Introducing Carla Marie Williams, The North London Songwriter Penning Tracks For Queen Bey
Carla Marie Williams may not be a name you’re instantly familiar with, but as far as her words, you certainly will be. Having penned Beyonce’s gloriously politically charged track “Freedom,” lifted from the epic Lemonade album, Carla Marie is a wizard with the pen. The rest of her songwriting résumé is equally as impressive, having worked under the British songwriting and production team Xenomania and now having formed her own writing collective New Crowd Media, Carla Marie has written tracks for the likes of Girls Aloud, Alesha Dixon and Kylie Minogue—alongside Queen B.
“I didn’t go to any special stage school or anything. I worked my way up, I was fearless about it,” she says during our 30-minute conversation. Carla Marie exudes this passion and hunger that not only is inspiring, but genuine; something that’s becoming rare in our social media age. Her 18-year-long career is peppered with lows and highs, but one thing remains constant: she keeps on going.
Inspired by the likes of Mary J Blige and Alanis Morissett and brought up on an R&B diet of Jagged Edge and Jodeci, Carla Marie comes from an honest place. Driven by social issues and a “rebellious streak,” where she wants “things to be right for people,” aside from writing “Freedom” and “Runnin” for Mrs. Carter, she’s also set up her own organization Girls I Rate, which champions female bosses in the UK music industry.
Now, with two Beyonce tracks under her belt, an ever-growing list of songwriting credits and now her own organization, the London-based “Freedom” writer is ready to take on the world, one song at a time. —Kamilla Rose Baiden (@KamillahRose)
VIBE: Your song-writing credits list is so varied. Can you describe your song writing style in three words?
Carla Marie Williams: I know! So varied. I would say I’m writing from the soul, singing from the heart. That’s where I’m at now. I feel I cross genres, I don’t have an exact style, but I would say soulful, definitely soulful.
You’re from North West London, how did growing up in that area give you experiences for song writing material?
It made me hungry. I wasn’t a songwriter when I lived in Harlesden [a town in North London], I was more into singing. Then later on, as I got a bit older, I moved into songwriting. I used to write poetry from young, it was a way for me to write about emotional things. Whether that was a break up between me and a boyfriend, or stuff home like my mum or dad, I just found myself writing poems about it. Then when I was around 17, I met this guy who turned my poems into a song. I read him some lines of my poems and he started playing the guitar and making a melody, I couldn’t believe it, I was like wow, that’s my song! It was crazy.
And before that, did you always keep poetry and singing separate?
Yes very separate, I never imagined them together. After my poem was put to a melody, I was invited ’round to make it a finished song and that was the start of my song-writing career, I was 17. I took all these poems I had and with a guitar, I made melodies and just put them all together. At the time I was also in a girl band. On my down days I used to sit and write songs. I would take them back to the girls and my manager and show him and he was like wow you’re writing songs, how did this happen? Nobody could believe it, when they were sleeping I was working. I would be up on the morning doing work. When they would go back to Glasgow and me back to London, I would be in the studio, writing recording and developing my craft.
Grindin’ from early, I love that. What sounds influenced you?
I’m so heavily influenced by Alanis Morissette. She’s coming from a political angle with her lyrics, which I love. Then Mary J. Blige, she’s more emotive and soulful. With the fusion of the two, I was just this rock-soul girl, with ambiguous lyrics and a rock-soul feel with the delivery and melodies. And that’s where it started.
So do you still perform as a singer?
No, I stopped performing many moons ago. When I started writing for Girls Aloud with Xenomania, I lost my voice for a year. I had severe muscular tension; I took that as a sign to focus on my writing. I was just starting to get more successful as a writer. So I decided to quit being an artist and to be honest, I found a lot of joy in writing songs, not having to worry about myself, what I look like, my sound, direction… I’m just given a brief, I deliver it, and then I can go home and watch EastEnders and Corrie at the end of it [laughs].
You make it sound so easy!
[Laughs] No… well for me, that’s how I equated my love for it. I love writing for other artists, getting into their headspaces and writing from their perspective. I realized that’s exactly what I love.
When you do write songs, do you write from the artists perspective or do you write from you own? And if it’s your own, do you find it weird someone else singing about your personal experience?
It’s a bit of both. For example, with Beyonce’s “Runnin’” that was from my perspective. I was at a very low point in my life, and I didn’t know where else to go or what else to do at that time. So “Runnin’” came from a personal place of searching. But at the same time, when Beyonce heard it and Naughty Boy, they both related to it. That’s the beauty with writing, people relate. But then with some of the other artists I work with like Girls Aloud, they’re a fun act, so I write and tailor songs to them. It depends on the person. If it’s a young artist, I have to write young stuff, not too mature. Then sometimes you have down days, when you just write for yourself, and then it fits an artist. But then if you’re writing with an artist in the room, you take on their persona and tailor it to them.
Now, moving on to Beyonce, you wrote “Runnin’” first, produced by Naughty Boy back in 2015. How did that come about?
I wanted to get back into writing songs after being part of the pop factory. And I started a writing collective called New Crowd. In the collective is Jonathan Coffer, the guy I originally started with, and Arrow Benjamin. I just set up a whole load of sessions. I set up a session with us all to write purely on the piano. That song [“Runnin'”] was one of the songs that came up on that, and Beyonce and Naughty heard it. It was a bit of a tug of war who wanted it, and then we all ended up on it.
That’s so crazy. Moving on to “Freedom” featured on the brilliant album Lemonade, how did that come up? Did you know you were writing it for Beyonce?
