For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Kirby is a singer/songwriter trying to keep soul music alive and has helped some of the best artists write music. She’s helped Brandy pour her heart out on “Beggin’ & Pleadin’.” She helped Kanye West talk to his mother after her passing on “Only One.” It’s the latter song that shows the trust artists have in Kirby’s songwriting abilities.
“‘Only One’ feels a bit more personal because ‘Hey Mama’ was my favorite song. So, for him to trust me to be part of the process of writing a song to his mother in her passing — God rest her soul — was not something I took lightly. I remember being in the elevator at Berklee College of Music when his mom passed (on November 10, 2007),” Kirby told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Kirby explains how she found time to work on her EP Sis, the close connection she developed with Brandy while working on music, and how she got the attention of Roc Nation’s president from her home in Mississippi.
You recorded one song a day on YouTube for a year and got signed by Roc Nation because of that. What was your recording set up like?
Honestly, it was 2012 and I was back home in Mississippi working at Urban Outfitters. I told my mom, ‘Listen, I dropped out of school. Sallie Mae isn’t trying to give me any more money to go back. Something has to happen.’ To make a long story short, the love of my life got into a car accident and it was a really big shock to me. When that happened, I told my parents, ‘I don’t know how much time we have left on this earth. I have to try. I know I don’t have any connections to the industry, but I have to try. So, I literally set up a Canon [EOS Rebel] T3 camera. I’ll be on my mom’s piano, write a song a day, upload it to YouTube, and try to Google people that worked in the music industry. I would be on ASCAP and BMI’s website to see who is at the award shows, find their Facebook, and email.
I remember I tweeted Elijah Blake after he had just written Usher’s ‘Climax.’ I tweeted him, ‘I just wrote this song. I think Drake would love it. I went through this one month where I was tired of writing for myself, so I was like, ‘Let me just pitch songs to artists via social media.’ I would tweet the artist and Missy Elliott tweeted me back. Luke James tweeted me back. So, after I tweeted Elijah, his brother DM’ed me. This was probably on day 165. They showed my music to Jay Brown (President of Roc Nation at the time), and he was like, ‘Well if this girl is going to write this many songs in Mississippi, then we might as well give her a shot in L.A. in a real studio setup and see what she can do (laughs).’ Them taking that leap of faith on me really changed my life.
What was your first studio session with an artist like?
A nightmare (laughs). I’m not even going to tell you who the artist was. During my first studio session, I was super green. I’m coming from writing songs in my bedroom in Mississippi. They threw me in this studio with the artist there, the producer there, another writer there, and I froze on some Eminem in 8 Mile shit. I didn’t know what to do. I had been working by myself. My process was very much in solitude, so when you throw me in with an artist, it took a while for me. Learning how to write with other people is an art. It took a while for me to be comfortable enough to sing my mistakes out loud. When you’re by yourself, there’s nobody there to judge you. So, I started to get a reputation. People would say, ‘Y’all know Kirby likes to write by herself’ ...even with Kanye and other people. I failed in so many sessions working with artists.
You worked with Ye on ‘FourFiveSeconds’ and ‘Only One,’ but let’s start with how you even ended up in a session with him.
I think Roc Nation was handling Kanye’s management at the time and that was the plug. The first session I had, Kanye wasn’t there. I’m really grateful that they didn’t tell me who the piano track was because the first song [we worked on] was ‘Only One,’ and they did not tell me it was Paul McCartney on the keys. They just said, ‘Kanye wants to write a song about his mother. He has a couple of lines.’ Kanye is very collaborative. If you say one word and it ends up on the song, he’s going to honor that. I’ve never had any issues with any contribution I had. I’m glad they didn’t tell me it was Kanye’s collaboration with Paul McCartney because I think it would’ve psyched me out. They gave me the freedom of freestyling and presenting my own ideas in my own ways. They gave you the liberty of working on that track, coming back, and presenting it to the group.
What from those songs did you contribute?
‘Only One’ was a more intimate process than ‘FourFiveSeconds.’ That was really just me, Kanye, and Paul. Paul wasn’t there. ‘Only One’ feels a bit more personal because ‘Hey Mama’ was my favorite song. So, for him to trust me to be part of the process of writing a song to his mother in her passing — God rest her soul — was not something I took lightly. I remember being in the elevator at Berklee College of Music when his mom passed (on November 10, 2007). It hit me as if it was a family member. Hearing I was allowed to be in a space to bring ideas to the table for ‘Only One’ hits personal.
What mindset were you in when you were writing that?
He’s very private when it comes to his process. But, for me, what I had to do was put myself in the position of thinking of how much I love my mother and what I would want her to say to me. As a songwriter, you have to become the artist, but I can’t say what he says. I got on the mic and sang about how much I love my mother, and how I would feel if my mother was gone. As a fan of him, I wrote what I believe what someone would say if they love him. I had to be careful to not include things that were said in tabloids. I had to empathize. This was about a man. It wasn’t just about Kanye. You have to not think about the fact you’re working with a celebrity.
Has Kanye ever given you any instruction or advice when it comes to songwriting?
