Shortly after Thanksgiving on an Atlanta-bound airplane in Los Angeles, I found myself sitting among the North Carolina State women's basketball team. The players gabbed and laughed loudly, and their constant chattering seemed to fill the plane. But when Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together" piped from the loudspeakers, they all fell silent.
As Carey began to sing the first chorus, however, a few of them spontaneously joined in. "I didn't mean it when I said I didn't love you so/I should have held on tight I never should have let you go," they sang before breaking up into embarrassed laughter. As they followed along with their voices, many of us in the plane were probably singing along in our heads.
Written and produced by several songwriters, including Carey, Jermaine Dupri, Manuel Seal and Johnta Austin, "We Belong Together" is a great ballad. (Writers for two songs sampled during the number, Bobby Womack's "If You Think You're Lonely Now" and the Deele's "Two Occasions," are also credited.) Yes, it's cheesy and overblown, but like Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," it's something most of us know by heart. A song that artfully and subtly leads everyone to take pleasure in its melodic ingenuity and excesses is the definition of good pop music.
"I like to write stories," Austin says during an evening conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel. "It's like a movie. You have to have the intro, you have to have the plot laid out before you, the climax and then the resolution. ... To me, songs are movies set to music."
To illustrate his point, Austin returns to "We Belong Together," which earned him a 2005 Grammy Award for Best R&B song. "Jermaine and Manuel came up with the music, and then Mariah, myself and Jermaine came up with the lyrics," he says. Carey and Austin struggled to write the second verse, however. "Jermaine came in and said, 'That's not it. Johnta, I need you to give me one of those second verses that'll really bring this story out,'" he recalled.
So Austin regrouped, and drew upon Womack's "If You Think You're Lonely Now" for inspiration. He placed the song in "We Belong Together" as a tune Carey hears on the radio, and its central premise -- you broke up with the right man -- painfully reminds her of her broken heart. "When Jermaine heard that he was like, 'Yeah, that's it! Now we've got it going!'" In the second verse, you can visualize a forlorn Carey lying in her room late at night, desperately turning on the radio for consolation, only to be reminded of her lost love.
"Once I got that first line, Jermaine flipped over it and I was able to recite the rest of the verse," Austin says. Then he begins to recite part of the verse as if it was poetry: "I can't sleep at night because you're on my mind/Bobby Womack's on the radio/Singing to me 'If You Think You're Lonely Now'/Wait a minute/This is too deep, I've gotta change the station/So I turn the dial and try to catch a break/And then I hear Babyface/I only think of you ... /And it's breaking my heart/I try to keep it together/But I'm falling apart."
Austin recites the verse plainly and without affect, like a poet who relies on the power of his words instead of the inflections in his voice. He says he wrote "Be Without You," which became a huge smash for Mary J. Blige last winter, at Atlanta's Doppler Studios in 25 minutes. Being a successful songwriter, it would seem, is an effortless combination of writing imaginative lyrics and knowing the right people.
Austin is now a graceful 25-year-old who recently was featured on the cover of Billboard magazine. It took him more than 10 years to get there. He signed a deal with RCA in 1994 at the age of 13, but when his voice changed he got dropped a year later. Reinventing himself as a lyricist-for-hire, he turned one of his demos, "Sweet Lady," into a 1998 hit for R&B singer Tyrese. Nevertheless, it took several years to score radio smashes for the likes of Chris Brown and Jessica Simpson ("A Public Affair") with consistency. Today, his collaboration with Chris Brown and Bow Wow, "Shortie Like Mine," sits just outside the Billboard Top 10.
When asked about influences, soul artists tend to rely on the old standbys, superstars such as Marvin Gaye, Prince, Al Green, et al. Austin likes those guys, too. But today he cites less obvious heroes such as classic songwriters Babyface, Lionel Richie, Diane Warren and Burt Bacharach. "I feel like I try my best to follow in their footsteps," he says. He listens to jazz and classical -- "I like Rachmaninoff," he says -- as well as hip-hop and R&B.
Ironically, his forthcoming album Ocean Drive, scheduled for release on Dec. 26, hearkens toward the ubiquitous signifiers of current R&B. The production is mellifluously lush, and Austin strikes an admirable range of melodic notes, and even spits a bounce rap on "Take It Back." It's a showcase for his insistently romantic persona, which he gives vent on "This Evening" alongside contemporary jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. "A little bit of wine, we're gonna kiss and hug this evening/It's just the third date but I knew I had to make you give it up this evening," he says.
"Marvin Gaye inspires me as an artist, and the kind of records I've written for Ocean Drive, instead of my everyday writing," he says, distinguishing between songs he writes for himself and for others. "I like the way he was brash, very bold and provocative. So that's who I like to be as an artist. But that's not who I always get to be as a writer. [In that sense] I'm more like a Babyface and a Lionel Richie. There's nothing like a great love song."
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