R&B tells stories with songs that tug your heartstrings, songs that bring up memories through soaring melodies and some of the most expressive vocals in all of popular music. Johntá Austin, one of the genre’s most notable songwriters, understands the genre’s power power, and his keen ear has helped create some of the biggest tunes for Mariah Carey, Trey Songz, Aaliyah, Mary J. Blige and more.
Austin’s admiration for music began in his hometown of Atlanta, where he spent many weekends at church and his godmother’s house. While helping her clean, he was introduced to classic Motown artists like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Jackson 5. He originally thought becoming a doctor was the right career path, but an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1994 reminded him of his true passion. “[Grammy-winning producer] Troy Taylor, who had done stuff with Boyz II Men, was the one who helped push me to get into the writing,” Austin recalls. “We worked on Tyrese’s [1998 single] ‘Sweet Lady’ together. I had a deal with RCA and the whole administration got replaced. New people came in and they wanted to sign Tyrese, so I lost my deal. Troy told me, ‘I’m gonna help you get him back!’ So I wrote ‘Sweet Lady’ for the artist that replaced me.
Now with over two decades of songwriting experience, Austin is ready to share music through his own voice. While currently working with Usher on the upcoming Confessions II and Trey Songz, he is also gearing up to release his debut album Love, Sex & Religion on Aug. 2. Austin names the resurgence of R&B as the album’s inspiration: “There’s a return to more substance as far as songwriting with H.E.R., Daniel Caesar — what he did on the Freudian album was just incredible — and Bruno Mars. R&B feels like it’s in a space where everyone wants to hear and be a part of it. I feel like it’s the perfect time for my album.
Below, Austin journeys through his career and shares the stories — in his own words — behind some of his most successful hits with Billboard.
2000: Toni Braxton, “Just Be a Man About It”
My manager Chris Higgs had a connection with [Blackground Records founder] Barry Hankerson, who is Aaliyah’s uncle and managed Toni Braxton at that time as well. We started out working with Aaliyah and Toni was coming off her huge Secrets album, so it was a really big deal. We eventually got in the studio and “Just Be a Man About It” was entirely her concept. The part where Dr. Dre is speaking on the song was actually me on the demo. I came up with the idea of having someone calling Toni on the phone and trying to make these excuses, and they kept it for the album.
I try to listen to women and draw inspiration and advice from them when I’m writing songs from their perspective. I received a lot of guidance from the women in my life throughout the years. And of course when you’re sitting there with someone like Toni Braxton who has her own voice, you really listen and take from her of what she’s trying to get across.
2002: Aaliyah, “Miss You”
We had a connection with Ginuwine through Barry as well. Ginuwine and I actually wrote that song in the parking lot of Lenox mall [in Atlanta] in my truck. At the time I had gone through a break-up with my high school girlfriend. When you hear that [lyric] “Off to college, yes you went away,” that was about her. She later told me, “Yeah, I realized a couple of songs you wrote were about me!” [Laughs.] Barry and [Blackground Records president] Jomo Hankerson later heard it, so they played it for Aaliyah. She said, “Oh my god, I want this song for me!”
So that song was our initial in to getting to work with Aaliyah. It was written around the same time as Braxton’s “Just Be a Man About It” and 2000’s “I Don’t Wanna” — somewhere around 1998. “I Don’t Wanna” was released on the Next Friday soundtrack and then they used it for the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. All of the other records that we did, they held on to them and unfortunately she passed. They released them after, so they now have that posthumous feel. “Miss You” became bigger than just what the song was talking about once Aaliyah passed. She was a one of one, that’s what I always say about her. I think she would’ve been the biggest artist ever had she lived. Everything you’ve heard about her — from her personality to her humor and spirit — is all true. She was amazing.
2005: Mary J. Blige, “Be Without You”
Again, Chris Higgs made a connection with her husband Kendu Isaacs at the time. I hate saying all my hits came quick, but “Be Without You” was like a 20 minute session. I don’t think [Interscope Records co-founder] Jimmy Iovine was sure about putting the record out as a single. But I remember hearing the stories about [veteran A&R] Ron Fair vouching for the record. He went in to do additional touch-ups and produced Mary’s vocals.
I wasn’t in the studio with her, but I remember hearing it for the first time. When she hit that note at the end, it’s like “Woah, we got one!” It came out crazy and the rest was history! I knew it was going to be a hit, but not at the level that it went on to become. And of course, the Grammy wins [for Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance] were just icing on the cake. “Be Without You” came right on the heels as Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” was dying down, so I’m proud of that accomplishment. That was a great one-two punch in the history of R&B.
