Songwriting, producing, and singing all hold equal worth in the musical mind of Sean “The Pen” Garrett. For the last six years, he’s shown his compositional and arranging talent through 15 #1 hits for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Usher, and Fergie. Now, the Atlanta-born performer is delivering the goods himself with the upcoming release of his U.S. debut album, Courtesy Of.
A cutting-edge approach is the key to success, according to Garrett. “When I first did ‘Yeah’ for Usher — before anybody heard the record, it was so different that it just took everybody by surprise. I had the same reaction to ‘Break Up’ by Mario. It was like, ‘I don’t know about this one; the beat’s a little different.’ But that’s what I do. If you look at my catalog, I try to swing the pendulum. I’m known for records like ‘London Bridge’ for Fergie; The Pussycat Dolls’ ‘Buttons’; Ciara’s ‘Goodies’; “Blindfold Me” and “Bossy” by Kelis; and Beyonce’s ‘Ring the Alarm.’”
The Pen’s current recording collaborations with rapper Nicki Minaj — “Massive Attack” and “Get It All” — are further evidence of his passion for innovation. “I purposely knew that everybody wasn’t going to get ‘Massive Attack’ at first. It’s meant for Nicki Minaj fans to get that record, and then the rest of the world, because you’ve gotta really love Nicki and be a part of what she does. Me and Nicki share three things: we’re very strong minded; we’ve got a lot to prove; and we’ve been through a lot. So, we feel like it’s a ‘Massive Attack’ on the industry, showing the world our perspective.”
“Massive Attack” evolved from the duo’s first collaboration, “Get It All,” which has been released as the first official single from Courtesy Of. “I played Nicki a couple of records off my album, and there was one that I wanted her to get on. She heard ‘Get It All’ and went crazy, like, ‘I was thinking I want to get on that,’ and I was thinking the same thing! She really delivered big for me, and in turn, I started playing her some other records. I played her this one that I thought could be huge for her, and that record was ‘Massive Attack.’ I played it again, and she said, ‘That’s the direction that I want my album to be in.’”
Sean reminisces, “‘Get It All’ relates to me starting when I was in sixth grade. The verse is, ‘She caught my face like a Kodak that couldn’t shake the weather/The storm had nothin’ on this chick named Heather/Damn, every time I seen her, it was just after a break-up/But you know niggas and girls, how they quit and they make up.’ Then, I’m in college, in a relationship with my girlfriend, when I see a girl that I knew back in sixth grade that wasn’t so hot to me then. But now, she’s incredible. She’s telling me that the girl that I’m with now ain’t good enough to be my girl. That’s relatable to everybody’s life, whether you’re rich, poor, black, white, Chinese — it doesn’t matter.”
“Get It All” finds Garrett both vocalizing and rapping. “I don’t ever like being in a box,” he says. “I’ve got a record with T-Pain and Lil Wayne (‘Girls on Girls’) that’s swag R&B. There’s records on my album where you can hear me crooning, but that gets boring. I want to give the fans all of me. I’m a lot of different people inside this one person.”
One side of Sean’s multifaceted persona is a very soulful one with deeper roots. Take, for example, “Papers,” the recent #1 R&B single that he penned for Usher. “I took that church emotion that Usher had and put it into a song, then produced it to where it could work in the club. Even though it was a slow song, it felt like it could work at home or on the radio. It was a mood, with church chords on it. By saying, ‘I damn near lost my mama,’ everybody could feel it — but it was based in his situation. He comes from a single-parent home, and that’s all his mama knows: that she’s got two sons. Some people would say, ‘What does that have to do with the song?’ It’s an emotion.”
In fact, he describes Courtesy Of as a sort of “emotional roller coaster. It’s going to embody all of the scenarios that I had to go through — whether it was love, the business, or people saying, ‘You belong in this box and you shouldn’t do anything else.’ What I’ve done is incorporate that into songs about love and life. That’s why it’s called Courtesy Of.
For Sean, producing is just as important as songwriting. “People misunderstand what writing is. It’s not just writing down some words; it’s producing. Look at great producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, and R. Kelly. R. Kelly is a great songwriter, but he’s a great producer, too. I know a million producers that do tracks, but there’s a difference between being able to do a track and produce a song. Producing vocals is knowing to take out certain cymbals, knowing what kind of crash won’t work. You have people who do beats, but they lack the sensitivity in the music. When you have the lyrics and you sing it a certain way, then go behind that and add strings and chords and certain drops — that makes you feel like, ‘Damn, that’s a great club song, but it feels like an emotional sex song.’ Or, ‘That’s a great club song, but it also works at home when you’re by yourself just chillin’.’ That’s producing.”
Always looking for new artistic outlets, Garrett frequently collaborates with other producers. He particularly takes pride in his work with Swizz Beats, including Beyonce’s “Diva,” “Get Me Bodied,” and “Upgrade U.” He notes, “Not only is Swizz a great creative partner, but he’s a very good friend to me. We connect on a different level. We’re both real artists and really artsy people. So we talk about art, our car collection, different sides of the world, and our experiences traveling abroad. We do great music together because we’re both maniacs when it comes to music, and we’re not afraid to stretch out and be extremely creative.”
“The Pen” can vouch for the fact that business complications sometimes hinder the creative channeling, to the degree that his first album, 2008’s Turbo 919, was only released in Japan. He recalls, “When we were getting together that album during my stint at Interscope, the Asian people were so ecstatic about my album. They were the first to go, ‘We don’t want to wait until you decide to release this album in America; we want that album now. So, the record company forced me to release it there first. Even though it was a great thing, I didn’t have a lot of control as an artist. The label made a decision that was instant sales for them. It put me in a compromising situation, because I knew that the album would leak to America, and I wouldn’t get the full push. Fortunately, the Asian market has been incredibly supportive. It’s been a blessing. There are only a few American artists who really work in Asia.”
Parts of Sean’s childhood were spent in Germany and England — another contributing factor to his edge. “That’s what has given me the opportunity and ability to do so many types of records,” he says. “You’ll definitely get a hot-ass album from me. No question. I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing this for the straight-up, pure love of wanting to share this with the fans. That’s it! This is what I really do, day and night.”
For an audio version of this interview, please visit Blogtalk Radio.