NE-YO: IN HIS OWN WORDS
In R&B music over the decades, the number of chart-topping singers who have separate world-class songwriting careers that genuinely match the success of their own recordings is few and far between.
Nevertheless, the mid-to-late Noughties will unquestionably go down in the history books for introducing to the world one Arkansas-born, Las Vegas-raised Shaffer Smith, aka Ne-Yo. Whose own artist career not only already includes two multi-Platinum albums (2006`s 'In My Own Words'; 2007`s Grammy-winning 'Because Of You'); plus an internationally chart-topping single (his 2006 debut 'So Sick'). But has also seen him write successfully for artists ranging from global R&B chart-toppers like Rihanna ('Take A Bow'), Beyonce ('Irreplaceable') and Mario ('Let Me Love You'); to such latter-day mainstream pop icons as Celine Dion and Britney Spears.
Having grown up in a one-parent household after his dad left, a young Shaffer (rechristened `Ne-Yo` by a pal who likened him to the 'Matrix' saviour!) first went public as a singer in the 11th Grade, after joining local Las Vegas group Envy and moving with them to LA. With his initial writing having been limited - during his school years - to private journal entries and poetry, Ne-Yo would nevertheless also soon emerge as a talented upcoming songwriter. All of which ultimately led to his first record deal with Columbia Records in 2000. However, with changes in said label`s structure disappointingly leading to the album he recorded for them being shelved, it wasn`t until 2006 - after finding new management - that a new deal with Def Jam would find Ne-Yo teaming up for the first time with Norwegian urban music producers StarGate to deliver a world-conquering debut LP 'In My Own Words'.
With the multi-million-selling, chart-topping global success he has since consistently attained as both a singer and songwriter having been well-documented, Ne-Yo (who has publicly confessed to having slept with every girl in his High School class!) has also simultaneously generated considerable gossip column-inches. With innuendos and rumours regarding his sex-life and sexuality running rife alongside stories of highly-publicised alleged legal battles with fellow contemporary urban music icons Beyonce and R. Kelly.
Nevertheless, it`s a charmingly polite, forthcoming and articulate 25-year-old Ne-Yo who hooks up with 'B&S' from his fast-travelling US tour bus to discuss such far-ranging topics as his forthcoming third LP 'Year Of The Gentleman', his love for The Rat Pack, and writing for Michael Jackson.
Is it true your new single 'Closer' was influenced by European club music?
“Yeah, it was very much inspired by just the vibe of some of these house and techno clubs we went to while we were in London. You know, kinda smoky, kinda dark and mysterious... With just that constant, four-on-the floor house beat that just really gets bashed into your skull the whole time you`re there, by the way the music makes you feel. I basically tried to capture that energy and put the Ne-Yo spin on it. And 'Closer' was the end result.”
Looking at some recent Timabland productions - plus records by the likes of Janet and Taio Cruz - do you feel R&B in general is currently heading in that direction?
“I wouldn`t necessarily say that it`s the way R&B is going. I`d just say we`re trying to blur the lines right now. We`re trying to get rid of those barriers and those categories - you know, rap music, rock music, pop music, R&B music - and just do MUSIC, period. And, in doing that, you gotta incorporate other aspects of other genres of music. So that`s what`s HAPPENING right now.”
What`s behind the title of your forthcoming, third LP 'Year Of The Gentleman'?
“To me 'Year Of The Gentleman' is all about a persona, a swag and a charm. I made an assessment of the music business. And, in my personal opinion, the essence of the gentleman is absent right now. Everybody kinda looks the same; everybody`s kinda doing the same thing; everybody`s kinda rude and full of themselves... And that`s not what it takes to be a GENTLEMAN! A gentleman is calm, courteous, kind, charming... You know, he`s the coolest cat in the room without TRYING to be the coolest cat in the room. So that title basically represents me trying to lead by example, and showing these cats what it is to be a gentleman in this business still. You know, my favourite era goes back to the days of The Rat Pack - Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. When, no matter what your status was, you wore a suit so you always looked dapper. And for me, the sharpness of Sammy and Sinatra represents the kind of style I strive for TODAY in clothes and music. So 'Year Of The Gentleman' is basically named in honour of those guys.”
