Interview: Ashford & Simpson – Renowned Songwriting and Production Duo

Posted: January 30, 2009 in interview, music
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Ashford & Simpson

Date of Interview: 01/30/2009

© 2009 Clayton Perry

Over the past four decades, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson have penned hits for some of the music industry’s foremost stars, including Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Chaka Khan.  And more recently, their work has inspired a generation of newer, younger artists, who were raised on their timeless hits: Amy Winehouse on “Tears Dry on Their Own” (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), 50 Cent on “Best Friend” (“Silly Wasn’t I”) and Whitney Houston on the ubiquitous “I’m Every Woman.”

Although Nickolas and Valerie are best known for being a successful songwriting and production duo, they developed quite a reputation as performers, too.  After a three-week stand in New York at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Ashford & Simpson decided to tape their live show and chronicle the experience—dubbing it as The Real Thing.  Living up to its name, the concert does not disappoint.

Upon review of The Real Thing, Ashford & Simpson managed to squeeze some time out of their busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Barack Obama, “Gimme Something Real” and the arduous task of writing the score for E. Lynn Harris’ Invisible Life.

Clayton Perry: In this day and age, it’s exciting to see real artists performing real music with real instruments. Your latest release, The Real Thing, comes several years after your last studio offering, however.  Is there a reason why you chose to reintroduce yourselves with a live concert DVD?

Nickolas Ashford: Well, we hadn’t put out any music in a long time and we were doing this show at Feinstein’s and people were really enjoying it.  Eventually, I said, “Well, why don’t we tape it for posterity?” We didn’t know all this was going to happen.

Clayton Perry: Since this project was completely unexpected, what forces brought it to the masses?

Nickolas Ashford: Sony Records got interested in it. Right, honey?

Valerie Simpson: Actually, we were picked up by Media Push Entertainment who had a deal with Sony. It was Media Push’s first project, so they wanted to do something that they could stand behind and they picked this project. So we were thrilled. We were the first thing for them. And Sony loved it. They’ve been working 100% – actually 150% – on the project, so we all are in love right now.

Clayton Perry: Well, they had something great to stand behind to push [laughing]. But I love the fact that you’re performing in a small, intimate setting. What value do you find in connecting with your fans and how does that elevate your performance?

Nickolas Ashford: It definitely elevates your performance because there’s no holding back. We simply have to give our all because it’s so intimate and there’s no fooling the audience…

Valerie Simpson: Because they’re so close! [laughing]

Nickolas Ashford: …and you find yourself wanting to connect in a different way because they are so close. I think that’s one of the fabulous parts about that. In a setting like that, your spirits get so connected. It’s just a wonderful feeling. We’re both having a jam session. It’s really great.

Clayton Perry: There’s this old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” You two have been around for a long time – decades – and that kind of longevity is unheard of in the current market. After all these years, what change has affected your career the most? And with time, have you found there to be a common experience that you always end up having year after year?

Valerie Simpson: I don’t know. I kind of feel like we rode with the changes. The music industry has its moments, its up and its downs, and you just kind of bend with it. We just kept on writing songs. Now, instead of people writing new songs, people just come along and sample your song and write another song on top of that song. So, instead of having just one song, you have two. Now, we don’t have to work that hard, so that’s a change. Sampling has changed a lot.

Nickolas Ashford: In show business, everybody gets a turn, and when you get your turn, you better give it all up. Sometimes you don’t know your turn has happened. I’m so glad that when we got our chance to express our talent, we were able to create a body of work that has lasted. Once you’ve had your turn though, sometimes you have to move over and let somebody else express themselves. That’s show business, you know.

Clayton Perry: When you look back at your career and even now to this day, what do you consider to be your legacy or biggest contribution to music history?

Valerie Simpson: I think we stand on the songs and music.

Nickolas Ashford: And, of course, how good I look [laughing].

Valerie Simpson: Oh, you’re right!  [laughing] I think the fact that young kids today can respond to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” the same way people my age can says a lot about the longevity of the song. “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Even “I’m Every Woman” – we’ve been really fortunate to have songs that have legs, that really have lasted, you know? I think that’s our legacy.

Clayton Perry: When I look back on my childhood, I distinctly remember “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” being used during the end credits of Sister Act II.  Forty years later, with such a large catalog of hits, I’m sure there are a few songs that you hoped or wished had a bit more exposure. What do you consider to be one of your undiscovered gems?

Valerie Simpson: Actually, one appears on this DVD – “Gimme Something Real,” which is from our very first album together. I always loved the song and I don’t think it was that well-known because the first album introduced us but it wasn’t a huge hit. I think the song still holds up. Maybe it’ll have the light of day now.

