R&B Songwriter & Artist Johnta Austin Talks About Writing Hit Songs With Mariah Carey And Janet Jackson, And His Single “Turn It Up”

Johnta Austin
Johnta Austin

Atlanta-based Johnta Austin is undoubtedly one of the hottest songwriters working in R&B and pop today. He co-wrote the biggest hit of last year, Mariah Carey’s ‘We Belong Together,’ plus three other hits from her multi-platinum The Emancipation of Mimi album: ‘Shake It Off,’ ‘It’s Like That’ and ‘Don’t Forget About Us.’ In addition, Austin co-wrote nine of the 11 songs on Janet Jackson’s upcoming album 20 Y.O., including ‘Call On Me,’ her hit duet with Nelly. Also, he has recently been working in the studio with Monica, Enrique Iglesias and Jessica Simpson.

To top it off, Austin is a recording artist who has signed with Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def/Virgin Records, and he has released his debut album, Ocean Drive, which features his single, ‘Turn It Up.’ The album is an excellent showcase for Austin’s skills as a soulful vocalist, songwriter and co-producer. And he collaborated on the album with R&B/hip-hop hitmakers Jermaine Dupri, Jazzy Pha and Scott Storch.

In a new interview, Austin, 26, talked about his new album, and how he landed his deal with So So Def. He also discussed his songwriting, and that his specialty is writing lyrics. In addition, Austin recalled how he co-wrote (with Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri & Manuel Seal) the smash ‘We Belong Together,’ which won this year’s Grammy Award for Best R&B Song, and spent 14 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Lastly, he spoke about his recent, great experience: collaborating with Janet Jackson, Dupri and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for Jackson’s new album.

Austin grew up in Atlanta, where he got into acting and singing at a young age. When he was just 12, he became the co-host of a children’s TV series on the TBS cable network. This gig caught the attention of TV host Arsenio Hall, who invited Austin to appear and sing on his popular late-night show. Coincidentally, an A&R exec from RCA Records was watching the show and was impressed, which led to Austin (then 13) being offered a label deal with RCA.

Unfortunately, Austin’s label stint with RCA was short-lived. Less than a year after signing with the label (and before he released an album), he was dropped to make room for a promising new artist, Tyrese. ‘It was rough being dropped from the label,’ said Austin. ‘There was a change in the label’s administration, with new execs wanting to bring in their own artists. The people who initially signed me were no longer at the label. But I was never really bitter about it, because I understood early on that this industry is a business.’

Austin quickly focused on becoming a pro songwriter. Ironically, the producers he was working with for his own album, Troy Taylor & Charles Farrar, had been offered by the new RCA execs to produce Tyrese. So Taylor & Farrar asked Austin to write lyrics for their Tyrese tracks. One of the songs turned out to be the ballad ‘Sweet Lady,’ which became a Top 10 pop and R&B hit for Tyrese.

Johnta Austin
Johnta Austin

Emboldened by the success of ‘Sweet Lady,’ Austin had the confidence to seriously pursue his songwriting career. But it was still an uphill battle to land new cuts and get high-profile collaborations. ‘It was difficult, even after having a hit with ‘Sweet Lady’,’ he explained. ‘I still wasn’t a name (in the industry). ‘Sweet Lady’ was a ballad, and labels were mostly looking for uptempo hits.’

But Austin persevered, and he starting getting on name projects and landing key cuts. With writer/producer Ted Bishop, he wrote the hits ‘Miss You’ for Aaliyah and ‘Just Be A Man About It’ for Toni Braxton. ‘Just Be A Man About It’ was also co-written by Bryan-Michael Cox, who became a key collaborator with Austin.

It was Cox who subsequently introduced Austin to Jermaine Dupri in 2002. They quickly hit it off, and since then Austin has been a key member of Dupri’s creative team, writing many of the lyrics for Dupri’s top artist projects. They wrote songs for such notable artists as Ciara, Faith Evans and Tyrese. But certainly, the biggest album project they’ve worked on to date, is Mariah Carey’s The Emanicipation of Mimi.

Austin recalled the writing session for ‘We Belong Together,’ which took place in early 2005: ‘It was myself, Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal in the studio. It was late one night when we wrote this song – Mariah likes working late at night. [Jermaine, Manuel and I] were working on it for her, and then she came in and we wrote it together. We were very excited about how ‘We Belong Together’ turned out, and we thought it would be a hit. But I had no idea it would be so huge, spending 14 weeks at #1.’

It was also in early 2005 that Austin signed his artist deal with So So Def/Virgin Records, to record his album. ‘I had written and recorded a new song called ‘Lil’ More Love’, and when Jermaine heard it, he really liked it,’ said Austin. ‘He said no one else could duplicate my vocal style and sound. So he offered me a deal as an artist, and in March 2005 I signed with his new So So Def label.’

Soon after, Austin began recording his own album, Ocean Drive (named after a popular street in Miami). He collaborated with Dupri on six songs, including ‘Turn It Up,’ which has just been released as a single. ‘For ‘Turn It Up,’ Jermaine gave me the beat, and it had a sample of Luther Vandross’ version of the hit ‘Superstar.’ Listening to the track, it felt like love to me. I wanted to paint a scenario of getting close to a woman, and using music to get her in the mood. To listen to this music, is to want to make love.’ Some of Austin’s other favorite songs on the album are: ‘Let’s Take It Back’ and ‘Joy’ (written with Dupri), and ‘Up In My Room’ (written with Scott Storch).

During this interview, Austin took time to describe his songwriting and lyric process. ‘When I write the lyrics, it’s usually while we’re working in the studio,’ he explained. ‘In most cases the track comes first, then I would write the lyrics and melody to it. But sometimes I’ll come up with the lyric idea first. For my lyric ideas, people are the best inspiration. For ‘We Belong Together,’ the second verse is about how I can’t sleep at night, and there’s Bobby Womack on the radio. I try to write about real situations — it could be from things I’ve been through, or what friends have been through. It just comes to me.’

In addition to recording his album, Austin devoted a lengthy period to collaborate with Dupri, Janet Jackson and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, for Jackson’s new album, 20 Y.O. ‘We worked together on Janet’s album for four months, starting after Thanksgiving 2005 and into 2006,’ he said. ‘It’s a monumental album, with Jermaine working with Jam & Lewis to produce the whole album together. Working on this album was the best experience for me ‘ Janet’s an icon, and Jam & Lewis are legendary.’

Lastly, when asked what advice he would give to songwriters and artists who are trying to break into the music business, he said: ‘ For songwriters, I would say to continue to work on your melodies, and tell the best stories you can. Get with talented producers who can create the tracks and who are already working on projects. For artists, stay persistent and don’t quit. It can be a long journey trying to make it as an artist. For me, I got signed and dropped from a label deal when I was just 13. And now I’m 26, releasing my first album. So it can take a long time.’

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima