From 'Waiting to Exhale' to the Weeknd: Babyface on 20 Years of R&B

Veteran songwriter also talks Barbra, Whitney, Puffy and why women are more interested in love than men

"If I'm writing a song for them, then I'll try and get to know them and have a conversation about their life, their relationships, everything," says Babyface of his working method. Credit: Randee St Nicholas

On the one hand, it's impossible to imagine what it would be like to live Babyface's life. Kenny Edmonds is, after all, the songwriter-producer who defined Nineties R&B; besides scoring his own mega-selling solo albums, Edmonds crafted hits for Boyz II Men, TLC and Bobby Brown that would become ingrained in the minds of anyone old enough to own a Discman.

Babyface has worked with pop royalty, from Michael Jackson to Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston to Carole King. In 1994, Madonna told Rolling Stone that his songs were like Rolls-Royces: "The design is classic," she said, "the ride is smooth, and they're built to last."

And Babyface, originally nicknamed by Bootsy Collins, remains relevant. He kicked off this year duetting with Ariana Grande at a Grammy tribute to Stevie Wonder — he produced the star's 2013 debut, Yours Truly  and was credited by Nathan Sykes as having helped the ex-Wanted heartthrob write the most emotional song he's ever written.

But on the other hand, it is possible to imagine the Babyface lifestyle, because Edmonds is so humble in person. "You don't walk around saying, 'I'm a Grammy winner,'" he shrugs. (For the record, Babyface has won 11 Grammys.) "It's just one of those things where you appreciate [success] as it happens, and then you get back to work." 

Edmonds has a lot to be pleased about right now. He's about to receive the Soul Train Legend award; his new solo album, Return of the Tender Lover, is out December 4th; and December also marks the 20th anniversary of Waiting to Exhale, a film that's best remembered for its multi-platinum Babyface-produced soundtrack.

Here, the veteran artist reveals his thoughts on current R&B stars like the Weeknd and Sam Smith, recalls working Whitney Houston on the Exhale soundtrack and tells us why women are more interested in love than men.

Congrats on the Soul Train award.
Thank you! It's 25 years since I got my first Soul Train award — it was Album of the Year for Tender Lover. I was shocked. It was not something I expected at all, so I never had an acceptance speech; I forgot everyone's names. It was surreal at the time, and I think throughout it all, being not so much a reluctant artist but a reluctant star — when things happen, you appreciate it, but you don't fall for the hype and think that it's you

Does working behind the scenes helps you keep balanced in that respect?
I think it's just who I am, because I know plenty of producers that are on all different pages — that's just what they do, it's part of their personalities. Not to say that's a negative. Especially today with social media, the louder you are — and if you're the right kind of loud — then that can turn into money for you. So, it depends.

You've talked about being shy when you were a kid. Did you know what you wanted to do when you grew up?
I knew I wanted to be in music from 11 years old. That was something that I just leaned towards automatically. I started singing when I was in sixth grade. And I picked up a guitar and started writing songs at that age as well. I was writing love songs. About some girl I was in love with and wouldn't give me the time of day. It was always about that.

"We Got Love," your latest single, is so upbeat. Are you a pretty chipper guy, generally?
Not necessarily as a writer. I've written love songs, but they were about broken hearts. That was a big piece of what I would do: writing from the perspective of pain. For this record I consciously wanted to come from a positive space and not be about pain and heartbreak, because I think we've got enough heartbreak and pain in this world as it is right now. I wanted to figure out how to do that and not be corny, so I just put a groove to it, so it's as much the music that makes you feel that way as it is the lyric.

Love, Marriage & Divorce [Babyface's 2014 album with Toni Braxton] is emotionally intense. Is that kind of work like method acting? Is your wife saying, "Kenny's going to be glum for two years"?
Not for me, because I work on so many things at one time, so I don't really get into that zone. At the same time I was doing that, I was doing the Barbra Streisand album and that was a whole different kind of thing. I think Toni was certainly down that road, 'cause she really wanted to get those emotions out. She was freshly going through a divorce. 

