From Being a Street Performer, Carlos Battey Transforms and Becomes a Record Mogul and World-Class Artist
by Brad Balfour
When the pandemic hit, musicians were blessed and cursed at the same time. On the one hand, it shut down opportunities for live performance before paying audiences. On the other hand, it freed up songwriters, instrumentalists, and singers to have more time to create. Carlos Battey is one of those musical creators whose tour was halted but the songwriting never stopped. Now that the lock-down is opening up, he’s releasing three EPs and getting back out there. Titled “The Show,” “The After-Party” and “The Hotel,” the three offer intriguing conceptual possibilities.
That makes him a perfect subject to spotlight in light of this being African American Music Appreciation Month and the inauguration of Juneteenth as a Federal holiday. This annual celebration was initiated as Black Music Month by President Jimmy Carter who, on June 7, 1979, decreed that the month would be the month of Black music. In 2009, the commemoration was given its current name by President Barack Obama.
As Battey explained, “Yes, these three EPs will be connected conceptually. It’s a way of showing fans the evolution of the three stages in a show in musical form. This is my first time doing this. They won’t all come out at once. They’re spread out over the course of a year.
“Eventually there will be vinyl but not at the moment. Due to the pandemic, things are slowly getting back to normal, and we are looking to prepare for touring the fourth quarter of 2021 and into first quarter of 2022. Before the pandemic I had sold out shows in Las Vegas and Southern California. Prior to this, the first release of Big Circle Music Group – launched January 2020 – was called ‘Do it Again’ featuring Shawn Stockman from the iconic group Boyz II Men.”
But there’s more to the 30-something than being another singer/songwriter. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Battey became known as Jackie’s Boy after he formed a group with his brother called The Jackie Boyz. He had fallen in love with music at the age of 10 and the boys started performing shortly thereafter on Savannah’s Piers on River Street – much like the buskers found on Dublin’s streets. This Southerner then embarked on his musical journey and went on to write several #1 hit records, has received four Grammy nominations, sold over 18 million albums, and won a Grammy in 2011 for Madonna’s best remix recording “Revolver” featuring Lil Wayne.
Describe your origins.
I started out as just a street performer; me and my brother sang together on Savannah’s streets and in Los Angeles. We fought through the thick and thin, had no home and had to sleep in cars. I’ve had some rough moments and managed to achieve some things.
When you write songs about people, do you have real people in mind?
I write a range of songs, starting with experiences I’ve dealt with in my own life. But I tend to look for thoughts that might be a bit unique, off the beaten path. Sometimes another artist hears it and might say, “Oh man, I didn’t think of this.” And then my song takes on a life of its own with someone else.
A song I wrote called “Down to Earth” ended up being recorded by Justin Bieber. It was based on my marriage falling apart. I wrote it from the viewpoint of my daughter, being in the middle as she watched her mother and father slowly distance themselves from each other.
“Mama, you were always somewhere.
And Daddy, I live out of town.
So, tell me how could I ever be
The chorus goes:
“So, it’s up to you.
And it’s up to me.
Better we meet in the middle
On our way back down to earth.”
It says that we have to come together for the sake of our child. Thanks to my friends Midi Mafia – a Los Angeles-based production team – Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun heard the song and immediately loved it. Scooter told me in a phone call that Justin was going through the same thing with his parents, and it would be great to change a few things.
Back then, Justin was about 13 years old, and no one had heard of him. I was touched by Scooter’s belief in Justin, so I agreed. The result was one of Justin’s most popular early projects.
So, that’s an example of writing a song with real people in mind. I’ve found that a good song doesn’t stay quiet. It jumps from person to person to person and I’m glad it found its way to Justin.
On the other hand, here’s an example of a song without having someone in mind. I wrote a song for Madonna called “Revolver.” That song came from me wanting to write something sexy and sassy. It came from one of those 3 AM sessions – you know, where you want to go home and you’re really tired – but my dear friend, Brandon Kitchens, who was an Atlantic Records junior A&R guy, told me, “Hey! Do one more idea.” So, I stayed in the studio and that one more idea became “Revolver.”
