Songwriting has been a team effort for a while now, but those teams have expanded of late. Nowadays, a hit song is often a collaboration between various beatmakers, melody men, lyricists, and of course, the artist. August Rigo is one of these hitmakers: his credits include three tracks on Justin Bieber's debut album, cuts for Chris Brown ("Back to Sleep"), Sean Kingston ("Party All Night (Sleep All Day)" and One Direction ("Gotta Be You"), and songwriting/executive production on Musiq Soulchild's MusiqIntheMagiq album.
August is also a solo artist - his latest album, The Fall Out, is out in his native Canada and is coming soon to America.
August Rigo: Yesterday I had two sessions: I was working with this new artist from the UK, her name is Imaani, and then I went in and I was working in a camp for Pitbull, doing some hooks.
Songfacts: When you say you're doing some hooks for Pitbull, what does that entail?
Rigo: Well, you get the brief. OK, this is what we're looking for: worldly hooks. The overview for what they want from this Pitbull album. When I say "camp," usually the label has a studio booked out, maybe three or four different rooms with three or four different producer and writer combinations.
And you just go in and try to create, either from scratch or they have their catalogue of beats. This particular time, I went in, took a listen and wrote some hooks. You know, sit around, shoot the shit with everybody and figure out the best Pitbull hook.
Songfacts: Are these vocal hooks, musical hooks - can you tell me what you mean by that?
Songfacts: It sounds like you're given some spec, some instructions, on what you're supposed to do. Almost like a session musician is given a chart.
Rigo: Right. It's a little different than that because when a session musician gets their charts it's pretty much set in stone, like this is what I want you to play, this is what I need from you. You go in and you play the part and you're done. The difference with this is, it's kind of a free-for-all. They do give you a guideline, but sometimes that guideline doesn't fit into your creative mold and you end up doing your own thing. And sometimes that actually is what wins.
It is kind of like being a session musician, but really it's more like a songwriting session. In this case with Pitbull he just needs hooks. He'll do the verses, he'll do the raps, but what he really needs is hooks.
You've also got to give him a concept for the songs. Let's say we write a song called "Moonlight," for example. Then it makes it easier for him because he can sit there and say, "Oh, I can rap about love in the night" or whatever he wants to do.
Doing a Pitbull hook is kind of hard I find because you have to be worldly but also be specific, and it has to be upbeat and party but also a little bit personal. It has to hit all the points, so I found it really difficult but I managed to write a couple of good ones, I think.
Songfacts: You must have to get into the mindset of the artist and also for the project, because they may be taking the album in a specific direction. How do you accomplish that?
Rigo: A lot of the success that I've had with actually placing songs on artists comes when I'll write a song with the intention of writing a great song. Nine times out of ten if you have a great song, somebody wants it.
Most times I'm not really thinking about what the brief is, I'm just going off the top thinking, This is a great concept for a song, I'm going to write this song and hopefully this finds a home.
That's usually how I find the best success, when I just sit and not worry about the specs of how to write this song perfect for artist A. I just go in and write a great song.
There's always a shortage of great songs out there, so even if it takes a year for that great song to come out, there's going to be a place for it. My most recent placement was a Chris Brown song called "Back to Sleep." I had that song for a year and a half, and I sent it out to everybody. So it's all about timing.
But then there are those times when the project is very specific, and depending on what the mode is, I try to do a plethora of things to get myself in the zone for writing for that specific artist. I'll watch movies that pertain to the theme, or read a book. I also have this book of song titles that I can run through to snap some inspiration from something from the past. There's a whole bunch of ways that you can do it, but those are mine.
Songfacts: When you walk into the studio, August, what kind of equipment are you putting your hands on?
Rigo: Depends. If I'm going in to do a full, 100 percent song, like production and vocals, the most important piece of the puzzle is my computer, because it's kind of like the brain, it records everything. Now with technology, that's your main instrument because that's where everything gets recorded to and saved to.
Aside from that, it's usually some kind of a condenser microphone to record, and then on the production side of things, I'm in this big analog phase right now so I'm always reaching for a Moog Voyager or a Juno or a Jupiter for sounds, just working with that kind of analog vibe right now.
I play a lot of live instruments on the stuff. Aside from the live keyboards, I play guitar here and there and a live bass. Bare bones. If I'm going in with somebody's beat or instrumental and writing a song, I just go in with my computer and a microphone. If I'm just doing a demo, I'm not too concerned about what type of a mic I have, and if I'm doing my own stuff and writing my own songs for my own project, then I get a little more specific with the type of mic I want to use. So, those are my basic tools.
Songfacts: What program are you running on your computer?
