New York, March, 2006: Twenty-Three year-old singer-songwriter, Ne-Yo wasn’t sure if a hip-hop crazed public would be ready for his brand of sensitive soul. With a hit single and album under his belt his fears have proven unfounded.
Let’s face it, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. Co-writes of the most played of the year, (Mario’s “Let Me Love You”), gets signed to his own record deal through star making executive, Island Def Jam CEO, LA Reid and watches his debut single (“So Sick”) and album (“In My Own Words”) climb to the top of the charts. Twenty-three year old, LA based Ne-Yo must have done something good in his past life because this is as close as it gets to heaven for new artists.
However, behind every overnight success is usually years of struggling and dues paying. While Ne-Yo (who was born Shaffer C. Smith in Arkansas) hasn’t exactly lived the conventional life of a starving artist, having his first song (“That Girl”by Marcus Houston) placed when he was just 17, he has had a few set backs during his short ride to fame and fortune, most notably a record deal at Columbia Records that turned sour quicker than a pint of milk left outside in 100 degree weather.
One of the attributes, Ne-Yo going for him is that he’s intelligent, articulate and willing to engage in conversation, so here is Ne-Yo’s story, as the title of his new album suggests, in his own words.
DEJANU: A lot is being made of the fact that you write all your own material and of course that you co-wrote Mario’s “You Should Let Me Love You” but who are the songwriters you most admire?
NE-YO: Diane Warren is one of the best writers ever. I just feel no one can write a big ballad the way she can. Stevie Wonder is another amazing writer who writes directly to the human heart. R. Kelly is someone who can do a song strictly for the ‘hood and then turn around and do a song with Celine Dion. I love his diversity. It’s not something that’s common with many writers.
DEJANU: Has the overwhelming and sudden acceptance of your music surprised you?
NE-YO: I’m happy people that are responding to my music the way that they are. The Mario song is the one that opened the flood gates. When we finished the song I was a little concerned as to how it was going to be received because it wasn’t like anything else that was on the radio at the time. It had a very old feel to it. I wasn’t sure how the world would perceive it. When the song was the received the way that it was it showed me that the world was hungry for R&B again because there’s a void that’s there and it wasn’t being filled.
DEJANU: Yeah, that’s what I meant, the music industry seems so hip-hop driven but you’re a straight up R&B artist, without all the hip-hop marketing that usually goes into breaking R&B acts these days
NE-YO: I feel hip-hop has put its stamp on the industry in a major, major way and as far as R&B is concerned I think it will become easier when people stop mimicking everyone else and find their own niche in what they do. Don’t try and sound like Usher if you’re not because then why would anyone go and get your record when there’s already an Usher out there. The reason it’s so hard for a person to get signed as an R&B act is because people aren’t being that original. Try and bring something new to the table.
DEJANU: Were you under any pressure to be more hip-hop orientated with this record?
NE-YO:LA Reid said to me, ‘the reason I signed you is because I like what you do. It wouldn’t make any sense for me to come behind you and try and change that.’ He handed me my budget and said ‘Go’. He let me work with who ever I wanted to. His only stipulation was that I bring him back some quality. Something he could work with.
DEJANU: You have your own in house production crew, the Compound. What do you look for in a producer you want to work with?
NE-YO: I don’t do money to make music. Honestly, and I think I’m one of the few people who can say this. If there was no money in music I think I’d still do it. Music is fun for me. Me, sittin’ up and doing music for hours is like a kid sittin’ up and playing video games for hours. I needed to find producers who looked at it the same way that I did.
DEJANU: What’s the most personal song on this record for you?
NE-YO: “So Sick” is definitely one of the most personal. It’s about the first time I fell in love. The way I screwed that up for myself. If it’s not something that’s happened to me, then it’s something that’s happened to a friend of mine . That’s how I write. “Let Me Love You” was based on a song that a female friend of mine was in and it was an abusive relationship, verbally and physically. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be with her it was more like me saying, ‘You know you don’t deserve this. You deserve better than this.’ I took that concept and Kam Houf, who wrote it with me helped me flip it into something more relatable and universal.