How were The Jackie Boyz discovered?
We spent four years singing on Hollywood Boulevard before being signed as songwriters by Universal Music Publishing. People would ask us, “What were we doing with our music?” We never gave writing songs for other people a thought until Brandon told us to come to the studio. We ended up writing our first record “Sugar” for an artist called Flo Rida. It was the first record we ever wrote, and it went #3 on Hot 100 and sold 1.5 million copies. Right after Flo Rida, we collaborated on that 2009 single “Revolver” and won our first Grammy at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards
That song ended up being shopped around to different artists. Madonna was the one who heard the song and said, “Hey, I love this and want to record it.” I didn’t get a chance to meet Madonna in person.
What’s the song about?
“Revolver” is sexy. Basically, the chorus says, “My love’s a revolver. My sex is a killer. Do you wanna die happy?”
What inspired you to do that?
I saw a John Legend poster called “Evolver” for one of his albums in 2009. I immediately thought, “That’s a really cool title.” It gave me the idea to write a song called “Revolver.” My ideas started to flow, and I kept the thought in my phone for about a year. Then I wrote the track, and the song came out and won a Grammy in 2010. It was a life-changer.
How do you know when a song should be up-tempo or more balladic?
When the song’s content is deeper with more meaning, I tend to write a ballad. When I have more words to get across, a slower tempo allows me to do that.
When I’m just trying to have fun and not think, the song will be more up-tempo. It still needs to be clever and have something that makes people want to listen to it consistently.
But for me, if I know there’s something to say that’s really heartfelt – and going back to “Down to Earth” – it was a ballad. Because I had a lot to say. And it couldn’t be expressed in just two and a half minutes.
So, what’s one of the favorite ballads you’ve ever written?
One of my favorites is one I wrote for Candice Glover. She won American Idol in 2013. It’s a song called “Forever That Man” and was released in February 2014. When you find that one person, they’re forever.
As the chorus puts it:
“The way that the moon meets the stars at night.
Baby, it’s something you can’t deny.
I’m taking that chance.
Grab you by the hand.
And you’ll be forever.
Forever that man”
That’s probably my favorite ballad. My dear friend Ian Pirie who was working with Atlantic Records, the production company for American Idol – was a fan of songs that I’d written and asked if I could sit and meet with the contestants.
I went over to their studios in L.A. and met with each of the top five contestants. It was a chance to learn their personalities and who they were as people, potentially to create songs for them.
Well, Candice won, and we wrote this R&B song together. The first one out of the gate was “Forever That Man.” I feel like a songwriter’s job is to listen and understand where the artist is in life – where they want to go and what they’re feeling.
What I got from the interview was her wanting to find love. She was single at the time and wanted someone who could basically change her world. That’s how “Forever That Man” came about and was on her first album, Music Speaks.
How much does the arrangement reflect the original intent of a song or is it meant to transform it?
The arrangement, to me, has importance at the beginning of writing a song. Of course, some of the producers I work with may change things around. They might change our instruments, for example. But I feel like the magic is in the first session – the first half-hour or hour. And to me, everything after that is just polishing.
I can play the piano but not as a touring performer. I think my main forte is top lining the lyrics and melody.
One song of mine where I feel the arrangement matches its intent is one I was part of with Chris Brown called “Graffiti.” It was produced by Cool & Dre – a production duo out of Miami.
When I got asked to come down and work with Chris, it was right after the domestic violence case with Rihanna in 2009. The producer played me this aggressive rock track and immediately I thought about wanting to prove a point, wanting to say something that hadn’t been said. I knew the title of his album was going to be Graffiti. So, I used the opportunity to write “Graffiti” as a title track that basically expresses how remorseful a person like Brown can be with no ability to erase his history from memory in what today we call “cancel culture.”
