Interview: Tiffany Villarreal – Industry Journey from Dr. Dre to Pharrell to Finding Her Place
Tiffany Villarreal’s journey through the music industry over the years has been like virtually none other. Although she had many opportunities through her career, it seems none really turned out like she envisioned. From RCA and having Missy executive produce her debut to signing with Universal to working in Pharrell’s group Affair to signing at Aftermath with Dr. Dre, it’s obvious her talents were recognized throughout the industry. From a young girl growing up who just wanted to sing, it couldn’t get any better than making this type of noise in the industry, right? As she learned, that’s not always true, as the constraints of labels can sometimes hold an artist back from creating the type of music they love. However, now older, wiser, and armed with years of learning the business in the industry, she’s finally found a path for herself in music that makes her happy. YouKnowIGotSoul caught up with her to discuss all of her history in the industry including her debut that released only in Japan, how she linked up with Pharrell and Dr. Dre, how she originally got her start with Missy and Meelah and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s start early in your career. I was reading you moved to Las Vegas at an early age and met Meelah from 702 and went in the studio and eventually met Missy. Talk about that whole situation.
Tiffany Villarreal: Wow! *Laughs* You really did your research! Those were good times. That whole season in my life was awesome. Just to be surrounded by so many talented people in the 702 area. I went to the same school that Meelah went to, so we all went to the same performing arts high school which was awesome. I was extremely green, but I loved to sing and I was like this wide eyed kid who was just shocked to even be in an environment like that to learn and sing for people. It was humbling for people to hear me and recognize my talent. That whole season was just a really big eye opener for me. Even before that, I always had this desire within me to just sing. But the fact that I was surrounded by people and all of these opportunities, it was just surreal to me because I always was the kid who was in the room singing with a brush in front of the mirror. I was very green. When I think back in those times, I was green but just a wide eyed kid. Wanting to sing, and that was pretty much the main focus for me, I just wanted to sing. I didn’t really know exactly what wanting to sing meant at that time, I just wanted to be a singer. That’s where I was at that point.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I read from there you had an opportunity do songs with Faith Evans and Alicia Keys and artists like that. How did those opportunities come about?
Tiffany Villarreal: To me, I don’t think I could take any credit for that. I was so young and just kind of a wide eyed kid who was just kind of in specific environments where they were just divine connections. I couldn’t explain it any other way. Just to be in environments where I’m singing with people that I look up to like Faith Evans or Alicia Keys, or even Meelah from 702, which went from conversations about music to recognizing the talent within me, it was just shocking to me. I always thought that I was good inside of my room, but then to actually have conversations with other people and to feel the energy, it was an awesome feeling. From there, the confidence just really started to build up. To sing with Faith, that was so long ago, but I still remember it. She gave me great words of wisdom. Every experience that you go through kinda shapes who you are. I think at that point I just wanted to sing. I wanted to just kinda give my family and myself a better life. When you’re young and you don’t grow up with a silver spoon in your mouth, what do you do? You do stuff that you’re positive about to help you better your family and your life. That’s basically where I was. I wanted to sing, that’s what I knew I could do. With that, I really didn’t know what that meant. Along the journey I realized what that meant and why I wanted to sing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You were eventually able to take that singing career to the next level when you got signed to RCA Records. Unfortunately, the label folded before you were able to put out your debut. How did that all go down?
Tiffany Villarreal: I was so green again. I got signed really young and it was kinda like a divine connection again. How many people come out to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music and live out here for years and years and don’t get in front of a person who can put you in a position to have that dream come true? I feel like I was very blessed and lucky to be in a situation like that. However, it was very short lived because I was young and green like I said, but I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I guess you learn from it and you grow from it, I definitely have. It was a great experience because Missy Elliott was the executive producer on the project and she’s an amazing producer. She’s just an amazing person. Back in the day, it was like Nicole Wray and “Make it Hot” and all kind of things Missy did, I thought it was amazing and I loved that kind of music. To me being this Spanish chick that she’s working with, it couldn’t be true! My first real taste of the business, that was my first experience with that. Shortly after that, the urban part of the label folded and they took some artists to another label and then they decided to let some go. I was one of the ones let go. To me, I guess being that kid who lived in the room who was singing with the brush, I didn’t think that stuff happened. When you experience it in real life, you can sit and watch on TV, but once you’re actually in it, there’s another side to it. I just realized that it is a business and everything happens for a reason. I grew a lot and I experienced a lot in that little short time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Even though you went through that situation, you did get another deal and you did get to record and release an album, your self-titled debut. What do you remember about creating that album?
