As co-writer of Usher's "Yeah," the #1 hit of the last decade, Sean 'The Pen" Garrett has conquered the world of songwriting in the time it takes many just to get started. Now, he's setting his sights on making a "Massive Attack" as an artist -- along with a little help from Nicki Minaj. His track record with Beyonce, Fergie, The Pussycat Dolls, and Kelis surely can't hurt...
Justin Kantor: Hey Sean, how ya doin? Sean Garrett: What’s up Justin? How are you?
JK: Good! This is for Soulmusic.com, an interview feature and podcast, so I guess I’ll start off with what you’re doing now. You’re in the midst of promoting several hot collaborations that you’ve got going with Nicki Minaj, with "Massive Attack" and “Get It All." So, can you tell me about how your collaboration with her came about?
SG: It was basically just magic, man. I got a chance to meet Nicki, and I was a huge fan of hers, and she came to the studio actually for us just to meet. I played her a couple of records off my album, and she was listening to them, and there was one record that I wanted her to get on that wasn’t on my album yet. It was just a record I was working on and I thought it was kind of hot. So I wanted to see what she thought about it, so she came through and I played her that record and then I played her some of my other records that were actually on my album. She actually heard “Get It All” and went crazy! She was, like, “I really, really like that song!” and I was like, “Really?” and she was like, “Yeah. I was thinking I want to get on that” and I was like, “I was thinking the same thing.”
JK: Great minds think alike, right?
SG: Yeah, so she actually got on that record for me and really delivered big for me, and in turn, I started playing her some other records. I played her this one record that I thought could be huge for her, and when I played it for her, her assistant that she be with was like, “Wow!” That record was "Massive Attack." Then I went to another record, and then she was like, “If it’s not asking too much, can you go back to that record, the Massive record?” So I went back and played her the record again and she said, “Can you play it for me one more time?” I played it again and she was like, “Wow! That’s the direction that I want my album to be.”
JK: So, your first instincts were right in that case.
SG: Yeah, pretty much. I was named "The Pen" by Jay-Z and that’s pretty much what I do, outside of being an artist. I’m a lot of different people inside this one person, you know what I mean? One day I’m from the Island, like Jamaican, and then one day I’m on some real Pop shit, another day I’m real Urban stuff, and on other days I’m also mainstream “loving you” type of music.
JK: Like a melting pot.
SG: Yeah, and some days I’m on my aggressive side, and "Massive Attack" was one of those records I did from my aggressive perspective that I felt was a female anthem type of record, and I clearly knew that the record wasn’t an everyday sound, so I knew that there was going to have to be an artist that had a really big personality.
JK: And it comes across.
SG: I didn’t expect everybody to get it at first, because we had the same reaction to “Break Up”. When people first heard it, it was like, “I don’t know about this one. The beat’s a little different” -- but that’s what I do. It’s the same thing with “Yeah”. The record label, when I first did “Yeah” for Usher, this is before anybody heard the record, including Lil Jon and Ludacris, I took it to L.A. Reid and when he first heard it, it was so different from what was going on at the time; for Usher, it was so different that it just took everybody by surprise. That’s really been the story of my life. If you look at my catalog, I’m known for records like “London Bridge” for Fergie, or Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons” or Ciara’s “Goodies”, or Usher’s “Yeah”, “Blindfold Me” by Kelis, “Bossy” by Kelis or stuff like Beyonce “Ring The Alarm” and just really big records, so what I try to do is swing the pendulum when I do music, and that’s what "Massive Attack" is all about, man. For the haters, I purposely knew that everybody wasn’t going to get it at first, because it’s not meant for everybody to get. It’s meant for Nicki Minaj fans to get that record, and then the rest of the world will get it, because you gotta really love Nicki and be a part of what Nicki does. I had to take myself out of that situation. What me and Nicki do share is, we share the same kind of mentality as far as we’re very strong-minded, we’ve got a lot to prove, and we’ve been through a lot. We share those three things. So we feel like it’s a "Massive Attack" on the industry, or on the world, really. We show the world our perspective.
JK: When you mentioned her personality and how it’s so distinctive -- and in that circumstance you had a song that she really took a liking to -- is that typically the case, or when you’re writing for another artist, so you tailor-make it for that artist, or how does that all come together?
SG: I’m a producer. I write and produce, so what I do is produce records for people. People misunderstand what writing is, writing and producing. It’s not just writing down some words, it’s producing. That record was written and produced for somebody like her, somebody with a big personality that had a Caribbean background. She’s from Trinidad, but somebody that had a big enough personality that had the swagger to be able to carry something like that and wasn’t scared. She’s that type of artist that’s willing to be put on something like that, put that helmet on and wear it and there’s very few people like that. Hate it or love it, she’s a superstar, period, point blank. She’s fearless, she’s got her own lane, and people try to compare her to Lil’ Kim, but she’s not Lil’ Kim. I think they’re wrong. There may be some similarities, they’re both from New York, they both have very strong personalities, they’re really high fashion, so with fashion comes taking chances and trying different things, and also pulling from different eras. That was a great era that Lil’ Kim came up in, and who wouldn’t borrow from Lil’ Kim or certain artists like her?
