From the outside looking in, songwriting seems like an easy enough craft. When we put on the radio and hear a catchy song, we think to ourselves that we can write something like this. J Warner and his experiences prove that being able to write is not enough. To hear him speak about his upbringing, music and his songwriting proves that he is a student of the arts, and that it isn't as easy as it seems. From working with the likes of JLS, Tinie Tempah and Wretch 32, J Warner has absorbed the world around him and poured it into his music. Ahead of the release of his forthcoming EP, Est 1990, we took some time to find out just who the singer-songwriter is.
CM: How are you man?
J.Warner: I’m very well, just had a studio session.
CM: How did that go?
J: Yeah it’s cool man! It’s been going good.
CM: Was that for the new EP?
J: No it’s not, I’ve kind of finished all of the songs for the EP. So now I’m just trying to stack loads of new ideas and stuff. I’m just getting so many new ideas.
CM: What kind of ideas do you have and where do you get that inspiration from?
J: To be fair, everything right now, even with the EP, has kind of been a body of work that I’ve just experimented with and I haven’t really tried to stick to one type of genre.
I guess being a young British black person growing up, it’s like all of the influences have come together. Sometimes, you’re going to hear trap mixing into breakbeat and then it might go into a jazzy R&B section. Right now, I’m literally just experimenting.
CM: So you first got into music through singing at church, when did you first decide that it’s something you wanted to do?
J: Do you know what, it’s a funny story. It was in school, I think I was in year ten, and we got options to choose two extra subjects and I chose music as one. I went into the lesson and the teacher was like, ‘oh I’m going to choose three people to do singing lessons’, I wasn’t even singing at those times. I was making grime beats and trying to spit bars, everyone thought they were emcees at that time.
She chose these two girls and then she chose me, obviously I was like ‘nah I’m not on that’, she was like ‘nah you’ve got to do it.’ So I went to the singing lesson and the teacher said that I had so much potential, and I should carry on and do it. Then I had to compose a song and that was the first time I actually produced a song to sing on, which went okay. I thought ‘cool, this is kind of good’, so I started researching vocal training and how singing works.
I left school and went to music college. That’s when I decided that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make that transition into being a singer and I guess because I was producing and writing my own bars, I was always creating anyway so songwriting was a natural thing to me. That was the birth of J Warner.
CM: Is there anyone you look to as an inspiration when it comes to songwriting and singing?
J: Songwriting wise, my top writer definitely ranges. Chris Martin from Coldplay, I think his melodies are just winning all the time. Gary Barlow’s a sick writer and then there’s James Fauntleroy and Frank Ocean.
Frank Ocean is one of my main inspirations, because he changed the way I look at songwriting. When he came out with his body of work, I think it was the nostalgia/Ultra mixtape, that was a turning point because he was writing about all these things and everything he says I can see, he writes very visually. He might just sing something random- but you’ll see it. I felt like I had to adopt that trait and make sure that when I write, it’s really visual. I feel like my writing style, after listening to Frank and all these other people, is quite conversational. So in the EP you’ll hear that a lot of the writer talking to the listener. Yeah man, those are like my main inspirations in songwriting.
Singing wise, that varies as well. Until the age of seven or eight, all I listened to was gospel music and I was born into the church essentially. So it was a lot of Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary, there was a lot of that going on and then I got introduced to secular music.
That was pop at the time so Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child and all these people. Obviously I always watched Michael when I was younger and he was one of the only people I was allowed to watch when I used to have to go to church. The first secular artist I came across was Michael Jackson, then Brandy was a big inspiration, just the way she does her harmonies, melodies and tone of voice, no one really sounds like her. Quite a lot of female singers as well, weirdly Beyonce because of her technique of singing and Jasmine Sullivan. Then there was the other side so Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, his tone is ridiculous.
CM: Is there anyone on a personal level that’s guided you through songwriting, especially when you were first starting out?
J: I learned a lot from one of my past managers, a guy called Shabz. At the time, he approached me as a songwriter, rather than an artist and he was already in the publishing world. He understood how everything worked and saw the potential in me, so he started sending me beats. I was heavily influenced by R&B and soul, so when it came down to me trying to write songs or hear good cuts, it was quite difficult.
To get the good cuts, you’ve got to write pop so then I had to write pop songs. I was kind of ignorant to it at first and I didn’t really feel like I needed to listen to pop, you hear songs on the radio, so I just thought you write something like that. Pop is probably one of the hardest genres to write because there’s a thin line between it being a really cheesy song or a great pop song, that’s what I had to understand. I used to write loads of songs over these pop beats and he used to be like ‘stop writing an R&B song over a pop beat.’ I had to realise what he meant by that.
He used to keep sending me beats and made me write, he used to give me really good criticism. I think I wrote 170+ songs in one year and in that year I grew so much. I definitely learned the most throughout that time, in regards to being a songwriter.
CM: What was the secret to writing those pop songs and the difference to writing an R&B song?
J: There’s just a lot less going on in pop. Pop is more about the catchy melody, the melody that sticks in your head. If I was to hum something and I asked you what the melody was, you’ll know what it is straight away because it’s that catchy. That’s the first thing I had to learn and then the actual lyrical content.
Depending the type of artist you’re writing for and the kind of pop song you’re doing, that’s probably the hardest part to be honest. just because of the concepts, what you’re going to write about and how you’re going to deliver it. I think the main thing about songwriting is literally your delivery of the words. Essentially every melody has been used before and everything has been said so it’s just how you deliver it, which sets apart great songs and okay songs. For example, whoever wrote ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele relates to so many different people and that’s a great pop song.
With R&B it’s different and depending on what type of R&B you’re doing as well, vocally you’re more free so you can do your little riffs and runs. There’s stacked harmonies, three part harmonies and in pop it’s very much lead vocals and then in the chorus you might get a two part harmony. There’s really not too much going on, there aren’t as many adlibs. Whereas with R&B, if you listen to a Chris Brown song, you’d hear him riffing and singing all over the chorus.
CM: What was it like working with JLS and Tinie Tempah in the past?
J: The session I did was only with one member, they did this thing where they would split up and do different sessions and bring all of the stuff back. The session I did was with JB and I thought it was really good. I learned a lot from him, in a sense that because he’s in the pop realm he understands how pop songs work.
Also because they’ve been in the situation where they have no choice but to sing pop and because they’re lovers of R&B, I feel like we had a connection. Working with Tinie was a bit different, I still learned a lot from working him. Tinie’s very specific about what he wants and he’s the kind of person that will keep going until we get it right. If he hears something he really believes that it could turn into something and he’ll put his time and effort into it. I remember doing the hook for him on his Happy Birthday EP and at the time I remember that was a big deal for me.
CM: That’s cool, so how did Chill Chase come to life?
J: Chill Chase is a weird one. It was done at the beginning of last year and my boy, who’s one of my main producers, sent me a voice note of it and I heard the first sound that comes in. I’m hearing it through Whatsapp so I’m thinking it’s poor quality but it made me feel awake. Then I played it out of some speakers and the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘I fall deep and memories chase my mind.’ Then I just laid it as a guide and then it turned into a chorus. I went away and then came back to it and the verses came to me.
At this point, I’m writing the verses but I don’t even know what the song’s about and I’m just writing what I’m hearing in my head. So I’ve done the first verse, then the chorus and I thought this was sick, mad deep. Then I sent it to my manager and he said it made him feel awake. I sent it to another friend who asked if I wrote this because of that ‘Murdered By My Boyfriend’ thing but I didn’t actually watch it. I checked it out and I thought that it was so deep. The fact that I wrote it subconsciously was because maybe I heard everyone talking about it, so that’s probably why it came out the way it did. At that moment, I knew it was going to be on the EP.
CM: How did working with Wretch 32 come about?
J: I was working with Wretch throughout last year on his album and stuff. I was waiting to get to a certain point before I played it to him. Wretch is one of my favourites and I was just gassed to be in a session with him and working on his stuff. So we just built a relationship and then one day I hollered at him and asked him to come down to the studio. At this point no one had really heard it, so I played him the EP and we had another song we actually wanted to put him on. Then we got to Chill Chase. He was like ‘what is this? I want to be on this song.’ My manager and I were scratching our heads as to who should feature and I felt that the only person who could be on it on was Wretch. We only had one day where it could be done, and it needed to be wrapped up by Christmas, so I couldn’t even be in the session. Which proved to me how sick Wretch really is. I wasn’t there and I didn’t have a doubt that he wasn’t going to deliver but I felt because the song was so close to me, I needed to be there.
My manager went to the session and he said Wretch was there chilling and having a conversation about the song. Wretch was there soaking everything in, just writing the lyrics in his head, then he was ready and laid his verse. I’ve never heard Wretch go in like that, he was spazzing out on some Eminem shit and that was the icing on the cake. It was crazy.
CM: What kind of stuff can we expect to hear on the EP?
J: This has been the hardest thing because when I asked Wretch what he would call my EP and he said ‘three-dimensional’. Est. 1990 has taken everything, all these experiences and me just falling back into being a songwriter for a certain amount of time. Digging deep to understand and get this body of work. Essentially, that’s why I called it Est. 1990 because of all of these influences. It’s just a musical journey, like one long film, and it takes you to different places.
STREAM "CHILL CHASE" BELOW & FOLLOW J WARNER ON FACEBOOK, TWITTER & SOUNDCLOUD
Interview led by Jesse (@MarvinsCorridor)