Behind The Boards: Harmony Samuels On Writing Ariana Grande’s First Hit, Two Destiny’s Child Reunions & JoJo
Harmony Samuels has come a long way from tinkering with tunes in the tiny room doubling as a studio at his high school. The London native helped shape the sound of British R&B with tracks like Chipmunk’s “Champion,” before being discovered by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and moving to Los Angeles. Since arriving, the 35-year-old has crafted hits for Ariana Grande, Ciara, Fantasia, Fifth Harmony and JoJo — not to mention reuniting Destiny’s Child twice!
I visited the affable Brit’s North Hollywood studio last month to chat about the twists and turns of his brilliant career. Harmony talked about his early days in the UK and shed some light on the hits that made him the go-to producer for your favorite diva. He also shared fascinating anecdotes about working on Ari’s first hit, co-writing “I Bet” for CiCi and his role in JoJo’s headline-grabbing comeback. Find out more about the hitmaker below.
How did you get into producing?
I was a music director at my church at a very young age. I had very strict parents so church was my saving grace in that they would allow me to do music there. Then when I started high school, they had a tiny studio. I was like, “I can be my own band?” And it kinda started like that. I didn’t really understand what producing was, but I would sit in there and spend a lot of time recreating songs.
I remember one of my favorite ones was “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. My teacher came in, Ms. Ryan, and she said “You’re going to be an amazing composer and producer one day!” And I said, “What’s that?” And she was like, “Go look up Quincy Jones.” I mean, I knew who he was but I didn’t know what he did. I looked him up and before you knew it, I was hooked. Everything that he did, I was hooked on. I wanted to find out more and discovered Teddy Riley. All of a sudden I was hooked.
What were you listening to back then?
I was a strange child because I have African and Caribbean parents and family. I was born in London. And I also grew up in a very kind of half-hood type environment, but half-stable. I was on the corner with dudes who were shooting people but at the same time I spent a lot of time in church. I got the best of both worlds, you know. I would listen to everything from Bob Marley to Fela Kuti, who’s a Nigerian musician, to Oasis and then I would listen to classical.
I had such a broad span of music and that’s why today, I can work on anything from a David Guetta record to Future. People would be like, “How do you do that?” I was like, “I just listen to so much music.”
What was the first cut you ever got?
My first ever cut? Back home it was with Chris Neil and it was on a Celine Dion record, but I didn’t get a credit. It was just like, “Oh my god I worked on it!” I didn’t even care that my name wasn’t on it.
Which track was that?
I can’t even remember. I was like seventeen years old and I was interning for this guy called Chris Neil who was a producer and he was like, “You play piano don’t you, can you play some keys on this?” And I was like, “Okay.” And before I knew it I was on Celine’s album.
My first professional cut was a bunch of remixes in the UK. I did a remix of Kelly Rowland’s “Work” and there was a bunch of UK acts like Fundamental. That’s how I kind of built my buzz. I had a good relationship with our urban radio station to the point where I ended up having my own radio show. It was at two o’clock in the morning. It was the worst shift you could ever have.
My biggest record to date in England, one that really hit home was by Chipmunk. My career kind of started with him. We did a song with Chris Brown called “Champion.” It really changed British music. Period. But also changed both of our lives too because we was able to connect with Chris Brown.
How did you end up in the US?
In 2008 I was discovered by Rodney Jerkins. He basically said to my manager at the time, “Whoever that kid is, find him and bring him to me.” History kind of tells itself from that point. I still didn’t want to move to LA because I was too scared. He was like, “You need to move to LA,” and I was like, “No, I’m just going to stay here.” And then when I got here and my first placement was with Maroon 5 — a song called “No Curtain Call.”
Let’s talk about some of your biggest hits. “The Way” made Ariana Grande a credible pop star.
I don’t know if that’s my biggest hit, but I would say it definitely put my name out there. A lot of people don’t know that Ariana Grande had been trying for two years and they hadn’t broken her. People wanted to know who gave her the record that made the whole world pay attention.
What do you remember about that session?
It is funny to watch some become superstar. It’s just hilarious. She came by the studio the other day with security and I was like, “Jesus Christ, you could have come by yourself.” [Laughs]. To be honest with you, the song had been sitting on my computer for eighteen months. Maybe closer to two years. It was for Jordin Sparks.
She has a writing credit.
Jordin Sparks was an artist I took time to invest in, and I believed in her, and I just felt she was going to be the next Mariah Carey in that I thought we had lost something in the music industry that represented a pure voice over hip hop and R&B. Jordin Sparks was that for me and we did “The Way” for her. She was part of the writing process. We cut the record and wanted to get Big Sean on it but the label said no.
I literally called the label like, “Are you sure?” Mind you, Jordin still believed it was her song. And I’m like, “You should probably tell Jordin you don’t want her to have this record.” They were like, “Not only is it not a hit, it’s not even going to make her album.” So months later I was asked to take a look at Ariana Grande. They wanted something cool and edgy. I was like, “Okay.” I had never heard of her, didn’t know she already had a fan base of three million.
She walks into the room — this little girl, she looked twelve but she was seventeen or eighteen. I was like, “Okay, do you want pop music?” Something dumb like that. She was like, “No I want something R&B, cool and edgy.” So she plays me “Honeymoon Avenue” and I’m like, “Is that you singing?” She’s like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “Shut up!” And then she plays me this “Emotions” cover by Mariah Carey and I’m like, “I know exactly what I’m going play you!” So I played her “The Way” and she jumps up and she has this little spin thing that she does and then she’s crying.
