Does this R&B hitmaker want to change the world through music? Yeah!            

By Michael Gallant

Atlanta native Sean Garrett grew up the son of an Army man, moving along with his family to wherever his father might be stationed. Everywhere he found himself, including a variety of military bases across England and Germany, young Garrett had his ears wide open. “Living abroad and listening to so many variations of music in different cultures gave me the sensibility to mix what I know,” he says. “Urban music is in my blood, but growing up abroad gave me the pop sensibility as well. I can always say that pop music is in my blood, too.”

Though Garrett entered his first recording deal as an artist in Europe at age 15, he found his mainstream break stateside in 2004, less than a year after signing as a songwriter for Antonio “L.A.” Reid’s Hitco Music Publishing. Garrett’s edgy crunk-R&B hybrid “Yeah!” was an international hit for Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris that year. Following a string of further songwriting hits, he moved on to handle production for artists including Diddy, Chris Brown, Nelly, Lionel Richie, Gwen Stefani, Jesse McCartney, the Pussycat Dolls, Enrique Iglesias, Plies, Kelly Rowland, Trey Songz, Kelis, Fantasia and others; he was working on tracks for Michael Jackson when the legendary singer died.

Garrett recently presided over the diva summit “Love a Woman,” by Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé; his multiple collaborations with the latter earned him his nickname, “The Pen,” bestowed by the singer’s husband, Jay-Z. Most recently he’s been at work on R&B star Brandy’s upcoming sixth effort. Garrett aspires to join the pantheon of multifaceted mega-producer icons that inspired him—masters like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones—yet he harbors no illusions about what it takes to get there. “‘Icon’ is not a title you can give yourself,” acknowledges Garrett, who plans to release his own second solo album in 2012. “I just hope that my fans, peers and community look at me as such one day. But at the end of the day, I’m just focusing on working as hard as I can.”

How is working with Brandy?

She’s one artist who I’ve been longing to collaborate with. I’ve always admired her voice, tone and delivery on records. She’s just amazing, and she’s lived up to everything I’ve expected her to be. The album is phenomenal, and I feel like her voice has gotten even sweeter.


How have you approached it? 

I crafted her records from the perspective of making them fit her like a glove, but also fitting exactly what’s going on right now. Sometimes you want to lead your artist forward and get them more of a futuristic sound, but that wasn’t my goal. I wanted to remind everyone of what she’s done in the past, and allow her to reintroduce herself in such a way that people will say, “We’re so glad she’s back”—but also feel as though she was never really gone. As a producer, these are the moments that can define you as a legend. I’m very aware of this opportunity, and I’m taking it very seriously.


Do you feel any pressure? 

I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a lot of pressure. But if something feels comfortable and organic in the studio, I know it’s right. When you have that feeling, and you know in your heart of hearts that the record feels the way it’s supposed to feel, that’s when the nerves go out the door.


Who are your role models? 

Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and I worked together on a record for Janet Jackson called “My Baby,” with Kanye West [2004]. They’re like big brothers, mentors that I look up to. I completely studied their way of doing things. L.A. Reid and Babyface, too—from the songs to the sounds they use, the production, the whole emotion. All four make records that have such dynamics.


You’ve also cited Lionel Richie. 

He took his career from being an artist to being a great songwriter—and not only did he kill it in that vein, he also became a philanthropist, doing records like “We Are the World” with Michael Jackson [1985]. He reshaped the world through music. Those are things that I have aspirations to do, but I’m just getting started. Where my career is going, it’s not just about doing hits for others, but doing philanthropic things that help my community.


What inspired “Yeah!”?

Originally I reached out to Lil Jon for some tracks, but his lawyer told me, “Lil Jon doesn’t do R&B records.” All I wanted to do was create a record for Usher, but at the time I was a brand-new songwriter and they didn’t know who I was, so it was crazy even trying to get my hands on some tracks. Fortunately I had a relationship with someone who worked for Lil Jon, and she got me 10 tracks from him. One stuck out, so I went into the studio and wrote vocals to it, along with all the Lil Jon parts: “Yeah!” “OK!” At that time, Usher needed to do something bigger than life. He needed an event song, and that’s what I was trying to create.


