(L-R) Laurin Talese, Ebonie Smith, Donn T, Paris Cole
Photo: Lisa Lake/Getty Images
Music Makers & Execs Discuss Collaboration, Culture & The "Power In Femininity"
While the core components of what makes a great song may not have changed over the decades, the way music makers create certainly has. With technology allowing albums to be made on laptops, on smart phones, on tour busses and in bedrooms, songwriters and producers have become secluded in their creative process. While this trend unleashed remarkable self-contained creativity in some, it has left a void of in-person collaboration; however, that is finally changing.
Songwriting camps are popping up all over the industry as labels are revisiting the forgotten power of placing their most talented artists in a room together to create. Earlier this year, GRAMMY-nominated rapper J. Cole's Dreamville Records held a 10-day recording session featuring some of the most talented artists in hip-hop, and Def Jam hosted its firepower-packed rap camp, which Rolling Stone says, "May be a new—and cheaper—model for the record business."
The rising tide of writer retreats presents boundless new opportunity for artists, labels, content creators, producers, engineers, and more. The Recording Academy's Philadelphia Chapter recently explored the issue deeper at their exclusive event "Craft Session: Creative Collaboration."
From a member of one of Philly’s premier musical families to the co-manager of one of R&B’s rising stars, three women of color in the music business shared several gems that can help guide women and men looking to navigate enduring careers in the music business. To celebrate the recent International Women’s Day, Paris Cole, Ebonie Smith and Donn T shared some words of wisdom that they’ve learned in their musical journeys.
Moderated by recent Sarah Vaughn International Vocal Competition winner Laurin Talese, the conversation illustrated the value of collaboration in sustaining a healthy, innovative and thriving music industry. Here are a few crucial takeaways from the conversation in Philadelphia.
Collaboration Is Key
Paris Cole is a co-manager of Dreamville / Interscope songstress Ari Lennox and has learned the importance of being positive, cooperative and open-minded. "I’m always in a position where I have to collaborate," Cole says. "I always try to push through and kill with kindness, especially as a young person in my position. Ageism is definitely a real thing, so there are people that dismiss me when I’m speaking up for something. The collaboration part in the music industry is the most important piece."
"There’s So Much Power In Femininity."
Cole was one of a handful of women at J. Cole’s recent aforementioned Dreamville Recording Sessions. The nearly two-week sessions at Atlanta’s Tree Sound Studios exemplified the movement toward record labels bringing musicians together in one place to collaborate. "I was there for only three or four days," Cole said. "Ari [Lennox] is the only female signed to Dreamville. It was really just her, myself and Raeana Anaïs, J. Cole’s stylist. It was really inspiring because it was a lot of Black men doing some really cool things."
For Cole, the uniqueness of being able to share her energy as a woman was refreshing. "There were about 11 rooms going on and every room was filled with some of the most talented producers, rappers, songwriters," Cole said. "It was cool because they were appreciative of us just walking around the rooms and bringing our own energy. There’s so much power in femininity and they are really receptive to that over at Dreamville. The camp was amazing, but it was cool to be one of the few people there to witness that dynamic between all of those creatives."
Believe In Yourself
Ebonie Smith is a producer and engineer for Atlantic Records and has worked with artists like Kelly Clarkson and Janelle Monaé. Individuality and being herself as a woman is as important to Smith as any of the many technical skills she uses regularly in the studio.
"I think my specialized skill set is informed by who I am," Smith said. "I’ve developed a number of skills that allow me to engineer, produce, play the instruments, program, etc. But it’s not just me being able to do those things because there are lots of people who can do those things. It’s me that I should be bringing and my unique perspective on all of those unique tasks I can do should be formulated into one offering. That is my individuality, my unique perspective, my compassion and more so than anything, operating with grace."
A lover of music history, Smith looks at the foundations of the record business to help inspire her workflow. "For me, it’s thinking about the overarching concept of what it means to be in the record business and creating records," Smith said. "A friend said to me recently, ‘You use such antiquated language. Nobody [says] records anymore.’ I said that I like that language because a record is just that: A documentation of a special moment. Doesn’t matter if it’s a vinyl or tape or mp3, we’re creating a record in time, a moment, a timestamp. It’s that energy that I’m operating with. When I think about the greatest movements in record history, one of them started here [with] Philadelphia International. Gamble and Huff, that’s how they operate. That’s what created the Philadelphia sound. That’s what we want."
Singer, songwriter and label owner Donn T mission is clear: "To see women and young girls fully become who they are beyond age, beyond race. There are no limitations."
Having worked in the music business since the age of nine, Donn T is a proponent for walking confidently in who you are. "I’m a visionary, I’m inventive, I’m a unicorn," she said. "Centering yourself and knowing yourself in every moment and being unapologetic [is important]. I think what grew up in me was this advocate for justice and seeing that in the lives of women and young girls. If we can honor a Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones in his 70s and 80s, we need to have those equivalents in women. We need to not just applaud children and teens coming into the industry, we need to be applauding women in their 50s and 60s who are creatives because creativity doesn’t die. It is my mission to change the face of what that looks like and encourage others."
As someone that spends a great deal of her time in the studio, Smith is aware of the perils that come with studio culture and warns against them. "Studio culture can still be a very tricky space for young women in particular," Smith said. "Spaces typically aren’t safe or conducive for young girls to be hanging out in isolated rooms or basements with men twice their age. Studio culture can be very dangerous for girls. If you’re working with women in the studio or working late, make sure we get into our cars, help us clean up. Don’t just leave. Ask, ‘Are you okay? How are you getting home?’
Smith also wants people to be aware that your personal space and security are more important than any perceived advantage in the industry. "For women, if it’s a question of your body, always say no," Smith said. "If it’s a question of your safety, always say no. I don’t care how early it is in your career. Very early in my career, I was working in the studio, some guys came in that had guns and I wanted to work in that studio. They were paying me. But after that session they could never pay me enough. It doesn’t matter if I’m a great engineer if I’m dead. Same is true with other physical things. The answer is 'no.' That’s not how you become a better engineer or artist. It has nothing to do with your craft. If that’s a part of your job then it’s 'no.'"
Men: Be An Ally
Donn T is a firm believer that while it is important for women to protect themselves in the music business, men can stand up as allies in solidarity. "We need the men that are like-minded to be allies," Donn T said. "We all know that there is one conversation that happens in a room when men and women are together and another that happens when men are in a room together. Be consistent because you are that change. It’s the people in the secret rooms that will make a difference. For the men, it’s important to take the interest you have in being [at this event] to go into these rooms and be brave. It’s something as women and men that we’re learning how to do. We have to take a risk and feel the fear."