Interview: Al “A-Rod” Sherrod Talks Creative Process, Ariana Grande’s Sophomore Album, Writing For Fantasia
It has been said that the key to maintaining longevity in the music business as a songwriter or producer is versatility. The ability to switch it up every so often is so important because consumers get bored easily. If this is true, then Al “A-Rod” Sherrod is on his way to greatness. The guy who wrote the majority of Ariana Grande’s throwback R&B/Pop “Yours Truly” was also responsible for Fantasia’s “Rock Soul” sound. The best thing about this? Both albums were critically acclaimed and loved by fans. YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to speak with the Grammy nominated songwriter about his early days working with Eric Hudson, his creative process and working with Fantasia and Ariana Grande. A-Rod also gave us the details on Ariana Grande’s upcoming album as well as Jordin Sparks’ new album
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about how you got your start in the industry because I know you were working with Eric Hudson at first.
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: Yeah, I originally worked with Eric Hudson. We were childhood friends from New Jersey through church and stuff like that. We used to go over to Eric’s house when he lived with his dad at the time and we would just work on music. That went on for about a year and around May of 2010 or 2011, he was working on Jamie Foxx’s album and he was like “You should come out to LA and work on this album” which I did. I ended up getting 3 records done with Jamie and 2 of them made it to the album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take me through your journey as far as trying to get that first placement. How tough was it for you?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: I decided in 2007 that I would try writing in music. I was like “You get paid for this? It’s right up my alley then.” I decided to try songwriting and it started there. It was many endless sessions it seemed like. I would get up in the morning and go to work or class and then go back to the studio all night. I took an internship in 2007 with the production team called the Soul Diggaz in New Jersey. I worked with them for 7 months and just trying to get my hand in the business. It didn’t really work out. I kept going though and I kept trying to get better. Actually this guy Rahman Apollo, he used to write a lot for Bow Wow back in the day, he used to have a studio and he would let me use it for free for about 2 years. I would go in there with a production team I was working with and I would just write, reference records and play them for Eric Hudson. You always have moments where you meet someone and they introduce you to someone else and nothing ever happens. I definitely got discouraged. I would say 2009, I was going to quit and give it up. I was already working and had a pretty decent salary. I was like “Making it to the music industry isn’t coming to life.” It was actually Eric Hudson who was like “You’re right there. You’re close to getting there! So to stop now would be kind of crazy.” I stuck with it for about 6 or 7 months and the next thing you know, I’m in the studio with Jamie Foxx.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What’s your process like in the studio?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: I think my creative process starts before I even get there. I can’t tell you the countless times that I’ve been asleep and melodies, lyrics and song concepts have come. Not only song concepts, but who the artist is as far as who it should go to. I have a dream that I’m in the studio with a certain artist. I really feel like God prepares me to get to studio with inspiration for what’s going to happen. But once I get there, depending on what the beat is or who the producer is, I’d like to think I’m very versatile in what I write and what I do. I don’t have a certain style or maybe I’m discovering it. For instance, you know when The-Dream writes something and it sounds like he wrote it. With me, I’m like a chameleon. I become who I need to become to make a song work. I just go off the vibe of the track or I might come in with an idea. If the producer has it like Harmony, if he has his ideas all the way out, I’ll come in there and hear it. Melodies come with me or if I’m co-writing, the person might have the melody and I might have the concept.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Speaking of Harmony, you’ve done a lot of work with him. What’s the chemistry like in the studio with him?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: Me and Harmony are more than just partners in crime when it comes to making music. That’s like my brother. Harmony gets me and I get him. We both are very passionate about music, so it’s easy for me to connect with him and understand where he’s coming from and where he’s trying to go. We kind of know what we need to do and how to do it, so we just lock in with each other and feed off each other’s energy and ideas, so it’s a mutual respect for the craft that the other person has and the talent. It allows us to come together and make some great things.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Harmony is one of the biggest R&B producers right now with a lot of a great placements. He’s worked with different writers like Eric Bellinger and Sevyn Streeter, so what do you think he sees in you?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: He likes the way I think and approach songs and songwriting. The idea of being able to become a different person and tell stories of different people. I just tell stories of people. I may have never done it, but I might have seen someone do it or watched a movie. He likes the way I bring real life elements to it and I find ways to think about or say things that are little more thoughtful than some other people. Eric Bellinger and Sevyn, I’ve collaborated with them many times. I think I just bring a different flare sometimes. Also, it’s also like how Jay-Z is. It’s that quick rapping type of style. Sometimes when I write lyrics, it would be like “Oh man a rapper would say that”.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve mentioned that you’ve collaborated with different writers. What’s the creative process different when you’re working with another writer?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: I’ve learned so much from Courtney Harrell, Eric Bellinger and Sevyn over the past few years. It’s really been a blessing to even be able to write with these people. The only way you’re going to be better is to be around people who are better than you. It doesn’t take anything away from you to admit that somebody is better than you in your career. Just being around them, hearing melodies and saying “Okay I can take what they do and add that to what I do” and hopefully I might rub off on them too. When I was in New Jersey, it wasn’t a lot of creative people there. Coming out to LA where everyone was creative and everyone was trying to make it was definitely eye opening. Being able to be a student and being humble enough to say “Okay, they’re dope. What are they doing? Let me see if I can learn something from that.” It’s really an amazing experience working with them.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You were on Ariana Grande’s debut project. What was the approach going into that album?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: Well it really started with “The Way”. One day, actually I was home and it was Saturday, I wasn’t working. Jordin was in with Sevyn and they were working on the song. It wasn’t going fast enough. Sometimes it might be a creative block. Harmony called me up and was like “Can you come into the studio?” I came in and they had some ideas, concepts and melodies. I got there and put in my input and created that song. It was a great song. It was really catchy. The label wanted to go in a different direction though, so that song sat for like 6 months. Ariana Grande heard it and fell in love with it instantly. She was like “I want to cut this tomorrow!” She loved it, cut it and made it sound amazing. After that, the label was like “This song is amazing. Let’s see what else you guys can do!” We just went in and did 5 or 6 other records. The writing was a little different than with Fantasia’s album because Fantasia was more hands-on and in the studio every day. With Ariana’s first album, we wrote the songs, her and the label selected them and she recorded them. I would go back and hear them after. This time around, it has been more hands-on. Like we’re actually working with her. I was able to talk to her and pull from her different experiences in life. I definitely feel like this album, you will get more of a sense of who she is as a person and what she has experienced. She definitely has different stories to tell and more facets to her personality and her in general.