Chris knew he was growing as a man and becoming a better person. He’s contributed a lot to music, and I knew first-hand that he was remorseful about the Rihanna incident. But the song is that the graffiti from our past always remains on the wall and cannot be erased:
“But it’s already written on the wall.
You can’t cover it up, you can’t cover it up (Woah).
But it’s already written on the wall.
You can’t cover it up, you can’t cover it up (Yeah, yeah).”
The intensity of that record meant so much with the lyric and melody. I consider that arrangement a great marriage. I always think that the production of a song should be an enhancement to its intent, not a distraction that conveys a different message.
What’s the back story to the “Jackie’s Boy” name?
Me and my brother called ourselves the Jackie Boyz because our mother’s name was Jackie. She passed away in 2004 from leukemia. As time went on, I wanted to pursue my own music career as a solo artist. Her name has always rung out to me and will always be with me, no matter what. She deserves my recognition because she was always supportive of everything I’ve done.
She had two or three different jobs at once as a single mother. She worked as an attendant for the school bus system. She looked after special needs children on the bus. In the evenings she would clean offices. My mother was not only a hard worker but one of the smartest and strongest women I’ve ever known.
She had me when she was 20. She and my father divorced about six years later. He had his own demons to fight. Meanwhile, my mom continued to take great care of her three kids – myself and my two younger brothers. She always thought about our needs first.
Do you envision your songs as inter-related or as stand-alone creations?
Some are interrelated, and others aren’t. I tend to create my EPs that way, like this one coming out this summer – “The Show” – in which all the songs are interrelated. It’s being launched by my own record label, Big Circle Music Group.
One track is a single released in April called “No Life Guard.” Another one coming out is called “Therapy Session.” Each song there connects to the others. It’s not just that they’re all in the R&B genre but each also reflects a truth-telling story about my life and what I’ve experienced.
This particular album was inspired by Jodeci, a powerhouse R&B quartet from North Carolina. They had a project in 1995 called The Show, the After-Party, The Hotel. I titled my EP “The Show” partly as an homage to them but also to let the listener know to expect a certain type of music throughout. I’m already planning these other EPs and all the tracks in each will reflect a certain type of music. On the other hand, songs that I write for other individual artists tend to be standalone.
What makes you decide a song should be collaborative?
Sometimes another songwriter’s voice inspires me to work with that person or team. At other times, I might conclude on a certain song, that I’ve gone as far as I can and realize I can use another perspective. If I feel I’ve exhausted my creative ideas for a song, I’ll reach out to someone else with a fresh point of view. An example is a song called “For Real Though.” It’s about a guy approaching a girl to say he’d like to get to know her. I wanted to get a female take on the idea, so I turned to songwriter and artist Mickey Shiloh.
How does the process of collaborating go?
I’ll give you an example of a song that means a lot to me. The title is “Back to Love” and it came about when Bentley Records connected me to writer Mike Greenly and a production team, MotiVibes. Decades ago, Mike was a corporate guy who realized he’d be happier using his special gift for words as a freelancer with more time for writing lyrics. That’s his passion and Bentley introduced us.
When Mike interviewed me for possible song ideas in my head, I simply started sharing my observations about the world we live in these days. We’re completely polarized as a society, with different sides automatically lined up against each other. That’s not who the United States of America was envisioned to become. It’s not how the world should be for the sake of us all on the planet.
I expressed my wish that we could all get “back to love.” Those were the words that came out of my mouth. Mike quickly said that he heard a song title in them, along with a very important message. The result is our song. We’d like it on the ballot for consideration by Grammy voters as “Best Contemporary Christian” song. But no matter what, I’m proud of what we’ve done together.
It gives me joy when I look ahead in hopes of many more ways and years to keep doing what I love to do. And that is creating songs and performing them for others – in hopes of being able to make a real contribution to the world.
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 20, 2021.
Photos ©2021. Courtesy of Big Circle Music Group. All rights reserved.