JK: There’s always something you can learn from the previous generation of music.
SG: Absolutely, and I love Lil’ Kim and will always love Lil’ Kim, and I’ll always be down for rockin’ with her, because you gotta give a woman that’s that small, with that much heart, you gotta give your props to someone like that, you feel me?
JK: Once you started taking off with your writing, and especially when you had a lot of breakthroughs with Usher and the other artists that you mentioned, did you find there was a lot of pressure to write in the style of those hits, or even to follow other trends that were going on at the moment?
SG: No, if you follow my career, that never was any of my intentions. I got into the game being different. I got into the game with people saying, “I don’t know. That’s a little weird.” I’ve always been the leader, and I never wanted to be a follower. That’s never been my persona, that’s never been my personality, and I realized that about myself. I know I’m a born leader, so I’m not afraid to wear that hat, because that’s what God has blessed me to do, and that’s to lead, but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen, that I’m not a team player, because I’m definitely a team player. It’s just a fact that when everybody’s going right, I’m gonna go left. That’s just me. When I write songs and produce songs for people, I’m always trying to give them something special, as you can see a lot of times, on albums that I’m on. Even with “Papers” for Usher, that was such a controversial record, but again it was a #1 record, but I think it was a #1 record because it’s kind of like what everybody wanted to say, but didn’t have the balls to say. JK: You mentioned that there are sometimes misconceptions about writing and producing. What would you say is the actual difference? Given your nickname of "The Pen," do you actually sit down and write out the music and the words, or is it something where you just go straight into the studio and you start putting together the track, and the song is born out of that. How does it come together?
SG: When you look at great producer teams like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, you look at great people like Teddy Riley, R. Kelly -- even though R. Kelly is a great songwriter, he’s a great producer too. See, what I do is, I know a million producers that do tracks, but the problem is, there’s a difference between being able to produce a track and a song; there’s this misconception in the industry.
JK: As far as producing the vocals and so forth?
SG: Writing, creating and producing. Producing is producing vocals, knowing to take out certain cymbals, knowing what kind of crash won’t work. You have these people who do beats, but they just be beats, but they lack strings, they lack the sensitivity in the music. They have the hard beat for the clubs, but they lack any kind of feeling, a lot of emotion. When you have the lyrics, and you sing it a certain way and go behind that and add strings and chords and do certain drops that make you feel like, “Damn, that’s a great club song, but it feels like an emotional sex song." Or, “That’s a great club song, but it also works at home when you’re by yourself just chilling," that’s producing. There’s a difference, and a lot of people don’t understand that difference. That’s why I say I’m not just a songwriter, I’m a producer. Because when you take the record “Papers,” for instance, it was done by a great producer by the name of Zaytoven, but there were certain things that we did with that track, and certain ways that I sung on that record and arranged that record that made it have a certain emotion. Zaytoven would clearly tell you, “I don’t do a record for an R&B singer”, but I took that emotion, that church emotion that he had, and put it into a song and produced it to where it could work in the club. Even though it was a slow song, it felt like it could work at home, it could work on the radio, and it was a mood. It had church chords on it, but we brought a real emotion from that church side, to a realistic side. By saying, “I damn near lost my Mama," everybody could feel it, but it was based in his situation. We went to the root of an urban son and an urban Mama, because he comes from a single parent home, and that’s all his Mama knows. All his Mama knows is that she’s got two sons: me and my brother. Some people would say, “What does that have to do with the song?” but that’s an emotion. Once you said “My Mama”, everybody in that urban community could relate. Because they've all been there. JK: They’ve been in some sort of situation, or at least seen it. SG: Absolutely, and that’s what producing is.
JK: You talked about it, being for an R&B singer versus a Hip Hop artist, but I can remember one other record that you were involved with, that definitely had that soulful edge, which was “Through With Love” for Destiny’s Child.
SG: Great records like “Is She The Reason” (singing), very emotional. That’s a different side, my man.
JK: Tell me about how that comes into play with when you’re doing your own recording, because up until now, as far as the recording and performance end, we’ve mostly seen you in guest appearances on other artists’ records. But I know that starting with the tour you did last year with Mario and Trey Songz with 106 & Park, you’re working on your own album as you mentioned. Is that same approach relevant for you as an artist, or is it a different scenario for you?
SG: Oh yeah, it’s even a little deeper on my album, because the name of my album is called 'Courtesy Of,' and what my album is going to embody is all of the emotional roller coaster scenarios that I had to go through, whether it was love, whether it was the business, whether it was people saying, “You belong in this box and you shouldn’t do anything else” after you’ve given them so much of yourself: the tears, your pain, your emotions, your relationships, and not gotten their love back in return, what I’ve been able to do is incorporate that into songs that are about love and life, and that’s why my record is called 'Courtesy Of,' because my record speaks real life. “Get it All” relates to me when I was 15, 16 years old and in love for the first time. Well, no, it’s starting when I was in 6th grade, because the verse is like, (rapping) “She caught my face like a Kodak that couldn’t shake the weather. The storm had nothin’ on this chick named Heather. Damn, every time I seen her it was just after a breakup, but you know niggas and girls, how they quit and they make up. She told me she was in love with me ever since I was in 6th grade. Miss Hill’s class, I’m just thinking (ahh ohh). Mighty funny didn’t notice her back then, but now her body banging, got me thinkin’ (ahh ohh). I’m just thinkin’ I’m too quick to fall. I wanna hit it but I’m still involved.” I’m in college, I’m in a relationship with my girlfriend, but I see a girl that I knew back in 6th grade that wasn’t so hot to me then, but now she’s incredible. She’s telling me now that the girl that I’m with ain’t good enough to be my girl. That’s relatable to everybody’s life, whether you’re rich, poor, black, white, Chinese, it doesn’t matter.
JK: When the tables turn.
SG: Period. It’s going back to writing great songs.
JK: What about vocally? You have a distinctive style in that vein, as well. How would you like to be thought of in terms of your singing style?
SG: Just an incredible talent. I got a record on my album with Drake. That’s incredible! I’m singing how most people would want me to sing, or what most people would call “my singing”, but again, my personality comes into play. I don’t ever like being in a box, so on “Get it All”, I’m kind of rap-singing the verse and then I’m singing the B-section, and then I’m really singing the hook. I’ve got a record with T Pain and Lil Wayne, that’s called Courtside, and it’s Swag R&B singing. I just want to be looked at as a great talent, not just someone that’s a great crooner. Because I can croon. There’s records on my album where you can hear me crooning, but that gets boring. I want to give the fans all of me. The fans have been loving my talent in all different ways, like “I’m Through With Love,” “T-Shirt,” “Is She the Reason,” and all that.
JK: On the other side, you did something with Enrique Iglesias with “Do You Know?” and “Away”.
SG: Absolutely, that’s me crooning on some Pop stuff, and then there’s Chris Brown stuff too (singing).
JK: I know what you mean, it’s not just the love man stuff; it’s not one-dimensional. It seems like Asia has been a big market for you, because you had a collaboration with the Korean singer BoA, “I Did it For Love”, which you also appeared on, and that I know was a really big record through Japan and Korea. And actually your first solo album, 'Turbo 919' with “Lay Up Under Me," “Come On In,” and “Grippin,” was released exclusively over there, so I was curious: Was that a concerted effort to infiltrate that market first, or how did it come about that you ended up establishing a dedicated fanbase there as an artist as well?
SG: What was so beautiful about that situation was that the Asian people who I definitely love and respect, sort of embraced me first. When we were getting my Turbo 919 album together with my stint at Interscope, the Japanese people and the Asian people were so ecstatic about my album. They were the first to go, “We don’t want to wait until you decide to release this album in America, we want that album now,” so they forced me to release that album first and what happened was, even though that was a great thing, me being a new artist, even me being Sean Garrett The Pen, you still don’t have a lot of control as an artist from the standpoint that the label is concerned about album sales. If they have a market saying, “We are willing to step out on this album first,” we don’t care where else you want to put this album out. We want this album now. They made a decision that it was instant sales for them, so it put me in a compromising situation because I knew that the album would leak to America and you’re not getting the full push in America.
JK: It would seem like you’re coming out with something old.
SG: Exactly. Those are the politics that you get caught up in when you’re doing business. Fortunately, that was a great situation for me, because the Asian market has been incredibly supportive and it has been a blessing because there are only a few American artists who really work in Asia, and I happen to be one that really works well in Asia. Once I got to Japan and was doing a lot of interviews, I even asked the people, “What was it about me that you guys loved so much?” And they were, like, “We’ve been following you for years because we love the music that you write and produce. We’re huge fans of your music, period.” It made them really embrace me, and I grew up in Europe, so I’ve always seen myself as an international artist.
JK: I didn’t realize that you grew up there.
SG: Yeah, I grew up in Europe, so the international side of me is very apparent.
JK: What part did you grow up in?
SG: I grew up in Germany and England. I’m from Atlanta.
JK: I knew that, but I didn’t know the Europe part. That definitely gave you a different perspective on some things.
