Singer-songwriter Ne-Yo

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses one of his idols, the late Michael Jackson, as well as his acting career and the new film Battle: Los Angeles.

Before starting his recording career, Grammy-winning artist Ne-Yo was a chart-topping songwriter for some of music's biggest stars. He then switched hats and, in five years, produced three No.1 CDs, sold more than 10 million copies and now has his own recording studio and label. Ne-Yo began writing at an early age and looked to Sammy Davis, Jr. as his idol. He also expresses his creativity in the film world—writing music and appearing on screen. His fourth studio project, the concept album "Libra Scale," was released last fall.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ne-Yo back to this program. The most recent project from the Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer is called “Libra Scale.” You can also catch him opposite Aaron Eckhart in the upcoming film, “Battle: Los Angeles.” More on that in a moment. First, though, from “Libra Scale,” here is some of the video for the single “One in A Million.”
Tavis: I read a couple places where you said this project, “Libra Scale,” was really a tribute to Michael Jackson. All your fans know your adoration for Michael Jackson.
Ne-Yo: Absolutely.
Tavis: I guess the question I want to ask is what’s the relationship like when you have an idol who is living, and then how does that change, how does it impact you, your work, your dancing, when that icon is no longer on the world stage, when they’ve transitioned, as Michael did?
Ne-Yo: Well, Michael Jackson’s passing was especially difficult for me, in that like you said, it’s no secret to anybody that he was a huge inspiration and he’s basically one of the reasons that I have been doing music. I’m happy that I got to meet him one time before he passed. That was one of those things that are in the back of my head forever, one of those memories that will never fade away.
Now that he’s not here anymore, I feel like it was kind of an overwhelming feeling of I have to not so much carry the torch but just keep what it is that he stood for, as far as musically, alive. We’re falling into a place where melody is somewhat lacking in music. Everybody feels like okay, too much melody or too much harmony and it kind of goes over people’s heads, they don’t understand it.
Michael Jackson believed in making music that made people feel good. It’s not always about money or always about sex or whatever the case may be. It’s just a song that makes you feel good. That’s the kind of music that he did, and that’s the kind of music that I try to produce, in the fact that the one who basically showed me how to do it is not around anymore.
Tavis: So that’s one side – one side of the coin is that Michael inspires you to do what you do, and were it not for him you might not even be in the music business, as you said.
Ne-Yo: Absolutely.
Tavis: Okay, that’s one side. The other side could very well be that some people end up dismissing you because you are no Michael Jackson, they might say, or he’s trying to be too much like Michael Jackson. What’s the danger in people thinking musically that you’re patterning yourself after somebody else as opposed to being an original, being authentic, being something that they haven’t seen or heard before?
Ne-Yo: Well, in my personal opinion, there is no danger. I feel like everything is inspired by something else. There is no 100 percent original thought. The inspiration happens, and from the inspiration comes whatever it is that’s created. I’ve been quoted saying it a million different times, by no means, in any way, shape, form or fashion am I trying to be the next Michael Jackson. There is no next Michael Jackson.
There will never be another Michael Jackson. However, I can pay homage to the person that made it possible for me to be where I am. So if you see me in my suit with my high-waters and my white socks, it’s not me trying to impersonate Mike, it’s me paying homage to Mike, and the people that understand that, much love to you. The people that don’t? Grow up. (Laughter)
Tavis: Nicely put. Tell me about the music choices, then, on “Libra Scale.”
Ne-Yo: This album was very much an experiment for me, and a lot of firsts on this album. I wrote the treatments for all three of the videos. The story of “Libra Scale,” the storyline was created first and then the music was created around the story line.
Tavis: There’s a whole narrative for this project, it follows a whole story line.
Ne-Yo: Yeah. That’s something I’ve never done before. Every song I’ve ever written has been based in reality, based in fact, things that happen to me. This is the first time I’ve ever written songs based on a completely fictitious event. It was –
Tavis: And the difference is, between the two?
Ne-Yo: The difference is it was easy to a degree, but then it was difficult to a degree. It was easy because I had a blueprint already. I said, okay, I need songs like this, songs like this and songs like this. The difficulty came in writing a song about something that has never happened, and you’ve got to pretend a little bit. You’ve got to –
Tavis: Imagine.
Ne-Yo: Yeah, which in itself isn’t difficult, but it’s just the way that I write songs is I write from things that happen. So to try to do it the other way, just there’s a slight bit of difficulty in it. But nothing I couldn’t handle. I knew that the main focal point, or what I wanted the main focal point of this album to be was the story line, so instead of trying to go in and get really innovative with the music, I just went back to all my original inspirations.
So you’ll hear some Stevie Wonder in there, you’ll hear some Michael Jackson in there; you’ll see some influences of Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack. You’ll hear some Prince in there. Shout out to Prince, by the way – I went to his house party last night for the first time, and – (laughter) I can’t even talk, never mind. That was an experience.
Tavis: You survived it, obviously.
Ne-Yo: I did, I did.
Tavis: You’re still alive, you’re still awake.
Ne-Yo: I don’t get star-struck. Two of my idols are still alive – Stevie Wonder and Prince – Sammy Davis Jr., may he rest in peace, Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace. So just to even be in that man’s presence was something else. It was absolutely something else.