Yeah (laughs). I wrote ‘FourFiveSeconds’ four or five times. It was a hugely collaborative process. You’d sit in front of Kanye and he’d read your lyrics like, ‘Ehh, nah.’ He would be very kind, but he’s also very honest. Kanye would be like, ‘This is not it.’ I would have to go back into my corner and present another line or something like that. You appreciate his honesty. Sometimes artists will smile in your face and the next thing you know they go ghost. It’s like, ‘Why didn’t you just tell me the song was trash?’ To speak to his character, there was this time when I had an idea on Garageband because I didn’t know how to work on Logic. I played the idea for him and he told me how crazy it was. The people in the room were laughing like, ‘You did this in Garageband?’ He was like, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do it on, it’s about the talent.’ It’s about the type of person he is. I presented an idea on Garageband to him and he was able to see through how crappy my recording was to say, ‘Hey, don’t laugh at her. If it’s fire, it’s fire.’ That’s what I experience when I work with Kanye.
You also worked with Brandy. What was that like?
I think working with Brandy was the most organic experience because we developed a real relationship, as far as woman to woman. She saw me as a person, so I didn’t feel like I was coming in performing. That takes time for an artist to trust you enough to go, ‘How are you feeling? Maybe we can bounce off of that.’
What did you learn from her?
What I learned was, even though she’s a legend, she’s very personable. You can sense the people who feel safe. Brandy offered herself as a person. She was like, ‘Listen, if you need anyone to talk to, call me.’ Brandy is the type of person who leads with their heart. It’s rare. It’s not an experience you get with a lot of people. She was very transparent. She has to feel everything she sings, so you can’t write a song for her. It has to be her story completely. It’s very much a collaborative process with Brandy because it’s her story. ‘Begging and Pleadin’ is her story. I don’t even have to explain the story because the lyrics are her story. I love it when you work with somebody who is not so aware of their celebrity they can’t tell the truth with you.
You also wrote ‘Die With You’ for Beyonce.
I can’t even believe she sang my lyrics. As someone who just loves to sing and write songs, once you have a publisher that can put those in the hands of the right artists, that’s the greatest thing a writer could have. My publisher changed my life. I wrote the song, they played it for her, she loved the song and y’all got the song. The hard part is always getting the song to the artist. That’s the miracle of it all.
What are some things you need in a studio session?
Chips. Chips, chips, chips. I can’t do a session without some Kettle plain chips. Erykah Badu did this interview where she said, ‘You want your voice to sound right in the studio? You have to eat chips.’ I took that to heart. The best session is a session with a food budget, honey (laughs). If the food budget is there, you’ll be eating lobster and writing the song at the same time. It’s 12 noon, but we got Nobu (laughs).
What session had the craziest food budget?
(Laughs) Roc Nation be having some crazy food budgets. Kanye sessions be having some crazy food budgets. Anytime you start working with the Rihannas and the Kanyes, nobody went hungry at those sessions.
Over these seven years since you’ve been signed with Roc Nation, how have you divided time between working with artists and on your own music?
I didn’t know how to. I got to a point, after a lot of the songs I did with other people, where I was in a sad place in my life. I felt like, ‘Kirby, you’re out here. But, you’re not singing soul music. You’re not doing what you love to do — what you were put on this earth to do. I think if you don’t have a team around you that believes as you as a writer and artist, you’ll get lost in your success. You’ll be like, ‘Well, maybe I’m not supposed to sing. This songwriting thing is paying my bills right now.’ I told my publisher, I’m not doing anymore writing sessions. This was about six months after ‘FourFiveSeconds’ came out (on January 24 2015). That’s peak time as a writer where you need to be in everybody’s studio. For me, it didn’t fulfill me like I thought it would.
I moved back to Mississippi and thought, ‘Instead of staying on this rat race as a songwriter, how can I own my masters? How can I build something that I own and can pass down to my kids? I had to focus on me as an artist. It has been the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s paying off.
How is the process of writing for yourself in the studio as opposed to writing for an artist?
When you’re writing for someone else, you have to be in the happiest place in your life. I may have just broke up with my boyfriend and you want to sit up here, and write a song about ‘Ooh, I’m in love.’ As a songwriter, it’s my job to adapt to give you what’s best for you. It’s great to go into a session as an artist and be free. I used to get so nervous during songwriting sessions because I didn’t know who I had to be that day.
You put your EP Sis out on Jan. 31. How long did it take you to write that album?
Ten days in New York. I kept extending my flight. We wrote the EP in 10 days. I’m ready for another 10 days to go back. When I moved back to Mississippi, I thought it was going to be another song a day experience. But, it was a struggle. I thought writing songs for other people would make it easier. In some ways it did, but just because you write songs for other people doesn’t mean they see you as an artist. I had to prove to a lot of people that I’m not just a writer. The moment I got into a studio where I could work on me and have the conditions that were capable of creating the production around it, it just flowed. The music came easily. I think it happened because nothing happened for two years (laughs). So I needed those 10 days. Look forward to the album and me touring. I’m here to remind people soul music isn’t a sound of the past. It’s the sound of the future.