SG: Yeah, that’s what has given me the opportunity and ability to do so many different types of records, and this is what I don’t think a lot of people don’t understand about me as an artist. You’ll get a world-class album from me, no question. I’m not doing this for the money, I’m doing this for the straight-up, pure love of wanting to share this with the fans. That’s it! This is what I really do, day and night.
JK: You collaborate with a lot of people when you’re producing and writing, and the two people that come to my mind that you’ve done a lot with would be Swizz Beatz and Polow Da Don. So what can you tell me about your collaborations with them that makes it special and gives it the edge that it has?
SG: Swizz Beatz is one of my good friends. Not only is he a great creative partner, but he’s a very good friend to me. Me and Swizz Beatz connect on a different level. We’re both real artists and real artsy people, so we talk about art, our car collection, different sides of the world, and our experiences traveling abroad. I’m so happy for Swizz. He’s happy as a person. I’m sure everybody knows his personal life now, but I’m so happy for him, and he’s one person that I can definitely call a dear friend. That’s why we do such great music together, because we’re both maniacs when it comes to music, and we’re not afraid to stretch out and be extremely creative. Polow Da Don, on the other hand, is another story, because he is a person that I helped to get poppin’ in Atlanta and he had been in a group called Jim Crow as a rapper. And at the time Polow was doing beats and people weren’t really feeling his beats because he wasn’t doing it like everybody else.
JK: Kind of abstract?
SG: I took a liking to it.
JK: You collaborate with a lot of people, because I imagine being as prolific as you are in songwriting that sometimes the publishing company might hook you up to write with this person or that person. Does that happen much, and is it difficult to adjust to that person when you’re writing with people that you haven’t met before, or producing with them?
SG: I have the pleasure of coming into the game with the #2 record of the decade, which is “Yeah” -- so it’s a little different for me. They don’t push me to do what I don’t want to do. I kind of have the ability to work with who I want to work with, but I don’t turn down those opportunities that they give me either. I love it. I’ll collaborate with anybody. Ain’t no prejudice in my game, as long as they hot.
JK: Out of everything that you’ve done, writing and producing-wise, it’s not like you could pick one. But is there any one or two things that stand out in your mind as a memorable experience, as far as how it was created and how it came together from beginning to end and seeing it take off?
SG: I would always have to say that the whole dichotomy and the dynamics from the record “Yeah” and how that came about. Because we went through so much to get that record out, and there were so many doubters. That record was #1 in 42 countries and wound up setting up the 20 million albums sold. We sold 1.2 million albums in the first week, and that was strictly on the strength of that song. Then that song, just a couple of months ago was named the #2 song of the decade. The decade! That’s 10 years! Crazy, man. JK: The first major record that you wrote on, was it B5: “Dance For You”? SG: No, my first record was by this kid named Latif Williams who was signed to Motown, and is also a songwriter. He’s most known for writing that song, a #1 hit for Musiq Soulchild. "Teach Me" I think was the name of it. That was the first release, and then my second release was “Yeah”, and my third release was “Goodies” with Ciara.
JK: To close out, what are you most looking forward to in the future of your career?
SG: It’s definitely about my album, my new collaborations and creations with people like Nicki Minaj. And me signing my new artist deal/joint venture with -- I’m really not supposed to tell who it is, but I’m getting ready to do a new venture. We’re closing it this week, so I’m excited about that.
JK: As far as releasing the album?
SG: We’re releasing the album this year. I think it’s going to be early fall/late summer.
JK: As far as the joint venture you’re talking about, is that who is going to release the album?
SG: Yeah, who is going to release the album. It’s going to be big news, man. I’ll just give you a hint: two words, Money Money.
JK: That’s going to be in conjunction with your production company, The Practice Team?
SG: Yeah, my label, which is called Bet I Penned It Music.
JK: Cool! I’m looking forward to hearing it. That’s definitely going to come out here first, right?
SG: Oh yeah, definitely coming out in the States first, and then I plan on coming back with another album at the top of the year.
JK: Okay, so doing quick succession. Right now, just to make people aware: You’ve got out the record “Licky” that you did with Shontelle. Are there any other songs or projects that you want to mention now for people to be on the lookout for?
SG: Yeah, Rihanna’s new album that’s coming out, I’ve got a couple new joints on her album that’s coming, and then also the Jamie Foxx project.
JK: This will be the second time you did something with him, right?
SG: Absolutely. I did a #2 hit, “DJ Play a Love Song," with him. I’m also working with Jesse McCartney on his new album. I already did two joints on his new album.
JK: You did “How Do You Sleep” on the last one, right?
SG: Yeah, I did three songs on his last album, actually.
JK: On Departure: Recharged?
JK: Well, good luck with that, man and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s great.
SG: Thank you so much. I appreciate all the support and respect.
JK: My pleasure. Just keep bringing the good music and I’m sure all good things will come to you.
SG: Thank you so much, buddy.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.