I’m like why’s she crying? Mind you, I still don’t know who she is. She said, “Can I have it?” And I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “It’s going to be my first single” and I was like, “You’re brave.” I said, “They told me it ain’t gonna be a hit, so good luck.” But she knew. She knew what she wanted. The same thing happened with “Right There.” I had it lying around. I had all these songs and she was just cutting them one by one. Ever since then, we just connected and clicked. She’s my little sister.
One song of yours that I think is very underrated is “You Changed” by Kelly Rowland. It was a mini Destiny’s Child reunion.
I’ve done that twice.
Did you have them all in the studio at any time together?
No, I had two of them. I had Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland. I’ve got a great, really great relationship with them. But Beyonce, who I’ve met and she’s a very lovely girl, was in the middle of a tour. But “You Changed” was another song sitting on my computer. I did it for Mary J. Blige. True story. But they didn’t get it to her in time. So I played it to Kelly and I was like, “this kinda reminds me of Destiny’s Child.” She was like, “Oh my god, I wanna get B and Michelle on it!” And I was like, “Shut up! No you ain’t!”
So I’m in the studio with Kelly and she brings in Michelle and she cuts her part. And then Beyonce jumps on hers finally and it’s just like, “Yo, this is great!” And it had been the first time they had been on a record together in a long time. And I felt honored to have her be a part. And we did it again on Michelle’s “Say Yes.” Beyonce was touring but she hit up Michelle when she was in LA. Michelle was like, “Beyonce wants to hear the album.” So I go there and drop the album off.
She heard “Say Yes” was like, “I love it.” She jumped on it. It was just a natural. It was never forced, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like, “Please, can you jump on this record?” I mean she really wanted to be a part of it. Same with the Stella Awards. It was awesome.
Let’s tall about Ciara’s “I Bet.”
I will say this. Ciara is one of the most genuine, happy people I’ve ever met in my life. And it’s kind of scary because I’ve never met someone who could be so happy all the time. I mean, I’ve been in the studio pissed off like “Grrrr!” And she’ll be like, “Harmony! Wait, chill out! Have fun!” And she’ll start dancing around. I think her son just brings out the best of her. It was fun! It really was fun from beginning to end. I would do it all over again. We connected through a good friend of mine. I call her my little sister because she’s younger than me.
Ciara is the performer. Ciara is the artist that dances and comes on and she’s like 2015 Janet Jackson. And we’re like, “Yeah Janet Jackson also had “Let’s Wait Awhile” and she also had records that people could relate to heart-wise. And we knew that she had been through a situation and it was difficult for her. And we wanted to be honest about it. So without her permission, we wrote a song. She loved it.
I bet she was happy that you did.
Oh yeah, she loved the song. Me and Tyrone from R. City, we knew that when we did that song, we was going to connect. I didn’t know it was going to connect the way it did. Because you know it kinda represented some old school R&B as well, even though it was feels new. I was scared, I was kinda like, “Is people going to like it, are they going to complain about it?” And yeah, people loved it. People were like, “Woooow.”
You also worked with Fifth Harmony recently?
Yeah, I think Fifth Harmony is about to hit gold. I think they’ve been preparing. I really think they’re really going to impact. I mean Pussycat Dolls impact. We did a song for a movie called Hotel Transylvania 2 and it’s called “I’m In Love With A Monster.” Me and the girls went in the studio in Miami and we had a good time cutting it. They love it, and it’s a different sound. It’s unexpected.
Are you also working with them on other material?
Yes! I just started working with them last week for their new album. It’s really different. It’s really fresh. They’ve definitely grown. It’s a little bit more soulful, a little bit more quirky, definitely a little bit more Destiny’s Child-esque, you know what I’m saying? You’re going to hear more of their voices as individuals.
You’ve also been in the studio with JoJo…
Yeah. But I can’t say more than that. I just know that JoJo is going to affect the world. It’s needed and it’s time. But I’m privileged to have been one of the first ones in. You know what I mean? And this song is such a powerful statement. It’s what you want to hear from JoJo! And working with JoJo, she’s ready. She’s going to have an explosive year. Yes, we have Ariana Grande, who has an amazing voice. But this girl’s voice is going to shatter the radio.
We haven’t had it for so long. When you look at Katy Perry and you look at Taylor Swift. They are beautiful artists, I love their music. But JoJo has a voice that really kinda makes you sit down and pay attention. Stops you in what you’re doing. She’s so mature in her delivery and in her person. Has one of the purist hearts ever. She’s going to be it for a very long time. The world loves JoJo. And I feel because she’s the underdog, and hasn’t had the break and hasn’t had the chance since she was fourteen years old, there’s going to be an undying support.
What about Fantasia? I love that woman.
Listen! Tasia is one of those people who affect my life socially, mentally, and emotionally. Tasia is like… what you see is what you get, is what you see is what you get. I mean humongous personality, humongous talent, humongous heart, humongous voice. You can’t get enough! And I’m like so amped about this new album and I’m so excited that she’s about to start again and I think she’s going to have so much to say. It’s gonna be better than the last time.
You have a real gift of getting the most out of female artists. Where does that come from?
Being a momma’s boy. It’s gotta be that. And you know what, it’s true because I sat down the other day and I looked at my roster and was like, “Damn. I work with a lot of females!” I just feel my music suits them. I also feel like women deliver music in an emotional way.
What’s the best song that you’ve written or produced? Or the one that’s most special to you?
I’ll be honest with you, it’s this JoJo one that’s coming. I’ll tell you why too. I love “Say Yes” and I love “I Bet” and I love “The Way” too. But the JoJo one, I just keep picturing people crying. It’s heartfelt.
Listen to JoJo’s “Say Love” (produced by Harmony Samuels):