Studio Sessions | Tommy Parker on making Janet Jackson’s new album and Ariana Grande recording ‘Positions’
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the producer/songwriter discusses how Ariana Grande impressed him, the honesty of Janet’s ‘Black Diamond’ album, and what he’s learned from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
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.
For more than a decade, West 33rd Production owner Tommy Parker has helped create music magic with Ariana Grande, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Macy Gray, and Janet Jackson, among a litany of other talents. For Jackson, he produced on her last album, 2015’s Unbreakable, and has a good idea why we haven’t got her follow up Black Diamond yet.
“She lives, she has a son and her son is priority. So, it’s finding the balance in that. I have a child, too. It’s incredible to see her do it and be as big as she is,” Parker told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the producer/songwriter discusses how Grande impressed him in the studio, the honesty of Jackson’s Black Diamond album, and what he’s learned from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Read below.
Who was the first major artist you worked with who taught you something?
Rodney Jerkins. I got signed to him in 2008 and I started going to the studio with him in 2009 at the top of the year. At first, he could be a scary person because his energy can be strong. I learned so much from him — sonics, how things hit hard, how vocals need to be done — and LaShawn Daniels. I got signed to Rodney as a producer and I was producing a lot. I have a very old school way of producing and I was recreating a lot of stuff for Marvin Gaye. He told me, “Stop producing for dead people. Produce music we can sell.” So, I started writing. He asked me to come into the studio when he was working on this beat. I started writing to it and he was completely amazed that I could write because he didn’t sign me as a writer. From that day forward he was like, “I want you to start writing all of my records.” My first placement happened to be “Make Me” by Janet Jackson.
Who was the first artist you worked with who made you nervous?
It was hard for me when I met Mya. I was very nervous. The ultimate experience for me, actually, was recent. I was working with Evan Ross, Ashlee Simpson, and my homie Austin Brown. Diana Ross was there. I went to the bathroom and all of a sudden, I hear her voice and I think, “Oh my God. Is that who I think that is?” I walked in there, said hi to her, and I couldn’t stop shaking. My palms were sweaty and I just had to leave. Evan told me, “My mom wanted to talk to you. She wanted to pick your brain.” I told him, “I couldn’t talk to your mom. I needed to take some time.” I still can’t talk to Ms. Diana Ross. It’s gong to take me a few more times. That was two years ago.
What is Janet Jackson’s creative process?
Janet loves to have fun. That’s what I love about Janet because it’s a lot like myself. We’ll catch up, talk about what’s going on, watch some funny videos, and then start working on some music. If there’s a beat we like, we’ll go for it. Or, Janet may feel a way and aware of something, and she may go in and write about that. For her to be such a legend, she knows how to take off her hat and come down to earth on your level. That way we can vibe and come up with something that’s representing both of us with no egos. That’s what I love about writing with her. It’s really easy and dope. It’s really up to her how much she wants to let everyone in to how she’s feeling. If it’s something that’s really bothering her and she wants to speak about it, she’ll put it in a song. But, sometimes, she won’t necessarily write about it personally. She’ll touch on it, so we can give everyone acknowledgement that we are aware of this and we want people to be aware of it, as well.
What’s your favorite song you put together with her?
For me, it’s “Night” off of Unbreakable. I produced that song and I did the top line demo. I sent it to Jimmy [Jam] and he told me he was in the bathroom, listened to it, and it gave him goosebumps. He told me, “Tommy, if you keep sending me records, you’re going to take off the records you already have on the album. This is what we were looking for. We needed a song like this.” I always dreamed to produce for Janet.
It’s been more than five years since Unbreakable. What has contributed to the delay of new music?
Life. She lives, she has a son and her son is priority. So, it’s finding the balance in that. I have a child, too. It’s incredible to see her do it and be as big as she is.
Janet announced in February that Black Diamond was coming. How far along were you with the album by that point?
We were digging in deep. We had some great stuff. Respectfully, everything about her album comes from her mouth, but what I can say is that she’s speaking very honest on it. She’s speaking very honest about things on this Black Diamond album. It’s incredible and she sounds amazing. I’m very blessed to say I’m vocal coaching her on this album this go around. We’re having fun. We’re like kids when we get together. I feel like a kid when I’m around her. When we come together we have a good time. We started and then stopped. So, we have a lot more to say now than we did in February.
How did the pandemic affect your work?
It definitely affected me working with Janet because we were working in New York and then that stopped. We couldn’t go back to New York. So, it affected working on that project. For several months, I stayed home depressed like everyone else. I had no motivation to do anything at all. It affected me bad.
How did you get involved with Ariana Grande’s Positions album?
It’s funny. On New Year’s Day, Tommy Brown called me and said, “Come over.” I went to his house and Ariana was there. She was like, “Hey, do you want to write?” I was like, “Sure. Let’s write.” We started writing songs and I ended up doing three songs with her. I co-produced two and wrote one with her. Then, COVID happened. Then, about a few months ago, they said, “Ariana threw away that whole album and is working on a new album.” I was like, “Oh, OK. We’re not using any of those songs” (laughs). She redid the whole album and that’s Positions. I haven’t been this excited about an album since Unbreakable. I did “Love Languages.” I helped bring the mystical side of things to the album. I’m a very old school person. I love the string arrangements and crazy jazzy chords. If you hear the bridge, it seems like you’re falling.
Ariana seems like the brightest personality. What are some of her fun gestures outside of the studio?
One time we were working with Ariana and she was just like, “I want to go to the movies.” So, everyone went to the movies. She would also take everyone to Disneyland out of nowhere.
What’s the most impressive thing you’ve seen done in the studio?
I watched Ariana go in the booth, come up with lyrics, sing the hell out of the lyrics, sing the line about four or five times, come in the control room and then comp her own vocals. I thought that was pretty impressive because I still need an engineer to comp. Comp is when you sing a line down and then you take the best takes of the line. So, if I sing, “Baby make your move, it makes me groove,” I’ll do that four times and then I’ll wind it up and it’ll be a full line of the best of those words. She recorded herself on Positions pretty much because we were social distancing and she had to record at home.
What did you learn from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis?
I learned so much. I sing a lot of background for Janet, too. I was getting vocal produced by Terry for one of the songs. The samples in “Dream Euphoria” and “Unbreakable” are my original music that I sped up to sound old school. Terry and Jimmy wanted me to change the lyrics to fit the song. Terry was like, “You have to sing all of the backgrounds with attitude.” He taught me that doing it that way gives air another rhythm. They also taught me about sonics. I call them two the godfathers.
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