Tiffany Villarreal: Those were good times. You’re taking me back! *Laughs* I was really young, but I was a little more aware which is good. I was still very grateful to figure out what I love to do. I think at the time, and I’m just being honest, I loved to sing and I loved music so much but I never really took the time to figure out musically what I wanted to do. I had a huge affinity for vocals of course, r&b of course, just really good music. I think at the time it started to awaken within me, what I wanted to do. It was a battle between me and a company that kind of wanted to formulate me into what was hot and popular. I was trying to understand and wrap my head around wanting to do what they wanted me to do, but as time went on, I realized it wasn’t really who I wanted to be. When you’re in your 20’s, you’re still in that discovery process of who you are and I think I was kind of going through that. Everybody was like “You need to be like this artist or that artist”. I don’t think that was a big fit for me. We all want to be individuals, but it was a battle. I think at that stage of my career, I was realizing that it’s a business. They signed you, and they want to shape you and mold you and manufacture into what they think will make money. That was my conflict. I wanted to always just give my family a better life and myself a better life and do what I love to do. But what was the cost? That was the conflict, it was a compromise. That was Universal. That album never came out here in the States, Japan only. What’s so awesome is people will reach out to me, I just recently got into the whole media thing, and people will reach out and tell me that they even heard the record. That is amazing. It’s a blessing, it just touches me, the fact that people have heard it and remember.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Taking it from there, I believe from there you linked up with The Neptunes and became part of their group Affair. Tell me about that situation.
Tiffany Villarreal: After the whole Universal thing, I was like “Well I guess I had a good run”. I went through this season where I was just like “Well maybe this isn’t for me”. Then here comes this opportunity where Pharrell was putting together a girl group and what an amazing opportunity to work with two other talented Latin women who can sing their butts off. That was a great thing and it almost happened. Then Dr. Dre came in the picture and I got signed to Aftermath.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The whole Neptunes situation, how did Pharrell approach you to join the group? Did you have a relationship before?
Tiffany Villarreal: No, I’ve always been a fan of his work. I was working with a producer out here in L.A. and he knew that I could sing. He was affiliated with Star Trak and he kinda knew what Pharrell was trying to put together. The group was already in motion and there was one girl who decided to leave the band, so they were looking for a 3rd member and I become the replacement. After going in there and meeting them and letting them hear me sing, they thought I was a good fit. I met with the other girls and we went from there and started recording. They had already had the group set in motion, the group had already formulated a year before I even came in. They were looking for someone to replace the girl who left, so that’s when I came in. We did a few songs and it was always awesome to hear what we were doing, I was excited to be a part of it. They were so talented, Vanessa and Tasha.
YouKnowIGotSoul: From there the Aftermath situation came up with Dr. Dre. How did that all come together?
Tiffany Villarreal: That was a complete divine connection. I was on my way working with the group and it was the very beginning stages. We recorded maybe two songs and we were still very green. It was a very slow process as far as making everything as far me getting into the group officially. During that process, I was writing with somebody and I was demoing a song and this guy asked me “What’s going on with you?” When you’re in the business, sometimes things happen and an opportunity may happen but it might not come true, so you don’t want to speak on it unless it’s official. Because it wasn’t official, I didn’t really speak on it too much. I was like “Well I have a small little situation that I’ve got.” He kept asking like “What’s up with your music?” My mindset at the time was like “Maybe I’ll just write for people. I love doing this!” I just love it, I love singing or being in the studio or being on stage. At that time or ever, I wasn’t looking to be this famous person who is on the cover of magazines, it was just that I have love of music and it brings me great joy to sing. He asked me “What are you doing?” and then he was like “I’m going to have a meeting with somebody” and that person was Dr. Dre. They ended up having a meeting and he played him that demo that I did for another female artist. It wasn’t even my stuff to be honest with you. It was just a small little snippet of my vocals and he wanted to set up a meeting. First of all, Dr. Dre is amazing. He’s an amazing producer and it’s always been a dream of mine to work with him. So I talked to a couple of people and they were like “Take the meeting!” The Pharrell situation was moving kind of slow, so I took the meeting. That was it. He called Pharrell and said “I’m signing Tiffany to Aftermath” and I worked with him every day while I was signed there. I’ve got to say that Dre is an amazing producer and taught me so much. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your career after the whole Dr. Dre situation. I believe you had some writing placements here and there, but where did your career go next?
