NPR's 'Noteworthy': Zooming In On The Creative Process, One Artist At A Time Audie Cornish speaks with NPR's Jason King about the new documentary series Noteworthy, in which he profiles prominent musicians and reveals the secrets behind how they write, produce and record.
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Zooming In On The Creative Process, One Artist At A Time

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Zooming In On The Creative Process, One Artist At A Time

Zooming In On The Creative Process, One Artist At A Time

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You know, the shiny, polished pop of today sometimes sounds effortless, as if it hatched fully realized from the keyboards of genius producers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO GOOD")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Lately, you just make me work too hard for you. Got me on flights overseas, and I still can't get across to you.

CORNISH: But just 'cause the technology is different doesn't mean the creative process is. "Noteworthy," a new video documentary from NPR, spends a day with a musician to understand the real work that goes into their art - how they get ideas for melodies and lyrics, the places and people that inspire them.

The host is NPR's R&B expert Jason King. He's spoken to singers such as Miguel, Maxwell, Alicia Keys and Anthony Hamilton. And today he joins me to share some of the highlights of his conversations and the surprising things he discovered in the process. Hey, there, Jason.

JASON KING, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So going into this, what were the kind of underlying questions that you wanted answers to? What did you want to find out?

KING: The idea for "Noteworthy" was to go a lot deeper than the traditional sort of press junket or press conference where you might talk to an artist, but to actually talk to musicians in their home cities, where they feel connected to their creativity. So, for instance, we hopped on a plane and went to visit R&B artist Anthony Hamilton in North Carolina, spent a full day with him visiting his childhood home, going to the barbershop where he first learned to develop his work ethic. We got on a plane to Los Angeles to meet with Grammy winning singer Miguel at his beachfront home, which is a kind of sanctuary for him where he clears his head to be creative. So we were able to take those kinds of trips that allowed us to connect directly to the creativity of these music superstars.

CORNISH: Several of the artists that you've interviewed are known for being perfectionist, for doing a lot of writing or production themselves. And in your series, you talk to them about collaboration. Here's Alicia Keys on what it was like to really learn to collaborate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOTEWORTHY")

ALICIA KEYS: Now I've learned that you try to control things too much, and you miss the magic. So that's just been an evolution and a process. But I had to control that at the beginning, I feel, because I wouldn't even have been given a chance. And I don't think I would have made the music that I'm still proud today to play.

KING: So in that interview I did with Alicia Keys, she talks about how as a teenager, she had a record deal where she was forced to conform to this musical identity that didn't fit her. And so given that, she tried to become a micromanager and control every aspect of her music. But over time, she had to learn how to collaborate. And even this new record that she's about to release - she's relied on a trusted team of collaborators, including her husband, producer Swizz Beatz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

KEYS: (Singing) There's a hole in my heart I've been hiding.

KING: Alicia actually sat down at her custom-crafted piano and performed for us a new song that's from her forthcoming album called "Hallelujah."

KEYS: (Singing) Is there a place I can go where the lonely river flows, where the fear ends and faith begins? Hallelujah, hallelujah. Let me in.

CORNISH: Really powerful. I can't imagine being in the room with that.

KING: Yeah. It was astonishing to watch. And one of the things that I was really excited about was to see her, even before the performance, start to work out some of the chords and basically practice in front of us because we're trying to shine a light on the creative process. And it was great to be able to see her in her element.

CORNISH: Now, these singers and songwriters also talk to you about where they get their ideas. And in this day and age, I guess it's unavoidable, given, like, we're in a season of politics and everything that's going on in the world, that they are very much affected by current events.

KING: Yeah, that theme actually really showed up in a really interesting way with the interview that I did with R&B singer Miguel, who's mostly known for writing these very sensual songs about love and intimacy. And, you know, a couple of months ago, he released a new song called "Come Through And Chill."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME THROUGH AND CHILL")

MIGUEL: (Singing) Hello, stranger. It's been a minute since we last kicked it.

KING: And in a lot of ways, Miguel has kind of followed up on the legacy of Marvin Gaye, who also made very sensual solo records in the 1970s. But Marvin Gaye also made this political music. Everybody knows his famous album "What's Going On," which directly responded to all the social issues of the time.

So for the interview with Miguel, I was really curious about how he feels about the contemporary political situation, like Black Lives Matters protests, the increased attention to police brutality and all of the kind of turbulence that's happening. And he responded in a really interesting way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOTEWORTHY")

MIGUEL: To be completely honest, I think it's this sense of responsibility that makes this room a little more scary for me because...

KING: The studio - the recording studio?

MIGUEL: Yeah, yeah. Because I'm measuring up my conscience and what I feel like needs to be spoken about and needs to be brought to light or needs to be discussed. And, you know, I've never been there like that. What is my way of doing it? You know, to dive deeper.

KING: So I thought that was really interesting because even though Miguel hasn't made a lot of political music throughout his career, he did feel like it was important for him, as an artist, to make music that, as Nina Simone once said, reflects and synthesizes the times.

And after I had this conversation with Miguel, he uploaded a sound - a song to his SoundCloud account a couple of weeks later called "How Many." And this song, which is sort of off-the-cuff, was his response to hearing about police shootings of civilians. And so, you know, one of the things that's been fascinating about as "Noteworthy" as a series is that we're able to capture artists in the moment where they're coming up with these creative and musical responses to the times in which they live.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW MANY")

MIGUEL: (Singing) I'm tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands. I'm tired of watching these murderers get off while we bury the lost, loved, innocent brothers and sisters. It's time to wake up, wake up, wake up.

CORNISH: Jason, it's interesting for you to talk about an artist in terms of a legacy like Marvin Gaye, right? Like, you can't have one part of the legacy and not the other.

KING: Exactly. I mean, I think artists are struggling these days to find ways to bring together and synthesize all of the different aspects of who they are, but that's what makes great artists. And so it's interesting to be able to interview artists about how they negotiate that struggle in 2016.

CORNISH: You know, I said at the introduction it seems like these pop stars sometimes come out fully hatched, right?

KING: Yeah.

CORNISH: And what surprised you about the creative process for artists on this level?

KING: One of the things that's really surprising to me about these interviews that I've been able to do is to really talk with musicians about all the unseen, unaccounted for hours and labor that actually goes into making a hit album or hit song. There's times when the process of making music is really intuitive for an artist. It can happen very, very quickly, like "Lightning In A Bottle."

Actually, when I interviewed Miguel, he talked to me about how he wrote his Grammy winning hit "Adorn" in 30 minutes. But generally, writing a hit song and creating a hit song or hit record is more like what record producer Quincy Jones would have said. It's like, you know, painting a 747 with a toothbrush. Takes a lot of detail, a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of unseen and unspent hours.

CORNISH: Jason King, looking forward to seeing and hearing more about "Noteworthy." Thanks so much.

KING: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Jason King is the curator of NPR Music's R&B stream I'll Take You There. His video documentary series is called "Noteworthy," and you can see some of the episodes on our website at npr.org/music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADORN")

MIGUEL: (Singing) Just let my love - just let my love adorn you please, baby. Yeah. You've got to know. You've got to know.

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