YouKnowIGotSoul: As far as the sound of Ariana’s upcoming album, is it going to have a similar vibe where it is kind of throwback R&B or are you guys going in another direction?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: It’s definitely going to be Ariana. I feel like she’s come and really solidified her spot in this R&B/Pop mesh type of situation. There’s definitely going to be some of that, but I think people are going to be surprised by where we go. This album will make you feel good and make you dance, but there are some subject matters in there that will make you go “Okay, she has more to say than just ‘I Love You'”. It’s going to show versatility, so it’s going to be that type but we have a bunch of songs that are kind of unexpected and a little more edgier and different.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You also worked with Fantasia on her last project. Going from Fantasia to Ariana, even though they’re both R&B, do you kind of have to shift gears because they’re different types of R&B?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: I go back to the chameleon thing. It’s whatever I’m feeling in the day. If you play me the beat, it’s what we’re going to do. It’s like “Okay we need to turn it up right here? Let’s turn up.” With the Fantasia stuff, she had more personal stories and more that she wanted to go with. I was able to take her life and put it into songs. We were able to just say “This is what you want to talk about? Cool”. Then also, we were able to take from Anita Baker, Patti Labelle, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner and Toni Braxton. We were just making that music that your mom would play when she cleaned the house on Saturday mornings. That’s what some of that was. We were just taking back from the past and bringing it to the present day.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Last time I spoke to Harmony, he was very excited about the Jordin Sparks project. Talk about her upcoming album a little bit and what we can expect.
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: I think Jordin is ready. She’s ready to really come back full swing. I feel like it’s going to be mature like it should be. She’s grown a lot, so I think she’s going to have a lot more sexiness to her sound and a lot more subject matters that might be more mature. Not saying she’s going to be bugging out or anything like that, but she’s going to talk as someone who is 20 something rather than someone who is 16.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Aside from Jordin Sparks, who else are you working with?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: I’m very excited about Michelle Williams. She has a Gospel project coming out that I’ve done the bulk of the writing with Harmony and Courtney Harrell. I feel like it’s Gospel, but not traditional Gospel that you would expect. It’s not just music that will be played on Sunday mornings, it’s a CD that will be able to played throughout the week. There’s a lot of amazing features and the songs we’ve done with her are mind-blowing. To this day, I can be surprised all over again. She sounds amazing and the songs sound great. I’m really excited about her. In the Gospel lane, I’ve been working with Tweet’s daughter Shenice Johnson, she’s signed to RCA. I worked with her this week actually. Once again, it’s Gospel that can be played on R&B charts all day long. The things we’ve been able to do and talk about, it’s for that young person that’s a Christian, but sometimes it’s kind of corny because they’re wearing their Jordans and have their fresh swag going on. It’s like “I still love God, but I’m not trying to be in a choir room.” People who don’t normally listen to gospel music will be able to listen to her project as well as Michelle’s. Also I’m working with Omarion. I really feel like he’s going to shock the world with this album he’s working on. He cut a record of mine and I hope it’ll make the album. I think it’ll be really big for him. I’m really excited about his project as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You mentioned that the label kind of sat on “The Way” when it was created for Jordin Sparks. How frustrating is that for you to have to wait for a label to put out a single and they don’t even believe in it sometimes?
Al “A-Rod” Sherrod: It’s interesting to say the least because you never know. I was talking with a bunch of producers and songwriters last week and I was like “You just never really know”. You can be like “I got this crazy record. They called and told me it’s going to be the next single” and then something happens with the label or artist and the song never comes, so you never know. You just have to continue to work and try to put your hands in as many pots as possible. Then also figure out how to create your own, so that you don’t have to lean on that. That’s the name of the game. People like Pharrell, Timbaland, Puffy, The-Dream, Ne-Yo and Rico Love. All of these people understand that. It’s really about creating your own opportunities so that you’re not at the hands of the label or artist because it’s not always going to work out for you.