NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In a spacious recording studio in Nashville, two singer-songwriters, Priscilla Renea and Jillian Jacqueline, were working through a song idea, trading suggestions for lyrics and melody on the theme of resurrection.
“When you least expect it.,” Jacqueline started off. “Resurrection!” says Renea with a flourish. Shortly after, Mary J. Blige walked into the studio and the two women stopped singing. They were trying to come up with a song the Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul might want to record, but it wasn’t quite ready yet.
“We were trying to get a head start on you,” Renea told Blige.
The setting last week was the first all-female songwriting camp organized by the performing rights organization ASCAP under a new music industry diversity initiative called “She Is the Music,” started by Alicia Keys and other top female music executives.
A report earlier this year from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative analyzed women’s roles in popular music, including artists, songwriters and producers. The report found that women were underrepresented across the board. From 2012 to 2017, women comprised just 22 percent of artists that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and just 12 percent of songwriters. A mere 2 percent of producers were female.
The camp aims to change those stats. Some of the women involved were already established as artists themselves or hit songwriters, while others were still building their careers. The writers at the camp had songs recorded by Beyonce, Rihanna, Miranda Lambert, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, Pitbull, Carrie Underwood and Hillary Scott. Joining them were also female producers and female engineers, some of whom have worked with artists like Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Jason Derulo.
“By putting this camp together and showing how successful it can be, we hope we can inspire others to do the same thing,” said Nicole George-Middleton, senior vice president of membership for ASCAP.
In Nashville, songwriting camps are commonplace, sometimes organized by a performing rights organization, or a publisher, or by an artist looking to co-write. This one was unique, bringing together writers and producers from all over the country who have backgrounds in R&B, pop, country, electronic, hip-hop and more. George-Middleton said they selected the women based on how they might work together and ASCAP wanted to have an artist like Blige that had a strong voice and a story to tell.
“It means so much to me because these women are really incredible songwriters and they are excited to work with me,” Blige said.
The Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated singer said she was hoping to inspire the writers and producers to come up with ideas for her next record.
“It’s important because we live in a male-dominated world and we work in a male-dominated business,” Blige said. “The world is hard on us. Men are hard on us. Women are hard on each other. So when you see a bunch of women who are confident enough to come together and embrace each other’s talent, this is like a blessing from God.”
Blige, 47, sat down in the studio with the songwriters and started telling them about the thoughts and emotions she wanted to explore on her next record.
“I feel boss, really boss,” she told the women. “Not because I am cocky and I think I’m fly, but why not, right? I earned it. I suffered through it. I suffered to get here. I won. I lost. I truly believe that I am somebody special.”
Renea probably knows Blige better than most of the other participants, having co-written songs with her that ended up on previous albums.
“She is able to articulate so well and be so vulnerable with the feelings that most people try to pretend like they don’t go through, but do it with such grace that people are inspired,” Renea said of Blige.
After Blige’s visit, the women split into smaller groups to toss out ideas and lyrics, fragments and beats. They had two-and-a-half days to work, socialize and record with the hopes of crafting the next Mary J. Blige hit.
Producers Sadie Currey and Ester Na, who work in Los Angeles as a producing team called WildCardz, picked up on little details that Blige mentioned about the music she was really into lately and the style of music she wanted to record. They’ve learned to be good listeners to help songwriters and artists create the sounds they hear in their heads.
“This is our first camp outside of L.A. and it’s been great to just experiment and learn,” said Currey. “It’s been really great to meet the other two female producers here. That’s a lot of fun ’cause I feel like I don’t get to do that ’cause it’s usually guys. Sometimes you don’t connect with a guy the same way you do with a bunch of girls. We can all nerd out together. (Like), ‘what kind of plug-in do you use for this? How do you mix that?’ I haven’t really had that community of women to do that with.”
Many of the women there understand the barriers they are up against in the music industry.
“Even with all the hits that I have had, the credit goes to all the guys,” said Renea, who has co-written multi-platinum successes like Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber” and “Worth It” by Fifth Harmony. “Until we have more women in leadership positions then the perspective will always be slanted.”
Both Currey and Na were impressed that ASCAP has a female CEO and is actively trying to find ways to improve diversity.
“The more people see women in these roles, the more girls are going to follow that path,” Currey said.