Trey Songz: Behind the Pen

Songwriters turned singers is the new hustle. When singer Trey Songz got his feet wet in the music industry, he unintentionally took the same route.

Being able to write his own songs gave him an edge over R&B artists that were used to crooning to other people's words. The 22-year old songwriter turned performer has been called the future of R&B by Diddy, and worked with Aretha Franklin, who was featured on his debut album. The prince of Virginia has managed to stay afloat in the music industry at a time when cookie cutter R&B artists are more common for their crossover appeal than their talent. With the release of his latest album Trey Day, Trey is honing his craft and perfecting his work ethic by staying heavy in the songwriting, collaboration and mixtape game. For Trey Songz the music industry is definitely a business; and like any business-minded individual, he keeps his options open. Listening to him speak, you would think he was a veteran expert on the trials and tribulations that songwriters face. Stepping into the spotlight from the inside out isn't a sure fire way to gain success. After all, there’s a possibility of just being known as the person who wrote that hit for somebody else. In the middle of a busy promotional tour, Trey talked with AllHipHop Alternatives about transitioning from writer to performer and why it's not as easy as you may think. Alternatives: You were a songwriter long before you became a solo artist. How did you get started writing songs?

Trey Songz: Initially I didn't take any of this seriously, but when I got into it, songwriting was a very important part of it. When I started singing, I had to make songs to sing. So it's a craft that I started to study and take seriously, and I'm still writing to this day. It's great to be able to express what you want to say on a record.

AHHA: Is it easier for you to write songs for yourself or for others?

Trey Songz: In a lot of cases I just write anyway. I don't think of songs to be for myself when I write them. I was taught to do that. Going into an album situation I do, but when I'm just writing songs, I don’t think specifically about myself. I just think about songs that people can relate to.

AHHA: In the back of your mind as a songwriter, was becoming a performer a goal?

Trey Songz: It’s definitely something that I've grown into. I'm growing more even to this day. Being on stage is something that I did back in high school with talent shows and stuff. It was always a cool experience for me, but when I stopped doing those talent shows and getting into the studio aspects, I had to deal. I had to find out who I was on stage and where my spacing was.

AHHA: I'm noticing a trend of songwriters becoming performers, so much so that almost seems like a pre-requisite to be a good R&B artist. What are your thoughts?

Trey Songz: It's funny because with rap if you didn't write your own rhymes you didn’t get respect. But with singing, it really never mattered because I guess people viewed it differently. With me, I’ve always looked at it that way. I love to write my own songs and tell my story because I feel like nobody can tell it better than me. It’s funny because the biggest record that I’ve ever had, which is “Can’t Help but Wait” wasn’t written by me. That’s because a lot of things in the game have changed. A radio record is a certain kind of record; to be able to pop it has to be in a certain format. So as far as songwriters becoming artists, if you’re a good artist, I don’t have a problem with that. Certain songs are for certain people and certain [songwriters] know how to fit a song with the artist – if you have the ability to pull that off. Certain songwriters shouldn’t be artists; some artists shouldn’t be songwriters.

AHHA: Is that an easier way in the door?

Trey Songz: I don’t think so. A lot of songwriters out there can’t get on, and when they do get on they have a hard time popping off as an artist. When you’re labeled as a songwriter, people know you for that. A lot of people have problems getting off the ground when they step into the artist plateau. Ne-Yo I think is the first artist to do that successfully. Now you have Dream that‘s coming out. You also have Johnta Austin – who actually wrote “Can’t Help but Wait” – who’s having a difficult time. I think he’s a great singer/songwriter, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with his artistry. It’s hard out there. The industry has a thing about it that won’t allow them to process it correctly. They try to pigeonhole you sometimes.

AHHA: I can tell that you learned a lot being on both sides. So it’s just basically a bunch of politics involved?

Trey Songz: It’s most definitely a bunch of politics – from radio to deals. Everything you can think of has a political side to it in this game.

AHHA: And when you saw that political side did that deter you?

Trey Songz: Sometimes it can deter you but you have to roll with the punches. You have to learn how to play the game. It’s a compromise with everything, if you understand that it’s a business that you’re involved in. My manager told me early on that you’ll understand this game and everything in life a lot clearer if you understand that it’s something that they want from you. Once you understand what somebody wants from you, you understand how you work it to get what you want from them.

AHHA: What is your ritual when writing songs? Do you write stuff down as soon as it comes to you, or do you set a certain tone to write a song?

Trey Songz: I usually don’t have an atmosphere. I keep my Mbox and my mic with me, where I actually record in my hotel room. I was brought up – as far as recording is concerned – recording in any type of environment; being able to record with people around, being able to write in a room full of people. It’s a lot of writers that have to have the lights down, candles on, aromatherapy. I’m not joking. It’s a lot of writers and a lot of artists that have to do things a certain way. If I was in a more stable environment where I wasn’t an artist and I wasn’t on the road all the time, I probably would have a ritual that I did. But as of now, like when we were in the process of recording Trey Day it was a different studio, a different city, a different state all the time. You had to get it how you get it. In a lot of cases, if I think of something, I’ll write it down in my Blackberry. I find myself writing down more raps than songs.

