Songwriter Interviews

Crystal Waters

by Carl Wiser

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Waters tells the "Gypsy Woman" story, shares some of her songwriting insights, and explains how Dennis Rodman ended up on one of her songs.



La da dee, la da da
La da dee, la da da


That's the chorus of "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)," the first hit for Crystal Waters, who was able to quit her government job issuing arrest warrants when it took off. A chorus without any, you know, actual words, was not the way of doing things in 1991, especially since it made the song hard to title, but it turned out she was on to something. In 2002, Kylie Minogue had a hit with "Can't Get You Out Of My Head." The chorus:

La la la La la la la la
La la la La la la la la


These days, these vocal hooks are everywhere in pop music, but chopped, pitched and synthesized until they're barely recognizable as human. Check out "Lean On" by Major Lazer or "Run the World (Girls)" by Beyoncé for examples. Humanity is exactly what Waters brings to dance music, giving it a story and a warmth along with the hook. Armed with keen musical instincts (her great aunt is the '20s and '30s singing star Ethel Waters), she has always co-written her own material, putting her lyrics and vocal melodies to the beats. On her latest hit, "Testify" (#1 on the Dance chart in October 2017), she teamed up with Hifi Sean (Sean Dickson of Soup Dragons) to give it a rich gospel feel.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): "Testify" is such a wonderful song, and it's very spiritual. I would like to know how you went about writing it.

Crystal Waters: Well, I get a lot of tracks from DJs and they were sending me a lot of those EDM tracks. And when I got this one, it was such a departure from the rise-and-fall tracks. It really had that soulful thing and it gave me an opportunity to put some attitude on it, if you will. So, I just remember writing the first line: "Tell me what you mean by...?" Like, "Who you talking to?"

I really liked the good-and-evil battle with the song. I envisioned seeing a prostitute and a preacher meeting at a bar and went from there.

Songfacts: You were a songwriter early on.

Waters: Well, yeah. I used to do a lot of poetry and when I got a background singing job I really loved it. It was a "this is what I want to do" moment, and I was like, "How am I going to do this?" I said, "Well, girl, you can write."

I knew I could write poems, so I just took them and put them to the music, and I found someone - a keyboardist [Neal Conway] - and we just started writing together.

Songfacts: Who were you singing backup for?

Waters: I lived in Washington, D.C. It was an African artist, Freddy Cole. My friend at work said his cousin had a studio and they were looking for background singers. He said, "I'll go if you go." I was like, "Let's do it," and we both got the job. I made $600 in two days, which was a lot of money back then. I was like:,"Oh, wow, this is cool."

Songfacts: There is a very musical element to your songwriting. One thing that really stands out is the vocal hooks you were writing early on, which you hear in some variation all the time in pop hits today.

Waters: Thank you. Yeah, I've been told I write really hooky hooks. I guess because I come from a musical family - my father was a musician. I listened to a lot of radio when I was little and I think I figured out the format very early on. When I do conferences and stuff about songwriting, I'm amazed at how many people don't know that there is a format every song should have. It's very simple, and once you learn that, you know how to make a song work.

I guess that's what I'm looking for. When I wrote "Gypsy" all I had was "La da dee la da da" and I realized there were no words that small to go with that, so I left it alone. For me that worked.

Songfacts: Was the woman who you wrote that song about an actual busker?

Waters: She was an actual person, if that's what you're asking. I was in Washington, D.C. and she used to stand in front of the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue. She was dressed all in black and a full face of makeup, singing gospel songs, and I used to walk by her like once a week. I'd be like, "There's nothing wrong with her, she needs to go get a job." I had a really bad attitude about her. And then the local city paper did an article on her and she said she had just lost her job in retail and she feels like if she was going to ask someone for money she could at least be presentable and look presentable.

The story changed my whole attitude about homelessness, how it could have been anybody. Last week she had a job, this week she didn't. She was just like you and me - like what I said in the song. So, that whole incident really changed my attitude about homelessness and that's what I wrote the song about.

Songfacts: Do you remember her name?

Waters: No, I do not. I know she ended up doing well. People started helping her and I think she moved to Florida, last I heard, many years ago.

Songfacts: In "Gypsy Woman" she's singing "la da da," but in real life she was singing gospel songs?

Waters: Yeah.

Songfacts: Did you think about adding actual words for the "la da dee" part?

Waters: Yeah. I usually write the melody first. If the melody's good then you're good. Then I go back, and sometimes words will come with the melody, but then I usually go back and fill in the words. But with that song I had the "La da dee la da da" and I kept trying to find some words that would fit it, but they're just short syllables and nothing was working. That's when I said, "Okay, somebody's singing this melody, 'La da dee la da da.'" And then I said, "Well, who could be singing it?" and that's when I thought of the woman standing in front of the hotel.

Songfacts: Why is the song titled "Gypsy Woman"?

Waters: Well, in the original version I'm actually singing: "She's a gypsy woman..." But by the time it got produced and edited they took it out. By the time they pressed it all up and put it out everybody realized that "gypsy woman" was no longer in the song, but they just kind of left it.

