Sean Garrett Shares Advice From Michael Jackson; Lessons Learned From Usher's "Yeah"
Exclusive: In addition to his work with Usher and Beyonce, Sean "The Pen" Garrett breaks down how Michael Jackson inspired him as both a songwriter and a producer.
The discography of Sean Garrett, aka “The Pen,” is bursting at the seams with the names of your favorite A-listers. His ability to write some of the most recognized songs of the last eight years has earned him his stripes as one of the most innovative go-to guys in the industry. Raised by his parents with wholesome values and morals, Sean learned about success from an early age. A seasoned athlete during his youth, his competitive spirit was enhanced and transferred into the recording studio when opportunity came knocking.
Mentored by a slew of industry dignitaries such as L.A. Reid and Jimmy Iovine, this Atlanta native was enamored by a challenge—and challenged he was. His second hit was the groundbreaking “Yeah” from Usher, which saw his net worth skyrocket, and his cell phone has never stopped since. His experimentation with Usher saw him go on and work with Ciara, Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Fergie, Nicki Minaj and then some. It’s a list that quite simply proves greatness attracts greatness.
Now, as he reverts back to working with the up and coming as opposed to the named we have grown accustomed to seeing him work with, he is like a kid in a candy store. The Pen’s enthusiasm for what he does borders on obsessive-compulsive at times. But when you are aiming for legendary status, which he is, that is hardly surprising.
Sean Garrett Explains How His Upbringing Influenced His Musical Career
HipHopDX: Success came to you quite fast, as what you have achieved in about seven years often takes others decades to achieve. What do you think that comes down to?
Sean Garrett: I think it’s a number of things. What you are as a child winds up having a lot to do with who you are as an adult. I had a very good upbringing; my parents were very influential in my life. They were very strong and stern, but they also gave me a lot of freedom to be who I wanted to be. I participated in a lot of sports. I had a very good relationship with my mom and dad, but mostly my mother. She always kept it all the way gangster with me about what life was really about. Being a military brat and travelling the world, I lived abroad and moved to Europe when I was five years old. That gave me a start. I signed my first record deal when I was 15 years old, so I had a good start.
DX: So was writing always in the cards for you from a young age? Or was it music in general?
Sean Garrett: I would say music in general. Me signing at 15, writing and producing was just a part of what I did to be an artist. I didn’t take writing or producing that serious—as if that was what my calling was. It was mostly me being an artist and loving what I was doing. I was influenced by so many artists, from Michael Jackson, Teddy Riley, Diddy to Jay-Z and Boyz II Men. I was influenced by a huge amount of talent, so I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.
DX: You went on to work with a lot of those artists you have mentioned, which has to be a double bonus. When it comes to the songwriting element of your persona, who inspired you there?
Sean Garrett: I was a big fan of Lionel Richie, Babyface, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Quincy Jones—he was a big influence. A lot of the records from the Thriller album were like the blueprint of what I wanted to create musically from a perfection perspective: from the lyrics, to the sound, to the quality. So I followed a lot of the greats. For the production, I was a big advocate of L.A. Reid and Babyface’s albums, such as the Toni Braxton album. I just loved the way it sounded. I loved the way Teddy Riley’s albums would sound. I just studied music, the lyrics, how the emotions affected people, all the way to Usher with “You Make Me Wanna.” Jermaine Dupri was a really dope producer. I loved the Beatles, and I always paid attention to how emotion was integrated and how it would alter a track. There was always music being played at home by my mother, since she was a big fan of popular music.
With me growing up in Europe, listening to one American station and then every other station being European, I had a wide range of Pop music that I listened to. I didn’t really get an opportunity to focus so much on the Hip-Hop and urban music scene. But my mother would play [artists] like Patti Labelle and Marvin Gaye in the house. Michael Jackson was probably her favorite artist, and she pushed that into my bloodstream. That’s a very high bar, and she taught me how I should pay attention to techniques. So that was how I formulated my own technique, because I hated being like anyone else. Fortunately, the way she raised me, I was very original minded. I wanted to do things my way, and I’m very blessed to have had the opportunity to be creative.
The Impact Of Usher's Confessions Album On Sean Garrett's Success
DX: You were very creative on Usher’s Confessions album. What an introduction.
Sean Garrett: Yes, exactly. L.A. Reid gave me an opportunity to be creative; I had just done my publishing deal with him. He called me and asked what I was doing for the album, as it was coming to the last minute. I was thinking to myself, “I don’t know what I am going to do,” as they already knew how this sounded and the direction it was going. I had to be creative. It was a very fun time and a great creative place.
