Harmony Samuels
Young and Gifted

by Otis Stokes

One of the first things you notice about British producer Harmony Samuels is that his first name is an “aptronym,” which by definition is “a person’s name that is regarded as amusingly appropriate to their occupation.” He is in the rare category of such notable people as Pastor Creflo Dollar, who is an American minister and advocate of “prosperity,” Russell Brain, a neurologist, Bob Rock, a rock music producer whose clients have included Metallica and Bon Jovi and Armand Hammer, a businessman who served on the board of the Arm & Hammer company, which was so named 31 years before his birth. You get the idea, harmony is a music-related term and Harmony David Samuels is a music producer, and his job is to bring harmony to the production of an artist and their music. Asked how he got such a fortuitous name, Samuels said, “My parents are musicians, I won’t even deny that. My father’s a musician, he played for an African band. They were very, very active musically. But they never had that intention to call me Harmony because of music. They called me it because of what it actually means. Unifying people, and that’s what they said it for. You know, he’s going to bring harmony to our family.”
Not only has Samuels brought harmony to his family, he has brought a lot of harmony to some of the hottest recording acts in the business. His production has touched the careers of Maroon 5, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, Brandy Norwood, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Hudson, Ne-Yo, Keyshia Cole and Ariana Grande, among others. He was the producer and co-writer of Ariana’s debut hit single “The Way,” which peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Samuels began his career in the UK, where he was a DJ at local clubs and music director at his community church. He then went on to work with some of the most relevant artists on the British music scene including Chipmunk, Alesha Dixon, and Craig David. Moving to Los Angeles, Samuels caught the attention of producer Rodney Jerkins, and that’s when his career took off here in the U.S. Harmony dropped by the LATF offices for a chat recently after a session in the recording studio.

Were you born in Nigeria?

No, I was born in London. I moved here five and a half years ago; it’ll be six years in December. And I’ve been here, just working and being very, very active in the music industry. Some will say I had a very quick start; I will say I had a very long start, because I’ve been doing this for about 15 years. But it takes 10 years to get your overnight success. It was awesome. I moved here, and was found by Rodney Jerkins, but I was born and raised in London. I went to school for music, and did my music production over there. I built a little buzz for a little while. It was kind of like, ‘Yo, this kid called Harmony.’ We had this producer battle where you would make the music in three minutes.

Is that something like a game show?

It’s not a game show. It’s basically in the hood right, and we do have hoods because everyone goes, “In where? The hood in London? But, you speak like you do.” But we have hoods in London. In the hoods, kids were bored and it was dangerous and it was wild, and we just had no infrastructure when it came to our community. So these guys called Harry and — I can’t remember his brother’s name — set up a company called the Jump Off. And the Jump Off has a humongous club with a stage on it, and we had rap battles, we had dance battles, we had one-on-one battles. And the weirdest one, which had never been done, was a producer battle. Producer battles generally are, you come play your best beats. Nah, they went one step further and said, “You gotta make the beat. We want to see how real you are. We don’t know if you really made that.” So you come up there and show what you have in five minutes. When I heard that, I was like, “This is obscene,” but I knew that, because I’ve been doing this for years, I was like; “I’m going to tear everybody up on that.” Part of that is being a musician, so you can just play certain things really quickly. I was actually the first champion for it.

Was this televised?

No, it was just in the club, bro — the hood. But it went big. By the time I left England, it was huge. It was so big, and I’m surprised they didn’t bring it out here. I used to tell Harry, “Yo, you’ve got to bring this to the States, it’s going crazy.” Remember when DJ battles were going on over here? And you’d all watch in New York or you go and watch your favorite DJs battle each other. Imagine your favorite producers battling each other, but you’re really scratching. We’re really making the beat in front of you. So I’m thinking about talking to him about bringing it over here. It’s going to be crazy — make it a TV show-type thing.

It sounds like a great concept. I read that you taught yourself to play piano at age four.

Brother, I didn’t even teach myself to play; I just knew how to play. It’s the weirdest thing. I could never explain it. That’s why I always believe it’s God’s gift. My mother always said when I was born in her womb; I would kick every time the music would play. My dad would be like, “Look, he’s kicking,” and then she would take the music off and I would stop. Put it on, and I’d kick. So she wasn’t surprised that I was a mus-o, as you call it.

So you could just pick out stuff on the keyboard?

At four years old, I used to watch people at church — because like I said, church was the only place we could do music in our family. So at four years old, I’d watch this guy playing the drums, and I’d sit down fascinated. I’d watch his feet and I’d watch his hands. And I didn’t realize I was literally learning just watching him. I’d go home, and I’d set the pots and pans, and I’d put the big spoon and put the pot lid on top of it so it was a cymbal. (laughs) I thought it worked out. My mom would say, “What are you doing.” I was like, “I’m playing the drums.” So one day, maybe when I was five years old, the drummer doesn’t turn up, which is kind of weird. I’m like, “Where is he?” So they’re singing with the bass, they’re singing with everything else, but no drums. So I literally walk over there and play. I literally have to stand up and play, because I can’t see over the drums. And my mom said she jumps up like, scared. But everyone’s amazed that this five year old is playing. And with the piano, the same thing. So I’m a drummer now; I’m seven or eight years old. I’m a drummer and I’m watching a guy on a keyboard, and I’m like, “Yo, that’s crazy,” not realizing I’m learning the keys. Within the next minute, I’m playing. He’s like, “When did you start playing keys?” I play bass and guitar, too.

