Interview with TRACI HALE, songwriter for Rihanna, Brandy, Mýa - Dec 6, 2010
“Up and coming producers need writers and up and coming writers need producers”
One of the names behind the sassy and seductive pop of Rihanna’s latest chart masterstroke, ‘What’s My Name?’ (US No.1), is songwriter Traci Hale. The Billboard #1 co-write has given the career of Atlanta-based Hale a new lease of life after early career highs writing for Brandy and co-writing Mýa’s ‘Case of the Ex’ (US No.2), and aside from the Barbadian pop princess, Hale is now working with teen sensation Justin Bieber (US No.1) and R&B soul star Charlie Wilson.
The RedZone songwriter talks to HitQuarters about getting her first songwriting break writing with Darkchild, how she paid the bills before the hits arrived and what up-and-coming songwriters need to do to get a foot in the door.
You’re known as a songwriter now but you started your career as a backing singer – what was your original ambition in the music industry?
It’s so funny, when I moved here [to Atlanta] my only aspiration was to be a background vocalist. I didn’t want to be anything else. But as I learned more about the business I went through different phases - first background vocalist, then I was trying to be an artist for a minute. I quickly decided that the artist thing wasn’t for me.
So when did you first discover your songwriting skills and talent as a lyricist?
I’ve always written songs privately. So while I was on tour [in 1996] with Aaliyah I shared my songs with fellow background vocalist [Nycolia ‘Tye-V’ Turman] and she invited me to write with her. She had a publishing deal with Zomba so she was on her way to LA to work.
Our first job was working for Rodney [‘Darkchild’] Jerkins. It was a writers dream. To just come in the game writing for the top producer at the time. That was a big deal.
What happened when you then met with Rodney Jerkins?
I ended up staying out in LA for like five months. During those months I got my first placements as a writer: Brandy’s ‘Angel In Disguise’ and Ray J ‘That’s Why I Lie’ on the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack.
And it was from there that you got involved in writing for other artists?
After spending five months on the west coast, I moved back to Atlanta and started writing for RedZone.
A lot of modern pop songwriters start out as performers rather than as pure songwriters. Do you therefore think it’s easier to pursue a career as a songwriter once you’ve already gained a foothold on projects through other means?
Not necessarily. What’s more important I think is to position yourself in the right circle for whatever path you want to pursue. And for the few people who happen to be multi-talented, you never know which one of your talents will get you in the door.
How would you advise a songwriter to try to get their foot in the door - work with up-and-coming producers?
Up and coming producers need writers and up and coming writers need producers. You should barter your writing skills because lyrics with no music are just ‘words’. There are also a few publications that have want ads with producers looking for lyricists. Sorta like a music exchange.
Was ‘Angel In Disguise’ on the Brandy album an early break for you?
Oh my gosh, yes! My first song, my first published song - really exciting. It’s still one of my favourite songs.
It was already conceptualised by Rodney [Jerkins] and Brandy. It was co-written by Tye-v, LaShawn Daniels and Fred Jerkins.
What impact did the song’s success have on your career at that point?
It introduced me to the world as a writer because they only knew me as a background vocalist. So I could actually come back here to Atlanta and actually work as a writer. If it wasn’t for that song I don’t think I’d be working as a writer - it opened a lot of doors.
Were you always able to make a living from music or have you ever had to supplement your income with other work?
No, I had plenty of jobs before music, and during music too. I had to take jobs at the beginning of my career - plenty of office clerical work - and I think it wasn’t until after I wrote ‘Case Of The Ex’ for Mýa that I could actually make a living from songwriting. After that song, no more 9 to 5!
You signed with peermusic publisher. Why did they decide to take you on?
I think it was ‘Case Of The Ex’ that made them interested. Plus they had a good relationship with RedZone - that’s where RedZone was affiliated. So it just seemed like a perfect fit.
Do you have any advice for young songwriters looking to secure their first publishing deal – what should they be looking for and what should they be looking out for?
Just don’t look at the money. They should look for a realistic song commitment. It all depends on what percentages you’re writing as a writer, because if you have a four song deal it’s kind of hard to get four placements - not four placements but 400%, because a full song is 100%. If you’re only doing 25% and you have a four song deal it’s going to take a lot of songs to make up your 100%.