People were just dancing and not hearing the message of the song, so on the next pressing it said, "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)."

Songfacts: You definitely didn't hear many dance songs with this kind of message, and the video took an interesting approach because we never see the woman's face. Did you have anything to do with the video?

Waters: No. Mark Pellington did that video - he's a really big movie director now. When I look at it now, I just remember being nervous. They asked me what kind of clothes I wanted to wear and what was my style, but I was brand new to the label [Mercury] and they were trying to figure out how to market me. I'm not the type of person who likes to show a lot of skin, so back then I used to love to wear suits and jackets and jeans. That's why I'm in a suit.

Songfacts: That created a very distinctive look for you. That and the white background.

Waters: Yeah. My sister saw that and said, "That's the way she dresses anyway." Back then I always used to have on a jacket and some jeans. At first, they wanted to put me in glittery long gowns and I was like, "No. No disco diva here."

"Gypsy Woman" has been sampled on about 40 different songs, including two that charted on the Hot 100: "Why You Wanna" by T.I. (#29, 2006) and "Walking" by Mary Mary (#94, 2010).
Songfacts: That song does not contain any samples, does it?

Waters: No, it's all original.

Songfacts: But many songs have sampled it. That has to feel good to create an original work and have it, a generation later, be all over the place.

Waters: Yeah. Every year it's a nice check. I think this year Trey Songz used it in a sample on his new album.

Songfacts: In Living Color did a parody of it. What did you think of that when you saw it?

Waters: I don't like it. Nobody likes to be made fun of. Do you?

Songfacts: I don't. In some ways, it's an honor, but I totally understand why you wouldn't want that to happen.

Waters: Yeah. Marlon Wayans sent a message to my daughter and said something about how it's the highest form of flattery and all that stuff, but now when people think of it, they only think of that.

Songfacts: Yeah, I totally understand that. The way they portrayed it was that anybody could write a song like that, but if anybody could, they would have. Which leads me to the songwriting format you were talking about earlier. What is the songwriting format?

Waters: Well, there's a basic radio format which is verse, hook, verse, double hook, bridge, hook. Did that make any sense?

Songfacts: A little bit.

Waters: Eight bars of a verse. It can vary - it can be 16 bars. For the ear, you always need the third place to go for the bridge. I'm down here recording in Miami now because I have a really nice mix on a song but it needs a bridge and I'm just going to go in and put one in, even if it's two lines or something. It makes the song whole and brings the listener back to the hook. So, I think it's very important.

Songfacts: In "100% Pure Love" the first line establishes the time, but we don't know where we are, necessarily. Can you talk about the lyrics to that song?

Waters: Yeah. I still believe that in the first two lines of a song a person should know what's going on - where they are and what they're doing. Like with "Gypsy," she wakes up early every morning. It's kind of that. Puts a face or a visualization to it. "It's twelve past midnight, don't close your eyes, your soul's half alive."

At first, I had another hook for it but The Basement Boys [her producers] hated it and they told me to go home and try again. It was called "The Beat Goes Boom," and it was written at the time when rap was coming in and a lot of "bitches and hoes" were thrown around in the songs. I just wanted to do something counter-culture to that. You get what you put out there, so I wanted to do something more positive. That's where that came from. Plus, I was in love at the time.

Songfacts: An interesting song of yours which is a different style is "Ghetto Day." Can you talk about that song?

Waters: "Ghetto Day," that was on the second album. I got the track, which initially reminded me of my childhood growing up. Like a warm, comfortable home feeling. So, I just kind of scratched it out with things I remembered from my childhood.

Waters supplied vocals to a 2003 track called "Destination Unknown" by the Italian DJ Alex Gaudino. In 2007, Gaudino mashed it up with a saxy dance track called "Calabria" by the Danish DJ Rune, creating "Destination Calabria," a huge hit across Europe.
Songfacts: How did you end up on "Destination Calabria"?

Waters: He contacted my management and they thought it was a cute song. I sang it one way, and then I had to go back and sing it very monotone, and that was the one that worked.

Songfacts: So, you recorded original vocals for the hit version of that song?

Waters: Someone else recorded the vocals and then they wanted me to imitate her. When I first sang it, I kind of sang it with a little more melody in it and they were like: "No, just keep it flat."

Songfacts: How did you end up with Dennis Rodman singing – or actually speaking - on "Just A Freak"?

Waters: Oh, that was my A&R's great idea. I remember that day. He came in and I was like, [incredulously] Okaaaay. He came in with an entourage of people - he didn't even know why he was there. It took almost all day to get him to do four lines. Oh my god, it was like, What are we doing here? It was just a marketing plea from the label.

Songfacts: What are some of the songs we haven't talked about that have a special meaning for you?

Waters: There's a couple. "Storyteller." I just love that song. I love the lyrics on that.

Songfacts: What is that one about, Crystal?