How did the label react?

When I played it for L.A. [Reid, then president of Arista Records], his reaction was, “I can’t see my superstar doing a record with Lil Jon.” And at that time it was sort of a strange pairing—Lil Jon was crunk and Usher was so polished, like a modern-day Michael Jackson. I understood where he was coming from, but as a creative person I’m putting chemicals together. I’m not looking at the politics or the marketing. From the raw talent perspective, this really worked. L.A. allowed me to cut the record, and once that happened it was magical—though there was still some resistance. They already had the entire album ready to roll and had a whole concept around it. But Lil Jon leaked the song and stations wouldn’t stop playing it. They even got cease-and-desist orders from the label but “Yeah!” was already huge by then.


What do you recall about Michael?

We were working together just before he passed. We were talking about new records for his upcoming album. From that first moment I met Michael, we talked on the telephone every day for five months. He was such a perfectionist. He was always discussing concepts and ideas of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. I have a lot of respect for Michael, so I’m going to keep those ideas to myself for now. But I will say this: Some of the ideas and records will come out at some point.


How was producing Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige on the same track? 

I’ve had the joyous opportunity to work with both individually, and it was great to put this record together with the two of them. They’re like family—and their voices are huge. You can tell they honed in on what needed to be done and did an incredible job. They’re very hard workers. They’ll stay in the studio until a song is completely done—as opposed to some artists who take a break, and take another break and another break. Once they’re there, they lock in.


How did you get to know Jay-Z?

He’s always been there when I’ve done records for Beyoncé, listening to tracks we’ve been working on and giving his thoughts on different things. He’s been there for me as a mentor, offering a blueprint of how to build a business. I’ve learned the do’s and the don’ts of becoming an icon from him.


Such as? 

Do always truly value the opportunities that you’re given. Don’t get so caught up in your own success that you forget how to work, and the importance of working hard. Cherish the moments and work as hard as you possibly can each and every time.


Do you prefer using live musicians or programmed tracks?

A combination. I have a team of producers I work with, people like Bangladesh and Hit-Boy. Some of the tracks we create in Logic, some are created with the classic [Akai] MPC—which we still like to use. We try to create different sounds that elevate the artist’s overall sound. With Brandy, we kept the integrity of using piano and a melodic vibe, but we also gave her a brand-new dynamic. We put her on top of beats she had never been heard on. They were more aggressive, risky tracks that would lean more to rap—a lot of singers wouldn’t even approach them. So a few of the records with Brandy will make people reminisce, but on others we want people to say, “There’s something strange about that, but damn, I love it.”


Prefer digital or analog?

There are pros and cons to each. Digital is a lot more efficient since you can do so many different things. But I’m a big fan of analog, just because the sound is incomparable. When it comes to sound and warmth, analog is a beautiful thing. There are so many amazing older albums recorded only using analog technology.

What are your go-to microphones?

It’s really about the taste of the situation, but lately I’ve been using Sony mics like the C800. With certain voices they can pull out a great deal of highs. Brandy loves that type of mic since it creates a different type of sound. In general, I don’t marry just one piece of equipment. When you marry any one thing you stop growing. You learn about different devices, compressors and mics and use the right ones for each occasion.


How do your roles as artist, songwriter and producer inform each other?

They complement each other, always. You have to be an artist yourself to truly understand the artist mindset. Working as a producer also helps you as a songwriter. And sometimes being an artist helps you as a songwriter—writing a song for another artist is like throwing an alley-oop to another player. You know what it feels like to be on the court, so it gives you a certain type of advantage versus not being an artist. Actually, it gives you a big advantage.

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