Harmony Samuels Talks Working With JoJo, Fifth Harmony, Ciara, Nathan Sykes and the Future of Music: Interview
The only thing better than shuffling through your fave's back catalog? The promise of what's still to come. And thanks to Harmony Samuels, there's plenty to look forward to in the very near future from some our most beloved pop acts.
The GRAMMY-nominated, England-bred songwriter/producer has worked with plenty of powerhouse acts in the past — from Jennifer Lopez to Ne-Yo to Brandy to Fantasia (among many others) — and is responsible for crafting smashes like Ariana Grande's Top 10 2013 hit "The Way" and Ciara's emotional Jackie ballad, "I Bet."
We spoke with Harmony about his many upcoming projects on deck, including JoJo's nearly decade-in-the-making major label return, Fifth Harmony's Hotel Transylvania 2 soundtrack jam ("I'm In Love With A Monster") and former The Wanted member Nathan Sykes' upcoming solo pop endeavor, as well as hitting the studio with Ciara, drawing inspiration from the underground music scene and providing a helping hand to producers and artists on the rise.
PopCrush: One of the projects you worked on that we're most excited right now, of course, is JoJo.
Harmony Samuels: We wrote a bunch of songs. I couldn't tell you which ones made [the album], but I will say that she definitely has a lot of great songs and she's definitely preparing herself. [Laughs]
It's been a while.
It has been a while. I think the whole world, including myself, is kind of anxious to hear her. I know she dropped her mixtape last year (#LoveJo), which was great. I'm very excited for her. She's just a great presence in the studio. She's writing from her heart — definitely about her. She's so radiant. The craziest part is every time I would record — her voice is so amazing, I'm a fan — I'd be like "Oh my god!" And she's like "I have to do it again!" and I'm like "No, no!" [Laughs] She's a perfectionist! She doesn't half something. Everything has to be a 110%. She's definitely one of the best vocalists I've ever worked with.
Any hints as to genre?
Genre? C'mon, JoJo? Just expect great songs! That's what I would say. You're going to hear them. Some of them are going to be stories. Some of them are going to be parties. It's just a lot. She's got a lot to share. It's been eight years. [Laughs]
Excited to hear it! Another project you've worked on recently is Fifth Harmony, who you've worked with in the past.
My little sisters! They're awesome.
Tell me about working on Hotel Transylvania 2's "I'm In Love With A Monster."
I had the song with me for a while. The record was for something else, actually. I had been to see LA Reid, and LA Reid had been playing ten different songs, and he came across this one and he leaped out of his seat excited about the song. He asked to cut it for the movie, and I'm like, "The movie?!" [Laughs] I didn't think of it like that! An animation? I don't know!" The song was very mature and sassy and sexy. But when we cut it with the girls, they just brought this youthfulness and energy. It just brought a whole other perspective to the song. It was awesome to see. It was kind of heaven-sent — a great alignment. Right time, right place, right song. The girls actually adored the song. They were in Miami recording it, having fun. Within a few hours, we had a very, very great song. And they all got to express themselves on the song, which I love.
There's a lot of personality in this song.
Right. [Laughs] Yeah. You know what else I love about the girls? Because they're all different, you can express different genres and different types. That's what makes them so versatile and I think what separates them from a lot of other groups. I think this is a different side that fans haven't really seen before, and I think they can explore around those sounds.
Talking about the dynamic of groups, I was thinking about The Wanted. You're working with Nathan, right?
Mr. Sykes. Yeah, man!
I was sad they broke up, but I'm excited for him. What sort of sound is he going for solo? Based on the music we've heard, it's definitely different than The Wanted.
I'm executive producing his album. We really had to sit down and understand that Nathan has a unique voice. He doesn't sound like most young people. He has kind of like a mature tone, so we had to make music that fit his voice, but we didn't want to lose his youthfulness, so we kind of gave it a soulful, British, kind of Meghan Trainor — it's own thing though, you can't relate it to one thing — but it has influences of old school and new school and R&B and soul. Big songs. I think it's a collection of different things when it comes to Nathan, because he's such a great singer. He tells some great stories. I'll tell you that. [Laughs]
Yeah, he tells some great stories on the album. Every song has some form of meaning to him.
Does he talk at all about his experience as a boybander?
He doesn't. To be honest, even when we worked with him, he never said anything bad. He misses his friends every once in a while, but I think he felt that it was time for him to do his thing. He's got a unique voice, and with a voice like that being in a group — this is just my personal opinion — but being in a group with a voice like that can be a little bit hindering. I can understand. After we worked together on the Ariana Grande album ("Almost Is Never Enough"), I kind of looked at him, like "You...might need to go solo." And when I heard he was going solo, it made sense! I wasn't surprised.
You also worked with Ciara.
