Surprisingly, there are a few people in the music industry who apparently haven’t gotten the memo on Sean Garrett.
In just three short years, the 29-year-old songwriter/producer has amassed a massive resume of smash hits, including Usher’s Grammy-winning “Yeah!,” Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Chris Brown’s “Run It” and the Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons.” He also contributed to several Grammy-nominated projects this year, including the albums of Beyonce, Brown and Mary J. Blige, and Nelly’s anthem to tooth bling, “Grillz.”
Still, Garrett admits to hitting a roadblock with one particular artist as he tries to map out an artistic direction for the singer.
“I still haven’t got a chance to do that record that I want to do, because the record company wants them to be at this place and I really want them to be over here,” he says. “They really need an uptempo record that’s crazy, but they’re more of a balladeer.”
Note to the record company and the unknown balladeer: Go with Garrett’s instinct. He doesn’t have the pedigree of say, a Timbaland or a Pharrell, but the hits he’s penned put him in the same blockbuster category. If you want a No. 1 hit, few have a better batting average than Garrett these days.
“Sean is amazing. Sean is a combination of great melodies and great rhythms in his songwriting,” says Island Def Jam Chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who discovered Garrett working in a studio in Garrett’s hometown of Atlanta. “He’s an incredible writer who is going to have a long career.”
But, initially, a career as a songwriter wasn’t what Garrett had in mind — he wanted to be the one at the microphone. It was what he had trained for since he was a little child. His mother, who passed away before his recent success, entered him in his first talent show before the age of 5, and from then on he was hooked on performing for crowds.
“When I was like 12, that’s when I started telling my mom, I’m really going to be a big artist one day,” says Garrett. “And she was like, ‘Boy, what you need to be doing is hitting them books.”’
An early start on his dreamBut he held on to his dream, and by 13, Garrett, an Army brat living in Germany, was singing for adult bands. Soon afterward he had a record contract for a label overseas. But nothing came of it.
When he returned to the United States, he recalls, he landed another deal; but that also fell through, due to restructuring.
At his mother’s insistence, he got enough education to have a side job as a mortgage broker, but he continued making demos in hopes of becoming a superstar. It was then when his talent as a songwriter started to get more attention.
“They were like, ‘You should really write for other people as well,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not really a songwriter like that.”
Still, he made a four-song CD to show off his skills as a writer: “Before I knew it I had four publishing deals on the table.”
One of them was with Reid’s Hitco publishing company, which he eventually signed. Reid recalls the first time he heard Garrett’s music.
“I was there visiting,” he says, “and I went in and I said, ‘Who is this, what is this?’ I loved what I heard. It pulled me right in.”
It didn’t take long for Garrett to start pulling in millions of listeners as well. Garrett was one of the chief writers behind Usher’s mega-smash “Yeah!” — the crunk jam, produced by Lil Jon. Soon after that, another crunk jam, Ciara’s “Goodies,” became a No. 1 hit, also with the Midas touch of Lil Jon.
Despite having two big smashes back-to-back, the success posed potential problems for the upstart.
“I really was starting to get put in this sort of category, like, ‘He can only do crunk music,”’ he says. “That ain’t even really my style.”
So, to broaden his sound, he started making strategic moves. Among those he worked with were Scott Storch and Swizz Beatz, on hits ranging from “Run It” to Beyonce’s club bouncer “Upgrade U.”
“I was doing that intentionally to let people know that I definitely possess a talent that was not common,” he says. “Like the ‘London Bridge’ record is probably totally different than anything that they probably expect me to do.”
Garrett’s style is varied. His handiwork was on Destiny’s Child ghettoblaster “Soldier,” among other songs on the women’s last album together; the bouncy, sexy “Check On It,” from Beyonce, as well as her paranoid “Ring the Alarm”; and Kelis’ power anthem “Bossy.”
He’s also contributed to Gwen Stefani’s latest album, is working with Enrique Iglesias, and is among the producers trying to craft a comeback record for tabloid queen Britney Spears.
Garrett admits that in some ways he has a definitive sound: “There’s definitely some key elements that you’re going to hear in a Sean Garrett record. One of them is WHOOP!” he says, imitating the high-pitched bells and whistles that seem to punctuate a Garrett song. “You’re definitely going to hear that.”
‘I like to make great music’
But not always, which is how Garrett likes it.
“I don’t really want my records to always be known by a certain sound. I like to make great music.”
He’s already got a reputation for that.
“I think Sean is very very talented; I think he’s written and co-written some amazing songs with quite a few cool people,” said “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson, also a producer. “I think he’s really doing his thing.”
“What makes him stand out from other writers is, one, his energy, and, two, his creativity,” says collaborator and fellow hitmaker Swizz Beatz. “When he comes in, he lets you know he’s about to get a hit. ... He can come up with hits right there on the spot.”
Now that he’s had success as a songwriter, Garrett hopes to eventually rekindle his singer dreams: “I’m probably going to have to do an album, just to let people know I’ve still got it,” he says with a smile.
But he remains committed to his songwriting and production dreams, and plans to tour urban schools to let kids know that their dreams may lie in the roles behind the scenes instead of front and center.
“You have to be open-minded about life,” says Garrett. “I’m a living testimony that my life started out one way, my passion was still the same but I was able to do it in another way where it really worked well for me, probably much better than (being) an artist.”