Tiffany Villarreal: I went through a discovery to figure out what kind of music I wanted to do. Most of the time being signed, they were just like “Sing this song because it’s hot.” I needed to just figure out what it is I wanted to do. I wanted to write more. I wanted to play more instruments so I took a step back and started to write more, started to play guitar and piano. I’ve kind of been writing my own stuff and my own instrumentations. The sound has come up really good. I’ve been working at a studio so it’s just matter of time. I’m really hoping to have something out that’s purely me. Just a little more authentic and organic. I’m excited about that and it took me awhile to get here and I went back and forth with everything. I think just the industry sometimes is a very tough business. But still, if it’s just something you just love dearly, you really can’t just put it down. That’s what I realized and I’m really excited about this new body of work that I have. Like I said, it’s very organic and I’m writing and producing which I’m really proud of. That’s basically where I’m at right now. I’m happier than I’ve ever been because I have more control and I can sing about whatever I want to. I don’t have to have my tits out to try to sell some kind of record. I can just be me and give songs that I’m into. It might be a different sound, but it’s still my voice. It’s just a little more real and a little more me. I think you can always win if you’re true to yourself. If anything, at least it’s true to yourself. I don’t think that anyone should ever give up on whatever it is that they dream of. Obstacles will come their way, but everything is a learning experience and it all works out for the good anyway. The experiences have shaped who I am and I look forward to so many more experiences and to experience things that I’ve always dreamed of like I haven’t even started. I’m really excited about this year and doing everything completely on my own which is not easy for a woman. It’s exciting because I have more control over the sound and the tracks and the image. For people to even be interested and to reach out and say “I can’t wait for you to come out with something”, it’s just so inspiring and motivating. It just keeps me going and it reminds me of why I love to do this because there’s nothing greater than to use the gifts you have and share it with people who have that same affinity for the art that you give. There’s nothing like getting feedback that’s positive and supportive. That’s what I’m all about. I’m really just genuinely doing good music. I’m not looking to be on the cover of magazines and I’m not in it for the fame. I’m not in it for selling or the biggest Pop song in the world. I have to go for critically acclaimed. I’d rather go for my peers that I look up to say “I listen to her record.” I’d rather do a small little touring venue that has two people who support me as opposed to thousands of people. I mean if it happens, it happens but I’m doing it for me. It’s a good feeling to be at a place where you know who you are as an artist. I didn’t know back then, I just wanted to give my family a better life and myself. I wanted to sing, but I didn’t know as an artist who I wanted to be and because of all those experiences, it helped shape me into who I am and what I’ve now realized and what it is that brings me happiness which is when I pick up the guitar and do records.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It sounds like you’re in the perfect place right now
Tiffany Villarreal: It really is a good place to be. It wasn’t an easy road to get to, but you can get to it. Sometimes just reading something that somebody says online and I read it! It might not be a million people but it matters. That one person that says “I heard your stuff and I really like this.” It really touches my heart because it’s what I love to do. I’d rather do it for the people than do it for a machine, a company that just wants to make money. I know it’s so against the grain of what I was introduced to. I’m in a good and happy place and there’s no bitterness. I’m so grateful for all the people that I met in the past and I look forward towards the future and this year and just doing something fresh and brand new. Hopefully setting a trail and just blazing it up for other women too.