So I would definitely look at the song commitment more than the amount of money they’re giving you upfront. Most people get starry eyes when they hear the money that’s upfront, but you have to pay that money back, and if you’re not writing the amount of songs to make back what the publishing company is putting in, you’re going to be in the red, and you don’t want to be in the red …
What does peermusic do on your behalf in terms of securing songwriting cuts – for instance, do they match you with other songwriters, or send you to songwriting camps …?
No, I haven’t done any camps. Most of my song placements have been secured by outside sources. But I’m sure Peer will be arranging more writing opportunities in the future.
Tricky Stewart is a frequent collaborator in your career. How did you first get together with him?
I was a background vocalist for Tricky Stewart and he’s been one of my biggest mentors in the business - like a brother to me. We’ve known each other for years and years, even before I was writing. The whole Stewart family are very good friends of mine.
Through Tricky you became part of the fabled RedZone Entertainment. Can you explain their role in your career?
RedZone has been the vehicle in probably about 95% of all my placements I’ve had in my career so far.
What I call the second chapter of my career - that’s what I’m in right now – I’ve been working outside of RedZone. But I will still be working with them in the future.
What’s the benefit of working for a production company?
The benefit I think is that there’s a better chance that your song will be placed. Most production companies already know what artist they are writing for. So there’s no guesswork involved. They cater the music and lyrics to each artist. And that’s always good – you’re not working in vain, you always win.
Working with RedZone looks good on paper [laughs]! Who wouldn’t want to be associated with RedZone because they’re what’s hot in the game right now. They have the top spot, and they’ve been holding it for a very long time.
How do you normally compose your songs?
I get the track to do and then usually do a melody first and once I have all the pieces of that I go back and put words to my own melody. And then I record it all on GarageBand.
I get it to a state where it could be a scratch vocal on it, and then send it back to the producer so they can do an actual demo of it. Either that or I can do a demo of it, where I have to go to the studio and actually sing it. I try not to do that but if I have to I will [laughs].
The lyrics of Mýa’s ‘Case Of The Ex’ were said to be inspired by your own relationship experiences. Do you often find inspiration from your own life, and do you believe it gives a greater emotional weight to the song?
It definitely helps to relate to your own life. When you’ve experienced it, you can definitely write a little better about it - it rolls off your tongue a little better.
Pretty much every song I have written has a little piece of me in it. I can’t write about anything that I haven’t been through in some kind of capacity.
How much networking do you need to do as part of your career?
Probably more than I actually do. If you’re not networking then it’s important you have somebody in your corner networking for you, like management.
So how did you meet Ester Dean for example?
Through RedZone. She’s one of my great friends too, and one of my favourite writers - her and The-Dream. I want to be around them as much as I can because those are the two writers that inspire me right now.
How did you come to get involved with Rihanna’s latest album ‘Loud’?
Ester Dean pulled me in, and God bless her for it because that pretty much put me back on the map. I owe a great deal to her for that.
Can you talk us through how the song ‘What’s My Name?’ was actually written? What was your contribution to it?
Mostly lyrical. Ester did most of the melody. It’s really group effort though - so it’s hard to say the formula on some songs because Stargate does their part, Ester does her part, I put in what I put in - no one does just one thing.
What was the inspiration behind it?
Oh love, love, love! And it’s sexy – it started as a real sexy track and then you put something sexy over it.
It’s a Billboard No.1 single – how did you find out that it was going to be not only on the album but a single?
I got a call from Ester, she just said it was the single and I was like ecstatic …
And then when it reached Number 1 …?
Oh my gosh, I was a little emotional because I knew it was such a good thing. It’s a happy time of my life, personally, career-wise - everything is coming together, and I couldn’t be happier.
So it’s already proving to be another big break for you?
A better one. I’m getting like a second life. So, it’s really good, and there’s going to be many more big breaks to come. I’m looking forward to even bigger things.
What are you working on at the moment?
Charlie Wilson is coming out. Justin Bieber. A bunch of things waiting in the wings to write, and a lot of things that I want to be on too. Just waiting to see what’s next.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: A&R Aaron Bay-Schuck on breaking Bruno Mars and B.o.B
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