AHHA: How many songs did you write on your latest release Trey Day?

Trey Songz: I wrote 12 songs – actually 13 songs, but one is just an intro.

AHHA: Was there a certain approach that you took to this album as opposed to Gotta’ Make It?

Trey Songz: It was a more adult approach. I felt like people get more into my world on this album. The first album, it was where I was at that point. It was an introduction to the music industry and the whole world for that matter. Just giving them a taste of what I can do. Being that, I have a fan base now of people that know me for what I do, be it mixtapes or features, I think that all of those are combined together on this album. It’s a good album that you can listen to all the way through. I try to have songs with substance and content. Songs that you can definitely feel and relate to.

AHHA: You mentioned mixtapes. I know that you’ve been heavy in the mixtape game, which is usually reserved for rappers. Why did you decide to take that route?

Trey Songz: In the process of doing my first album, recording records and the merger between Kevin Lyles and Lyor [Cohen] came over, my project got delayed. I just wanted to be heard, and it was so much music being done so I was like, “I could jump on these dudes’ records and put it on mixtapes.” A small fan base brewed up from that. When I did “Trapped in the Closet,” that was one of the biggest mixtape records that I ever did. I’m kind of known for taking people’s records. It’s always somebody’s record out there that I like and I just do it.

AHHA: So you see yourself doing more mixtapes if the feeling hits you?

Trey Songz: Oh yeah, I’m still doing mixtapes to this day. I got a mixtape coming out next week with DJ Finesse.

AHHA: Why did you decide to rap on this album?

Trey Songz: When I did the mixtape thing, it was kind of like a singing rapper. Lyrically I’ve always been clever and witty. I just sang it and put a melody to it. Before I got my deal, rapping was something I was into just as much as singing. I took neither one of them seriously; it was something I played around with as far as both of them go. I was rapping a lot on mixtapes, and that’s where it came from. When I was putting my mixtapes together, it was easier to rap than it is to sing. With singing, you have to have backgrounds, harmonies, and you have to make sure the note is correct. When it’s rapping, it’s one take, so it’s easier and it’s faster and I just wanted to do it.

AHHA: Are you going to put a rap album out? Is that the next step?

Trey Songz: I don’t think so. Right now what I’m doing as far as my rapping and stuff, if people want to hear me rap, they’re going to go look for it. It’s going to be definitely underground just like my mixtape stuff was before. I find a lot of people are asking about it. That isn’t anything I’m trying to purse heavily, it’s something I do just because I enjoy it. If you want to hear it you can go get it.

AHHA: You do obviously know a lot about music. When it comes to your albums, how hands-on are you with the total production?

Trey Songz: I’m very involved in every process that’s going on with the album. Whether it be videos, song order, the mixing of the record, who we’re recording with…I’m very involved. I don’t do too much that I don’t want to do, but it’s a lot of politics in this game, so you have to compromise at some point. But at the same token I’m very involved with everything that goes on with me. Not even just albums – just Trey Songz period.

AHHA: Tell me about the project with Nina Sky?

Trey Songz: I’m on their album. I had some stuff I wanted to do over on that song, but I don’t know.

AHHA: So you’re a perfectionist huh?

Trey Songz: Somewhat.

AHHA: How did the Nina Sky collaboration come about?

Trey Songz: Cipha Sounds, he’s a friend of the family. He looked out for me. He was one of the first cats in New York that was holding me down as far as radio is concerned. With Hot 97, he was spinning my records, so when he said he needed a favor it was no problem. I went to his crib and we laid the record down. I recorded my own vocals and all that.

AHHA: What is it that makes you want to work with a certain artist? We know that money does have something to do with it.

Trey Songz: Definitely. Anybody that tells you that money doesn’t have anything to do with who they work with is lying. But I don’t get paid for a lot of projects that I do. I work with people that I genuinely think are talented. I know Nina Sky can really sing. I don’t care about their hits. I think they’re talented. I work with cats that are real.

AHHA: Not that it’s a formulated guide, but is there a step-by-step process to writing a hit song?

Trey Songz: You can have your own style, you can be writing your own type of songs, but when it comes to what determines a hit right now, it’s if kids can sing along with it. Doesn’t matter if it’s an adult song. That’s why “Bed” is working, that’s why “Umbrella” is working. That’s why “Can’t Help But Wait” is working. It’s redundant. But at the same time, don’t sacrifice yourself. Don’t give your heart up. If you believe that something is real to you and you want to write, you stick to it. You just find a way to fit it in that format where it becomes a hit because that’s all that matters.