Yeah we did. She heard “Runnin'” and she really wanted to meet us and meet with me Arrow and Jonny. I went to L.A., I’ve never really been there to work before. I went and saw her A&R and he was like, Beyonce wants you guys to write for her, and he showed me an email from her with my name in it. I was like, oh my God. He was the first one to play me “Lose It All”—sorry “Runnin’”—because that’s what “Runnin'” was called before. When I heard her voice on it, I felt so emotional, like literally tears running down my face. I didn’t even try to get a record with her, and she took her own initiative to record it. She really is one of the best artists in the world. She wanted to hear more from us, and her team set up some sessions. I’m very pro-woman and pro-black, it doesn’t mean I’m anti-man or anti-another colour. And Arrow, he’s very spiritual, and Jonny is just a musical genius. And the three of us in a room just merged together and took it to the church.
You can really hear the church and I guess the connection you all have in that track.
Yes, Arrow and me have been friends for over 10 years. When we we are together in a room writing, we have this synergy, we just… it’s magic. He comes from the same place as me, I used to listen to Jagged Edge and so did he, and Jodeci and Mary J. We’re really like coming from a singing place. We’re trying to take it all the way. When you’re writing for someone like Beyonce, you know you can take it all the way as she is a vocal acrobat, so we started with an idea. We presented to her a basic idea, then we went back and forth for a bit. She’s very much about female empowerment, so we incorporated some of that into it and within 24-48 hours she had recorded it and the rest is history. She killed it; she’s a workaholic, she literally just goes for it.
Wow. So within like 48 hours the entire thing was done?
From the time she first heard it, she had already gone in and done her thing.
So did you know it was going to make the cut on the album?
Nope, no one knows, it’s Beyonce! I didn’t have a clue, I was in L.A., and I was asking my friend to get HBO so we couldn’t miss it. We had to borrow someone’s password to get online [laughs], it was so funny. Then it came up and we looked online, and we saw “Freedom” on it, we were watching the film, and we was like where is it—because it’s quite late down—then I saw it and was screaming.
That’s wild. Did you know Kendrick was going to be on it?
I heard through the grapevine, but I didn’t know until that day. It’s crazy, I heard whispers that Kendrick was on it and Just Blaze was producing. But I never heard. I heard the Just Blaze version, minus Kendrick. But you can never know, things always change, and then it came through. I’m just so happy we got to make such a legacy song.
It’s just a really fitting song and ties in nicely with so many of the movements happening across the world.
It has a real message and sentiment to it, and I’m all about that. I have my thing Girls I Rate, all bout embowering women in the UK music industry. I’ve been self-managed for about 10 years. I took on management for about a year and to be honest, it is tough, being a black woman in a male dominated industry. I started Girls I Rate on International Women’s Day, nominating girls I rate within the UK Music industry. And they nominated women they rated. It was really good to see women celebrating each other. We had a final even where 95 of us met on the Embankment, Channel 4 came down. There were just a lot of people in the UK scene there. Off the back of that, I’ve launched Girls I Rate Arts Academy for 16-25 girls who want to get in to the industry; I’m doing that with MOBO and Metropolis. I’m doing a song-writing weekender. The girls will have an opportunity to work with me for a weekend, sit with me in the studio, [see] how I write and craft a song. It’s going to be great.
That’s so fitting with the “Freedom” track, too. At the moment, both in music and a lot of other creative industries are realising that women and also women of colour need to be recognised, so it’s the right time for it.
Exactly, it’s all about supporting each other. It’s a vehicle, it’s about helping each other and building a great network of women within the industry. I used to be a youth worker, so I have this like social element built into me. I have this rebellious streak, where I want things to be right for people, things needs to be equal. I’m quite outspoken.
What is your personal favourite song Lemonade, aside from “Freedom”?
I love “Hold Up,” I love “Sorry” and “All Night.” Thing is I heard some of the songs before. The place we was coming from, she [Beyonce] wanted something more similar to “Runnin’.” I’m Jamaican, and when I hear things like “Hold Up” I’m like damn, I could have written that! But you know, wasn’t meant to be this time.
Next album man!
[Laughs] Definitely. I’m also thinking Rihanna too. I would love a Rihanna cut man. I think it’s year of the diva. I would like to work with anyone from Jennifer Hudson to Pink. I would love to work with Kelis on her new album. Things with Brittany, icons like Gwen Stefani. I like working with icons and diva’s, the ones who can really sing. UK wise I love Rudimental, but I’m also a fan of the girls coming up from the UK like Ray BLK and Nao, Ms. Banks. I want to embrace the UK black girls coming through, it’s hard!
You’re so pro-women, it’s great!
It is great. Like it’s weird, everything makes sense now. I have the biggest advocate in the world saying the message I want to say for myself for women. It’s weird because even if you look back on my Instagram and Twitter, you’ll see me ranting on about women or black issues, and I truly feel passionate abut it. I’ve been in a mostly male industry, and when I was in the pop writing camp I was the only black person at the production company for three years. So to come through that, sometimes you sit and ask why am I the only one here.
I think sometimes people also forget about the songwriters. It’s good to see people now getting credited.
We create the music for these people, we’re their voice, we write for them, we create their vehicle. It’s weird because often a lot of girls don’t realise there’s other things you can be doing instead of being in front of the camera. You can still do things; feel satisfied and still get paid.
So, what else are you working on?
Ah, I’m not allowed to say! I work with so many high profile artists I sign so many disclaimers, I often find out on the day like everyone else. I’ve got something hot coming out in the next few months which is hot. I’m just happy I’m flying the flag for the UK. You know I’m a girl, I didn’t go to any special stage school or anything. I worked my way up; I was fearless about it.
Even in you music you highlight your ups and downs and you make them relatable for everyone.
Yes, it’s like a roller-coaster, you have to hold on through the ups and hold on through the downs, keep your vision in front of you. I always say, never put your eggs in one artist, if you can write songs do it, give the songs away! There are so many things you can do that amount to creativity!