DX: Being that you had heard the bulk of the album and knew the direction and then came with something totally off the wall, that had to ruffle a few feathers?
Sean Garrett: [Laughs] It definitely did that. There were quite a few feathers ruffled, and I sort of was the black sheep. People didn’t want to give me the credit, and they hated the record at the beginning…totally against it. But I had this way of making things happen, and it happened in such a global way that it had people in disbelief. The record was number one in the country before the video was even shot.
DX: Beyond the fact that you knew you had to come with something extremely hot for that album, was there another driving force behind the song, as you hadn’t really had that much exposure then really had you?
Sean Garrett: There was so much that I had to prove, and I am a very competitive person. I am an athlete at heart, and competition is in my blood, so I had to make my presence felt. I had to establish myself. I had just lost my mother, and I was going through a very difficult time emotionally. I was determined to not just be an average Joe in this music industry. My passion for it, the love, the drive was just there. I also wanted to impress L.A. Reid, because he was and still is one of my biggest mentors and someone who I looked up to and continue to look up to as one of the godfathers of pop culture. There was a lot of stress, but at the same time I was up for the challenge and wanted to prove myself. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and it made no sense mixing Crunk, R&B and Pop. But, at the end of the day, my philosophy is always about the fans and what they need. I was just really blessed for Usher to deliver the record with Ludacris and Lil Jon; we took it to another place.
DX: This track must be a favorite when you look back?
Sean Garrett: Yeah, I mean to be very honest with you, I’m going through something right now where I am working with 10 new artists and I am very focused on presenting their projects. I am excited like it is 2004 again, and I see the holes in the game. I see the spaces and crevices I can get in, and I’m ready to turn this thing out again. It’s fun and delightful.
Sean Garrett Recalls His Work With Beyonce, Fergie And Chris Brown
DX: So your key to relevancy is reinventing yourself time and time again through new acts?
Sean Garrett: For me, look at my discography; from Pussycat Dolls to Fergie, I’ve had a great time—like working with Fergie on her first solo album. Seeing that album go to number one around the world and nine weeks in America, and going on to sell 15 million worldwide. That’s a humongous opportunity. And, at the same time, it’s a big challenge. I was blessed to be a part of it and deliver. Then you look at Enrique [Iglesias], 14 weeks on the Latin charts which was huge for me, as I always hated the idea of being penned as an urban songwriter. Then working with the greats of Destiny’s Child, having nine songs on Destiny Fulfilled, six on B’Day and having huge number ones with those…breaking Chris Brown. It’s a magnificent opportunity to work with so many different artists. A lot of them were very new, Ciara was new, and Chris Brown with “Run It.” And it’s that time again.
Pop music is back in the building. I’m working with my own artists, and things are exciting. These are the moments that people don’t understand when something comes out and it is a huge hit. But the thing is no one knows, these artists and I know 2013 is going to be a huge year—and I’m really excited and having fun. I’m cool without necessarily working on the projects of more established artists; I’m just excited to be working with new artists.
DX: Do you feel a sense of responsibility for the next generation of artists when the industry is so saturated?
Sean Garrett: I just feel blessed that so many young artists respect what I do, and I appreciate that they are willing to work with me. I feel privileged to be so young and coherent and at the top of my game in knowing what I was doing. I mean, before I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t really know [laughs]. I just had a meeting with [Warner President of A&R] Mike Caren, and he didn’t realize I had that much success that early. People didn’t know my second release was “Yeah” and my third was “Goodies.” There’s a lot of protocol with the way they want you to act in the industry, and the industry tries to mold you. But when you are successful, you are privy to so many different things and go through so much. I took a big stance for songwriters, and I was determined to make sure we were respected in the industry. I was determined not to be a slave to the industry, and I was very fortunate that I was able to create a blueprint and a standard of getting deals that work for everybody as opposed to just one side.
DX: Is the professionalism that you started out with as a rookie in the industry still present?
Sean Garrett: To be honest, I see it in some artists. Some of these young artists know what they want and have a keen idea of how they want to achieve it. The new artists know how to create a viral presence, their social media game is up to par and the music is getting a lot better. They understand who they are and are very clear on it. I like for an artist to be knowledgeable about the business and knowledgeable of not only music, but also how to market themselves. When I get with an artist and they know how to do all this, it’s great.
DX: You aren’t babysitting then?
Sean Garrett: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t necessarily have to babysit. We’re working together and just getting on with things.
DX: Your patience of nurturing talent and working with such a wide scope of talent, is that attributed to how you grew up as well, as you give your folks a lot of props for how you were raised?