Prince is the ultimate performer. Prince is that dude that’s going to get on stage by himself, if he need to, but hold you in the palm of his hand. Like, you can’t take your eyes off the man when he’s on stage, and he could just be sitting there playing his guitar. (Laughter) He’ll look to his band. But you can’t take your eyes off of him.
And the thing I love about Prince is that he never, ever changed. He is who he is, and especially in this business where they’ll take who you are and go oh, well, I don’t really know if people are going to accept that, Prince said, listen, this is me, I’m going to put on these heels, I’m going to throw on this shirt with the frilly on it, and you’re going to catch me. I’m not going to run after y’all. I’m going to let y’all come to me.
Two years of his career getting booed off of stages but he stayed with it, and now the man is an icon, he’s a living legend.
Tavis: Yeah, he is that, and then some. When you mentioned a moment ago, speaking of people like Michael and Stevie and Prince, when you mention that this album for you has more firsts on it than any album you’ve ever done, how do you emotionally, psychologically, spiritually get yourself up for the challenge of doing a whole bunch of firsts, not knowing, back to Prince, if you’re going to get booed off the stage for this particular project.
I love the fact that you’re courageous enough to actually push yourself, but there is some risk that comes along with trying a bunch of firsts on one project.
Ne-Yo: Oh, yeah, absolutely. This album is, as far as album sales and whatnot, this album has not done as well as my previous three, and it’s a risk that I knew was possible going into it. But I feel like you cannot call yourself an artist if you always play it safe. There’s a very thin line – there’s what your fans want, you have to give your fans what they want, but at the same time you’ve got to be true to yourself, too.
You can’t say, “Okay, I know my fans want this. It’s not really what I am, but all right,” because then you become a robot. You’re not an artist anymore; you’re just a people-pleasure. It’s been said a million times you can’t please all the people all the time.
So I wasn’t worried about the risk. I knew it was there, but I feel like in order to truly be an artist you have to embrace that risk. You have to go, “I’m going to jump off this cliff and I’m either going to fly or I’m going to fall to my death, but I got to jump.” You’ve got to jump.
Tavis: You said two things I want to go back and get right quick. One, first of all, your first three projects sold so remarkably well that when Ne-Yo says, “It didn’t sell quite as well as the first three,” (laughs) you’ve got to know how well the first three really sold to not start crying for Ne-Yo that this one hasn’t sold quite as well, that’s number one. Your first three projects were off the charts, number one.
But the second thing is, since you went there, how do you navigate forward? How does it feel when you push yourself, you try something different, and it isn’t met with that sort of critical acclaim, your fans don’t seem to embrace it the way they did the first three. That makes you feel how? How do you – so it makes you feel how, and how do you navigate forward?
Ne-Yo: Well, to be an artist is to be an emotional wreck, to a degree. As an artist, you thrive off the acceptance of other people. You put your heart and soul into this music and you give it to the world and you beg them to love you, and they either do or they don’t. When they don’t, you feel it. It hurts. Especially the kind of music that I do – I don’t make album cuts, I don’t make fillers. Every song on the album, every song that you hear I put blood, sweat and tears into.
So if a person doesn’t accept it or look at it the way that I would like you to, you feel it, but at the same time, like I said, you’ve got to understand you can’t please all of the people all the time. That’s just the reality of it.
With that being said, I’m in the process of putting together a new album as we speak, right now. I feel like I might have got a little too cool for the room with the concept on this one, just as far as trying to take the story and stretch it across the whole album.
There’s certain things that I feel don’t work just in this day and age, in that the attention span of consumers is so short nowadays. What I should have done, and I see this in hindsight, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the name of the album was “Thriller,” but “Thriller” was one song, and then the rest was just good music. As opposed to trying to stretch the concept of “Thriller” across the entire album, he made it one song, one video, a good eight-minute mini-movie, and then the rest of the music is just fantastic, just do it that way. So were I to ever take this road again, I would take the “Thriller” route.
Tavis: That’s why I love you. You’re a bright guy, man. You obviously put some real time into trying to discern what X, Y and Z means and I appreciate that about you.
Ne-Yo: absolutely.
Tavis: I’ve got to let you go. Two things, right quick – you were saying that – we were talking earlier about people accepting you. Obviously we, the public, are starting to accept you as an actor, and you’ve got more acting projects lined up.
Ne-Yo: Yeah.
Tavis: When are you going to find time to finish the new project with all these acting projects you’ve got coming up?
Ne-Yo: I do not know, brother, but I will say this – it’s a blessing. “Battle: Los Angeles,” I’ve got to say this was easily one of the most physically trying things that I’ve ever done in my life, because I play a Marine in the film, and they had us training with real, live Marines for, like, three weeks. It gave me a whole new respect for just the armed forces, period.
They’re some of the strongest people on the face of the planet, mentally as well as physically. I would never do it just – I never – (laughter) love y’all to death, but you will never see me joining the Air Force, the Army, Navy, Marines –
Tavis: You’re going to keep writing songs.
Ne-Yo: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Ne-Yo: Stay on this side of that.
Tavis: With that said, I think we all appreciate the fact that Ne-Yo’s going to keep writing songs, because he writes awfully well. The latest project from him, this Grammy winner, is called “Libra Scale.” Ne-Yo, good to have you on, and we’ll be seeing you at the movies and in the record store and pretty much anyplace else you want to hang out.
Ne-Yo: Appreciate it, sir.
Tavis: You got it like that. Nice to see you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm