Few singer/songwriters in R&B can lay claims to the kind of success that Johnta Austin has had over more than two decades in the music business.
From being a two-time Grammy award winner for penning Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” to writing countless hits for other artists, Austin has left an indelible mark on R&B.
In 2016, Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels sought the Atlanta, Georgia, native to work on music for his Fox television drama “Star,” which saw Austin crafting sounds for the musical drama and all of its artists on the show.
In addition to his catalog as a songwriter, Austin is also a solo artist and in support of his new project “Love, Sex, & Religion” is touring with Musiq Soulchild. Austin took time ahead of his tour stop on Dec. 26 at Philly’s City Winery to discuss his longevity as a musician, what he enjoys about today’s R&B and how the Philly music tradition inspires him.
Q: What has been a key to your longevity in the music business, where acts can be here today and gone tomorrow?
A: For me it’s always started and ended with the song and songwriting. When you have a great lyric and melody and a great song from the beginning of the time, it can work, whether it’s 1995 or 2095. Great songs will always be great songs
Q: What’s the biggest difference in crafting songs for someone else versus yourself?
A: It’s the same approach. I just want to make great songs. I want to hear what space the artist is in creatively, what they want to say with this particular body of work and what we’re trying to say in that particular time.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of R&B? Who are some acts that you are fond of right now?
A. I’m encouraged by it when I see people like Summer Walker, Daniel Caesar and Bruno Mars. I think R&B is in a great state. Marrying of different cultures is key, like when Tory Lanez sampled the song I wrote for Trey Songz (2007’s “Can’t Help But Wait”) for his recent project and put Trey on the new song. When you have a great song it lasts a lifetime.
Q: What can listeners expect from your new album, “Love, Sex, & Religion”?
A: It’s feel-good music: great lyrics, melody, subjects and complete songs. I miss how we used to make R&B records before the current structure of a hook and two verses being 2-minute-and-15-second songs. I wanted to take it back to how we used to do bridges and make great music. If you can tell a story in two minutes that’s cool, but I like for the stories to be complete and see where the story goes. I think Bruno Mars did a great job of being new but going back to the roots of traditional R&B.
Q: How has working with Jermaine Dupri shaped your career path and the way you see creating music?
A: I grew up as a child in Atlanta first seeing Kris Kross and his work with Da Brat and Xscape. It was a dream to work with J.D. and finally doing it has been amazing in terms of the lessons as far as song structure, lyrics, melody and how to approach a song. He’s a phenomenal songwriter, producer and artist and sees so much in other creatives and is such a master of helping you tap into your best creative self. He doesn’t get enough credit for bringing that out of artists, creatives and executives and it’s inspiring
Q: What was the experience like in working on Fox’s musical prime-time drama “Star”?
A: “Star” was amazing but fast-paced. In the music industry, it takes time to make an album and put a project together. In television, you go week on and week off in terms of managing episodes and getting vocals cut. (Director) Lee Daniels was phenomenal in his creative direction. The girls and all of the other cast members who had to record were really great. But it was the pace that took some getting used to.
Q: What is it about Philly’s R&B legacy that inspires you?
A: Starting with the contributions, I think you’d be hard pressed to find two better songwriters than Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Philly is rich in the history of R&B and amazing songs and artists from The Sound of Philadelphia. My connection is to producers Dre & Vidal, who I collaborated with for “Yo” and “Poppin’” from Chris Brown’s debut album. With Philly natives like Jill Scott and amazing neo soul, Philadelphia knows its music and it’s a pleasure to be opening for Musiq Soulchild.
Q: In addition to the City Winery tour, what new things can fans expect from you in 2020?
A: The tour will be a great night of R&B, cuts from my album, “Love Sex and Religion.” Musiq is at the top of his game and you’re just reminded of how many hits he has. People can definitely expect the City Winery tour and I’m working on new music from Trey Songz and Usher. Bryan-Michael Cox and I are doing a joint EP together of brand new material.