Jody Watley: Writing, Seeking and Pitching The Hits
Jody Watley feels songwriting is the primary key to longevity in an artist’s career. Since she’s definitely in it for the long haul, it’s an area of her career she works at diligently.
Formerly with the highly successful trio Shalamar, Watley, left the group in 1984 and spent two years in England modeling, writing, and reassessing her music career. She returned to the U.S. and signed a solos deal with MCA Records. Her self-titled debut album spawned several hits including “Looking For A New Love,” “Still A Thrill.” “Don’t You Want Me?” and “Some Kind Of Lover,” helping net her 1988s Grammy for “Best New Artist.”
She co-wrote six of the songs on her first album and has penned 11 of the 12 tunes on her new LP, Larger Than Life with her producer Andre Cymone. She feels that being both a singer and a songwriter gives her an extra edge.
“I think that songwriting is such as big part of the longevity of an artist,” she said. “If you’re just the type of a singer who succeeds solely on the basis of what’s given to you to sing, that’s great. But over a period of time, you’ll always have to rely on someone to give you a song to sing.
“I think that the artists who stay around a long time are songwriters and are as involved in their careers as they can be. I want to be involved in everything about my career. I think that’s very important. And I feel blessed that I have the ability to participate in songwriting. When you’re singing a song and you’re part of that, I think that’s all the better because you’re portraying something that’s real.”
Watley’s interest in songwriting began long before her singing career. As a child, she wrote short stories and poetry, and at one time wanted to become a novelist. However, as her interest in music became stronger, her passion for songwriting developed.
“When I started singing, it evolved into writing lyrics,” she said. “And with that I guess I had a natural ear for melodies. I don’t play an instrument, but with all the lyrics I write the melodies are my own.”
A native of Chicago, her father was a minister and the family moved frequently before settling in Los Angeles when Jody was a teenager. Though she recalls singing songs she made up at nine or ten years old, she says she didn’t start writing seriously until she was 17.
Unfortunately, Watley didn’t get many of her early tunes recorded. She gained her entrance to the entertainment industry as a dancer on Soul Train. Due to the popularity she and her partner Jeffrey Daniels enjoyed, they were hand picked to be members of Shalamar.
During her tenure with Shalamar, she had three tunes she’d co-written that were recorded, but the situation wasn’t really conducive to her development as a songwriter.
“Under the circumstances, it was a pretty controlled thing with the record company and producer having a set staff of people that wrote the songs for Shalamar and they didn’t want to stray from that formula,” she recalled. “Subsequently all of us who wanted to be more involved in songwriting had to bear with it until we were able to do it somewhere else.”
As a solo artist, Watley has creative control over her projects and can write to her heart’s content. She says she constantly carries a notebook, jotting down ideas to further develop later. Her hectic lifestyle isn’t conducive to regular writing hours, but Watley doesn’t need an office or specific schedule to ply her trade. She says she writes on airplanes, in between meetings, or anytime the mood strikes.
Though she writes both lyrics and melodies, she feels more strongly about her lyrical skills. “I think lyrics are really my forte,” she commented. “I’ve always like writing and telling stories. As a lyricist your mind is always working telling a story or an idea you have in a certain way. It’s always challenging.”
She says she really enjoys the creative energy generated by co-writing. “I like bouncing ideas off of people I work with.”
She’s quick to point out, however, that writing partnerships can’t be forced; as with any successful relationship, there have been times when I’ve gotten together with someone through my publishing company saying, ‘You should write with this person and see what you come up with,’” the 29 year-old writer related. “So I’d go to the studio or their house and sit around and it’s like ‘Okay, let’s do a song,’ and maybe personalities don’t click or they have a certain style that doesn’t mesh well with what you’re doing.”
As the success of their collaboration on her debut firmly attests, she and Cymone write well together. Oddly enough she says Cymone had never co-written until they began to collaborate.