I did like three or four on this album that came out (Jackie) which was awesome, and "I Bet" was the first single that she did. Working with Ciara has been an amazing experience just because I was always a fan of her from when I was younger, so to have the opportunity to be in the studio — she's always happy. I always tell everybody that — she's one of the happiest people I've ever worked with. It could be raining. It could be sunny. I've been the studio pissed off and she'd be like, "Come on, Harmony! Smile!" [Laughs] It was a great experience working on the album. She's very hands-on. She's concentrating and writing...she really poured her heart and soul into this album.
It's very much a statement. "I Bet" is personal. It got a lot of headlines, obviously.
Very. But she did it classy. That's what I loved about it. It wasn't slandering anybody and she didn't put anybody's name out there. She was just being really honest, and point blank — it is what it is. She did it classy, though. She's a classy girl. The single did very well, so I know a lot of fans were into the song. They felt like they got to see another side. Ciara has always been known to be the entertainer, and to have her come this emotional was great for a lot of the Ciara fans.
A lot of people appreciated that she was relatable, maybe for the first time in a long time.
Yeah. She doesn't put her personal business out there, but she's happy right now. She's got an amazing child and I know her and Russell [Wilson] are doing really good. I'm very happy for her, man.
I want to talk a little bit about your earliest work with acts like Alesha Dixon and JLS. Do you keep in contact with any of the British pop acts you've worked with?
Alesha Dixon! I haven't seen Alesha in a long time. JLS, unfortunately, they broke up. One of them has gone solo (Marvin), but every once in a while when I go home, I try to keep up with everybody. A lot has changed since back in the day. Another great artist, Craig David, I saw last year. We got to work a little bit. I do my best to stay in touch with the UK representation. [Laughs] It's a very different time for UK music right now.
It is! The British pop scene is kind of interesting right now compared to even ten years ago. It felt like there was more an explosion of girl groups and all of that. And now, it's definitely heavy in the DJ scene...
Yeah, and you know, we got Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.
Yeah, London is definitely about talent right now, which I love. You're in the deejay world, or you're really a singer-songwriter artist type of person. It's cool, though. It's got a great vibe. I love it over there. Being from there, it's really cool. Now I live in LA. It's weird because when I go home - it's like, I really love home. [Laughs]
How often do you get to go home?
At least twice a year, I'll go home - a lot of the time it's because of business working on different acts over there, like Nathan Sykes' project I pretty much go home as much as possible. I grew up with a lot of people in the music scene, from the executives to the artists. People like Skepta, who's rolling around with Drake right now. Chipmunk. These are people I grew up with. It's a whole bunch of us that kinda came up together. Alex Da Kid, another great producer from the UK who's over here doing very well. I somewhat call it a British invasion. [Laughs]
Yeah, it's very real. What kind of music are you listening to outside of the projects that you're working on?
A lot of music. A lot of DJ Snake and Skrillex. Love those guys. They're awesome. I've been listening to some Arctic Monkeys, experimenting with what I hear — not so much mainstream, but more the underground circuit right now. I always like to pay attention to what may be coming ahead. As much underground music as possible. As much up-and-coming music as possible. I'm always looking to what's new, what's coming and what's fresh. Back to the UK thing: we have Funky House, we have Garage, we have a bunch of Afrobeat, and all of this is being created from the ground up from the streets. You always want to pay attention to what's cool — always ahead of the curve, so that's pretty much where I'm at right now.
Along those lines, you have a project called #MentorFridays, where you pick aspiring artists and producers and mentor them.
When I was coming up in the music industry, it was very hard for people like myself to find help, or even to just find someone to talk to. So what I wanted to do is just offer a few hours of my day once a month to different people and inspire them to do better, keep their dreams up, keep their hopes up and somewhat enlighten their mind. A lot of people don't know my story or where I came from, and then, when they hear it they go "Oh, wow! Maybe I can. Maybe I have a chance to do it." That's the honest reason why I'm doing it. It's a free thing. Twenty people turn up to a private location. I play some music, show them what I'm working on, give them some creative ideas and creative criticism and let them ask questions.
That's very nice of you. How would somebody be able to participate?
If you follow me on either Instagram or Twitter or any social media outlet, once a month, I will put up something asking for singer/songwriters or producers and engineers for a Mentor Friday. The first 20 or so will get a private email with a location and an invite. That's how we did the first one, which was great, because we got almost triple the amount of people, so we couldn't invite everyone. We're thinking of making it a little bit bigger so we can have more people. We want to make it more fair for everyone else. But that's really it. It's on my social page, my website. We promote it on there. People really want to get some help. We might take it to the other cities, because I know a few people in Atlanta want it - New York City want us to come, so we're talking about that, but right now we're just doing it in LA.
You'll have to go global now. Now you've started something.
[Laughs] Yeah, we'll see how it goes. It's really a great experience. It's always a great thing to tell people about stuff that's on the horizon. I think right now, the music industry is in such a great place because it's on the verge of new artists or artists that maybe haven't had the chance to have a shot. I think it's going to be a great year.