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Interview: Amerie, Singer and Songwriter

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Amerie is the perfect example of a person whose physical size does not compare to the size of their heart. Even in the midst of label changes and poor marketing, she has proven her "staying power" by rising, like the mythical phoenix, from the dust.

Amerie's recent move to Def Jam is undoubtedly a calculated move to better her market share in America. Her third project, Because I Love It, never saw the light of day in the States, unfortunately, despite the overwhelming praise the album received in Europe and beyond. So if "Why R U?" is a small indication of what to expect from In Love and War, then buckle up for Amerie's ride to the top of Billboard's music charts.

Upon the release of In Love and War, Amerie managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Because I Love It, "All Roads," and her new record label, Feenix Rising Entertainment.

amerieA couple of years ago, you were quoted in The Independent stating that your guiding philosophy is "life is what you make it." In what way is this philosophy related to your new imprint, Feenix Rising Entertainment? What's the inspiration behind its name?

My business partner Len Nicholson – he is also my manager – and I started a company and we named it after the phoenix, the mythological bird, because it never dies. It's born out of the ashes, it dies and it's born again. We felt that same way about creativity and art and creative energy – that it never dies. So with our new label, we really, really want to nurture talent. We were already doing that beforehand, but when I switched labels from Sony to Def Jam, we really thought it would be great to branch out and start looking for producers, writers, rappers, singers that we could help nurture their talent. I'm signed to the label now as well. So that's really cool – to be on your own label. 

As your career transitioned over to Def Jam, what do you consider to be the biggest professional lesson you learned along the way?

The biggest professional lesson I probably learned is to stay true to who you are and believe in yourself. I don't want to say never take no for an answer but definitely make sure that you don't stop fighting for what you believe in. Whether it's your own sound, whether it's something that you just really feel strongly that should be done – your creative vision or anything like that – just stay true to yourself. That comes from experience. There are so many things that you just have to experience for yourself.

In spite of the crowded music field, you have managed to create your own lane. Although "1 Thing" has been credited as your signature hit, what single do you think has been pivotal in defining you as an artist? 

That's a really hard question to answer because it just really depends. You can't have one single that defines you as an artist at any particular time. Music just defines you at that particular time. Music is like a photograph. It's kind of like saying "Who are you really: your eighth grade picture, your senior graduation picture or your college picture?" You're all of those things at that particular time. "Why R U?" is a very definitive representation of me. But I also have a record like "Tell Me U Love Me," which I did with Teddy Riley, and "Higher," which I did with Warryn Campbell – which have live instrumentation and percussion. That whole vibe was very raw, which I feel is very much true to who I am now, just as "Why Don't We Fall In Love" was very much true to who I was in 2002. It changes. We're never the same people.

When you look back on the recording experience for In Love and War, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

For this particular album, I spent a lot of time writing at home. For instance, I wrote "The Flowers" in the doorway of my bedroom. Sometimes I have to get in the mood. That song was very somber and the track was very sad, very melancholy. So I had to take myself back emotionally to certain situations. I usually don't write songs down. Instead, I usually just write them in my head. As soon as I put the pencil on the paper or the pen on the paper, I usually feel a creative blockage. "Why R U?," for example, was written in my head driving around in New York in the rain. A lot of the New York element, the melancholy feeling of that song, you definitely hear that – the New York rain, cloudy day vibe. As far as recording went, the process was really interesting. I recorded a lot of it in California and some of it in New York, a little bit in Atlanta. It's funny, I used to think that I had to be in one place to do an album. Now, it's no longer a fear of mine. On my next album, I think I want to record it in Egypt. There's a great studio there that I think would be really cool.

You were once quoted as saying that the vision for an album doesn't end in the studio; the vision continues through the videos. With that in mind, what vision do you have for this particular album—starting with the "Why R U?" video? 

The vision for this album…I just really wanted it to be out-of-the-box, something very interesting. I've always had an interest in design and painting and art. In fact, my college degree was in English with a minor in fine arts, so I'm always looking for ways to incorporate that. I think my favorite part of the "Why R U?" video is the part where I sprout butterfly wings. I love the butterfly wings! [laughing] They're great because they remind me of the faeries coloring book from when I was a little kid. It's very big in the UK and overseas. They look like the little faeries that I used to color in my coloring book. I love that aspect. I found a great photographer who will be able to bring that to life. I love the page that he was on, the pulse and everything. I thought that would best represent the packaging and even going with the director. I worked with Tim Bret-Day for the photography and Ray Kay for the directing of "Why R U?" We really want to bring the design element, the graphic design element to the video to help bring to life the overall vision that I had of the project. I really want it to be like a continuation of what we were doing with the overall visual imagery of the project. I'm really happy with it. For the handwriting visuals, we sat down and I wrote the song down a bunch of times and did some doodles. Everything that we did we incorporated into the video so it's a very graphic video, which I love.

