We recently had a chance to interview the legendary singer/songwriter Babyface. During our conversation, we touched on his new album “Girls Night Out”, collaborating with female R&B stars from the current generation, what surprised him the most about working with those artists, his memories of originally developing artists on his LaFace label, his songwriting process, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your new album “Girls Night Out” and the decision to collaborate with the current generation of female R&B stars.
Babyface: To be honest, it was a suggestion from my partner on my project who actually came up with the idea to do this project. It was kind of like a “Waiting to Exhale” 2.0 but instead of me just writing everything, it was more of an idea to collaborate with all of these girls and write with them. It would be their voices as well as my voice. It ended up being an excellent idea. It was educational as well as fun putting it together. The whole idea kind of came from doing Verzuz with Teddy Riley. I picked up a whole lot more fans than I thought that I had from a different age group. I thought this was a way to reach that fan base, and this was the perfect way to still be able to reach them without being stuck in the 90’s or giving just what my core audience usually would like, which doesn’t go as far today. The landscape has changed. If you can, you can change with that landscape.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was the biggest surprise for you doing these collaborations?
Babyface: Just being a writer and a producer and learning and being in there. When you listen to artists and listen to music today in R&B, and how people phrase things and talk, and what they talk about, and how they say it, it’s different than what it would have been years ago. I’m not necessarily in the street where they are hearing that conversation on a daily basis. Even when you listen to it, it’s not necessarily part of your every day, so it was nice to be there and soak it up so that I could be genuine for my approach for it. You never want to caught looking like you are chasing it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Were there any similarities in creating this project compared to the “Waiting To Exhale” soundtrack?
Babyface: Not really, because in all honesty, the only similarity is that it’s all girls. Other than that it’s completely different because that was based on a movie, based on a particular script, particular scenes and written specifically for that. Every person that came, I had them in mind a little bit. But the scene was already written and the song was kind of already written. I wrote it towards having them in mind, but not specifically for them. The players could have changed.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When listening to the album, it was cool to hear you let the females take the lead on the majority of the songs and you were more in the background. Was that your intention?
Babyface: I wanted to kind of showcase these artists. I wanted it to be about them more than it was about me. I needed to figure out how to do that and even be a part of it without looking like the creepy uncle in the room! *Laughs* That was also on purpose, figuring out ways to do it so that it felt organic. It was really a platform for these girls.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It definitely felt organic. Sonically, it felt like they brought some of their sound to the table while you brought some of yours, and met in the middle.
Babyface: Yea, I wasn’t trying to abandon what I do completely, otherwise you can’t call it a Babyface album. It was collaborating, and because of that, pieces of you always shine through.
YouKnowIGotSoul: This helped remind us of when you started LaFace and helped give a platform to new artists like Usher, Toni Braxton, TLC, Donell Jones, Outkast, etc. Take us back to those early days at the label and what it was like rolling out these artists.
Babyface: You never looked at it as helping, it was always just the art of it. Nobody was thinking of hooking anybody up. It was always more so being happy to work with talented artists, and having a place for your songs to live, or working with a producer that had something cool, from Dallas Austin to Jermaine Dupri to Organized Noize. Those guys would bring things to the table. It was a label situation. It doesn’t always work out, but the process of just going through the work and being in the studio, is just as important, because you can take that with you for life, wherever else you end up.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk a bit about helping in the development of Jon B.
Babyface: Jon B. was a kid who was found by Tracey my ex, when she started the record label Yab Yum. He was just this really talented kid that had so many songs that he had already written. He had a suitcase full of broken heart songs. He 18 or 19, so young. He was just already prolific. It was a pleasure to work with him and also a pleasure to stay out of his way. We did a couple of songs together, and the opening song was “Someone to Love”. I didn’t want to keep in there to where his identity wasn’t able to show. He always had his own thing as well. He fortunately stuck, something happened and people liked him. To this day, Jon B. is remembered as that one kid that has got soul and it comes naturally and he doesn’t chase it. That’s always been part of his thing. I wish it would have gotten bigger than he had got at this point, but you can’t ever make those calls. The one thing is that people still like Jon B. to this day.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your writing process and how so many of these hit songs come to you.