DEJANU: A lot of the songwriters you admire, Stevie Wonder, Diane Warren, write songs that are extremely musical with a lot of chord changes but in today’s hip-hop generation most tracks don’ t really have any changes. How does writing to a hip-hop track challenge you as a writer?
NE-YO: It does challenge you as a writer. Whatever drama that’s not in the track has to be made up with the lyric and melody.
DEJANU: Let’s talk about your deal at Columbia Records. You recorded an entire album over there and then you parted ways. What happened?
NE-YO: The deal fell apart because basically their whole urban division just bottomed out. They fired their whole crew of people and hired a whole new team. Then a month later they’d fire their new team and hire another team. By the end of it, I think I had 9 different A&R’s and I just asked to be let out of my contract. Columbia were so bent on making me their version of Tyrese or Usher or whoever, they went as far as to tell me what kind of clothes to where, what kind of songs to write, what producers I could or couldn’t work with. It felt more like prison than having a record deal. That’s why I asked to be released from my contract early. After a long, drawn out thing, they allowed me to go but they said my album has to stay. They kept my entire first album. But the funny thing is, that I didn’t record my album with them. I originally came to them with a finished album. I was at a company called Noontime Entertainment. All we had to do there was take pictures, promote it and put it out. I was so eager to be free I agreed to their deal.
DEJANU: How did the Columbia deal come about in the first place?
NE-YO: The Marques Houston song, “That Girl”, was supposed to be my first single on the Columbia Records deal. That came through Noontime Entertainment. I was their staff writer and they were shopping my songs around. Me and one of the producers would make songs all day. The different labels started asking about the voice on the records. The labels started wanting to offer me a deal.
DEJANU: And how did the Def Jam deal happen?
NE-YO: The Def Jam deal kinda happened by accident and when I say that I use the term very loosely because I don’t believe in accidents. I believe that everything happens for a reason. The only reason I went to Def Jam that day was because a producer friend of mine could get reunited with an old friend of his that he grew up with in California. We went up to the office, not tryin’ to shop music or get a deal – just so these two could get reacquainted. I’m sittin’ in the corner chillin’ out while they talk and he starts playin’ some of my music. She says, ‘Oh this is nice, who’ s this. He says, ‘Oh that’s Ne-Yo. He sings, he writes. He played it off because that not what we were there for. She calls me over to her and looks me up and down and says, ‘Can you perform?’. I said, “yeah’. She said, “get up, let me see you perform’. So I did 3 songs for her and she took me into LA Reid that very same day.”
DEJANU: I know you must get asked this all the time. Where did you get the name Ne-Yo from?
NE-YO: A producer friend of mine, Big D, decided to give me that name. He said that in his opinion I see music the way that Ne-Yo sees the Matrix.
DEJANU: Who’s on your wish list for artists to work with?
NE-YO: Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Method Man. If there was one person, though, I could write for and then go ahead and die the next day and be alright with it, it would have to be Prince.
DEJANU: How did you start writing songs. To have your first song placed at 17 is pretty incredible.
NE-YO: My mother is the reason that I write. She put the pen and paper in front of me and told me to write it down. I didn’t know what she meant. I was a very pent up and angry kid. She knew that I needed an outlet for that so she gave me a pen and a piece of paper and told me to write down my feelings. It started as journal entries, then poetry, then short stories, then songs.
DEJANU: Why were you so angry?
NE-YO: Because of the relationship that my mom and dad had. It was a very negative relationship and left me very angry about the way my dad treated her. I’m not really in contact with him.
DEJANU: I guess your mom got the last laugh.
NE-YO: She works in a bank in Las Vegas and has pictures of me all over her cubicle. You would think an 18 year-old girl worked there.
DEJANU: Is there any thing else you want to add?
NE-YO:Log on to my web site www.neyoworld.com. Be looking for me on the big screen with the movie, ‘Save The Last Dance’ part 2. I have a 5 second cameo as a club owner. I have a clothing line, Sahmir Urban Couture. You’ll start seeing that in September.
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.