Nickolas Ashford: There are a lot of songs that are buried on our albums and they’re never heard, so I encourage everybody to get out those old CDs. There is a lot of good music out there, besides what gets played on the radio.  You know, it’s politics.

Clayton Perry: It’s not typical for artists to be known simply by their last names. How did you decide to be called “Ashford & Simpson”?

Nickolas Ashford: It’s hard to find a little cute name.  I think we just talked that over.

Valerie Simpson: Our name kind of sounds like a law firm!  [laughing]

Nickolas Ashford: That’s the first time I heard that – a law firm!  [laughing]

Clayton Perry: Many of your songs have been covered, but one song in particular has been sampled over and over again: “I’m Every Woman.” At the time of its release, were you surprised at how much it resonated with women?

Valerie Simpson: No. It always had that feeling about it. It’s a “Yes, I Can” kind of song. The lyrics managed to stand the test of time. Sometimes when you have such a strong hook you can mess it up, but I think he came up with the right hook. It was great for Chaka, even better for Whitney, and even wonderful when Oprah did it for two years on her show. It’s like one of those things everybody can identify with. When we do it in shows, the women just rally. It becomes like a big anthem for us.

Clayton Perry: In this day and age, most people don’t sing the songs that they’ve written. They have songs that are written to match their voice or their image. As singers and songwriters, what are some of the consequences and what are some of the benefits?

Valerie Simpson: I think the major benefit—if you’re the songwriter—is that you don’t have to wait for somebody to come up with a great idea for you and sometimes you’re at the mercy of the songwriter. If he feels he has a hit record, he’ll get songs to whoever is the latest and greatest artist. If you’re not hot, hot, hot at the moment, you may not get that great song. If you are a person like Mariah Carey who’s lucky enough to be able to write her material and she’s not waiting for somebody to give her something, that’s a stronger package.

Nickolas Ashford: Plus you make more money! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: How do you decide whether you’re going to keep a song for yourself or give it to someone else?

Nickolas Ashford: If it’s in our area, we’re writing for ourselves. It’s quite different. We know when we’re writing for ourselves.

Valerie Simpson: Yeah, because it’s always a duet.

Nickolas Ashford: Yeah, and we know we have to be careful with the lyrics because they have to fit the male and the female. When we’re writing for a single artist, we know we’re writing for one heartbeat, you know? It’s different.

Valerie Simpson: If you get the right artist – even if the song was for you – you’re willing to give it up.

Nickolas Ashford: Especially if the artist is a bigger name than you.

Clayton Perry: Has there been a moment where you thought you wanted it for yourself, and somebody came along and you said, “Oh no, go ahead and have it?”

Nickolas Ashford: I don’t think that has happened to us.

Valerie Simpson: I think the closest we ever came to that was in the very beginning when we first heard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” We knew we were going to take it to Motown. Dusty Springfield came by our house and heard it, but we told her, “We couldn’t give it to you.”

Clayton Perry: There are only a few male-and-female, husband-and-wife teams in the music industry. Is there a reason for that you think?

Valerie Simpson: You don’t see too many, and I’m glad! [laughing] We don’t need any extra couples [laughing]. All kidding aside, when we started we weren’t a couple anyway. We were just two people working together and we weren’t romantically involved for eight years. The romance and the love came later. If we had started out, I don’t know maybe – you have to form before you can really pull this off. That was a good time for us to really get to know each other in a real way and take care of business in a real way and then all that lovey-dovey stuff came later. I think that made it easier for us to make it all the way. It’s hard.

Clayton Perry: How have you seen your music evolve from songs you started off with and the later songs when you were head over heels in love?

Nickolas Ashford: It did make some difference, a lot of difference. It just got better. It got more…

Valerie Simpson: Easier. We didn’t have to call each other and say, “Let’s get together and work.” We were sleeping together then [laughing].

Nickolas Ashford: Access to ideas easily worked out because you’re close already. I’d say, “What do you think about this?” She’d say, “Nick, I like this part.” You can just jump into it.  Whereas before, you got to call. “Where will you be at 4?” Our content has probably changed – more personal in some songs, you know?

Clayton Perry: A lot of your music revolves around love in all of its various stages.  You were recently tapped to score the musical for E. Lynn Harris’s Invisible Life. How different was the writing process for this when compared against your own personal projects?

Valerie Simpson: Totally new.