How did you come to work with Barbra Streisand?
I actually met Barbra years ago at a friend of mine's house, Carole Bayer Sager [singer-songwriter who wrote "Nobody Does it Better," "When I Need You," "Groovy Kind of Love"], and I was there for a Christmas party. Carol had me sing a song, and after it, Barbra came up to me — she was one of the guests there — she said, "I loved your voice, we should record someday." And I said, "Sure," like, that's not going to happen. I thought, she's being kind; that was very sweet of her. But then years later I get a call from Jay Landers, her A&R guy, who says Barbra wants you to produce a record with her. It was great, a fun experience. And today I can say that I sang with Barbra Streisand, so that's one notch off the bucket list.

Looking at the artists and records you've been involved with, it's like, who haven't you worked with? Do you ever get star-struck?
That's an interesting question ... Yeah, I think there might be certain people that I might get around where I'm not completely myself. I might just shy up a little bit. I wasn't that way with Barbra because she's so down-to-earth; the same with Stevie Wonder, he was that way. I was, initially, with Michael Jackson, but Michael was very cool and he made you feel comfortable. He was great; I loved him.

I think funnily enough, it happens more with hip-hop people — I love Puffy, but I don't know how to talk to Puffy sometimes. I think he's great, but I think I get a little shy with him. Maybe even Kanye, for that matter. Just people that, as part of my personality, I feel so separate from their world that I don't quite know how to talk. But we're cool; I just probably get a little shy around them.

And do you notice artists getting star-struck around you?
Yeah it does happen. It's more people than I think — that they change when they're around me, and it's funny to me because I'm just this regular guy. People will come to the studio and get nervous. It takes them a second before they get comfortable, before they can really sing right, and that's happened more times than I can count.

Are you good at soothing nerves in the studio?
If I have time with them. If it's a quickie, then I try to get to the point and get it done, but in most cases if I have time then I'll sit with the artist — especially if it's a female artist — and we'll talk for a while. If I'm writing a song for them, then I'll try and get to know them and have a conversation about their life, their relationships, everything, just so I can have a sense of who they are.

That must be a fascinating process ...
Yeah, it's always great to talk about life. I like people and I like listening to them, because something that'll happen out of that conversation could be the title or the subject of the song.

How was working with Ariana Grande?
She's sweet and she's a lot of fun. I love her spirit and I think that she's very talented. I think her voice is incredible — she's one of the best today. 

Do you perceive a shift in the pop industry, in terms of how young stars like her present themselves?
It's a different world, they do far different things, and babies are a lot sexier than babies were back then. When Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson were first singing, they were singing adult-sounding songs, but they weren't necessarily doing adult kinds of things. It's just different because the world has changed, and what we accept as part of the norm. It's a lot different, from hip-hop to even now to R&B, the words that you hear, the subject matter — I love the Weeknd, but the subject matter — I'm not anxious to show that to my daughter [laughs]. But as an artist and a writer, I think he's great. 

Are we colder and more disconnected now, or is Abel Tesfaye just articulating something that's always been so?
I think throughout history, there have always been things that have been said that people don't realize are being said in music. Where the melody and the groove are so great that you're not really listening to what's being said. So, even though you might be singing about drugs — it goes back to the Beatles, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" — we didn't hear or think about what was being said. Or even for that matter Mick Jagger singing "Brown Sugar" — people think it's just about a black girl, but no, it's about a black slave girl being taken in the night. Let me show you this quick. [Passes over iPhone] Read this, the lyrics ...

"I love the Weeknd, but the subject matter — I'm not anxious to show that to my daughter."

So yeah, in that case he didn't cuss, he just said it. We might tend to walk away from things where there's cussing, the n-word, and all those things. But there are things that are being said that can be disturbing. Even with the Weeknd, it's disturbing. But we don't hear it because of the tone of his voice; we don't hear it because it's such a great melody. I say we don't hear it because I know people in my age group that really love the Weeknd, but if they really knew what he was saying, they'd be like, "I don't know if I love that, but he's already pulled me in so I love him anyway." It's the same thing with Brown Sugar — that would be something today actually, if that lyric was put out today, you think the NAACP wouldn't jump on top of that?

Do you see Miguel as more old-school R&B?
Yeah, and some people might say it's too old school. The one thing about the Weeknd is that he's gone between the world of trap music and pop music and blended them together, so it makes it interesting in that way. That's what I like about him. For me, it's fun to listen to new music and hear things that are being done. And as it related to my music, I just wanted to make feel-good music that could make you remember someone in a fond way. I've always said that music is the one thing that can take you back to a time and a day and the person you're with. You can smell it, you can taste it, it's the one thing that affects your senses. The right songs can help you time travel in a positive way.

You described your new album as "unapologetic R&B." Are you referring to R&B's Nineties golden age, where you could be as romantic as you wanted without having to be ironic?
Yes. It's like not having to say, "I'm sorry that I'm singing a love song; I'm sorry that it's not negative; I'm sorry that it's not trendy, that it doesn't have the things that make up what is supposed to be a hit today; I'm sorry that it has chord changes." [Laughs] This is straight R&B; it's meant to make you feel good. It's meant to be musical, and I'm not going to apologize for that. This is what it is, so take it or leave it.

Speaking as a Brit, English people could be pretty awkward about R&B in the Nineties.
You know what's interesting, though, is that in England — from our perspective — you guys embrace soul music and R&B music more than they embrace it here. So whether it was awkward or not, whatever the reasoning is, you appreciated how the music made you feel. You have these artists that come from England that end up doing R&B and soul music more than we do it here. Adele would not be without R&B music; we know where her roots are. Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran ... It's clearly the result of soul and R&B music that touches these artists. They come back here and do huge, and they play music that comes naturally from here, but no young artists are going for that because they feel like they can't.

You'll have an artist from England, Sam Smith, that'll come and be on the top of the charts with a clear soul-R&B kind of song. And then you'll have an artist like Tyrese who'll do a completely R&B song they won't give the time of day for. I don't really make a complaint about it, 'cause the other side of it is, I'm glad that somewhere people are appreciating that style of music. I just performed in South Africa with Toni Braxton, and it was amazing. We were doing sell-out concerts, and it was like we were in the Nineties like a time warp. The music we were doing was getting the kind of reaction that Taylor Swift gets here today.

It's the 20th anniversary of Waiting to Exhale in December. What was it like to be that central to pop culture in that moment?
I didn't know it. I was just working [laughs]! I didn't stop to sit there and say, "Ooh, it's about me," so I didn't experience it that way. I felt it was just musically what I was doing, and it was great that it happened that way. I just felt like I was blessed and got really lucky, like, got a hit there. I was so fortunate to be able to work with artists like Whitney Houston. So that was great to be able to do that because I worked really hard to get to that point. But as it was happening, in terms of all the hits that were happening and all the things that were in place, the truth is, I would forget sometimes.

I just did this concert down in Miami with Anthony Hamilton, 112, Ginuwine and Dru Hill. Dru Hill was on stage, and they played two songs that I did — it was one of their most popular songs in their show. But I had completely forgotten that I had produced it and written it — you just write and do what you do, and in the process something happens. When I heard it, I was like, "Oh, I like those songs." Then I was like, "Oh, shit, I wrote those songs." 

Back in the Nineties, when you saw videos like "I Wanna Sex You Up" by Color Me Badd, was there ever a moment when you thought, "What have I done?"
It's interesting — the cool part about having success is that you then get to work with artists that you might not want to work with, but there's artists that you do want to work with and respect you. So because of that I was able to work with an Eric Clapton; because of working with Eric Clapton I was able to work with a Barbra Streisand; because of records I would do, then I'd be able to work with Madonna.