Earlier, you alluded to the fact that you graduated from Georgetown University. And looking at the current crop of R&B singers, you're one of the few artists that actually graduated from college. So I have a two-pronged question: what advice would you give the young girls who are still in high school and think they can make it in singing without college? Rephrased, tell me how college prepared you for life as "Amerie," the singer.

You know what? I have to say I advocate people getting their education through high school, even college, but I don't think it's necessarily a must because everyone has their own path to follow. You have to follow your own path. I can't tell everyone that getting a degree is the way because that's just what happened to me. It depends on what you want to do. You might need that degree or spending that time could actually take away from time for something else. It's such a hard question. It's just like saying "You should marry someone or not." Should you marry this person? It depends, you know? I think college prepared me in ways as far as learning about myself. What I can remember is the responsibilities that I had in college, things that I had to do on my own, that no one was responsible for but myself like having a deadline, having to meet it, knowing that I'm accountable for certain things. A lot of time we'll get confused with "That's not my fault; I'm not responsible." It's like you're not responsible for something but just because you're not responsible doesn't mean you're not accountable for that. That's something that I really learned more from my parents, though. But in college, that really comes into play. It really just helped me grow as a person, as a human being. That's what prepared me for this. I honestly feel like it gave me great real life, normal life experience. So when I got into the industry, I had sense enough to know what's real and what's not real. That's probably the biggest thing. 

As a child, you studied dance. But at what point did your interests shift to singing?

You know, I always sang, even at the age when I was doing dance classes and everything. It was something recreational for me to do after school. My parents thought it would be nice if I engaged in extracurricular activities, so I did a lot of talent shows and stuff like that. But it wasn't until my senior year when I thought, "I'm going to try to do this professionally." I still went to college just because I had always been on an academic path and I truly believe in finishing whatever I start. All I knew at the time is that I wanted to go to a great university where there was a lot of culture and just try to get a record deal while I was studying. And that's what I ended up doing. 

One of my favorite songs out of your catalog is "All Roads." Since you write the bulk of your songs, I'm curious to know the inspiration behind the lyrics. It definitely has a Gospel vibe.

Yeah, it was something like a Gospel vibe. I usually have something spiritual at the end of my albums. I wanted "All Roads" to be spiritual without being explicitly so. The song could be about a person as well, but it was definitely coming from a spiritual place first. 

Another song out of your catalog that is really personal is "When Loving U Was Easy." When it comes to love, what lessons have you learned over the years?

Really loving yourself, knowing yourself and be in a situation where you're respected and you're valued – that makes a difference. When you know your value, then you won't allow yourself to be treated in a certain way. I'm not sure if you knew, but I wrote two versions of "When Loving U Was Easy." 

No, I didn't know that. 

They had the same hook but one version – the one we didn't go with – was about bumping into an old lover. The conversation was like, "How's your family? Everything's fine. I'm doing good. I heard you moved on. Everything's all good." And then as the conversation progresses, the bitterness and the anger comes out. It's so funny that you mentioned that song because I forgot that I wrote two songs to that. 

Another song that you may have forgotten about is your cover of "I'm Coming Out" for the Maid in Manhattan soundtrack.

Oh, gosh! [laughing] I haven't even heard that version since the soundtrack was released!

I did a little bit of research and I found out the song was originally released in 1980 – which was also the year of your birth. Outside of that connection, how did you get attached to that project?

The part of getting attached to the project was because Sony – my label at the time – was doing the soundtrack. Corey Rooney approached me about the soundtrack and the idea of covering the song. It was tricky, because I love the original record. I loved what I was doing to it at first, but it was just kind of different, with my own spin. But the movie company for some reason really wanted it to be like the original. And my thing was, "Why don't you just use the original? I mean, it's great." At that time, it was early in my career, so I said: "Okay, cool. I'll do it like this." To be honest, it's one of the only songs of mine that I don't really like. I felt it was so much like the original; it wasn't me. It wasn't the one I did first. Few people would ever talk about this. And I would never do that now, even though I love the original record. 

As you grow in the business, some lessons you have to learn the hard way, I guess. In my eyes, your greatest original work was Because I Love It. Unfortunately, many of your American fans did not have the pleasure of listening to your last album, since it was primarily marketed and released in Europe and Japan. 

Oh, yeah. One thing I can say is internationally, I'm always so blown away by the love that I get. It's so wonderful to be able to go to a country where people don't speak a lot of English, but they really can connect with you through your music. It really demonstrates that music is a universal language.

For more information on Amerie, visit her MySpace page.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Chacob

    I’ve been waiting for Amerie to get this kind of recognition! Well Done!

  • Jun

    Sanaa Lathan, Alicia Keys, Amerie and me in a tub of jelly and I’m GOOD..