A HITS Conversation With Rodney Jerkins

Interview: Michelle S.
Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins is one of the most successful, sought-out producers in music. He’s sold over 150 million records worldwide and won four Grammys and has launched a JV label with Capitol. But his 20-year winning streak promptly ran out when he sat down with HITS’ Michelle S., who proved that sometimes evolution works in reverse.
How did your collaboration with Sam Smith come about?
I was at Capitol and heard Sam’s voice coming out of someone’s office and knew I had to work with this guy, but the album was wrapped. I went to London and met with Nick Raphael. Nick plays “Stay With Me”—just piano and vocal—and says, “We’ve tried seven different versions of it and we can’t get it right. I said, “I think it’s a smash. Let me work on it.” I had just bought a brand new Hammond B-3 organ and hadn’t used it yet. People think there’s a choir singing, but it’s all Sam. He wanted it to sound like a choir for a reason. The production needed Gospel around it. Steve Barnett always says, “you took it to church.”

How did Mary J. Blige get on “Stay With Me”?
I was working with Mary here at my house, and I asked: “So what are you into these days?” and she says “I’m LOVING this Sam Smith song.” I was like, “I did that song! You should go into the booth and sing the second verse right now.” Now mind you, I’ve asked Mary to do stuff like that before and she’s like, No, No—but she had such a connection to this song-- she got up, went in the booth and nailed it.

When did Sam hear it?
It’s of my favorite stories, because it was so organic. We didn’t tell anybody what she did. The following Sunday she performed onstage at Coachella with Sam and Disclosure, but didn’t tell him then. The next day I’m at Capitol to play this for Steve. I walk up there no appointment, right into his office, and who’s in there? Sam Smith. I press play, Sam hears himself singing, he’s looking around like, OK, there’s nothing different. Then the second verse comes on and it’s Mary.

I’m guessing he cried.

He did. His head dropped, and I remember when he looked up he had a tear in his eye. He texted his mother: “I can’t believe my dreams are really coming true. I just sang with the person I’ve looked up to my whole life.”

What is your new label deal with Capitol?
It’s called Evolve Music Group. I have two artists signed, Evan Ross and Smo I’m at a place in my career where I want to work on projects that mean something different to me. That’s what I want all these young producers and executives to understand: in your career you have to be able to evolve, not be one-dimensional.

So you’re evolving yourself into a fulltime record executive.
Sometimes producers get in their own way and can’t be an executive, thinking they have to go and make the hit. I can wear different hats, talk a different language to the artists, and have relationships with other producers and songwriters. This is a real partnership. With Steve Barnett’s wisdom and marketing genius, I feel like we are the deadliest one-two punch in the game. From the creative conversation to the marketing conversation, we have a really unique dynamic.

What direction do you give artists that you work with now?
Let go. Be creative and have fun. No one can convince me when “Rolling in the Deep” was written, Adele sat down and said, “I need to make a radio hit.” That was the furthest thing from her mind. “Billie Jean” came from Michael Jackson being in his car going, ‘dum-dum-dumdum, dum-dum-dum-dum,’ and then calling Quincy and saying, “I got this bassline idea.” I was in a meeting with Jennifer Lopez last week. I told her the same thing: make music that people can connect to. Talk about your life. I think if we can get back into it as a whole in the industry, we can help some of it survive.

How free was your process for The London Sessions with Mary J. Blige?

We have a documentary film coming about the recording that shows you how you can reimagine your career and do things out of the box for an artist of that magnitude. Mary was just in a zone; her vocals were so pure and clear, and I think working with everyone Sam, Jimmy Napes, Ed White, Disclosure, Sam Romans, Naughty Boy, Knox Brown, and Emeli Sandé— really inspired her.

What else is coming up for you in 2015?
Next year is my 20-year anniversary and I’m doing a very special project. Some originals as well as reimagined hits. So for example, I’ll do the “The Boy Is Mine” with Ariana and Jessie J. Sam is doing “It’s Not Right It’s Okay” by Whitney Houston, which Sam told me was the song that made him want to sing. When I asked him if he’d be a part of this project he was like, “No one else can do that song but me!” Sam’s the truth. He has a great heart and he’s genuine. His music speaks for who he is. This is a project I’m really looking forward to.

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