Ne-Yo has transformed himself from a songwriter to the stars to one of the most successful singers in the world in his own right. In this Ne-Yo interview he talks about working with Michael Jackson, being inspired by Quentin Tarantino, his new album 'Libra Scale' - not to mention becoming a father for the first time...
Greg Rose: First things first you are expecting a baby.
Ne-Yo: Thank you very much.
GR: What was your first reaction when you found out?
Ne-Yo: I was happy first off. I was shocked because it was absolutely not something that we planned. But I was happy. It was an unexpected happy. I wasn't expecting to be bothered by it, but I wasn't expecting to be so 'YES!' I'm 30 years old and the one thing I always said is that I don't want to be an old dad. I don't want to be 60 and my kid is 10, or anything like that. I feel like it is time to grow up, so I'm happy about it.
GR: You still want to look good when you're taking your kid to school
Ne-Yo: There you go, haha. My kid's little female friends going 'your dad's hot!' Yes I am, thank you very much.
GR: How do you think becoming a father will affect your music?
Ne-Yo: I don't know to be honest with you it is definitely something that I've been thinking about. Everyone has been telling me that you have never experience love until you experience the love of your child. As love songs are my whole MO, I can imagine that this is going to make for some pretty kick-ass song lyrics.
GR: Who is the Beautiful Monster?
Ne-Yo: Beautiful Monster represents the mind state of any man who comes into contact with the love interest/arch nemesis in the story. Her name is Diamond Eye she's called that because her eyes are literally diamonds. She has the power to control people's minds with her eyes. She is so beautiful and so intriguing that a man is compelled to touch her and try to be with her, even if he knows that it will quite possibly cost him his life. That's where the whole term 'beautiful monster/but I don't mind' comes from. She's just so bad, but even though you know that you might die by messing with her, you don't even care.
GR: How do you separate your ideas? How do you know something is a good song idea, or a good film idea, or is suitable for another sphere?
Ne-Yo: In terms of a good song idea and a good film idea, normally they are one and the same. An idea that will translate really well musically should work visually. I try to write music that you can feel if you were to close your eyes you can see what I am talking about. So with that being understood, turning ideas that will translate visually into songs makes perfect sense.
GR: Has it always been the plan to make a concept album based around a specific story?
Ne-Yo: Yeah. This is the first time that I have gone as far as to write out an actual full story and have it be the inspiration for an entire album. But with songs like 'So Sick' I feel like you can see what is happening with your eyes closed. You can see the guy laying on his bed listening to his answer machine over and over again, because it is the only way he gets to hear the voice of the woman that he loves. I feel like you can see that. That is the difference between a good song and a bad song lyrically. If you can listen to it and put yourself in that place, or see that person in that place, normally it is a pretty good song. Normally.
GR: It depends who is writing it still?
Ne-Yo: Yes, that too.
GR: Do you often find yourself finding song ideas in films you watch?
Ne-Yo: The difficulty that I have had with film of late is that for whatever reason people have forgotten how to tell a story. It seems to me that all the time and attention is spent on special effects, but the story itself suffers. I hate to point fingers and name names, but I just went and saw The Last Airbender. Now I'm an Anime fan, so I'm a fan of the cartoon. Love the cartoon. But I went and saw the movie. I like a movie to feel just a little bit real, even if I know it is completely pure fiction I get that. But when two people are talking to each other I like it to at least feel natural. A lot of the dialogue in the movie felt really forced and just stupid, for lack of a better word. The special effects were amazing, of course you expect that, but the interaction between the characters wasn't there. That's the problem I have come across with a lot of movies of late.
GR: So who does influence you from the world of film?
Ne-Yo: I have really been delving into the world of screenplay writing and I've been studying people like Quentin Tarantino. I love the way that he writes. Aside from the way that he directs, the way that he puts dialogue together is amazing. I think Quentin Tarantino is one of the few people who can put two people in a room, put the camera on them, not change any angles, just keep it on two people and have them talk back and forth with what he has written. It stays interesting; you dont need the crazy camera angles or anything else, because you are intrigued by what they are saying. That is what is missing in filmmaking. If I become the next filmmaker/celebrity/whatever that is something that I am going to pay attention to. I think my songwriting roots will definitely help with that.