Babyface: It’s varied over the years. A lot of times it was just me inside of a closet with my four tracks or my MPC and just every day trying to come up with something. Not knowing whether it was a hit or not, just writing something you thought was heart felt. You just did that like you go to work, every day. Sometimes it would be with other people and sometimes it wouldn’t be. It’s one of those things where initially you write songs and they are not necessarily commercial ready. That was learned over the years I think how to put verses together and hooks together that are catchy. Trying to get to the good parts sooner. In the 90’s you could structure a song a particular way. It becomes a process in that way. I think that ultimately it changes over the years with the writing process. Sometimes it’s a lot more collaboration. I collaborate a lot more now so I don’t like I’m just in the 90’s, because you can get stuck doing the same thing without even knowing. That’s what the collaborating helps with, and you do learn from that as well. The writing process is ever changing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Does it ever hit you how much great music or how many timeless classic songs you’ve created over the years?
Babyface: You know people say it to me a lot. I don’t sit back and think about it per say. When I do a show, I go through a medley of songs I wrote for other people. The thing is when I was doing all of this, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of quantity, I was just kind of writing songs. You wake up and one day you’ve got a bunch of songs. That’s really it. The difference is because it was so spread out with so many different people, it wasn’t like Smokey Robinson who was the hit guy who wrote for The Temptations, The Supremes, wrote for Stevie, all of these super stars who were there at one point, so it felt like a movement. This was more like I did some stuff here and there. That’s why it snuck up. Nobody was really seeing it happen, or thinking of it in the way that it was, because it was so broken up in terms of where it would go to and where it came from. It was not all in one place, it was everywhere.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Do you ever look back at the songs you’ve created and point to one as the best song you wrote?
Babyface: I always like to say I haven’t written the best song yet. There is one song I think I wrote in high school that I never recorded that I think may be my best song. I’m just impressed that I did that in high school and wrote those chords and writing the structure of it. I think someone wanted to use it as a Gospel song once and I told them to try it. It’s really one of those songs I felt like that was a really good song for the time period of what it was. I was a little ahead of my time. When I look back, I think that kid had something at 18 years old. I did write some other songs at 18 years old that years later ended up being used. Most of the stuff was terrible *Laughs* but there were a few in there.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Which of the songs you’ve created was the hardest for you to create?
Babyface: Nothing in particular but I’m sure there were plenty of those times when you were scratching your head trying to get something right. Probably more on myself than on the artist who was working on the song. There were songs that I did that were failed attempts, we couldn’t get it right so it never came out. That’s why it’s never automatic, and you never know if it is a hit. It’s not being humble, it’s just being real and not knowing. When works, that’s great. I never walk away knowing. I’m blessed and have been lucky for the things to have worked that have worked. Just to be in the room with some people that certainly made it a little more possible because of who they were and what their voices were like. If I had done those songs myself, they would not have had the same life.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve had success through so many generations of R&B music. Talk a bit about the evolution of the genre through the years and how you view it.
Babyface: I think for a minute it had gotten a little bit stale. We’ve gone through different versions of it and things that were hot, you had the Neo-Soul movement, from Erykah Badu to Jill Scott to Musiq Soulchild, those were the things that we loved, and that was the mark of it. Now you have Summer Walker, you have SZA, you have things that are different, like Kehlani. It’s not all the same at this point. Then you have the idea of R&B, when you try to say what is R&B, who is R&B. Should we not include Steve Lacy and how incredible his run is at this particular point? Or Giveon as well. Then there’s Jazmine Sullivan. There is a lot of music out there that is not the same. I say when people try to look for a specific kind of R&B and say it isn’t the same anymore, that’s because you are trying to get the same R&B, the same 90’s feel that it was. That’s because it’s changed and it’s different and it’s evolved.
Photo Credit: Travis Bailey