Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriter Verse Simmonds
Verse Simmonds' rise to singer-songwriter stardom didn't begin in the U.S., but he saw his fame ascend in East Asia. Simmonds got his start in the music industry 12 years ago after he teamed up with his frequent collaborator, Sham Sak Pase, to work on a burgeoning rapper's debut project. That artist, named Accent, received her first Gold compilation in Japan and throughout the rest of Asia.
"It built from there and that's how I got my foot in the door," he tells VIBE over the phone. With that success, Simmonds didn't let the door slam shut in his face and went on to work with some of your "top 5" artists including Usher, Rihanna, Jay Z, Kanye West, Chris Brown and a whole lot more.
Here, the "Situationships" singer dishes on Rihanna's ever-elusive ANTI album, keeping the true feeling of R&B alive, and piecing together his upcoming album, The Sextape Chronicles 3 for the latest installment of Views From The Studio.
VIBE: Your family hails from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. How does your heritage influence your music?
Verse Simmonds: I think it gives me a broader perspective when it comes to music. We listen to everything, and I was raised in the Virgin Islands, which is a U.S. territory and I grew up listening to everything from soca to reggae music all the way to pop, R&B, hip-hop, even country music as well. It allowed me to have a broader perspective on music overall. Growing up in the islands has definitely influenced my writing ability and how I hear music.
When you were coming up, you were part of the producing/songwriting group called the Juggernauts with Sham "Sak Pase" Joseph. How did you create that dynamic duo?
We were both working for AT&T in the call department at the time. When we met, he was producing music and so was I. I was writing as well and it’s kind of funny because he had a session and it was going the wrong way. He had a writer in there that really wasn’t writing anything worth listening to. He called me in to come help him out and we built from there and kept going. We were partners, and we’re still partners to this day, but we take on different projects at different times and then we just move differently now. We move as two different entities but we’re definitely still one unit as the Juggernauts.
How would you describe your chemistry in the studio with Sham?
It’s dope. That’s my brother. We’re literally hanging out, kicking it and making music at the same time. It comes naturally when we’re working together. That’s how we came up with “Who Gon’ Stop Me” with Jay Z and Kanye West. It was literally us in the studio kicking it, working on the track and then something you hear you hop in the booth and you’re like ‘Yo!’ You go off and you come out like, ‘That’s it right there.’ When it’s me and him in the studio, it’s no pressure. It’s not like we’re in there pressed to create something. We have a very brotherly friendship. We’re just creating music and having family time, and a lot of times his wife is there, his kid comes around as well and we’re really just kicking it. Whatever comes out of it comes out.
What’s the most memorable studio session you’ve ever had?
It was probably with Chris Brown. I walked into the studio and it’s definitely a party. If you know Chris, his studio sessions are like the clubs. You literally come in there and it’s packed. Everybody is having a good time. He’s playing music and I walked in and I’m just chilling, and he just catches a vibe. He goes into this whole dance routine right in the middle of the studio. Right across the mixing board and he’s going off. I’m looking at dude like, ‘This guy is f**king amazing.’ It’s so natural for him, and the stuff that he was doing I’ve probably never seen anyone else do in such a small space. I’m talking about gliding across the mixing board. Just going in like nobody else is there. I was really just sitting there amazed. That’s one of the first times that we actually worked. I was already a Chris Brown fan, but that was the first time where I was really like ‘Nah, dude is different. This dude is on a different level for real.’
What was the writing process like for “New Flame,” “Don’t Think They Know,” and “Love More” for his X album?
All of those sessions were different in its own. For instance, when I did “New Flame” I had just recently played him another record before I did “New Flame” and he heard it and he was like, ‘Eh, I’m not really rocking with it.’ He wasn’t feeling the record. At that point I was like, ‘Hold on, you got me f**ked up' (laughs). I had a different vision. When I went back in to do “New Flame” my whole purpose was like, ‘You’re not going to tell me that my records aren’t crazy.’ I wrote “New Flame” and then he walks in and hears it and it was just that vibe, like this is it. Immediately he ran in the booth and started laying down his parts and stuff.
“Don’t Think They Know” was a whole different process because he wasn’t really there for that one. It was something I created in Atlanta. I had the stems to this dope Aaliyah sample that had never been released. We had permission to use it, that’s where we got her vocals from. I wanted to come from a perspective of him showing appreciation to his fans as well as having this dope Aaliyah sample. When I wrote it that’s what I had in mind. It was just me in a room vibing out with it, seeing what I come up with. I normally don’t write anything down. It’s literally take after take of me freestyling whatever I want to say. The one with Nicki Minaj is something that’s up-tempo, a dance record, but I wanted him to actually have substance behind the record. I didn’t want it to be another dance record where he’s just talking about anything. If you listen to the lyrics of that record, you can see the whole story line of some of his past relationships as well. “You say all you need is consistent love/When I try you say it’s never enough, I messed up.” It’s definitely one of those things that was close to home for him even though it was a dance and fun record. If you listen to the lyrics it’s still something that you can understand what he was going through at the time and some of the relationships that he had going on.
