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The Grammy Awards are Sunday, and the music industry’s biggest night got us thinking about the myriad ways popular music is made in the 21st century. Every album and song is the culmination of a singular journey that starts with a creative spark and eventually ends in our ears. And, of course, a lot happens along the way.
A host of technology enables artists to collaborate over long-distances, never needing to be in the same room. Sampling has opened a whole new vocabulary for expression. Solo-practitioners can produce entire records on laptops in the comfort of their homes.
But the team of songwriters and producers who worked behind the scenes with the musician known as H.E.R. opted for a more old-school, face-to-face approach to making, “I Used to Know Her,” which earned Grammy nominations for best album, record and song of the year.
There’s a sneak peek on one track that offers a glimpse into how the album evolved. At the end of the song, “Good to Me,” we hear the musician — her name is Gabriella Wilson – teasing out thoughts and jotting down lyrics in the company of a team. The recording is rough and casual, with guitar, keys and bass riffing gently in the background.
Working through ideas on the track Wilson asks, "OK, so what if in the beginning I'm saying: in my eyes you’re a combination of the kindness and compassion of my mother and the warmth and – what did I say? – and the warmth and unconditional love of my father..."
She keeps digging into the feeling her song’s character gets in the presence of her lover. “That feeling is good,” Wilson says, adding the burning question, “but are you really good to me?"
One of the album's executive producers, David Arcelious Harris, was in the room. He's a professor of songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston and a professional who goes by the name “Swagg R’Celious.” People call him “Swagg” for short.
“No one's memory is good,” he said with a laugh when asked about the fly-on-the-wall recording. “So we’ll do these work tapes,” he explained, adding they serve as audio documents for concepts they’re developing. “You know, we have our iPhones out and recording moments. That song kind of came together organically,” he said.
Swagg recalled how a group was listening to the Al Greene song, “Simply Beautiful,” and the line, “you got to be good to me,” always stuck out. They wove it into the bones of H.E.R.s’ song. When they were done Swagg said they decided it would be cool to pull back the curtain on how the song started and what it became after it was produced.
“Songs don’t fall out the sky, you know,” he added, “sometimes it takes a little labor love. Some songs come in five, 10 minutes. Some songs come a day or two. But it's all a process and you have to be OK with the process.”
Many of the songs on Wilson’s album were crafted in Miami. That’s where the 22-year-old artist assembled a tight-knit group of collaborators to live, eat, write and record together for about a month. The musicians set up in different rooms, Swagg said, and Wilson floated between them.
“And if the vibe was right, either she would initiate or she would, you know, come in and be like, ‘oh, I love the way this is going,’” he recalled, “and she would insert what was real to her.”
That’s how it went for a song Swagg developed with a few artists, including producer/composer and Berklee alum Jeff “Gitty” Gitelman.
“It was almost like a jam session,” Swagg remembered, “I think I was doing some drum loops, Gitty was playing the guitar part.”
Reached in his L.A. studio Gitty picked up the story.
“So then Swagg hit stop and said, ‘you know, let’s just improvise it.”
Gitty described how when Keithen “Bassman” Foster joined on bass the sometimes ineffable alchemy that occurs between musicians took hold. “It's like acting,” Gitty mused, “you have the line — and you could say the line over and over again — but when you're feeding off the energy of all of the other actors you might improvise or you might even say the line differently than you rehearsed.” For him, the magic really comes out, “when you're in the moment.”
And it's this energy from the other collaborators that ignites the process. “A key component to creating a great piece of music, a great song in the modern era is the ability to find magic and chemistry within people,” Gitty added.
With H.E.R. their musical ideas became the song, “Lost Souls,” that Gitty said challenges hypocrisy — especially in celebrity and Instagram-driven culture – with the chorus, “I don’t click up, I don’t click up.”
There are plenty of books about the music industry, Gitty said, but very few capture what happens creatively behind closed doors. And he added it might surprise some people that a lot of hit songs are vast group efforts, not the work of one writer or duo at a piano.
“These days it's not uncommon to have seven writers, nine writers, 10 writers on a song,” Gitty said, “I believe on one of the Kanye songs there was something like 20 or 30 writers.”
Having that many sensitive artists in one place doesn’t always work out, according to singer, songwriter and Berklee grad Ruby Amanfu.
“There are so many times when, you know, co-writes are set up and you're not simpatico,” she explained, “and you can try and force something, but it's just not going to be the thing. There's something about the magic in the room when it is right.”
For Amanfu, feeling safe is key.
“Creating music — especially writing songs — is such a vulnerable thing,” she said, “and the ability to know that you can be vulnerable with people you trust is huge.”
Amanfu and her husband Sam Ashworth contributed to H.E.R.'s Best Song of the Year nominee, “Hard Place.” Swagg did too. Amanfu explained how it emerged organically — and surprisingly — over dinner at her home in Nashville. Swagg was there, too. Wilson had brought up the concept of being, “between a rock and a hard place,” with somebody you love.
“Of course so many of us can relate to that,” Amanfu said, “And gosh, like an hour later, we're like, ‘all right that was so cool. Wasn't expecting to write that.”
In the song H.E.R. croons, “What if nothing ever will change...Oh I'm caught between your love and a hard place..."
Amanfu thinks the way “Hard Place” builds a new story around an old saying to lay love bare highlights one of the biggest challenges for song crafters today.
“You’ve got to come up with different ways of saying things often-times, especially in pop music,” she said.
Working with artists from different walks of life, who have different musical experiences — and the right chemistry — helped H.E.R.'s team do that, according to Swagg.
“To bring your best stuff to the table, and share that, I think that's an art within itself,” he said, “And I think that is what makes it so sacred, is having all of this diversity transform into a united thing.”
H.E.R. — which is Wilson's acronym for "Having Everything Revealed” — won two Grammy's last year for best R&B performance and best album. Perhaps as a harbinger to come, she performed, “Hard Place” during the ceremony.
Now the collaborators behind "I Used To Know Her" will come reunite at the ceremony this weekend – with fingers crossed — hoping to pick up a few more awards. They’re up for album, record and song of the year.
This segment aired on January 24, 2020.
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