Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds has won 11 Grammys and penned an incredible 47 top 10 Hot 100 hits. As he looks forward to his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 15, he shares the stories behind writing hits for Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men, who he’s in the studio with these days, and an important lesson every young songwriter should heed.
Babyface will join the SHOF 2017 class along with Berry Gordy, Jay Z, Max Martin, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis of The Time, Robert Lamm and James Pankow of Chicago. Also to be honored at the June 15 celebration are Ed Sheeran, Alan Menken, Caroline Bienstock and Pitbull.
You wrote Whitney Houston’s 1990 hit “I’m Your Baby Tonight” before you met her. What was that like?
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” was the first one written for Whitney. That was an incredible moment, being able to play the record for her for the first time and having her like it. I wasn’t nervous. I don’t have an ego when it comes to placing songs. If someone doesn’t like something, I’m fine with that and I’ll try to find something they do like and I’ll push myself until I figure out how to be a part of the project. But I was very happy she did like it… because with Whitney, you don’t know what she’s going to like and not going to like. I hadn’t met her yet but I learned from that point, she’s very honest.
What’s another hit song you wrote that’s particularly meaningful to you?
Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.” It was written for them in mind, and when I finished the song I thought about trying to keep it myself because I thought it was good. But then I kept imaging their voices on it. It was for the Boomerang soundtrack, but it was this whole Philly International kind of vibe, and they were from Philly. I was pretty close to finishing it and I called [co-writer] Daryl [Simmons] in. I had this house that I rented in Atlanta to do writing. It was close to the condo I was living in, I couldn’t write in the condo because they would always complain about the music. So I called Daryl over and he came in, and L.A. [Reid] came in toward the end of the song. But the vision was there clearly from the get-go, trying to get this whole Philly groove. We went to Philly and recorded it in about four hours. That’s all the time we had — you had to get it right the first time. We all thought it came out great. But none of us thought it was going to be the one. We just thought it was a great record, and they were pretty new at that point.
How often have you thought a song was “the one”?
I’m the kind of person that never thinks it’s the one. I always cross my fingers. It might feel really good and I think people will like it — I hope — but I never say, “This is a smash and this is going to do it.” I’m just not that guy.
How often do you decide to keep a song for yourself?
There are songs a lot of times thought I’ve thought, “Wow, I want to keep it myself.” But the producer in me would say, “Yeah but it’s not really your record.” I’m a songwriter first. The song is the most important thing, so the song goes to where it will have the most happy home and to who’s going to make it come alive. So there are many songs I’ve passed on because I didn’t feel like I could do it as much justice as another artist. As a songwriter it’s not too hard to give them away; I’m thankful there’s someone who could do it.
Who are some of the artists you’re writing and/or producing with now?
I just did some writing with Charlie Puth. I did writing with Bruno [Mars] on his last project, I did writing on Ty Dolla $ign, and I’m in the studio right now with Johnny Mathis. So I’m kinda everywhere. Johnny’s doing a contemporary songbook album, so songs like [R. Kelly’s] “I Believe I Can Fly and [Josh Groban’s] “You Raise Me Up,” and a few Adele songs. He sounds amazing, and he’s getting ready to turn 82 years old. That’s my blessing, because of the things I’ve done in the past — working with artists from a Whitney Houston to a Barbra Streisand and an Ariana Grade — that’s what keeps it fun and interesting.
What’s important for young songwriters today to know?
The typical things of making sure it has a great melody and lyrics, but really more than anything it’s putting the time into each song, and knowing you might have to scratch the whole thing and start all over again. Don’t be afraid to do that; don’t get so stuck on an idea you feel like you can’t move on. And try your best to not bring your ego to the room. The song should always win out first… The future is bright. The genres will ultimately disappear and it’s just going to be music. Period. Imagine going into a songwriting session and saying, “What can we write?” Anything.