Rigo: Right now I am running Logic X. I dabble with Ableton a little bit and then depending on the session it could be in Pro Tools as well. But on my own stuff, I'm always in Logic.
Rigo: I work a lot with Boi-1da; he's an amazing producer from Toronto, did a lot of Drake's stuff and he's had awesome success in his career. He sends me a group of beats every few months like, "Hey, this is what I'm working on, check it out, see if you can write anything on it."
In October 2014 he sent me the beat, so I just sat there in front of the computer and came up with this "Back to Sleep" song. I was just hanging out at the studio, and I caught that kind of old-school soul vibe off of it, so I worked off of that. I was doing a little bit of freestyle, which is why I came up with the "fuck you back to sleep" part, because I don't usually curse in songs.
I guess it took me a couple of hours. I wrote this song and I was super excited about it. The first thing I did was send it to my cousin. I was like, "Hey man, check this song out. Tell me if I'm buggin'. I think it's really dope." And he was like, "Oh, yeah, I think it's cool." So that's when I started sending it out to different A&Rs and publishers. An artist called Adrian Marcel cut the song, but they didn't think it was strong enough so they passed on it. And then a year later, Chris Brown came along. I sent it through his A&R, Mark Pitts, and he was just like, "Oh, I love this song, I'm going to play it for Chris." The turnaround from that point was about a month and then it was out.
The key to it is timing. You never know what type of a mood somebody's in when you send them a song and you never know where they are at the present time. So, if they're in the right place when you play them the song, usually you're winning. But if they're not, you can catch somebody on a bad mood and they'll be like, "That song sucks."
Songfacts: Yeah, you certainly have to be receptive to a song like "Back to Sleep."
Rigo: When I wrote it, after listening to it a bunch of times, in my brain I was just like, "There's only one guy that can really pull something like this off. It should be a Chris Brown song." So, it definitely went to the place that I wanted it to go.
Songfacts: Were you a little concerned about the Marvin Gaye similarity considering his family's success with lawsuits?
Rigo: No, not really, because I knew that it wasn't a sample. I knew it just had the same vibe. "Blurred Lines" is very similar.
It wasn't the same. It just had the same vibe and energy, and if we can't do that, then what are we doing? Everything's been created already.
So, I wasn't really worried about it because I knew it wasn't a sample. To be honest, it never even crossed my mind when I was writing the song, like, "Oh man, this is Marvin Gaye." It didn't even cross my mind at all.
Songfacts: You wrote a lot of stuff with Justin Bieber early on in his career, including one of his big hits, which was "U Smile." Can you talk about that song and writing with Justin Bieber?
It was really exciting. He was 15 at the time and I got to see him sit there and record. I was extremely impressed. To be that young and that engulfed in the industry and still be able to get in there and pull that off, it was just impressive. When I was 15 I couldn't do that. I didn't have the focus. And he just seemed about that life, you know. At the time, he had MTV following him and it was very interesting to see how he was living.
Writing that song was great. That one was one of the fastest songs I've ever written in my life. I think it took me about an hour to write because the vibe around it was so good. I wrote it with a producer, Jerry Wonda, and the vibe around it was so good that it just kind of came out.
Songfacts: Did you write it specifically for Justin Bieber?
Rigo: No, actually. At the time I was also in the process of executive producing Musiq Soulchild's album, so I actually did that on a Musiq Soulchild session. Usually when that happens you're kind of stuck because it's probably not good for Musiq Soulchild but they know it's a big song. The label's going to want to hold it, but Musiq is with Atlantic and Bieber is with Def Jam.
There's going to be a little bit of an issue because labels are competitive and they don't want to give up market share by giving a big song to another label, so they'll find another artist on the label or sign somebody new to give this song to. And it was like, "Oh, man, there's this kid, Justin Bieber," who I wasn't really familiar with at the time. They were like, "We should give it to him." There was kind of a bidding war for the song, but eventually it got to the right place.
Songfacts: And then did that lead to your other songs with Justin Bieber, like "Stuck in the Moment"?
Rigo: Well, let's see. I did "U Smile" and that was the first song I wrote that everybody was like, "Hey, you could write some Justin Bieber stuff." And I was like, "Who the hell is Justin Bieber?" He wasn't that huge yet. I think I'd seen that "One Time" video a couple of times so I was vaguely familiar, but he wasn't as huge as he is now.
So, I had a meeting with L.A. Reid. I played him that song, and he was like, "Who's singing?" And I said, "It's me." So, he was like, "Wow, I need this for the kid."
And then, this is the weird twist to the situation: during that same meeting he said, "Tell me where your album is." I was like, "What do you mean?" And he looks over his desk and he goes, "Well, judging by the way you're dressed, you're an artist. Play me your best song."