GR: Do you always try to keep things uncomplicated having a story about human relations at the centre whatever other aspects are brought in?
Ne-Yo: Absolutely. That is still the case with this 'Libra Scale' concept. I want people to really pay attention to the videos. All the videos will be long form, lots of dialogue, really getting the full story out. There will be a few of them I want to do something like seven singles off this album. Again, the storytelling is the most important part of it. Even dare I say more important than the music itself. The music itself helps tell the story but the dialogue and what is being said really needs paying attention to so you can catch the full thing. I am such a fan of Tarantino that I took the idea of starting a story at the end, then jumping from the middle to the start, then back to the end. It kinda happens like that, so you really have to pay attention to what is going on.
GR: Going back to your last album 'Year of the Gentleman'. Was it just a year?
Ne-Yo: I'm still a gentleman. I have calmed down the suits a little bit though, because I feel like people got the wrong idea. With the 'Year of the Gentleman album the whole idea was to bring back the concept of what it is to be a gentleman. From chivalry, to being polite, to being the kind of guy everybody can like. Being the kind of guy that every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. That was the concept, looking good is just a part of it but it seems like that's the only part that anybody paid attention to. People are like 'ok, if I put on a suit, then i'm a gentleman?' No, you asshole, that is not what I am saying. Now my whole thing is to show people by example that you can be a gentleman in jeans and a t-shirt. It is about the way that you wear those jeans and t-shirt and how you act in them.
GR: It must be a great feeling to be in a position where you can release seven singles, do a film, do what you want really. When you started out, were you already thinking on that scale?
Ne-Yo: Honestly, when I first got over to Def Jam Jay-Z and L.A Reid were the two head honchos over there. The cool thing about the way I came in it is an absolute blessing as almost nobody really gets this kind of deal was that they already knew me as a songwriter. So they knew I was capable of writing a hit record. They gave me my budget and said: 'Run, do what you want.' And it has pretty much been that way all the way up. They will come in and give a little input here and there but they never have they said 'you gotta do this, you gotta do that'. They don't do me like that.
GR: Now that you are established as a star in your own right, who do you still want to write songs for?
Ne-Yo: Anybody and everybody. I want to write for people that are trying to do some kind of quality music. What I mean by quality music is not so much the trend, what is hot right now. What is hot now will not be hot tomorrow, I promise you. Trends are made to die. It's the truth. I don't write trendy, I write what feels good and something that feels good will never get old. Timeless music is what I try to shoot for. People have got it mixed up when they feel like timeless music has to be super-duper serious, or boring. That is not the case, you can do fun timeless music, it's been proven. Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough' is still fun today! It is possible. But people act like they don't understand that. For those people who want to keep following trends, you do that and when the trend goes away so will you. And I'll keep doing what I do, and as trends come and go, I'll be right here.
GR: You mentioned Michael Jackson. He was somebody you definitely wanted to write with. How far along had you got in that?
Ne-Yo: Yeah, yeah of course. We got as far as I was submitting songs to him. I was writing songs, demoing them, and sending them to him for him to critique. I would send him three to five songs every couple of weeks. He would call me on my cell phone and tell me: "I really like number three, I think the hook could be stronger on number five," that kind of thing. He would pick, say: "Ok, I like number one, number three and number two send me some more." There were about 10 songs that he had picked that he was going to record. We stopped because he started getting ready for his tour. He was like: "After this tour is over we'll record these songs, we'll get it going." Then of course, his untimely passing...
GR: What did you learn from working with Michael Jackson, with that level of interaction?
Ne-Yo: What I definitely learnt from Michael Jackson is that simple is almost always better. As a songwriter, as an artist period. For me personally, I can hear so many pieces that would fit and make sense in a song that I am anxious to put them all in. But you can't do that because when you listen back to it you will have a big, beautiful piece of s**t, basically. You can't make out the verse from the hook, it is just melodies and sounds. What I learnt from Mike is, 'ok, take off these 17 harmonies and let this one melody rock by itself. People will latch on to this one melody before they latch onto these 17 over here that you've put on top'. That is a concept that I have always had knowledge of, but it is honestly the most difficult thing to do. Working with Mike and having him critique what I was doing kind of nailed that point home for me: less is more, less is more.