“He’s pretty much a self-contained musician and songwriter,” she said. “I was the first person he’d written with.”
Watley said Cymone feels very deeply about his music and it was a little awkward at first with both of them getting to know each other’s musical tastes and learning to share ideas. She admits she was even a little shy about singing the tunes she was presenting at their co-writing sessions at first, but said she was much more confident on the new album.
She’s very pleased with the songs on Larger Than Life and says it’s somewhat different from her first album, but not so radically different that fans of the first one won’t enjoy it. Her first LP included a duet with George Michael; this album features a duet with Eric B. & Rakim, “Friends.” There weren’t any ballads on Jody Watley because there weren’t any she felt strongly enough about to record, and she refused to put just an obligatory ballad on the album. Larger Than Life has three ballads.
“With my first album I really wanted to do an album that was groove-oriented from the beginning to end. You could just put it on and dance the whole time,” she said. “Also because I view myself as an artist who is going to be around a long time I didn’t feel a big rush to say ‘yeah I can sing ballads too.’ I have many more albums to make and each time I hope to expose a little bit more of what I’m trying to accomplish with my music.”
Watley is obviously into music that makes the listener want to get up and dance, but she’s also interested in music that makes them think as well. While in England, she was one of the few American artists to participate in the British music community’s Ethiopian famine relief effort.
On her new album, she wrote a tune called “Lifestyle” about young people and gangs. “The thrust of it is there is no need to live fast and die young,” Jody said of the message she tries to convey in the song. “If you choose the right lifestyle and you don’t let yourself get influenced by the wrong things, then there’s hope for you. You’ve got to believe you can do something and succeed. If you end up involved with the wrong things it ends up one of two ways – either you die or go to jail.”
Though Watley is dedicated to her songwriting and enjoys performing her own material, she remains open to other songwriters pitching her tunes. Larger Than Life contains a song by Gardner Cole titled “Everything.”
“Gardner was fairly persistent about wanting to get a song on this album,” Jody said with a smile. “He kept on sending songs and sending songs and I didn’t like them and I just said ‘Gardner, you’ve just got to come up with the goods because we’re writing some pretty hot stuff.’ So then I get this tape of a song called “Everything.” It’s a ballad and it seemed like I could have written it myself. I got chills when I listened. I could really relate to it. Persistence on his part led to a really great song that fit in with everything else I was doing.”
When asked if she prefers to hear a full-blown demo or a simple on, Watley says she prefers getting simpler, less produced demos. “I think its best when it’s kept simple,” she said. “If it’s simple, just the basic melody that’s fine. When people who aren’t producers do a demo they sometimes do all the wrong things to it and sometimes take away from the song. Ultimately, if it’s a good song, it’s a good song. The dressing on it just makes it better.”
As a songwriter, Watley can identify with the struggles writers face. When someone she really admires is recording, she sometimes pitches her tunes to other artists. She heard Diana Ross was recording and wanted to pitch a song. She and Franne Golde penned one, but by the time they sent it over, the album had been completed.
“I was really disappointed,” she said of the near miss, but was encouraged that the producer liked the tune a great deal. Several people encouraged her to record herself, so if it doesn’t make it on a Watley LP sometime in the future there’s always Diana’s next one.”
Watley is excited about her new album, embarking on her first tour as a solo artist in June, and about all aspects of her busy life. The friendly entertainer maintains that her life is hectic, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve had people stop me on the street and say I love dancing to your songs,” she relates with a pleased humility. “I’ve also had people say my songs have really touched their lives and got them through a difficult time. When “Looking For A New Love” was out, people told me they put it on their answering machine and played it for their ex-boyfriends.
“When you write from an experience you’ve had or a friend has had and knowing that it reached someone else and they could relate to it, that’s such a good feeling.”
For Jody Watley that gratification makes the long days seem shorter. Her hectic schedule is worth it because with every experience that flows from her pen, she’s not just writing a song, she’s reaching to touch someone.