Sean Garrett: A lot or people don’t give credit to their parents. My upbringing and the people I was around when I came into the industry—L.A. Reid, Jimmy Iovine—these people really helped sculpt my respect for business. You have to be very smart and on top of your business to be ahead of your game. You have to learn respect early, as the earlier you learn it the more you can apply it to your everyday movement.
DX: Ten years ago, people didn't really know who producers/songwriters were. They may have been familiar with their names but not them personally. Did this encourage you?
How Michael Jackson's Advice Inspired Sean Garrett As A Songwriter
Sean Garrett: As a songwriter/producer, when I came into the game, I wanted to make us known to the world. One of my main objectives was to make songwriters known to the world. I am a huge fan of Quincy, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. And when Michael did the “We Are The World” song, it was one of the most important songs of our lifetime. That song inspired me to want to do other things than make money for myself. I wanted to educate and share my gift. Before Michael died, he said to me, and this is one of the most important things he said to me, was that my gift was from God and it was to be shared with the world. Not only am I to use my gift but use it to bring the world together.
DX: You are quite a spiritual person, yet being an athlete, do you find working out brings you some inner calm as well?
Sean Garrett: It’s really important for me to do that [work out], as it allows you to focus on everything going on around you. When you take that time to work out, it helps. There’s deals being made all around me all the time, and you have to be focused and ready. I am a very optimistic person and have a hunger to be a person who is legendary as opposed to someone you know for just a couple of years. All this matters.
DX: So what on your iPod gets the adrenalin pumping?
Sean Garrett: Everything, from 2 Chainz to Adele to Maroon 5…big fan of Adam Levine, as he recently did a big song for an artist of mine. Nick Gardner–he’s from Manchester, England—and I found him on YouTube. It was a video of him performing “Someone Like You” in his bedroom and he is making an amazing album. So [Levine] worked with us on that for my venture at Interscope.
DX: Do you listen to anything that we might be shocked at?
Sean Garrett: Probably when I am in a creative state I listen to my box set catalogue of the Beatles. It’s a soothing creative moment when I listen to them. I like to listen to history, music that is dated and also classic as it gives me ideas of conversations that affected the world in a different way and at a different time. My perspective is always about communicating. Sometimes I go hard Hip Hop. I’ve been listening to Chief Keef, who I think is talented. I like A$AP Rocky; I just like things that are stylish and A$AP is a very stylish rapper. I love his confidence and his approach. He is really cocky, and he’s definitely a superstar. He styles on music, delivering his message. I like Lana Del Rey, and Mumford & Sons are very creative too. It’s been exciting actually watching how UK music has translated over here lately. It’s like a gate has been opened which separated the world, and it’s not meant to be that way.
DX: Songwriting used to be attributed to one or two names, but now we see songs with very limited vocabulary be accredited to multiple names. Why is that, and is it all about the check?
Sean Garrett: That’s a very good point. I would say it’s the business. You can see the common denominator of a super talented songwriter when you see those names over and over again; you know who the source is. But you always have a regular group of people who try to chime in and get their name on the dotted line. I don’t like it personally, as I take songwriting extremely serious. It’s a passion. I respect great songwriters, as they tell the stories of our lives. I feel that should be cherished, and it shouldn’t be watered down for a check or the opportunity of a check. There is no point in having people on there “just because,” but I agree with you.
DX: Do you ever struggle creatively?
Sean Garrett: What’s so crazy is, I have too much going on in my life all the time, there’s never a dull moment. You and I are having this conversation where we have touched on a lot of things, and it brings to mind quite a few things that may end up in a song. I’m very blessed and appreciative of having this life, and I’m really excited most of the time. Some days I might be exhausted and miss my mom, and I wish she was here to share conversations with me. But I am able to take that sorrow and turn it into a positive emotion and that’s great.
DX: So what is your formula for making the hits that you do?
Sean Garrett: It’s about creating. The emotion comes first, and that comes from the tracks I choose to do a record to. You build the hype and the energy. I like a sound that is bigger than life. It’s all about taking that sound to another level. Jumping on beats that people wouldn’t expect to hear me work on or hear a certain artist on is what I love to do. I love challenging myself, trying to find exciting tracks and then putting a melody on that track which is so contagious. You identify the sound, and then identify the melody. Then I go on the track and mumble. People have no idea what I am saying, but chances are, if they love what I am mumbling then they are going to love what is going to be said. That’s part of the formula, and the other part is probably the perspective on life. Look at Oprah. There’s something special about her, and it’s about how she presents. Writing songs is not just about the technique; it’s about how you look at life. You can turn a nation off with just one comment.