Sean Garrett talks in exclamations, a verbal style that conveys the energy that this songwriter/produce
Sean Garrett talks in exclamations, a verbal style that conveys the energy that this songwriter/producer has brought to hit records by an ever-increasing number of artists.
With co-songwriting credits on 16 hits on The Billboard Hot 100 during the past three years, Garrett is now establishing himself as a producer on projects including Beyonce's next album. He recently took time to reflect on his career.
You've achieved so much success, and so quickly.
It does seem like it's been overnight. But I'm so very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with so many artists who have let me be a part of their career, and get so much love back from the public. If it wasn't for them, there definitely wouldn't be a me.
And what about Jay-Z calling you "the Pen"?
That's the biggest compliment I could get from anyone. He's a living legend and in my opinion, the best rapper alive. And I have so much respect for him as a businessman as well as a creative guy. Being in the studio with him is amazing. I don't think the world understands just how gifted he is: When you see someone who comes from the Marcy [public housing] projects in Brooklyn to the top of the music world and then to Wall Street, that's history.
What kind of effect does that have on you?
He's just given me so much confidence, and the belief that anything is possible. To carry the weight of the entire rap world on his back for so many years - and to be able to take a shoe and sell more Reeboks than they ever sold of one [kind of] shoe - it is absolutely ridiculous. So to have someone of that stature pay me that kind of compliment is incredible.
So how did you become "the Pen"?
I always wrote songs, but I never looked at myself as a songwriter. I figured, you're not a songwriter until people buy your songs. But I was in a group when I was 21 and was about to sign a solo deal with Warner Bros., and then they fired everyone in the black music department and I lost the deal. So I started writing songs and tried to secure another solo deal. I was living in South Carolina, and recorded some songs and got them to some radio PDs, and they started playing them. Then people said I should write for other people as well. But I said I wasn't a songwriter, but an artist. So I moved to Atlanta and wound up putting four songs on a CD as a demo, and started shopping a publishing deal.
Why did you sign to Hitco Music in Atlanta, which is a joint venture with Windswept Publishing?
I got four offers, but decided to go with Hitco/ Windswept because I had so much respect for L.A. Reid and Babyface and the type of music they were delivering, and I wanted to be part of a situation where I knew they knew real good music. So I did a publishing deal with them, and six months later I wrote "Yeah!" and it's been incredible ever since.
What brought you to Atlanta?
That's where my mom was from. I lost her almost four years ago. It was very traumatic. We were so close.
Did she have an effect on your career?
She had this tremendous strength, which she passed down to me. Basically, I had a choice: I could give up, or keep moving and make something of myself. I know she wanted me to keep it going, and losing her was really the force behind me making history, which is what I set out to do.
Making history as a songwriter and producer?
By avoiding all the pitfalls and mistakes that have been made by those who came before me. I want to continue for years to always be a person that can deliver and stay successful, and not get caught up in all the hype, which is what can happen. And I want to be able to handle the success, not have success handle me and go to my head.
So I wanted to make history and show a positive side to working behind the scenes, to continue to work very hard and take every project very seriously and do 150% in everything and stay around for awhile without getting to a point where I start becoming irrational and disrespectful to people.
How do you go about your business, then?
I work very hard every day to do what I'm here to do, and one thing I can say is that it comes from God, absolutely. I hardly ever write songs in my free time: Basically, I just go in the studio to work, and it really is a God-given talent, and I'm so appreciative of it and try not to take it for granted.
Do you write with specific artists in mind?
I never just write, but I custom-make songs and records for whoever the artist is, otherwise they're not really true. Like for Chris Brown, those records were cut and pasted and shaped and formed just for him-his personality, his vibe, his feel, his tone. So that's Chris Brown, [I'm] creating his vibe. Not to take anything away from him - he's like my little brother and a super, super talent - or any of the artists I work with. But we all go hand in hand, and the artists definitely do a lot for my songs as well.
Do you ever write for yourself?
I don't write music for me. If I wrote music for me I'd be looking for entirely different stuff. I write my lyrics for the kids and sometimes it's a little edgy, but kids who are 17 are like [they were] 24 back in the day. You don't want to hide anything from them, but be clear about it. They'll respect you more if you're being real with them. But they'll find out about everything later, and then if they do they'll make their own decisions rather than listen to yours because you're hiding it in the first place. As leaders you have to know how to lead, and you have to understand the back side as well as the front side. You also have to tell the down side of the positives.
