September 15, 2010

Bright Ideas

By Lily Zahn

Heather Bright

With placements all over the musical map, from Justin Bieber to Lil Jon, nobody puts Heather Bright in the corner

Try to guess where you’ll find Heather Bright in the studio and it’s a bit of a crapshoot. She might be in the booth singing, or outside writing lyrics, or even behind the soundboard producing. Maybe it’s all three. The singer-songwriter and self-taught producer and engineer has penned songs for some of today’s hottest artists and producers, including Justin Bieber, Toni Braxton, Fantasia, Lil Jon, the Stereotypes, and many more. But her diverse catalogue is only an extension of the musician herself. Raised in America’s Bible Belt, she’s a preacher’s daughter who doesn’t do well with authority. Blending southern charm with a New York City bite and hint of L.A. cool, Bright has a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to use it (just check out her blog, “What Had Happened Was”). With country and gospel roots, hip-hop skills, and rock n’ roll edge, Heather manages to keep her sound unapologetically true to herself, yet full of surprises and innovation. A force to be reckoned with both behind the scenes and in the spotlight, Heather took the time to call Playback and discuss where her eclectic style came from and how she balances writing for other artists and working on her own music.

What was your first introduction to the music industry?

My father was a pastor so I was always around music and in church singing, playing, and writing. So I always did what I do now, just not professionally. Then I was at Berklee for three years, and I came to New York and was working for four years just writing, going into labels, and meeting people. I hit up Josh Sarubin on Myspace. At the time he had signed Pixie Lott and Lady Gaga, and I just really loved what he was doing. I came in [for a meeting], I played some stuff, and he just loved it so he introduced me to David Matthew, the President at Mercury, Jay Brown and Ta Ta, Jay-Z’s guys, and Karen Kwak, L.A.’s assistant. I mean he really just took a leap of faith and loved what I did. He introduced me to my lawyer and my manager now.

Could you describe your writing process a bit?

My writing process is a little bit different for everybody that I work with. The one thing that I can say is that I don’t normally write to tracks. It’s kind of my pet peeve. Most of the time I’m writing from scratch and I’m bringing in concepts.

Does your process differ when you write for yourself versus for other artists?

Oh for sure. It’s a whole different process writing for yourself. I can’t really do the two simultaneously. If I’m doing something for my project, I really have to block out time and shut down for like a month and only work on my stuff and really focus on that.

You’re not only a singer and songwriter, but a producer and engineer. How did that happen, and how did you hone your skills there?

I went in to meet Josh Sarubin one day and I played this record for David Massey and it was a bit of a defining moment in my career as a writer. It was a song called “Refugees,” that if you mention to a lot of A&R’s now, they’ll still remember. And it was just a really cool moment for me. It felt like I had been vindicated, someone was there to say, “Hey, this is incredible.” I went back to Josh’s office and he was like, “So you gotta produce this song now,” cause it was only on piano, and I said, “Well, I can’t. I just don’t have the software that I need, I don’t have the studio time.” And I came into his office one day and he had a check written for me. It’s a true instance of someone who believes in you and puts their money where their mouth is. So that’s how I got it in my head that maybe I really could produce my own records.

So now when you’re producing something, if you have a choice do you also want to engineer it? How does it all fit into your creative life?

If I’m producing, I don’t like to engineer the beat part of it. I’m more of a vocal engineer and vocal producer. I wouldn’t say I’m the best; it’s not what I’m passionate about. There are people who are really passionate about engineering and those are the people I’d like to work with and bring into my sessions. I engineer now by default because I could never afford to pay an engineer. It makes me pretty picky, too. It’s like, if you’re not better than me then we got a problem. I like to work with people who just amaze me.

It’s pretty rare to find a woman behind the soundboard. Do you feel like you have more to prove or find it difficult being a female producer and engineer?

No more difficult than it is to be a woman in the everyday world. There are just things that come with that that you have to deal with. In terms of being a female engineer and being behind the board, the only thing that I’ve really dealt with is people ogling and looking at me like a monkey in a zoo, I suppose because they can’t believe it. You hear a lot of whispers behind your back. You see a lot of people come in, their mouths drop, and then they go out and bring their friends back in like, “Yo, it’s a chick on the board!” It’s kind of a rare thing.

Who are some of your musical influences?

I grew up in Southern gospel with a lot of people playing instruments and it was kind of old, old country stuff. Where my house was was like mostly white people, a few trailer parks, dirt roads, dogs roaming around. It was that kind of a neighborhood, but where I went to school was mostly black people. I think it was like 65/35. So I would travel with them a lot; we were all in a band together. I was touring when I was younger and you know, you’re on a bus with a bunch of kids, we were beat boxing and rapping—I started rapping really young—doing hip hop. I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music at home so when I was away with these kids, it was my moment to really listen to stuff that I loved—and that tended to be Aaliyah, Tupac, old R. Kelly records, a lot of soul, Idina Howard. Then when I was with my white friends, we would listen to great stuff also: the record Champagne Supernova or Incubus or Sheryl Crow. I remember I loved the Ace of Base record. So my influences are pretty far ranging.

That’s reflected in a lot of your work as well. You have a great eclectic vibe.

Yeah, I try to make it as versatile as possible and to mix as much together as I can, because the reality is there’s nothing new. There are eight notes in a scale; you can sing me almost any melody and I can regurgitate another song that was based on those same notes. To me, it’s more about blending flavors and sounds and just putting things together that you wouldn’t expect to try to create something that a listener would say, “Hey, I haven’t heard that before. What’s that?”

You mentioned your musical options at home were very strict. Do you think there’s a correlation between your upbringing and some of your more controversial or racy lyrics?

Oh, for sure. There is certainly a correlation between that and my attitude, by the way that I handle authority. I don’t do well with authority normally. Certainly the person that I am today is based on a lot of things from my past, including how strict I was brought up.

You’ve worked with a lot of big names in the industry already, but who would you still like to collaborate with?

Two come to mind right away: Pharrell—if I got to work with him, I’d be like a kid in a candy store. And Kanye—everything he does is amazing. Now I’m mostly working with new artists and developing them, which I love, but I also look forward to working with really seasoned artists.

What’s coming up next for you?

I have a Britney Spears song coming out on her new album. I’m anticipating it being a single. That’s what I was told, but I don’t like to count my chickens before they’re in stores, ya know? I’ve also been working with a lot of new artists, like Cady Groves, who I’m really excited about. I’m supposed to go to Miami next month to work with Justin Beiber and finish up the Rihanna project.

What about your own material? Any albums or projects on the way?

Yeah, I’m working on my project right now- it’s more of a mixed media project using a new marketing strategy. You know, working with other artists as well, it’s hard to balance the two. Mine hits the back burner more than I’d like, but the only way to go is up and I got a good feeling about it.