So what can we expect musically?
“The whole album is experimental. Like I said, I`ve dabbled in other genres of music and basically tried to incorporate bits and pieces of those other styles into what it is that I do. So there`s a little bit of urban; a little bit of pop; some stuff that`s leaning more towards alternative rock/folk-type stuff... So it`s definitely gonna be a buffet, with something on there for EVERYBODY. I mean, one reason why this is gonna be my first album with no guest appearances AT ALL is because I have experimented so much. So that, if by chance something goes wrong, I`m not gonna be dragging anybody else down WITH me! And lyrically - though I will be tackling some other things too - there`s definitely gonna be a lotta love songs, because love`s never gonna go outta style. So, with me there`s always gonna be songs about the black, white and grey of what love is - the good, the bad and the ugly.”
What`s your working relationship like with your producers, Norwegian urban studio-bods StarGate?
“Why I love working with StarGate is because they make their tracks JUST FULL ENOUGH. To where I have room to do what I need to do. They don`t fill their tracks up too much, but at the same time they don`t make them too naked. So to me it`s the ideal fit. They normally do all the music; I normally do all the lyrics and melody... And it all comes together as the perfect match. Where the end result, pretty much nine times outta 10, ends up being a HIT RECORD!”
After a decade of producing European hits, StarGate finally attained their first US (and indeed global) success with your first album. What was the story there?
“I met these guys in New York when I was working in the same studio as them, but in a different room. I first ran into their manager, who told me he was a fan of the music I was doing and that he wanted me to meet his guys. So I walked in the room and I saw these two lanky white guys who told me they did R&B music. But - while at first I was like `Yeah, right!` - once they started playing me their stuff I realised it was AMAZING! So on the very first night we met, we actually ended up doing five/six songs together - and the rest is history! And I think what they`ve brought to US R&B (StarGate have also recently produced chart-toppers for the likes of Beyonce, Chris Brown and Rihanna) is that they`ve reminded people of what it is to keep the TEMPO. Because though, after Timbaland first came on the scene and changed the sound, people all started trying to emulate and so the music got really confusing and really cluttered, StarGate have brought it back to SIMPLICITY. There`s a piano, there`s a drum-kick, there`s maybe one other sound... And that`s IT! It gets straight to the point, it`s not overdoing it; and it`s not over-thinking it. It`s PERFECT!”
You were raised by your mother in a one-parent family. How do you recall the early days?
“All my musical influences came from my mom, who did everything to music. She played it 24 hours a day, seven days a week in our house. So that`s where my love for music came from. Early inspirations included Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie... Those were the people I actually wound up studying just to hone my craft. I wanted to be the kinda writers Stevie and Lionel were; the kinda singer Michael was; and the kinda entertainer that Prince was and still is. And, with my mom doing a lotta odd jobs, we kinda moved all over Las Vegas. Until she got a really good job as a manager in a bank, which put her in one solid place for a good amount of years. And growing up in my house was not exactly easy, being as I was the only guy. You know, there was my mom, my sister, my grandmother, my aunt... So it was a little difficult, and that`s where a lotta my aggravation came from. But then my mom took that aggravation and turned in into a positive. She gave me a pad and a pen, and told me to write it all down. So I flipped it all and turned it into a very prosperous writing career! And here I am today!”
So did growing up in Las Vegas help you to become the internationally-successful artist and performer you are today?
“DEFINITELY! Growing up in Vegas, over time you get to see shows like Tom Jones, Wayne Newton… I mean, The Rat Pack ran Vegas way, way back, and I`m a huge fan of that whole era and vibe. You know, when you come to a Las Vegas show you can`t expect to see just singing. A Las Vegas show is all-round entertainment. Which means there`s some singing, some dancing, some magic, some drama - everything is rolled into that one performance. So I just tried to take the essence of that and incorporate it into what it is that I do. Which is why I`m so comfortable onstage.”
Can you fill me in on your early writing and recording career?
