Ne-Yo: If you don’t give yourself the option of failure then it won’t find you
In the past six years, as well as selling 23 million of his own singles, hit maker Ne-Yo has written songs for artists including Beyonce, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Rihanna. With the release of his fifth album R.E.D today, Ne-Yo gives Anna Nathanson an insight into his music-making processes and mindset.
How do you manage creativity with discipline and writing on demand? Does putting boundaries around the creative process hinder it?
I pride myself on being diverse enough and flexible enough to be able to write on command. If you were to base your writing career around when inspiration hits, you are then a slave to your own inspiration, rather than you controlling what inspires you. And that can be bad for you; what if you fall into a slump and you’re not inspired by anything, for years? It’s about keeping your creative mind open enough to catch inspiration anywhere and everywhere, and being able to pull from it when you choose. I can turn mine on and off like a light switch and it’s not necessarily me ever forcing it. There are times when I’m in the studio and just not feeling it, but more often than not I can sit quietly and dig around in my brain and find something that’s going to spark something that will get the job done.
Does putting financial worth on creativity affect it?
The pressure of financial gain when writing a song is a bit more now than it was before I had children. But I tend to let the pressure that comes with this job be fuel as opposed to a means to hold me back. If you don’t give yourself the option of failure then it won’t find you. And even if it does, you learn something from it so that you can move on to the next battle. It’s just a matter of not letting it be an option. Don’t even think, “Damn it, if I don’t do this, I’m not going to make any money”. Don’t even think about it like that; don’t even let that come in and poison the creative process. Just get in there, vibe out, feel what you feel and write the best way that you can.
What’s it like working with co-writers?
There’s a respect. It’s about listening to each other’s ideas and collectively deciding which ones are the best because at the end of the day it’s about the song being as best as humanly possible. It’s not about, “well I wrote this percentage of this!” In contrast to music executives, artists don’t think in realms of percentages, we just go, “listen, if you put 19 words in and I put two in, as long as the song comes out great at the end of the day, so be it.”
Are there artists out there who are notoriously difficult to work with, and do any particular incidents stick out?
I have to say that I have been blessed in that the majority of the artists I have worked with have been very gracious and have been willing to take corrective criticism from me. Celine Dion springs to mind because if anyone has the right to have an ego the size of Europe, it’s Celine Dion. But she was so gracious and I couldn’t actually believe that I was there, telling Celine Dion how to sing a song. Yet she was so gracious and said things like, “I can do that again if you’d like” and “was it ok?” I was thinking, “You’re Celine Dion, of course it’s ok!”
I prefer to work with people who understand that if I give you a piece of corrective criticism, it’s not coming from a place of animosity. I’m not making fun of you. I’m trying to get the best out of you so that this song can be the best that it could possibly be. That’s all it is, but there are people who don’t understand that and there are others who do.
When working on an album, how many songs do you record, how many never make the cut and what happens to those?
For this album I recorded anywhere from 50-60 songs, which is a small number in comparison to what I’d normally do, but in going with my gut, I felt very strongly about a lot of these songs more than say any of my other albums. As for the songs that don’t make the cut, sometimes they go to other artists, sometimes you go back in on them later, figure out what didn’t work about them, fix that and they work for something else. Nothing’s ever just tossed by the wayside.
Have you ever reluctantly given a song away?
More times than I care to remember. But I have a conscience and there’s a code of honour that I try to go by when writing songs. What will happen is an artist or label will come to me and say, “Hey, I’m working on a project and I’d love for you to put something together for me,” and then they will buy studio time. They will put the money up and purchase three hours, four hours, five hours, whatever the case may be. And the way it’s supposed to go, is that whatever songs come out of that time slot go to that artist. Now, there are some songwriters that go, “hmm, this is too good, I’m just going to tuck that into the back pocket, nobody knows I wrote that here. I can say I wrote it three years ago”. But for me, I don’t care if it’s the best song I’ve ever written; if it was written in the time that somebody else purchased, then it goes to them.
Now, should they not see the vision, and not want the song, I’ll take it. But if it’s been done for them, you let them hear it, and if they like it, cool. And if they don’t then you get it back.
Do you generally go back and keep tweaking material you’re working on, or are you usually quite happy with it from the outset?
As far as my part of the song goes- the writing of the lyric and the singing of the song- once it’s done it’s done. Because I’m the kind of person that can hear a million different things that I could’ve done, should’ve done or would’ve done. And if every time I hear that I go back in, nobody will ever hear the song because it will never come out. Once it’s done, it’s done; don’t beat a dead horse. Having said that, every single time I hear one of my songs I do think, “ah I wish I could’ve done that better, done that differently”, every single time.Tagged in: Beyonce, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, michael jackson, Ne-yo, Rihanna
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