So I played him a song. He stopped the song in the middle and he said, "Give me one second," and he called his entire staff into his office. I was like, "What the hell are all these people doing here?" And he goes, "Tell you what, pretend this is Madison Square Garden and perform for them. Let's see what you've got." So, I ended up doing a showcase that day and he actually ended up signing me the week after.
But, during that meeting he asked me to go to L.A. and write more songs for Bieber. So I ended up going to Miami first and I wrote "Kiss and Tell" with The Runners, and then I wrote "Stuck in the Moment" with The Stereotypes out here in L.A. It was Grammy week, and I came back to New York to meet L.A., and he was like, "These songs are amazing. We'll take these."
And there was actually supposed to be one more song that I think would have been the most perfect song for Justin, that didn't make the cut at the time because they couldn't clear it because the song already had another artist attached to it. Def Jam was trying again to negotiate for the song and it didn't end up reaching the cut-off, but it was a song I did with Stargate called "Solid Ground," and it would have been the most perfect Justin Bieber song ever.
Songfacts: Now, a lot of these songs, August, are dealing with themes of relationships and the twists and turns of love. Can you tell me about coming up with the ideas for these and how you progress that?
Rigo: Yeah. First off, I love R&B music. I grew up on mainstream pop because my parents listened to that, but that's a little older mainstream pop like Chicago and Journey – kind of old-school rock, I guess – and a little bit of reggae and R&B music, like Jodeci, Boyz II Men. A lot of those themes are really love based, so that's where I'm really comfortable writing.
When I'm singing about relationships, I like to emote on the song. So, when I'm writing about a romantic situation, it also triggers an emotional type of singing from me, which I really like. So, that's why I lean more to those types of songs.
And when I'm trying to come up with themes, a lot of times I'm either drawing from a personal experience or embellishing. You know, we've all had relationships that haven't worked out, and some of them are grander than others. Some are super mistakes and some are just little mistakes. But, in the parameters of a song you can always take those ordinary situations and flip it a little to make them slightly extraordinary so that when you write about it there's drama. I do that with a lot of my personal experiences.
And then I watch a lot of movies. I'm always reading something, so sometimes you'll watch a movie and the protagonist will say something really mind-blowing and you'll be like, "Oh, that's a crazy concept for a song," and you go from there. Sometimes I hear a cool word and it rings into the melody really well, so I'm basing the whole song off of that part because I think that part is brilliant. Sometimes I'll just make up some words and sing them to see if it sounds good. The majority of the time that doesn't work for me, but once in a while I'll just shoot a freestyle in the air and be like, "Oh, that's dope."
Songfacts: When you're talking about creating drama in a song, I think of "Gotta Be You," which you wrote for One Direction. Now there is a song with a very generic title, but you create some drama. I mean, come on man: "The foolish one that you anointed with your heart." Great stuff.
We can write the very complicated song and then we can write the uber-cheesy song, and going to those extremes is so easy because there's no boundary there - you can just keep pushing, like, "Let's get to the most complicated thing or let's get to the most cheesy thing." You keep pushing and there's no limitation, so there's no box of creativity, so to speak. But, for a song like "Gotta Be You," it's a really generic title. Couldn't be more generic, but within that song there are the complexities and enough things that are human to balance that out. So, if you listen to it structurally, the verses are flowery and very descriptive, and they give you a lot of detail [singing]:
I see it in your eyes you're disappointed
'Cause I'm the foolish one that you anointed
I tore it apart
And what a mess I made upon your innocence
It's pretty deep, especially for a boy band to be singing, right?
Rigo: But when you reach the chorus it doesn't bombard you with more depths. It just hits you with the "worldly" line, and I think that's a sign of a good song: If you have the balance of something a little bit complex, a little bit highbrow, mixed in with something that's human and very general, you can grab the attention of the listener, because sometimes the other stuff goes over people's heads. Like the verses on first listen usually they go over people's heads. They really listen for [sings]:
It's gotta be you
I find that's the hardest part: to figure out where the right balance is, because you can always go too far one way or go too far the other way.
Songfacts: You've also written for female artists from time to time, and I'm kind of intrigued by what you did with Kat Dahlia on "Crazy," which sounds like a very personal song for her.
Rigo: Yes, and that song I can't take any credit for writing because I just produced on that song. I played the guitars and the pianos and we did the beat in my studio. I think another awesome writer, her name is Kirby, she actually wrote that song either with Kat Dahlia or for Kat Dahlia - I'm not actually sure how that went down.
But, yeah, that's something I actually produced as opposed to topline. But I do a lot of female songs, and actually the first artist that we have on the label [Summerchild Records] is Ginette Claudette, and 90 percent of her stuff we do together.
