Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Talk Janet Jackson’s ‘Unbreakable’ & Creating Timeless Music: Idolator Interview
When one thinks of a music producer who made waves in the industry, my generation may bring up names like Timbaland, Max Martin, Dr. Dre or Pharrell. But let’s not forget the ones before who have (and still are) breaking boundaries across almost all genres! In comes Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who for decades have been putting their creative heads together to birth indelible, trailblazing songs for dozens of your favorite artists — most notably of course, Janet Jackson.
The legendary entertainer reunited with the equally legendary production team on her new Unbreakable album, which is Janet’s first since 2008’s Discipline. So naturally, Jimmy and Terry had a lot to share with me about this new musical chapter!
Read on to see what the production duo had to say about working on Unbreakable, their definition of a “comeback,” the 30th anniversary of Control, the new generation of music and much more below.
What was your reaction when Janet called you up and said, “Hey, I’m ready to make another record.”
JIMMY JAM: I was really happy because over the last seven years we’ve had a lot of conversations about working together on a new project. I remember having lunch with her probably two years ago, and we talked about everything else but recording — we didn’t need to. It was really about getting to know each other again and just catching up again. In that moment I knew we were going to do something musically. I didn’t know when, but I had that feeling. When it finally got serious was when her management talked about wanting to see something happen. Once that got formalized, we began the process like we did with every album. Just to clarify, I count from Control to All 4 U as the albums that were done the way we enjoyed recording with just the three of us and no outside influence — and those first five albums were done like that. For Unbreakable we felt the need to go back to that, and we basically recorded for six months. No one knew we were recording! Everyone kept asking, “When are you guys going to start?” We kept saying we were planning, meanwhile we already had six or seven songs done. The process worked fantastic!
TERRY LEWIS: One thing that I always say is that Janet is too important in music. She has a voice that people still value, so I thought it was a great sense of timing for her. And obviously she only does [record] when she has something to say.
So what made 2015 the right time to create an album?
TL: I think as an artist you feel it in your soul. It’s not a timeline based on years or what everybody else wants — it’s exuded by you. So she had to be comfortable in where she is in life to spread her music around the world, and that’s what she’s doing.
While recording the album, did you feel any pressure to compete with the new girls? For example, Madonna’s Rebel Heart album includes some sounds that are reflected in current pop music. Or did you just want to go back to the basics?
JJ: As far as competing, there was no sense of that because we’re fans of all the ladies out there doing their thing. I think it’s more about making an album that’s true to us and sounds like Janet — whether it’s a piano ballad or a house record. When you think about Janet’s history in music and her catalogue, you have uptempo fun sounds like “Escapade” and “Miss You Much,” the really funky “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty” songs, and the rock-inspired “Black Cat” — and it’s all her! So it’s not about trying to be trendy, it’s taking all those kinds of music that she loves and making it sound like her. If it sounds like Janet, that means we’ve done our job. If we aimed the record at anyone, it would definitely be her fans. That was the whole spirit of the record.
A lot of divas are making comebacks lately, but there are millennials who may just be getting introduced to their sound now. How do you think Janet’s new record will impact the younger generation?
TL: You say “comeback,” and I just say come out! When artists that prolific don’t feel like putting out an album, it’s not that they disappeared — they just chose to live life. In order to put out new music and have great things to say, you’ve got to live some life! You can have writers put things in your mouth, but things that come from the soul reach the soul. Janet comes out when she’s ready, and so does Madonna and Mariah or anyone else. But what do they have to offer? Themselves and their individual style, and I don’t try to pit one against the other because I think that’s very unfair. And they are all very successful. If they announce a tour without new music, they can sell dates, right?
Oh, of course, in a matter of minutes!
TL: And some people can top the chart, and can’t sell tickets! So I think this whole old school vs. new school thing is crazy. There’s only school — either you learn or you don’t. Without the music before us, music now wouldn’t even exist. We can never lose sight of the quality of music from the ’70s and ’80s, for example.
So what was the most fun song to record in the studio while creating Unbreakable?
JJ: It’s tough because I haven’t had enough separation from it, and different songs have been my favorite at different times. It’s funny because no one has ever asked me that question! When I started playing the album, I end up listening to the whole thing without stopping. It’s like watching a really good movie. My son’s favorite song is “Broken Hearts Heal,” and his opinion means a lot to me. If I had to listen to a song right now, it would probably be “Well Traveled.” It really sums up her worldly experience. Plus I just got off the road with her and the song was kind of the soundtrack in my head. Have you listened to the album?
The one that stood out to me was “Night.” I love that song.
JJ: I gave that to Janet’s DJ before a few of her shows — she doesn’t have an opening act, it’s basically like a big party in the arena before the concert starts — and I told him to play that and “Damnnn Baby” to gauge the crowd’s reaction. We were in New Orleans the other night and had just put “Night” on, and the crowd was so into it! The DJ ended up playing it three or four times, and they really responded to it.
TL: “Night” is a great, great energy and what it’s saying is so profound. That’s a feeling you want to wake up with every day and the most peaceful feeling you could imagine, I think.