Waters: I kind of see stuff in my head when I'm writing. I love movies like The Princess Bride and all those fantasy type of movies, and I just envisioned a man with a long beard - a big wizard - writing the book of life and you're under his hand. He decides that this relationship is going to end. I used a lot of the nursery rhyme stuff entwined in there to make it work.

With "Testify," I really love the lyrics and the "make me a believer... testify your love" part. That song is very special to me because it's so different. I didn't think it was going be a hit the way it is now. So, you never know. The ones that I think will be big, massive hits don't do anything, but the ones that I think will do just a little bit sometimes become huge. Even with "Destination Calabria," I had no idea that was going to be as massive as it was.

Songfacts: Yeah. Once you did your vocals on that it was out of your control. You didn't even know if it was going to be released.

Waters: And then it's like three years later, it comes out and I get a phone call: "You have a hit." And I say: "What? Okay."

And even with "Testify" it was pitched three years ago and, all of a sudden, I'm doing a video. Then Defected picks it up and it's doing very well on the radio in the UK. The beat goes on.

Songfacts: Your career has had all these different peaks, with "Gypsy Woman," "100% Pure Love," "Destination Calabria" and now "Testify."

Waters: I had another one overseas. it was called "My Time" that did very well.

Songfacts: Did you write that one?

Waters: Yeah, that was with Scumfrog. When I go overseas, I have to do that song as well.

Songfacts: What did you write the lyrics about on that one?

Waters: I had a little break from the label. That was when I was off of Mercury. I had a couple of years off and decided, alright, I'm still going to do this. It was about coming back... back into the game.

Songfacts: What is a typical day like for you?

Waters: I get up, I go to either the gym or SoulCycle or sometimes both. Then I start work. I just launched a skincare line called Boyface. I had a soft launch in August and we got nominated Best in Show for Men's Grooming. It's a men's skincare line. I started with the men first because I have a large male fanbase. So, I usually work on that for the first half of the afternoon and then I go upstairs to my studio - I took one of my closets in my bedroom and made it into a studio - and I work on stuff. That usually leads me up to bedtime.

I usually travel every weekend. I just did Argentina and then I left for Estonia. That was two weeks on the road straight, so it was really hard getting anything done. It took me a couple of days to catch up on all the emails and all the contracts, because I'm self-managed so I do all my flights, I do all the bookings, contracts and things like that.

Songfacts: Do you end up lending your vocals to a lot of projects?

Waters: I write what they call toplines. I do a lot of writing like that, especially in Europe, and then I've been working on an album. But usually when I work with these guys they'll go play it for a label and the next thing I know, the song is signed. I have two songs coming out on Armada in the next couple of months. I just keep writing because I feel like it's numbers. If I just keep writing, something's going to be good.

Songfacts: Besides movies, like you were talking about with "Storyteller," is there another source of inspiration you draw from?

Waters: I really get it from the track - the mood of the track. A lot of DJs will send me a track and want me to make something out of nothing, which you really can't do, but if the track has a song or a tone to it, you can automatically hear it and it kind of captivates me and draws me in. I really get it from the music.

Songfacts: So when you listen to a track, you know if it's telling some kind of story that you can write about?

Waters: Yeah. You can tell if there's a melody and if it's structured correctly. Sometimes I spend days editing these tracks to put them in a song format. Some of these DJs will give you uneven bars and eight-minute tracks that don't have a change in it, or maybe one change. So, if I can hear a little bit of something, even if it's only in the 16 bars, and if I can get a verse and a hook I can usually make something out of it. But it has to have a feeling to the track.

Songfacts: I would like to get your thoughts on '90s dance music versus the dance music of today.

Waters: The '90s are really hot right now!

Songfacts: They are.

Waters: There's a couple of differences. First of all, in the '90s, they told us dance music was bullshit and it was going to be a passing fad. They used to ask me, "When are you going to do real music? Why are you doing this bullshit music?" And now, it seems that it's thriving even more. I'm really proud of sticking to my guns and sticking to dance music and how far it's come. It went a little cheesy there for a minute, then it came back. The EDM stuff is cool. The difference is that they took out the bass line and it doesn't have the warmth that the '90s had. And I believe a lot of it is because, just because you're a DJ, it doesn't make you a producer. Some people don't know how to play any instruments, so it's all coming from a laptop.

So, that's why I think a lot of it is mixing. Vocals disappeared for a while, and it's because they don't know how to mix one vocal into another vocal. That's why they disappeared - it's not that the music was that good.

So, now it's all coming back. A little more warmth. The digital revolution has taken a lot of that warmth out. I know - I was on the Grammy board.

There's a big fight over trying to get the megahertz up so it's a higher quality, because MP3s are really a bullshit sound. They want to have more of a quality sound, more of that warmth that the vinyl used to have or the reel-to-reel recorders used to have. For a while there, I had a little hate vibe, but now I think dance music is as strong as ever.

Songfacts: That is your sweet spot, adding that warmth, that human element, to a song.

Waters: Yeah, I like to tell stories. I like double entendres and things like that. I think I'm a little different in that. I'm not so much of a "raise your hand" or repetitive type of songwriter who uses one or two words.

November 7, 2017
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