NEW YORK — It’s the early ’90s and a preteen Johnta Austin is in the studio working on his debut album with a pair of unknown producers named Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo.
Trading ideas, hearing beats and writing melodies — along with a future Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter named Joe — the artists were vibing out and creating magic.
Until Austin hit puberty.
“I got signed when I was 13, dropped when I was 15,” Austin explained. “My voice changed and the administration that signed me left.”
One of the songs he worked on for himself, the sultry R&B balled “Sweet Lady,” caught the interest of new signee Tyrese, who replaced Austin on the RCA Records roster.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do a song for this guy.’ In my mind at this time, this guy took my spot, even though we had never met each other,” he said.
But Austin put his businessman hat on and gave the song away. Released in 1998, “Sweet Lady” became a hit, earned Tyrese his first Grammy nomination and helped his debut album go platinum.
Fast forward nearly three decades after he first was signed, Austin now has two Grammy Awards and has co-written a handful of other multi-platinum hits deemed R&B classics, including Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You.” And the debut album he first worked on at 13 finally came out — when Austin was 39 in 2019.
“It’s been a long time coming. Definitely happy to have this album out,” he said of “Love, Sex & Religion.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Austin — who turns 41 next week — talks about his career, the Grammys, getting dance tips from Janet Jackson and writing hits for Carey, Blige, Aaliyah and more.
WE MISS YOU
Austin originally wrote the song “Miss You” with Ginuwine for the R&B crooner’s album, but then Aaliyah heard the track and wanted to record it.
“She loved ‘Miss You.’ She was like, ‘This is amazing. I want to cut it,’” Austin recalled.
But Austin had sent her another song, “I Don’t Wanna,” and his team wanted the late icon to record that track. So they made a deal.
“My manager at the time was like, ‘You have to cut ‘I Don’t Wanna’ to get (‘Miss You’),’” Austin revealed.
“Miss You” was released in 2002 following Aaliyah’s tragic death a year prior, and the music video was a tribute to her life and legacy, with everyone from Jay-Z to Missy Elliott making cameos.
Aaliyah’s “I Don’t Wanna,” released in 2000, not only became a hit on the pop and R&B charts — it is Pharrell’s No. 1 pick from Austin’s rich catalog.
“To this day, every time I see Pharrell, he’s like: ’That’s my favorite Johnta Austin song of all time,” Austin said. “And then he sings it.”
Pharrell remembers working with Austin in the early ‘90s, telling the AP: “Johnta just had an incredible (gift and he) still has an amazing voice, and he’s a great writer. He was talented then, at 14.”
Of those days, Austin remembers being in producer Dallas Austin’s recording studio in Atlanta while “Pharrell was walking around in these big space boots.”
“They were young kids. I remember Chad (Hugo) had to go back because he had classes. He had to fly back to Virginia. Pharrell he was writing, Joe was doing the demos,” he said.
Austin recalled the Neptunes duo working on some of their early successes at the time, including SWV’s “ Use Your Heart,” which reached No. 6 on the R&B charts.
“‘Use Your Heart’ was done in those sessions; Joe demoed that,” Austin said. “You can still hear some of his old ad-libs.”
Imagine this: A teenage Austin and Usher running the New York City streets, visiting open mic nights and honing their performance chops.
“This was back when I had no business being in these clubs. I was 14, 15,” Austin said, namedropping clubs like Cafe Wha? and Chaz and Wilson. “That’s back when on any given night, they’d pass the mic around, Joe would get the mic, Dave Hollister would get the mic, Puff (Daddy) brought 112 there one night and they performed. It was great. I would always go with Carl (Thomas) and Troy (Taylor) and pass the mic.”
He added: “We took Usher down there… This is before ‘My Way’ came out. He and I knew each other since I was 12 and he was like 13 coming up in Atlanta. He did ‘Call Me a Mack’ for the ‘Poetic Justice’ soundtrack. That’s how far him and I go back. He would pick me up from school. When he got his jeep, he would pick me up. Me, him, Jason Weaver were riding around. That was the crew back then.”