And Phil Collins.
And Phil Collins! Forgot about that. So it's been a long laundry list, and everything wasn't big hits, but it was always a joy to work with each artist. I wasn't a salesman like, "Look at what I've done." I've always said if Puffy had had my hits he'd be — you wouldn't be able to control him [laughs]. Puffy's accomplished a lot himself — a lot of people forget he produced that Mary J. Blige album, which is one of the most significant albums, I think, ever. And then, of course, the whole Bad Boy experience, the whole thing of Notorious B.I.G. — it's huge things that he did. But I would say, if I had a little bit of him in me and him a little bit of me, I just wonder what life would've been like that way. I don't know that I would've wanted it, but the lesson is that the artist and the producer and the writers — the difference in terms of who they are, those who use social media, those that don't use it, and those that use it to kind of build themselves. Having the right kind of personality can make the difference in terms of whether you shine or don't shine.

If my life depended on being a social-media person in terms of talking myself up, I probably would be in trouble because — not that I wouldn't be able to step up to it — but I wouldn't love it. I wouldn't want to be that person; that wouldn't be my natural thing. The blessing of being able to write music and let music speak for itself is you let the melodies and let the lyrics and the groove talk to people, instead of me talking to people.

Let's get back to Waiting to Exhale. How did you get involved in creating the soundtrack?
I got a call from Forest Whitaker and he told me he was doing Waiting to Exhale, and he wanted me to consider not just writing music for it, but to score the film as well. I'd never done that before, and I said, "I don't know that I can do that." He said, "You can do it and I can get you all the help that you need, but I want you to do it. I think this will be great for you to do." So he gave me that shot. And because I was doing the music for it, that automatically put me in to do music with Whitney, which obviously I had to deal with Clive Davis on that, but initially it was me sitting down with Whitney. 

How was that?
I had already worked with Whitney, and it felt like kind of a weight on my shoulders because Whitney had just come off of The Bodyguard. But then Whitney said, "I'm not going to do the whole album — I'm just going to do one thing, maybe two songs." So it's not going to be The Bodyguard; it's just going to be whatever it is.

So we sat and we talked, and I actually had the idea of saying, "Why don't we do it where it's women?" And let's build from there. She was fine with the idea, but she had to approve the women. So I wrote down a list of all the women who were possibilities, and there were some people she said yes to and those that she did not say yes to. Those that she said yes to were obviously on the record.

When we came with the list, everybody said yes to it. Brandy was this brand new young girl who I thought was incredible. I was living in a house on this little street called San Isidro — I actually recorded Brandy in my little home studio there, and I wrote "Count on Me" with Whitney there in that house. Forest was editing the film, so he would send me back scenes, and then I had to figure out how to write music for them that he had to approve.

"Barbra Streisand told me [Waiting to Exhale] was her favorite record."

Almost everything I did, the first time I did it, he liked it, so it was an easy process. It was amazing because when I finally delivered it to Clive, Clive OK'd everything, which was not normal at all — because Clive is always critical. Everything just seemed to fall in place. When we finished it, it felt good, and we just knew that it had a good feeling. Being able to work with Mary J., [though] Andre Harrell was completely against her doing "Not Gon' Cry."

I remember sitting in front of the Four Seasons playing it for him. I felt strongly about it, and he said, "It's a good record, but it's too old for her. She ain't that old; that ain't her story," and I made the argument, it's not always about Mary; it's about her telling the story for other people. Other people can relate to that. Then obviously it did amazing for her, I think it was her first Number One pop record or Top 10 pop record.

Getting [Whitney] at a time in her life where she was still in great shape and that she was powerful, it was a great film to be a part of. It was one of those time periods that you don't know as it's happening that it is as important as it is. You do the work that you do, and then you kind of move on and history gets in.

Do you mean the soundtrack's importance as an amazing record, or the phenomenon of the film as a whole?
It was all of it. It was movie-making; it was how the music ultimately affected so many people from so many different genres. Barbra Streisand told me it was her favorite record. It was that powerful, and it was something that hadn't been done where it was an all-female album. For the album to be nothing but women and to be successful like it was, it was a great thing.

You've worked with a lot of women singers — do you have a good rapport with women?
I've always written from the perspective of what women would think because women are more interested in love than men are.

Are we?
Yeah, of course you are! So that's always the perspective I would initially write from. If women are interested in something, then men will usually follow because they're interested in whatever they would be interested in — that's going to get them somewhere [laughs].