“I started out in a singing group called Envy. We moved to out to LA in pursuit of the music thing. But, when the group didn`t work out, I wound up becoming a staff-writer for a guy who had a production company. So I`d write a song, reference a song, and my demo would be sent out to all these different labels. Who in turn started asking about ME. So that turned into my first record deal with Columbia. But, when that turned out to be a bad situation, I decided to give up the artist thing for a minute and focus on the writing. But then eventually I decided to try the solo artist thing again, this time with Def Jam - and second-time round it WORKED! To this day Def Jam has been a great label for me. I especially love the fact that they allow me to be ME. You know, while a lot of these labels try to make you into somebody that THEY want you to be, in contrast Def Jam has always supported my own original thoughts and ideas. Which is a real blessing.”
You`ve been quoted as being “fed up with the sloppiness of current R&B”. Do you think your new LP will help improve things, and what are you thoughts on today`s R&B in general?
“To be honest with you, I don`t know WHAT difference my album is gonna make. As I said, I hope it`s one of those albums that`ll help blur some of these lines and get rid of some of these categories and get us into just GOOD music and BAD music. And, as far as R&B today goes, I`m not gonna name any names - but I will say there are some artists I like and some I don`t. I basically just think that creativity is a little lacking in music lately. People seem to be doing music from a place that`s not as real as it once was. So my issue with R&B music right now is there`s NO CREATIVITY! Because something works for one person, everybody is doing that same one thing. Which is not, and never has been, the essence of what music is all about. It`s always been about originality, creativity... And I just don`t SEE a lotta that any more!”
You`ve worked in a songwriting capacity with so many top-notch artists. Who stands out and why?
“To be honest with you, I`ve been blessed to work with a lot of great, quality artists and everybody stands out for different reasons. Mary J. Blige was very inspirational, in that she reminds me of a family member, when you`re just sitting and talking to her about life and love and music. Beyonce is a ridiculous talent, to where I don`t even have to BE there to record with her. Rihanna`s like my little sister. So it`s always a fun time recording with her... You know, there`s a different memory attached to every session and they`re all positive memories.”
So what of these legal battles you`ve allegedly entered into with Beyonce and R. Kelly?
“There`s nothing really to discuss. The thing with Beyonce (based around him allegedly not getting full credit for writing her chart-topper 'Irreplaceable') was absolutely fabricated. There was never anything legal going on with that. As far as R. Kelly goes (Ne-Yo allegedly got thrown off R. Kelly`s tour), my management company sued his people for the whole situation with that tour. I don`t know what`s going on with that currently. Once they did what they did legally, I was OUT of it. It didn`t have anything to do with me any more. It was my management company versus R. Kelly`s people. But, to be honest, I don`t really like to focus on the negative. Mainly because, with so many positive things going on in my life, for me to give energy to anything negative I feel is just kinda stupid.”
And are you still involved in the upcoming Michael Jackson album?
“Yeah, it`s on again currently. I`m submitting songs for his project, though I don`t know what he`s gonna keep yet. Because they`re taking the time to make sure everything`s absolutely right. The only thing they`ve said so far is that I`m not allowed to discuss any of the music publicly! You know, I`m not trying to top `Thriller`- because anybody trying to top something that`s already been done is fighting a losing battle. Back then, in `82, it was a different industry, a different way of thinking, and people were easier to impress. Everything in music has been done now. So Michael really needs to find his own place again.”
So what of other current and future plans?
“I`m still doing a lot of writing. As well as Michael Jackson, I have a song on Usher`s new album. I`m also writing for John Legend, Whitney Houston, Robin Thicke, The Pussycat Dolls, Lionel Richie, Ciara, Fantasia... to name just a few (phew!). Plus I`m gonna be in another movie relatively soon. It`s gonna be like a modern-day `Purple Rain`-type situation. We`re actually still writing it. So you should probably expect to see it somewhere around the end of next year. Then I`m also developing a cartoon that we`re currently in the process of shopping to The Cartoon Network, as well as MTV and Comedy Central. Plus right now I`m on tour with Alicia Keys, moving around from city city… So, yeah man - I`m keepin` pretty busy right now! And I wouldn`t have it any other way!”
The single `Closer` is released June 23. The album` Year Of The Gentleman` follows August 5, both through Def Jam
Words: PETE LEWIS
Words PETE LEWIS