His name is already familiar to record buyers who make note of the songwriting credits on major hit records by such superstar artists as Mariah Carey
and Mary J. Blige
. Music industry insiders know him as the Grammy-winning 'go-to' writer which is why the legendary Whitney Houston
, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson
, global multi-platinum artist Usher
and hitmaker Chris Brown
have tracks on forthcoming projects by this unassuming Atlanta native. While he may have spent the last eight years behind the scenes, penning songs for the likes of Toni Braxton
, Enrique Iglesias
, Faith Evans
, Ruben Studdard
, Fantasia Barrino
, and Mario
, that's all about to change with the 2007 release of Johnta Austin
's much-awaited debut album, Ocean Drive
Signed to super-producer Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label, Johnta (pronounced "John-tay") Austin is stepping out front with a first record that is reminiscent of the finely-crafted work of such soulful icons as Marvin Gaye
, Luther Vandross
and in more recent times, Babyface. For, like all three, Johnta brings the skill of his honed penmanship to his work as a recording artist. Indeed, if Gaye – one of Johnta's musical influences – were around today cutting his groundbreaking "Let's Get It On" album, it might sound a little like Austin's auspicious debut in terms of lyrical content, smooth'n'sexy vocals and masterful production. The analogy is particular interesting: when asked if any artist or album provided the inspiration for Ocean Drive
, Johnta is quick to mention Gaye's 1973 masterpiece which he heard when he was just fifteen. Like Marvin and other 'triple threat' artists such as Babyface
and R. Kelly
, who write, produce and sing, Johnta describes himself as "a storyteller, writing songs that are lyrically relevant, without too many gimmicks."
, the bulk of which was produced by Dupri with songs written by Dupri and Austin, is, in the words of the artist himself, "classy, sexy, fresh, which is what you think of when you think of Miami's Ocean Drive." A heady mix of infectious club-flavored grooves and old school-styled slow jams, Ocean Drive
is a breath of fresh air, with its emphasis on real songs with memorable hooks. Case in point: "The One That Got Away," which Johnta says is a good indicator of what listeners can expect from his album. "I wrote it from personal experience," he says of the Stargate-produced cut. "Even with all the success you may have in life, you can get tired of acting like you're not hurting, thinking about that one girl you never forget, the one who crosses your mind time after time.
With a big up to the club scene, "Video" (featuring Atlanta-based rapper DJ Unk
) is the infectious new single from Ocean Drive
, produced by Dupri while "Let's Take It Back" is Johnta's way of paying homage to house parties "where folks would slow dance up against the wall!" Then there's "Lil' More Love," a 'back-in-the-day' ballad that Johnta says "will definitely appeal to the 'grown' folks!" The standout cut has an interesting history to it: "That's the song that got me signed to Jermaine's label. I sent him a demo while he was on vacation. He played it to Janet (Jackson) and she asked Jermaine, 'is he going to do his own album?'" The ultimate result of that conversation? Ocean Drive
, whose release has been anticipated by music listeners who were captivated by "Turn It Up," the track featuring Jadakiss that sparked major excitement in late 2006 at radio, online and on television (with a popular video that aired on BET, BET-J an VH1-Soul). It's an ode to soul music greats like Vandross, Kelly, Blige, Faith Evans
among others, Johnta says. "Those artists create different moods with their music. This is my way of expressing the influence of music on our everyday lives."
Johnta's focus on writing, producing and singing songs that reflect real life experiences and situations is the constant theme throughout Ocean Drive
, whether on "Hood Love," featuring none other than the unmatchable Mary J.Blige, the story of two people who "fight more than they get along…but at the end of the day, really love each other…" or "A Mess" (produced by Teddy Bishop) which speaks of a couple in a long-term relationship "which is no longer working." On a more positive tip, "Joy" is Johnta's upbeat commentary on "the pinnacle of love" while "Up In My Room" (with shades of Gaye's sexually-charged lyrics on "Let's Get It On") is, well, "self-explanatory!" and the chill cut "Mutual" – originally planned by co-producer Jazzy Pha for as a track for Chris Brown – sets the mood for some serious love-making.
For Johnta, the journey from Grammy-winning songwriter to the making of his first album had its original roots when, as an aspiring child actor and singer in his church choir, he landed a gig at the age of 12 as co-host of a children's television series on Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS). Austin got the chance to interview entertainment icons like Michael Jackson
and Michael Jordan
. This high profile gig gained the attention of late night talk show host Arsenio Hall
, who invited Austin to be a guest on his popular show. When Johnta revealed that he liked to sing, Arsenio immediately prompted him to sing with the show's band. Coincidentally, an A&R rep from RCA Records was watching that show and later reached out to Johnta which led to the then-13-year-old's first record deal with RCA in 1994.
The experience was short-lived when inevitably, as a young teen, Johnta's voice changed; his connection with RCA however took an interesting turn when, a few years later, he submitted the lyrics to the song "Sweet Lady" to then newly-signed tirese for his debut album. By the time Johnta graduated from North Atlanta's School of Performing Arts high school in 1998, "Sweet Lady" was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard charts. "I was happy to get the opportunity to write a record for tirese," says Austin. "I didn't know it was gonna be as successful as it was…"
With the success of "Sweet Lady" came opportunities to work with numerous other artists: in 1999, Johnta had his second hit as a songwriter with Ideal's "Get Gone": subsequently, he's scored with "Miss You," a top 3 pop hit for Aaliyah as well as cuts on Jessica Simpson
("A Public Affar") and Mary J. Blige ("Be Without You"), co-writing a series of massive hits for Mariah Carey, including "Don't Forget About Us," "Shake It Off", "It's Like That" and the record-breaking single, "We Belong Together" which earned Johnta a Grammy as "Best R&B Song" in 2005. Says Carey, "As a fellow songwriter, I really had an incredible experience working with Johnta. I'm really excited for him and happy that such a true talent is getting a chance to shine as a solo artist.": Blige declares, "Johnta is the best thing to happen to the music industry,"; Chris Brown enthused: "His pen is like a basketball to Michael Jordan. He's creative and not afraid to go outside the box in his writing." Adds Ciara: "The way that he tells stories through music is so vivid that you can paint the picture."
That skill as a contemporary storyteller drawing on his own life experiences led to Jermaine Dupri's insightful decision to sign Johnta to his So So Def label in 2005 after Dupri began taking notice of Johnta's singing talents on demos for songs they were writing for various projects. Taking time to ensure that Johnta's first album would reflect the span of his skills as a soulful vocalist, songwriter and producer, Dupri has supervised the project from inception to its release in 2007.
For Johnta, who cites Sam Cooke
and Stevie Wonder
as primary vocal influences, R. Kelly and Babyface as among those who have inspired his craft as a songwriter and Quincy Jones
as a producer whose work he deeply admires, the release of Ocean Drive
is the culmination of patiently waiting: "I don't think I've ever stopped being an artist," maintains Austin. "I focused on the songwriting thing for so long because I knew when I got another chance to do an album, I wanted to bring more to the table."
That he succeeds is self-evident for Ocean Drive
is indeed a soulful showcase for Johnta who says it simply: "Subject matter is key to a good song. You have to talk about things that people can relate to. And as far as singing goes, I try to sing with a lot of emotion," he says. "When it's a painful song, I want you to feel the pain in my voice. When it's a love song, I want you to feel the love." Those words could easily be quotes from the late Mr. Gaye: rather, they are the words of Johnta Austin, a multi-talented artist who's bringing that 'old school' feeling to today's music scene, full on.
"Video" featuring UNK and Jermaine Dupri:
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