R&B/Pop Singer/Songwriter Ne-Yo Talks About His Debut Album In My Own Words, His Hit “Let Me Love You” (for Mario), And Writing His Songs

Ne-Yo in 2006

24-year-old Ne-Yo has already established himself as a top, in-demand R&B writer/producer, who is known for co-writing Mario’s #1 hit ‘Let Me Love You.’ In addition, he has recently collaborated on cuts with Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Faith Evans, Chris Brown and Jamie Foxx. However, Ne-Yo will probably be best known soon as a hit artist and performer. His excellent, debut album In My Own Words will be released this month on Def Jam Recordings, and he has been showcasing his live performance skills, opening for John Legend on tour.

Ne-Yo is currently keeping a very busy schedule, working on an array of projects. In between his concert performances, he is co-writing and producing cuts for several artists, and overseeing his production company Compound Entertainment, which has a staff of active writer/producers. In addition, Ne-Yo, who has a co-publishing deal with Zomba Music, has been hired to write the entire soundtrack for the upcoming film, Save The Last Dance 2.

In a recent interview, Ne-Yo talked about his debut album, and how he landed his label deal with Def Jam. He also recalled how he got his first cuts as a songwriter, and how he teamed up with hot writer/producer Scott Storch and Kam Houff to write ‘Let Me Love You’ for Mario.

Ne-Yo was born with the name Shaffer Smith, but he changed it to Ne-Yo a few years ago. The name is derived from the character Neo of The Matrix films. His producer friend Big D Evans (whose credits include Digital Underground and Tupac Shakur) once told him, ‘You see music like Neo sees the Matrix.’ The name stuck and he has since become Ne-Yo (with the spelling changed for legal reasons).

Ne-Yo grew up in Arkansas, and later relocated with his mother and family to Las Vegas. He became a musical performer when he was a child, and as a teenager, he gained experience by performing in the EFX Show at the MGM Grand Hotel. Ne-Yo also started to write songs, and he became skilled at writing lyrics and melodies. He also began to network and make connections with pro producers and writers.

‘I started getting cuts by collaborating with different production companies,’ he recalled. ‘My first cut was a song called ‘That Girl,’ which was on Marques Houston’s first album. [Throughout this period} I was building connections, and I made sure that I wrote every day. My next cut was ‘Still In Love,’ which was on Nivea’s first album. I also wrote songs for B2K’s movie soundtrack, and for Christina Milian.’

It was in early 2004 that Ne-Yo met Scott Storch, when they were both working on Teedra Moses’s debut album (on TVT Records). Storch invited Ne-Yo to collaborate with him at his studio in Miami, FL, and when Ne-Yo was in Miami a few months later, they got together. At the time, Storch was in the studio working with Mario, so Ne-Yo, Storch and Kam Houff wrote ‘Let Me Love You’ for him. ‘I had just met Mario,’ said Ne-Yo. ‘We knew we had written a very good song, and Mario went into the studio and knocked it out. Mario did a great job of singing it.’ ‘Let Me Love You’ subsequently became a smash single, reaching #1 on both Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts.

It was during the hit period of ‘Let Me Love You’ (in early 2005) that Ne-Yo landed his label deal with Def Jam. ‘When ‘Let Me Love You’ was moving up the charts, I happened to be in New York with my producer friend Sauce (Curtis ‘Sauce’ Wilson, a member of the group Somethin’ For The People). He knew Tina Davis (Sr. VP of A&R) at Def Jam, so we went up to see her. Sauce was talking to Tina, and I was just sitting there. Then I played Tina some of my songs. It was very casual — I wasn’t auditioning for her. When she heard [and liked] my songs, she asked me if I could perform. So I sang right there in her office. Tina was impressed, so she set up a meeting for me to sing that same day for L.A. Reid (Chairman of Def Jam) at his office. Other Def Jam people also came to his office to hear me sing. I felt like a zebra surrounded by lions. But it went well and they offered me a label deal.’

Ne-Yo spent much of 2005 writing and recording songs for his debut album, In My Own Words. The album is an excellent collection of R&B/pop songs, and features solid singing by Ne-Yo. The album includes his first single, ‘Stay’ (featuring Peedi Crakk), and other key cuts such as the midtempo ‘So Sick,’ the old school/R&B ‘Get Down Like That,’ ‘When You’re Mad,’ and ‘Let Me Get This Right.’ In My Own Words should establish Ne-Yo as a prominent new artist in 2006.

Lastly, when asked what advice he would give to aspiring newcomers who want to break into the business, he said: ‘My advice to new writers and artists is ‘ hone your skills. Take the time to hone your skills. A lot of what the business is today, is meeting the right person at the right time. You’ve got to establish relationships and connections. Somebody’s going to hear your music at some point — someone’s going to find out about it. So you’ve got to be ready for when your opportunity comes. When I met with Def Jam (to see Tina Davis), I hadn’t planned on auditioning for them. But the deal happened because I had the songs and I was ready to perform.’

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