His name is Sean Garrett, but to none other than Jay-Z, he’s simply “the Pen.” And for good reason. The 27-year-old songwriter/producer from Atlanta has emerged as a creative powerhouse with a hot streak that’s undeniable.
During the past three years, Garrett has co-written 16 songs that have scaled the Hot 100, including four that hit No. 1. Among those is Usher’s monster single “Yeah!,” which held down the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for several weeks in early 2004.
Garrett’s Hot 100 streak also has included the chart-toppers “Run It!,” cut by Chris Brown, “Check on It” from Beyoncé and “Grillz” by Nelly.
This spring, Garrett has been a force as five tracks he’s co-written debuted on the Hot 100 during April and May alone. They were Mary J. Blige and Brook-lyn’s “Enough Cryin,” Chris Brown and Lil’ Wayne’s “Gimme That,” Jamie Foxx and Twista’s “DJ Play a Love Song,” Kelis and Too $hort’s “Bossy and the Pussycat Dolls and Snoop Dogg’s “Buttons.”
Along with the artists who have performed his songs, Garrett shares writer credits with fellow writer/producers, including Scott Storch, Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins and others.
Now increasingly in demand for his producer’s touch as well as his songwriting talent, Garrett also has several compositions and co-production credits on Beyoncé’s forthcoming album. He has a hand in upcoming recordings from the likes of Lionel Richie, Britney Spears and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas.
And his past credits have graced projects by a who’s who of contemporary pop: Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Ciara, Fantasia, Bon Jovi, Janet Jackson, 112, Mario Winans, Donnell Jones and Christina Milian.
No wonder that stories about Garrett often quote Jay-Z’s accolade: “The ink never dries in the Pen.”
Or as Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine notes, “He’s a real songwriter, one who can cross into these different worlds, and he’s really quick: He wrote a song on the Fergie record over the phone. Every now and then one of these writers comes along, but it’s really, really rare.”
Larry Jackson, VP of A&R for RCA Music Group, observes that Garrett is a “very, very versatile young man who really has an innate gift for melody and an instinct for the pulse of what’s going on [expressed in his] edgy lyrics. And he can come up with something right on the spot. It’s crazy, but he comes up with a melody right there in my office — and it’s always something strong. It’s a very short list of people in that league.”
Garrett’s attorney, Peter Lopez, of Kleinberg Lopez Lang Cuddy Edel & Klein, explains his client’s achievement this way: “His success is in large part due to his incredible energy and work ethic — and an interesting background from having spent his childhood in Germany and being influenced by all kinds of music. And he recorded as an artist himself, so he has a unique perspective as an artist and songwriter as well as producer, which gives him special insight into the maximum potential for artistry.”
Garrett recalls his musical childhood. “I was always very creative, singing and doing talent shows,” he says, recalling his “military brat” upbringing in Europe. “My dad was a sergeant major in the army — definitely a drill sergeant, but a good guy who was always supportive in giving us the opportunities to do what we wanted to do in life. I was a little rebellious: Everything that had to do with music, I was always about.”
His mother came from Atlanta and his father from Philadelphia. Garrett grew up with an intuitive grasp of urban rhythm and melodies tempered, perhaps, by his European perspective on American pop music. He was always writing songs, he remembers, though it would be awhile before he would admit to being a songwriter.
Among the influences he credits are Rod Temperton, Diane Warren, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Babyface, L.A. Reid, R. Kelly, Barry White, Lenny Kravitz and Jermaine Dupri. And he is a “very huge fan” of rap.
“What makes my style so much different than most songwriters is that I incorporate hip-hop and R&B and pop music,” Garrett continues. “I’m not just an R&B songwriter — I write country songs, too.”
After signing a recording contract in Germany with Ariola/BMG as a teen, Garrett returned to the United States. At 21, he was set to record as a solo artist for Warner Bros., but that deal fell through.
Soured by the experience, he fulfilled his mother’s wish and went to college. He also found gainful employment as a mortgage broker. But he never lost the creative bug, and this part of his career, thankfully, was short-lived.
Living in South Carolina, Garrett began writing and recording songs on his own. Some of his tracks received local radio play and Garrett then moved to Atlanta and sought a publishing deal. He found it with L.A. Reid’s Hitco Music, a joint venture with Windswept Publishing.
“It was one of the luckiest days of my life,” says Reid, now chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group, reflecting on his chance meeting with Garrett. “I happened to be in Atlanta at Hitco Studios, and Sean was in doing demos, and I heard him from outside and went, ‘Oh, my God. Who’s that?’ He was amazing, and I was immediately taken. My God, how could I get so lucky? I walked into this guy, and from there he started to write songs for me for various artists – and the next thing you know, he’s one of the biggest writers in the country.”
One of those songs, of course, was “Yeah!” “I knew that Usher was almost finished with his album [“Confessions”],” Garrett says. “L.A. Reid called me and said, ‘We need a first single.’ We spoke a little bit about it, and I went to the studio. Since all the other songs on the album were very hot and R&B-ish, I wanted to give him something out-of-the-box that was more creative and dynamic.
“So we went in and cut a demo and took it to L.A., and we sat and talked about it for quite a while. He thought it was very interesting, but he asked me a lot of questions in reference to how it worked for Usher and said he wanted a change or two. So I went in, and the rest is history – and the beginning of this beautiful run.”
That run has included tracks that Garrett singles out as creative milestones, including Usher’s “Red Light,” Ciara’s “Goodies” and “Ooh Baby,” Teairra Mari’s “Make Her Feel Good,” Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” and “Soldier,” Chris Brown’s “Run It!” and “Gimme That,” Mary J. Blige’s “Enough Cryin,” Jamie Foxx’s “DJ Play a Love Song” and the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons.”
“My brother just reminded me that I still have songs I wrote five or six years ago that are crazy that I might bring out of the vault for Usher’s new album,” he adds.
As for Usher’s “Yeah!,” Reid remembers that “it was an amazing song, but the lyrics needed more depth and needed to be a story. So Sean turned it into a story.”Usher lauds Garrett for his knack for “identifying how to pull high energy and great vocal ability out of the artist.” He also offers credence to Garrett’s declaration that he specially crafts songs for individual artists.
“His style sounds so much like Michael Jackson, but once I got working with him it became Usher,” Usher says. “He really created greatness – and a sound that we can massage again in future projects and some of the writing he does for other artists.”
Zomba Label Group senior A&R VP Mark Pitts first met Garrett during Usher’s “Confessions” album project. “He wrote ‘Yeah!’ and then that led to ‘Goodies’ for Ciara, and then we really bonded with the Chris Brown project, and then Donell Jones and Kelis.”
Garrett supplied production assistance on Jones’ “Better Start Talking” and Kelis’ “Bossy,” and his career arc has naturally evolved from his songwriting success to include production as well.
“I’ve told him, ‘You got to stop for a second and smell the roses,’ ” RCA’s Jackson says. “What he’s done is quite an achievement – and one not to be overlooked.”
Lopez attributes his client’s achievements to a “sincere love and passion” for music. “His soul is just 100% music,” Lopez says. “He sits there humming and constantly generating music – incredible hooks and songwriting ideas-in his mind.”
Garrett’s triumphs stem from his being “a fan of the artist, for one,” Pitts says. “He’s also a singer, and he has traveled around the world – so his vision is more broad. And he’s the first person I’ve worked with where we have a synergy – I’m in A&R, but I’m emotional and dramatic and animated, and he brings my thoughts to life all the time. He can tell what type of energy I want for a record, and he brings it home to me every time.”
Usher singles out Garrett’s ability to work with new artists. “It’s real easy to write a record for a hit artist,” he says, “but when you take a new artist and break them through with new sounds and melodies, like Sean can, that shows he’s a talented writer.”
But Garrett is also “pushing and bettering himself as a writer,” Usher adds. “One hit record can make a career, but he’s not just celebrating the hits of the past but thinking about the next great projects to get in the future.”
Echoing Usher, Reid notes that while Garrett is consistently good, “you can push and challenge him,” as was the situation with “Yeah!” He cites “Let Go,” which Garrett wrote for new Def Jam artist Megan Rochelle, as an example.
“It’s absolutely the best song he’s ever written,” Reid says. “He’s best-known for his more rhythmic-leaning commercial records, but this one has a lot more depth and character. It’s a heartfelt, emotional record.”
Garrett’s songwriting/producing plate would appear to be full, if not overflowing. “After one big hit, my man got so busy I can barely get him on the phone,” Usher laments. “But we eventually did hook up for other projects.”
One such project, he adds, is his own US Records R&B quintet One Chance, with whom Garrett is now working. But every day seems to bring reports of new projects, new collaborations. And Garrett has hinted that he will at some point give his own recording career another go.
Amid his songwriting and production projects, however, Garrett also is notably involved in numerous efforts to guide young people who are exploring careers in the music business or elsewhere.
“I remember when I was young, before we went to Europe, and my mom used to take me to the Boys Club,” he reflects. “I remember having the best time there trying to figure out what I wanted to be in life. So I try to support those kinds of things that helped bring me up – little things that are really big for kids – and try to give something back in every possible way I can.”