2005: Bow Wow feat. Ciara, “Like You”
Jermaine Dupri is a nurturer of talent. He identifies it first and then pushes that talent into an opportunity where it can shine and exceed boundaries. He’s definitely pushed me in my creative processes to keep stretching and not be comfortable. Even with “We Belong Together,” the second verse was completely different. He knows what artists are capable of sometimes before they know it. So working on “Like You” was great. Ciara was very young and early in her career. She was signed to Jazze Pha’s Sho’nuff Records, so I was able to get her to come over to Atlanta to be on the song. Jermaine came up with the song’s fast-paced melody, so we wanted to have that back and forth feel where it’s like they’re almost stepping on each other and finishing each other’s sentences. Sort of how Jadakiss and Styles P used to rap together, that was the idea behind it.
This was a different thing for Bow Wow, because it’s blending melodies with rap. And watching Bow Wow grow up — he was like the Kriss Kross for the generation behind me. Helping him grow from being “Lil Bow Wow” into something more mature was fun to work on.
2005: Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi
I was working on other stuff with Jermaine at the time and he told me he wanted me for Mariah’s album session. She came in the studio and was catching up with everybody. She turns to me and says, “Hey I’m Mariah, who are you?” [Laughs.] I introduce myself and she asks, “I’m guessing you’re a part of what we’re about to do?” I told her only if she’ll have me! Then we became fast friends after that. I had some wine in the studio — some pinot grigio — that was a nice ice-breaker. She asked me, “Can I have a splash of that?” It was very Mariah! We got close after a few splashes!
I think “Get Your Number” was the first song that we did, and after that was “Shake It Off.” “It’s Like That” was the third. “It’s Like That” was a fun song to record because we were just being silly. I was just being funny with the “These chickens is ash and I’m lotion” line. But Mariah was like, “No, we’re keeping that!” She and I can get in our zones where Jermaine will have to stop us, because we’ll put anything in a song! Jermaine was like, “Guys, I don’t get this line.” But everyone ended up loving it!
After that, Mariah left and [former Island Records head] L.A. Reid came in to hear them. At the time, he was considering making “Shake It Off” the first single. But he said, “I’m going to send Mariah back down because I feel like you guys have one more in you.” And that’s when we came up with “We Belong Together.” Jermaine and Mariah put their heads together to get that hook, then I came in to do the verses with Mariah. I remember L.A. telling me, “Mariah was so excited about this song that she called me when she got back to New York. She just wanted to play your demo of it. This is the song!” It came up behind her “One Sweet Day” single [as the second longest running number one song in Billboard chart history] — we missed the record on the Hot 100 by like one week. But the run was still pretty spectacular. And you guys [at Billboard] named it the most popular song of the decade, so I’ll take that! Jermaine and I were talking about that a few days ago. There’s only six months left in this decade, so we’re still going to be number one — unless another song is announced.
We knew we were making something special with this album. All the pressure to do it was coming off of 2001’s Glitter. I remember my publisher at the time thought I was crazy for spending so much time with Mariah, because I had another opportunity to work with a fellow big artist. He asked, “Are you sure you want to work with Mariah?” I told him, “I’m here in the studio. I feel the energy and I know what’s being done here.” With “We Belong Together,” I don’t think anyone could predict that type of success. But we knew that we were making great music for MC. My mother used to play “Vision of Love” from her first album nonstop, so it was a special moment for me to be in the studio with someone that I’ve been listening to since I was like 12. I got a chance to create what is still considered some of her best work.
2007: Chris Brown, “With You”
I was working with [producers] Dre & Vidal in Philly, and I was cool with their manager Marc Byers, who’s over at Motown Records now. He told me about this kid that he just signed but hadn’t done anything with him yet. “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” and “Poppin” [from Brown’s 2005 self-titled debut] were the first songs we recorded with him. I met him in Philly and he just had all of this energy and this bright smile. He was and is a star. You got that vibe as soon as you met him. He was special and was just so excited to be in the studio. There wasn’t any guesswork on if it was gonna work. He just needed the songs — he had everything else.
As for “With You,” I was working with [producer] Stargate on something else back when they were stationed at the Jive Records building in New York. [RCA exec] Mark Pitts said the label needed a record for Chris. So they pulled up the track, and no lie, I wrote that song in about 20 minutes. I remember having to explain the “You’re like Jordans on Saturday” line to Stargate, because they’re from Norway. I said, “Over here in America, it’s a big deal when Jordans come out on Saturdays. When they drop the retro packs, it’s huge!” So we finished the track and I went to go have dinner. I ran into Mark Pitts and told him I have the record for Chris and that he needs to hear it. He rushed out and I’m like, “No pay your tab first and then go. It’s that great!” He calls me like 30 minutes later saying, “Yo, this is a monster!” Two days later, Chris was in the studio recording it. They knew it was gonna be the second single.