Keri Hilson initially planned to break into the music industry as a singer. Straight from the best-laid-plans file, however, she encountered several false starts. But she didn't abandon her dream.
Hilson did put it on layaway as she sharpened another skill: songwriting. Not only has she become a sought-after writer, Hilson finally broke out earlier this year as a chart-topping singer with her aptly titled debut album, "In a Perfect World."
And her career evolution underscores the increasing role publishing companies are playing in artist development.
Five years ago, the relatively unknown songwriter signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group. At that point, Hilson's resume included credits as the teen lead singer of one-time Elektra girl group By D'Sign and early songwriting efforts on projects by Kelly Rowland and Ciara.
"Melody is one of Keri's strongest points and she's very clever lyrically," said Ethiopia Habtemariam, the company's New York-based senior VP/head of urban.
Around that time, Atlanta-based songwriter/producer Polow Da Don arranged an introduction between Hilson and Timbaland. The producer signed her to his Interscope-distributed Mosley Music imprint in 2006.
Learning experienceAll the while, Hilson was developing her songwriting skills. Stranded in Miami during Hurricane Katrina following a songwriting retreat, she became a founding member of the songwriting/production collective the Clutch. The five-person team has churned out such R&B/hip-hop and pop hits as Mary J. Blige's "Take Me As I Am," Britney Spears' "Gimme More" and Omarion's "Ice Box."
Through her connection with Timbaland and Polow, Hilson got placements for songs recorded by the Pussycat Dolls ("Wait a Minute") and Ludacris ("Runaway Love"). She also wrote and was featured on Timbaland's top five Billboard Hot 100 hit "The Way I Are." Then two years ago she began to focus on her dream.
The long gestation from songwriter to artist paid off. Hilson's "In a Perfect World" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Selling 411,000 copies after 19 weeks, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the album has spun off two hits: "Knock You Down" featuring Kanye West and Ne-Yo and "Turnin' Me On" featuring Lil Wayne. A new single, "Slow Dance," is scaling the charts, as is R. Kelly's "Number One" featuring Hilson.
Hilson recently returned to the studio to begin writing for forthcoming albums by Timbaland and Chris Brown, as well as her own next project. Looking back on her songwriter-to-artist evolution, she says taking the alternate route was worth it.
"I thought I was ready back then," she says. "But in all actuality, I now know a little more than the average new artist. I learned a lot about the business from my behind-the-scenes view. And my songwriting has definitely made me a lot less inhibited as a singer and opened up the creative boundaries I thought I had. It's a double learning experience that's given me a strong foundation."