You also worked with Kelly Rowland on “Boo Thang.” You spoke really highly of her. What was that process like in the studio and how did that track come about?
Actually “Boo Thang” is a record that I had for my project, maybe in 2011 I believe. It’s funny because I already had the song done and the song was already out and growing. It was already picked up on radio and this was around the same time she had “Motivation” out. It literally was one of those situations where it was like, ‘Kelly we would like to get you on this record.’ I sent her the record, and she loved it and she got on the record. We didn’t actually get together in the studio. She recorded it on the road and then she sent it to me. We didn’t actually get together until the video for it. We got down to Miami and shot the video. That’s where we started to build from there. Kelly Rowland is a sweetheart. I love Kelly. She’s definitely a dope spirit to be around. She’s always caring, a nice person. You never really see anything besides that. Kelly is definitely somebody I enjoy working with. I enjoyed working with her on her new project as well. Hopefully we’ll hear something about that probably the top of next year.
You also produced “Man Down” for Rihanna. How did you approach that record knowing you’re both from a Caribbean background?
Just to clear this up. My production duo is me and Sham. Sham produced the record and Rock City wrote the record. I didn’t actually do that song. It’s definitely a part of my team. We put the record together. But that’s actually a situation where you put everybody in the room and everybody who is Caribbean are involved in this record. Myself, I’m Puerto Rican and from the Virgin Islands as well. Rock City they’re from the Virgin Islands as well. Sham he’s Haitian, Rihanna of course is from Barbados. It was definitely a Caribbean connection in that record. That’s why people loved it so much. It felt authentic and it felt real. It wasn’t like somebody was trying to make a Caribbean record. It was like, ‘This is what it’s supposed to sound like.’ That’s just the vibe when you put a bunch of Caribbean people in one room that’s what it turns out like. I wasn’t in the session with Rihanna. That was a record we created and gave to her.
Are you working on her new album?
I haven’t really touched on her latest project yet. I think they are still working on it and they’re looking for records. I’m waiting until it’s the final hour and then I’ll get in there hopefully. That’s my plan this time around because it’s so hectic right now with her project. Everyone is trying to land a Rihanna single and hopefully I’ll make it on this project. Mostly I’ve been in the studio a lot with Usher for his project. I’m probably about six records deep on Usher’s project that he’s recorded so far. I’m really excited about his project. I think it’s going to be amazing and I think he’s going to be back in a real way.
Is he going back to the Confessions Usher?
My outlook on it is for him to go back to that and bring that back to life. That’s the angle that I’m coming at him from. But at the same time I understand that he’s a lot bigger than let’s say only R&B. There is going to be, of course, some more poppish or dance type records as well as far as I know right now. But I think the entire feel of the project is going back to that Usher that everybody really loves and appreciates which would be the Confessions Usher basically. That’s the kind of vibe that I’ve been creating for him. Just staying true to that form of music and then making it expand from there. I’m really excited about his upcoming project. We have a lot of dope records.
I know you touched on this earlier on working with Jay Z and Kanye West on “Who Gon’ Stop Me.” What was your reaction when you got the call?
My reaction was literally like ‘who gon’ stop me?’ My whole vibe for that was literally me and Sham walking around the studio like, ‘If we get this man, nobody is going to be able to stop us.’ It was one of those things that just happened to manifest itself into a record. It was a very exciting thing because it was such a classic moment in hip-hop and for the culture because you have two of the greatest putting an album together for the first time. It’s one of those things that’s like just being a part of this is special. I was happy to be a part of that and able to help bring together that vibe because it was definitely a dub step, hip hop vibe that we did with that record and I don’t feel like there’s ever been such a strong version of that before or since then especially because you have Jay Z and Kanye on it, but the whole vibe in itself was just sick to me. I felt honored to even be working on it and even more honored that they would use the record that we did.
You also garnered a deal with Rodney Jerkins early on in your career. Has he mentored you in anyway, learned any lessons from him?
My time with Rodney was very short. I literally came in and did a small joint venture with Rodney. He’s one of the greats in the industry. I think what I mostly took away from that situation was basically just being able to see one of the greats in our time work. Just seeing how he puts stuff together because he’s really amazing as a producer. There’s some stuff that he’ll play and he’ll be going in and you’re like, ‘Wow this dude is sick.’ More than anything I feel it was a great opportunity for me to be around a person that’s worked with great people. That was enough motivation for me. You’re working with somebody who’s worked with everybody from Beyonce to Michael Jackson. It’s just different. It was a special moment for sure.
You’re a prominent songwriter in R&B or music in general, but what are your thoughts on R&B today?
I think that with anything else there is a need for growth. There is a need for reinvention. I think R&B is one of the oldest forms of music that’s stays true to what it is but it’s probably time for it to change. I think that’s a part of R&B, I think that’s where we are right now. We’re in our reconstruction phase for R&B right now. People are still trying to figure out if it still makes money. Is it worth doing it? There’s a lot of R&B artists who aren’t trying to do R&B anymore. It kind of makes me sad because it’s what we grew up on, but I think that the reason that is because I don’t think that those people understand how to help that genre grow. They rather just say that R&B isn’t selling, or it’s not doing this or that so we don’t want to do it anymore. I’m a strong believer in R&B, I’ll always be a strong believer in R&B and I think it’s at a time right now where R&B is ready to change and it’s ready to grow from its original form to something bigger at this point, but still be R&B. Still be traditional in the melodic sense and the lyrical content, but at the same time grow into something that is bigger as far as what people perceive it as on radio and with record sales. It has a lot to do with the kind of content that’s being put in it because honestly R&B is still being sang and praised, but it’s just not necessarily by the urban community. You have somebody like a Sam Smith coming out, that’s R&B music. You have Adele singing, and then calling it popular music but it’s still R&B music. At the end of the day it’s time for it to have a facelift and it’s not necessarily a color thing. It’s a feel thing.
Have you written or produced a song for someone that you feel didn’t get the type of recognition it deserved?
I’m sure that’s happened a lot of times actually (laughs), I just recently wrote a record for K. Michelle called “Hard To Do” that she just did a video for and they put it out. I think everybody loves the record and she had a really good last project. Even though the record was a single I feel that it wasn’t pushed hard enough. Even the record that I did for Tip and Chris Brown called “Private Show.” I feel like that record didn’t get the recognition that it should’ve gotten and it was climbing the charts on its own, but I feel like the label didn’t support it like they should’ve, having two heavyweights like Chris and T.I. on the record. I think it should’ve gotten more recognition but that’s how the game goes. You just have to continue putting out great music and let that speak for itself.
You write a lot about love, relationships, and heartbreak. Do you pull from your own experiences? Do other artists open up to you so that you can pen those personal songs that not only speak to the artists but also their listeners?
I think it’s all a unique balance of my own personal experiences and then understanding what that artist is going through or what they need. It’s definitely a blend of all those things. Sometimes it’s my personal experience. Sometimes I’m taking things that they’re going through and putting it into the lines so that they feel that connection to it. For the most part when it comes to love and heartbreak we all go through the same things, male or female. It’s probably the most common feeling that we all share. Loving someone or being in love, being heartbroken, we’re all at some point or another will go through that. For me it’s just about finding out how to say it from whoever I’m writing for perspective so it’s believable. Trey Songz isn’t going to sing it the same way that Chris Brown says it. They’re going to attack it from two different perspectives even though they’re both male and both sing R&B, one person can say something totally crazy and another person it might not work for their audience if they say that. It’s really about knowing what message you’re trying to get across and for who you’re trying to get it across.
Most of your songwriting credits are based off the connections you have with these artists. Do you find it easier to maneuver within the music industry without that middleman? Is it more organic?
It kind of depends. If you have some really dope publishers who have great relationships and you have great relationships, it’s definitely something that could really be worth having. In my particular situation I just happen to know a lot of these guys or these guys have heard my music before and they respect what I do. It’s one of those things where they feel comfortable having me come in and work with them. The thing about a publisher, most times the greatest value of a publisher is to get you in the rooms with these artists where in my situation I can get into the rooms already. It’s more of a situation where if I did go with a publisher it would be about getting me into the rooms that I can’t maneuver in already. It can go both ways, but for me it just happens to be a situation where these guys are already aware of what I’ve done and they’re looking for a specific thing. They’re looking for a specific feel. They want to be able to reach a certain group of people. I write from a very real space when I do write, and I think people can really attach themselves to it. It’s normally not a bunch of fluff.
What has the process been like putting together your forthcoming project The Sextape Chronicles 3?
The process for me has been really crazy because I’m working on that project, but I’m also working on everybody else’s stuff right now. I’m working on Trey Songz, he’s cutting two records right now. I’m working on Usher, Kid Ink’s project as well. I’ve been working real closely with him. I’m doing a lot of moving around and it’s a little more complex because you’re constantly writing for other people and you’re like I need to get out of that zone and focus on yourself. It’s a little bit of a tug-of-war but it’s coming along really dope. That’s just what I’m used to doing anyway. I’ve been writing for a while and I’ve been doing my artist thing from the beginning so it’s one of those things that I’ve gotten used to it. I’m getting a lot better at it to continue to write for other people and do my own thing. It’s definitely a balancing act.