What about working with the record companies?
There are always a few obstacles as far as politics in day-to-day work with different companies and artists. But the record companies have all been very good to me, and I'm grateful that I have great relationships everywhere.
Then again, there are always the politics of some people hating on you that don't necessarily have relationships with you. But you try to weed all that out and stay positive. And if it's someone I don't deal with, I try to let them know I'm a good guy. But I try to be straight up with everybody I deal with, and respectful of their position: We all got a job to do and we all work hand in hand, and no one person's job is more important than the next one's. We all got to work together as one, and I try to stay focused on that and not get caught up in any kind of favoritism.
How do you feel about the state of the music business as it relates to you as a songwriter and producer?
I feel there's a lot going on for those of us who are songwriters and producers. There's a very big business in what we do. The issue of digital downloading is very, very tough on us, and the aspect of having so much access to music in computers and downloading without paying is really tough on our survival.
This is our living: It's not a game we're playing around with, but how we feed our kids. So it's important that people respect the hard work that goes into making the music. And it's really not that expensive for people to do the right thing and help the artists.
Do you have any thoughts on the current state of songwriting?
I think songwriting is in a great place. I'm happy that people are becoming more receptive to creativity and trying different things. It's gotten out of R&B music being one way and pop music being one way, that you have to be in a boy band or your hair has to look like this or you have to sing like this.
It's 2006, a new millennium, a time for taking chances. And I love the opportunity to take chances. I think that's what making music is all about - opening the door and coming in.
In the 1970s and '80s, there were great collaborations between different styles like pop and R&B and now it's our version. So when people say, "The music's not the same,' of course it's not. But look at the kids: They still buy music, and we're giving the kids what they like - and that's who I work for.
What do you think is the best thing about the music business today?
I can tell you that the worst thing is the fact that the creative side is sometimes looked upon as the weak side, when they go hand in hand - creative and executive. But sometimes the executive side doesn't respect the creative enough to get the best out of creative people, which eventually winds up hurting the business.
Don't get me wrong: I understand that business has got to be business, that we got to keep the lights on. But executives have to understand how to deal with creative people in a way that's not just about the dollar, that they have to take very good care of the creative machine that generates the product.
But is there, then, something you could point to that's the best side about the business?
If there's anything you're working on, that's the best side. If you're in it and you're working, that's the best thing. Times are hard, and who can complain if you have a job as a creative person, creating music for the world? It just doesn't get better than that.
Is there anything that you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?
In this business, it's not like you read a book about how to make it when you come into it. So there's like one million and five things that if I knew then I would have changed. But to be very honest, I'm just really thankful to have God in my life so I can see things before they happen. And if I take a few bumps and bruises, they were some things I needed to learn and wouldn't have paid as much attention to if I had known them before. You have to fall for yourself to see things. I'm just blessed enough not to take some really big falls, and the bumps and bruises that I have taken have been appreciated, and I can pass them on to the next generation of super songwriters and producers.
Speaking of which, is there any advice you would offer to young songwriters?
Definitely pay attention to every aspect of music, not just the creative side but the business side. Read articles and books about all the good and the bad things that happen in the music business, so you don't make the same mistakes. If you find someone you totally respect that you would like to be like, model yourself after them. And don't take anything for granted.
One thing I've done is take everything so seriously, so that some people say, "Sean, you take this too seriously." No. I understand that in the blink of an eye it can all be taken away from me. Life moves on, and I know for a fact that it feels totally different to not be in the light, when you're in the light. So do all that you want: Keep moving and believe in yourself. It's very important that in 10 years you don't say, "Damn, I should have done an album."
What about you, then? You started out as a singer, too. Any plans to return to the recording side?
I'm planning something like that, I just want it to be the right thing. But I'm just getting started: I'm very young-minded and energetic, and I still have some great ideas in crossing and mixing things up in my songwriting and producing. I think the Beyonce album will show people that [I'm] just getting started and going to a whole other level of music and being creative.