When it comes to females I just flip my perspective. As a man, I'm not good at writing the female empowerment song because I can't empathize with that, I can't get into that shoe. But I know when I treat a girl bad, and I know when I treat a girl good, so if I can just reverse that perspective usually that has a good effect because I also have the male perspective of it, so it's a little deeper. If I try to look at it through a female's eyes, it gives me a cool story to tell.
Rigo: Well, I'm really big on the actual creation of the songs. This song I ended up writing by myself - lyrics and melody - but I produced it together with my childhood friends from my old band, which is this guy Ricky Tillo, who is now Lady GaGa's guitarist, and another guy who's a pretty big producer in Hong Kong now - his name is Fergus Chow. I love the song because we did it together.
But content-wise, I just felt like it's an anti-pop song. It gives a slight shade towards social media in the way girls are portrayed or feel like they have to portray themselves. And I just wanted to give the world something from a different perspective, because there's so much of that stuff going on. With social media so big, I find that girls tend to sell themselves short, and I wanted to write a song for them to say, "You're cool just the way you are."
Bruno Mars wrote a song called "Just The Way You Are," which is a fantastic song and I love that. So, I think this song goes along in the same line as that, where it's been written a bunch of times but just said in another way. And I think it's just a good message to have all around. That's why I chose that.
I feel like it's slightly different than what's going on on the radio right now: it's R&B but it's still pop, has a bit of a reggae vibe. And I think that song is very me in terms of sonics and in style, and I just felt like it was cool and it was different and I wasn't chasing a trend - I was just doing what I do. Those are all the factors that came into play when I was deciding that it was a great song for me.
Songfacts: August, you've been doing this for a good decade or so and you've managed to keep with the trends to be the guy that gets the phone call and keeps going at it. That seems extraordinarily difficult because it changes so rapidly. Can you talk about how you keep up with whatever is current and manage to stay relevant as a songmaker?
Rigo: When I first came in, my placements with Iyaz ["Solo"] and Justin Bieber were kind of pop/R&B. They were right in my bread basket, so it was super easy to get comfortable and just get into the groove. Then this big EDM influx comes in, and I've grown to really appreciate it and actually really like the music, but when something like that happens and it's all over the place and it's not your vibe, you can't just walk into a session and do it.
OK, let's be honest: sometimes it works. Sometimes you sing something and the juxtaposition of two different things put together is magic. But most of the times it just doesn't sound right, and that's what was happening with me, I found. I was writing these kind of R&B/pop hooks over these beats, and I was over-writing them because it wasn't called for. Sometimes the song really calls for three words, and I couldn't wrap my head around it because I didn't know the music - I didn't know what they needed.
So, for me, trying to stay current, I try to keep up with what's happening on radio and then to err on the side of classy, because a classic song never dies. You can listen to The Beatles forever, you can listen to Fleetwood Mac forever, you can listen to Michael Jackson forever, and I feel like you can listen to Jodeci forever because it just doesn't get old. There's a certain quality in the music that they've created that transcends time, and even if it may sound a little older because of the technology, nobody gives a shit because it's a great song.
The bottom line is, some of the best songs I've written I wrote in my first run because there was so much excitement in the air for me and there was so much positive energy that I was so inspired, and I was able to harness these ideas and make them come to fruition because I was confident - I was taking chances. And those great songs, even though some of them are five or six years old right now, I know I can still listen to them, even though the production gets old. The production always gets old because technology keeps moving.
The sonics are always changing, but the songs... you can take an Elvis song and you can update it, but you don't really care to update a beat because, eh, it's a beat, let's just make something new.
So that's what I do: I try to write some classic shiz so that it doesn't get old. I'm always trying to listen to the new good music and I'm always trying to be involved in something that's talent driven. When something's extremely hot I'll jump on and take a listen. I don't really make a conscious effort to be current, but as a by-product of listening to music I stay in the loop.
Songfacts: Yeah, I get what you mean. You "err on the side of classic," but it's also clear that you've got to pay attention to what's going on now.
Rigo: Yeah, you can hear it in the songwriters who aren't clued-in. Like if you're too old and you just couldn't care less about it, some of the stuff you'll say is a little off. Sometimes it's the way you set up that phrase or the way you set up that word that can rebirth it. Let's take the word "groovy," for example - a very '60s, '70s term. You set that up the right way and it could work. If Chance the Rapper was to say something is "groovy" he might be able to pull it off and everybody would be like, "That shiz is groovy, dawg." I mean, if "wavy" is cool, you know?
Err on the side of classic, but still maintain a good hold of what's current. Write good songs.
January 28, 2016
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