Usher is just two years older than Austin and released his self-titled debut album in 1994. His major breakthrough came with 1997’s “My Way,” which featured the hits “You Make Me Wanna…” and “Nice & Slow.”
Austin said Usher’s success inspired him to not give up on music.
“Right around that time he dropped ‘My Way’ it was like, ‘Now he’s the man.’’’ That was motivating for me. Then I realized I had a talent for writing songs. I was like, ‘I can stay around the industry doing this.’ It just motivated me to stick around and find another way in.”
But one time in the studio, Austin got a dance lesson from the pop icon.
“Fred Astaire is on the TV and then I see the move. He does this move and I’m like, ’That’s where Michael got that move from! She’s like, ‘You’ve never seen this?’ I’m like, ‘No!’”
So Austin stands up and gives the dance a try.
“I’m playing around and she’s like, ‘No, no, no. You have to…’ She stands up and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ Janet is teaching me how to do a move that her brother did in a video. This is crazy.”
Austin said working with Jackson was a lifelong dream, especially because he was always a big fan of her music.
“I’m getting called to work (with her) and she’s loving the material? It’s still hard to sink in when you’re sitting with these people,” he said. “The humility that she has; she is open to ideas and then nurturing you to be your best. It’s great.”
THEY BELONGED TOGETHER
“We Belong Together” was the No. 1 song of the 2000s, but Austin almost didn’t work on the classic Mariah Carey track.
Austin said when he was collaborating in the studio with the pop diva and Jermaine Dupri, his “publisher wanted me to do this other project.”
“I was like, ‘I would love to but I’m in Atlanta working on Mariah. They were like, ‘Are you crazy? Mariah, she just did ‘Glitter.’ I can’t believe you’re passing this up.’”
Austin clearly made the right choice. “We Belong Together” is not just one of the most popular songs every released, it appears on Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi,” her comeback album that cemented her spot on the list of greatest singers of all-time and extended her long list of No. 1 hits.
“I’d like to think we got that one right,” said Austin, who also co-wrote “It’s Like That,” “Shake It Off,”“Don’t Forget About Us” and more tracks from the seminal album. “It was great. Just to be there, melodies back and forth, ideas back and forth. She’s a real writer and she’s fantastic.”
During those recording sessions, he said “We Belong Together” was the last track they worked on. The ballad spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and won the Grammys for best female R&B vocal performance and best R&B song, earning Austin his first gramophone.
“I don’t want to say I stopped listening to the radio, but I couldn’t go 30 minutes without hearing that song. That song was everywhere.”
Though “We Belong Together” won two Grammys, it didn’t pick up song or record of the year — huge honors that rarely go to R&B or rap tunes.
“It was Destiny’s Child who was presenting song of the year and it happened to go to U2, and I remember seeing Beyoncé turn,” Austin recalled, “I don’t know if the camera caught it, but Beyoncé, after she announced it, she turns to Mariah and was like, ‘I’m sorry.'”
Carey also lost album of the year to U2 while Green Day won record of the year.
But a year later, Austin was a song of the year nominee with Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You,” which spent 15 weeks on top of the R&B charts.
“Everyone was like, ‘This is the year because it was another huge comeback for Mary. Everyone was like, ‘Wow, Mary’s back.’ Everyone was like, ‘You’re going to win song of the year.’”
But they didn’t. The song, also nominated for record of the year, only won two Grammys in the R&B categories, much like “We Belong Together.”
“We won best R&B song earlier in the night and … I remember when the Dixie Chicks performed. I’m listening to the lyrics, I turn to my manager and I go, ‘We can go ahead and leave,’” he said of the Chicks’ stirring political anthem “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
“They had a big thing against the president at that time. When they made that song, it was like, ‘We’re not winning this.’”