Nickolas Ashford: It’s hard, mainly because the writing and the music has to further the storyline. It’s not always the song we’re writing: it’s an emotional point we’re trying to portray musically. Sometimes you have a full-out song. It’s more challenging to tell the story through the music. With the singing and talking and then singing a whole song – it’s a process and it has to marry beautifully for it to really work.

Valerie Simpson: Also, telling this kind of story – about a young man’s confusion about his sexuality, showing all the people he encounters in his life, and trying to get the audience to ride that wave with you – it’s quite a challenge. We’re having fun with it. It’s something brand new.

Clayton Perry: In 2008, The Wiz, another project you worked on, celebrated the 30th anniversary of its film production. How did you initially become involved with the project and what particular contributions did you make?

Valerie Simpson: Quincy Jones was the musical director for the whole thing. He came to New York and stayed at our house on the west side for a couple of nights.  Together, we worked on two songs. Quincy Jones is a great man to work with. He’s so much fun, so musical. That was really it – a treat.

Clayton Perry: In more recent news, a parody of “Solid,” your signature hit, has surfaced on television and the Internet—bearing the title “Solid as Barack.” Have you received any feedback from anyone inside the Obama camp?

Valerie Simpson: No, not really. Actually, everybody thinks it started on Saturday Night Live and it really didn’t. It started six months before in California at a concert we were doing. We were singing “Solid” and when I threw the microphone out to these three ladies in front, I’m wanting them to say, “Solid as a rock” as a breakdown. They said, “Solid as Barack,” and it caught on with the rest of the people. The next thing you know there’s 3,000 people hollering at us, “Solid as Barack,” you know? We just went with it because it just felt natural. Then we came back to New York and we would tell that story in our show and how that had happened. The audience always picked up on it and this guy, Stephen Holden, who writes for the New York Times, wrote about it. Then when we turned on the TV, Saturday Night Live did it as a parody. Then Nick said, “Maybe I should do a tricky lyric even though they tried to make fun of it.” So he wrote a whole new set of lyrics. That’s kind of how that happened.

Clayton Perry: During the 2008 election, a lot of music artists come out and voice their support for Obama. How involved were you in the process?

Valerie Simpson: Once we realized this thing looked like it really could happen, I was like a foot soldier. Even though I’ve never spoken from the stage about anything political, I felt moved to do that for him. I felt that we were all doing that in our lives, trying to make this thing happen like a collective consciousness at work. I think that’s how he got in there because everybody went to work. There were foot soldiers all over the place, knocking on doors, doing something they’d never do.  Every time I encountered my white neighbors across the street, I had to talk to them and reassure them and make them see the possibility.

Clayton Perry: On a more personal level, you have allowed many aspiring artists similar opportunities to make their dreams become reality.  In fact, in 1996, you opened a lounge in New York City called the Sugar Bar, which has an open mic session on Thursday nights.

Nickolas Ashford: Yeah. We have such great talent coming through the Sugar Bar, and some artists have gone on to further their careers, like Elisabeth Withers. When the Color Purple opened on Broadway, Quincy Jones asked us if we knew anyone that could play Shug Avery and she was the first person that we thought of. She went out, auditioned…

Valerie Simpson: …and got a recording contract!

Nickolas Ashford: The Sugar Bar has definitely become a gateway, if you’re good. Somebody is going to be sitting in the audience and hear you and offer you something.

Clayton Perry: What propelled you to make such an opportunity available to other artists?

Nickolas Ashford: It didn’t start out that way. It started out just like a family thing. We were so close to Dr. Maya Angelou that we enjoy sitting around talking so much that we had bought a place on the west side that had an empty bottom floor. I said, “Let’s start a restaurant so we can sit around and talk and eat.” I think people expected to hear music there. That’s when the complication came in. So we finally started putting music in and it started to happen after that.

Clayton Perry: Where do you see yourself headed now? You’re working on a score now with this particular project. Are there any other things you’re interested in pursuing?

Nickolas Ashford: It’s still the music; it’s all about the music. We kind of like take that day by day wherever that leads us. The music has been our guide. With God’s help inside of us, that has led us and attracted whatever we get to us. Tomorrow, the future, we can’t see. Nobody knows, but you try to make good choices for the future. And that’s how we go about it, basically. More good music, you know?

Clayton Perry: When you look at your career, what do you consider to be the best choice the two of you made in terms of furthering your career?

Valerie Simpson: Hooking up! [laughing] It was the best deal we ever made.

Nickolas Ashford: It hasn’t been work. It’s been fun [laughing].

For more information on Ashford & Simpson, visit their official MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/ashfordandsimpson

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