my God, I canít believe you put it all in there! I just have to sit and listen to them, and then just make the story for them but at the same time make it relatable to everybody else.
What advice would you give an aspiring songwriter on how to enter a professional level?
Itíll be great if they could meet with producers who are already getting work. There are a lot more hot producers than there are hot songwriters. Normally, producers are always looking for writers to write to their tracks.
A lot of new songwriters donít have a way to get into the studio and record their songs. If they link up with a producer who already has a place to record, who makes hot tracks, then all they got to do is start writing hot songs to that personís beats and then eventually everybody start hearing their music within the industry.
Itís hard to break into the industry if youíre an unknown. If you can meet with producers who already are working then that will help you.
How should they approach the business with their material?
You always have to make sure your CDs look professional. I see so many CDs get thrown away because they arenít labeled or they just look like itís nothing.
You have to know that a million people are trying to send their records to different A&Rs. You have to make sure your CD makes someone feel they need to put this in and listen to it.
Can you offer some words of advice with regards to publishing contracts?
When it comes to a publishing deal the song commitment is more important than the amount of upfront money that youíre getting. If your song commitment is four songs, and you only are writing the lyric and the melody of the record, in many cases you only get 50% of the song, and that is if you wrote it by yourself.
In order to have four full songs released that means you need to have eight songs come out, because you only get 50% of every one. Youíll be stuck in terms forever.
I was trying to explain to a friend of mine that they got this big advance and get a check every month, but the advance normally only lasts you a year. If you donít make that song commitment, and itís not just turning their songs to the publishing company, it means those songs have to be released and come out to the public. The album has to come out.
Not every song you write for every artist is going to come out because a lot of artists get dropped and different things happen. If your eight songs donít get released then youíre stuck in their terms.
Itís more important to worry about your song commitment. If you can get the lowest amount of songs that you have to get released, thatís better than getting a huge cheque. If youíre writing enough then later on eventually your money is going to be there anyway. They have money that they plan on getting back from you anyway.
Atlanta, Georgia is still the place to be for R&B music? How did you benefit from it?
Definitely, and I benefited in a major way. When I was in a group LaFace Records first came down here. Dallas Austin and Jermain Dupri had just started making noise. Our group got a deal with Jermaine. If we would have grew up in a city where there was no music industry, we would have never been found.
Being in the industry allowed me to maneuver and start writing with producers and then turn into a songwriter. There are so many producers and artists here, and that helps.
What kinds of artists would you like to see gain more popularity?
Artists that actually can really sing. Nowadays people like to see artists perform. Theyíll go more for a person who can perform and looks good, and not necessarily be a strong vocalist.
R&B, I hope, is making a stronger comeback. Hip hop totally took over the charts. Itís all you hear on the radio. You donít hear as many singers as you hear rappers. I like rap music, but Iíd really like to hear more singers.
What will be the future for urban music?
All music is kind of merging. Pop stars are no longer where people have known pop music to be. Singing R&B or melodies riding like how a rap flow would rock. Some people may sing a pop song over a hip hop beat. All music sounds can be played together on each otherís radio station.
Can you tell something about your upcoming project?
On my new album I worked with a lot of different people. I got some new producers on the project. I will go in the studio with Lilí Jon and Akon and Bryan Cox and T-Pain. I already worked with Jagged Edge. They produced and wrote a record for me.
Don Vito produced some songs for me. Lil Scrappy is rapping on the album. 8Ball & MJG rapped on the project. Focus produced some on it. And then I have some new people like a young dude named G-Phonics.
The album is a little bit more edgy lyrically than the one I did before. It definitely is more hip hop. On this album I really didnít care about trying to clean it up as far as things you canít say. Whatever Iím thinking on my mind, thatís what Iím putting on paper. Iím just doing what feels good to me.
The subject matter is very edgy, but itís stuff that I feel everybody can relate to. Iíve always been known for saying what people are thinking and may not necessarily say out loud. And Iím continuing to do that.
Will the title be ĎIt Canít Rain Foreverí?
Iím not sure yet. I have a song called that and itís me featuring 8Ball. I really love that song. And I always used that statement a lot. When I was going through something, it was like, you know what, Iím not even going to worry about it, because it canít rain forever.
I donít let anything get me down for too long. You canít even focus on that because whatever made you sad, today or tomorrow itís not going to even matter anymore.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music business, what would it be?
I would stop letting people work off hype. To me theyíre so quick to jump to the new person. Like this person is hot right now. Itís a hype driven industry. I would stop letting everybody just jump into whoever it is thatís supposed to be hot just because theyíre supposed to be.
They should pick whatís actually hot and not just because of names. Everybody thinks that just because this personís name is on a project it must be hot, but that person may not even be there. I would definitely judge the music by the quality instead of going off on whoís name produced it or who did this or that.
Your skill with the pen led you to mark your place in music history and your solo career is booming. What is it you still want to accomplish in the music business?
I would like to get another Grammy or Songwriter of the Year. Because I donít want it to be like a fluke. I will always look at Jermaine and he was awarded Songwriter of the Year time and time again.
And even though I was able to be the first girl to get the ASCAP Rhythm and Soul Songwriting Award, I want to get it again. When I see Jermaine win it again and again itís like he makes it seem easy. But itís really not.
The biggest thing I want to do is having like three songs in the Top 10 at the same time, either that I wrote on or sing on. Then Iíll be happy. I had two at the same time, but I never had three.
Howís your daughter Riley doing? Will she be doing some singing and dancing in the future?
Sheís always dancing and she does try to sing. Itís funny, because sometimes when Iím listening to tracks she picks out melodies in the tracks and start singing them. A lot of little kids wouldnít even notice the parts of the music that they hear. So, Iím thinking to myself that one day she is going to be writing songs too.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Herve Lauzanne
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