It sounds like a gift.

That’s what I call it.

You seem to be adept at R&B, pop and hip hop, so do you have a favorite out of those that you prefer? Or is it just how you feel toward whoever you’re working with?

I love music, period, so it’s whatever. And you know what I like? I like when I’m challenged. I just worked on this kid called Nathan Sykes from the UK. He used to be in a group called The Wanted, a pop band. And he kind of had his first debut solo from the group when he did a duet on the album I was working on, which was Ariana Grande’s first album, “Yours Truly.” And they did a song together called “Almost Is Never Enough.” After I did that song, he had gone solo, and they said they wanted me to work on his project. Now the problem with this kid is he’s like, 20 years old. But he sings like he’s 40. So how do you make a 20 year old sound young, when he sounds like he’s from the 70s with this grand voice? It’s just humongous. And I remember playing and I basically just revamped what was done back in the 70s, and just made it as fresh as possible. The label’s looking at me, like, how do you pick that out? And I said, “What you never do is try to change something. You just go with it.” And that’s how I go into music. If this is rock music, then let’s do rock music. However, I can add my influence, cool. But it’s rock music — never disrespect that. And once you stay authentic to it, it always comes naturally. And even if you experiment, because you’re authentic, you always know where to put it tastefully.

You write and produce. When you’re writing a song, do you have an artist in mind as you’re writing, or are you just writing a song, trying to come up with a hit?

It all depends. Before, when I wasn’t able to go into the studio, we would somewhat put ourselves into what we would want to say. That’s how we rolled. At one point before I even moved over here, I just wrote records. I wrote records from my own personal experience. In fact, one song that I wrote from a personal experience was me trying to escape from England, because I was like, “I need to get out of here. I wrote a song called, “If I Was A Bird.” It so happens to be on Fantasia’s new album, which was like six years after I wrote the record. Sometimes it’s just writing and just waiting for the right person who relates to the records. That’s how I write right now.

Having a song that long, how does it end up on Fantasia’s album?

Well, when I first wrote “If I Was A Bird,” I remember everybody at that time was like, this is amazing. When I got to LA, we played it for Brandy, we played it for Timbland, we played it for so many different people, and no one moved on it. I was like, “Hmm.” And I realized that if the artist isn’t in that place, sometimes it’s just unrelatable. Fantasia was in that place. She wanted to escape the music industry; she wanted to escape her life. She just had made so many choices that affected her. And the song just explained it. I was like, four or five songs into her album, and I was like, “Yo, I’m gonna play you this song.” I pressed play, and I’ve never seen a person cry so heavily in my life. And when you hear it, you can hear her emotion on the song.

Tell me about “Mentor Fridays.”

“Mentor Fridays” is about giving back, and I don’t want people to feel like I’m being some, like, good Samaritan. I just believe that young people today are so confused by life. The whole reason I created Mentor Fridays is yes, it is about music and it is about music production and it is about songwriting, but it really is to snap people out of the daydream that they don’t chase a dream that isn’t theirs. I know about seven zillion music producers, and only one of them is going to make it. What are you going to do for the rest of your life? You’re 40 years old and you haven’t figured it out? You’re still in the studio, knocking your head trying to figure it out? What happened in the 20 years you’ve been doing it? That’s what I’m doing, and it’s also giving them some guide tips on if you are going to go for it, these are the tips that you need to follow. Or, you somewhat know how to make a living. I’ve seen more people live on couches in Los Angeles than anywhere — and it’s just at some point, you need to take responsibility for yourself. That’s what Mentor Friday is really about.

How does that work? How do you find the people that you mentor?

I kind of have a little following online, so we put it out there. It’s funny, because we put it out there like, “Oh, Harmony wants to spend an hour of his day talking to you, the first 15 participants will get an invite to his studio.” And then it became 20 to 40. It was more than we expected, so we had to whittle it down to 15. It was really exciting to watch young people. I answered so many questions that they struggled with. Like, “What about this, how do I approach this person? Am I supposed to be doing this? OK, I believe I’m supposed to be doing this, what’s the next step? Where do I go? I’ve been doing this nine years, why am I not successful?” I’m going to be bringing really successful friends, like DeVon Franklin, who’s over at Sony Films. He and his wife Meagan Good are good friends of mine. It’s just encouraging the community to be strong, so you can say it’s a sense of giving back.

Do you have a favorite artist that you’ve worked on, and if so, why?

It’s weird, maybe because they’re very similar, but Ciara and Chris Brown. Entertainment wise, they’re both dancers, they’re both amazingly creative. I’ve never seen two people always happy. Chris Brown; I don’t know about him outside the studio, but in the studio, he’s smiling from ear to ear and dancing. He says, “Yo, we should do this, we should do that.” It’s a roller coaster with Chris Brown. With Ciara, she’s just happy all the time. When we did her album, I said, “Woah, do you ever get mad?” She asked, “Why are you saying that?” And I said, “Because I’m pissed off right now and you’re just smiling, and you’re making me forget that I’m pissed off.” She has an amazing, amazing, amazing personality. They’re both so amazing. It’s just an honor to be able to work with them both.

On the other hand, who’s an artist you wouldn’t work with again, and why?

There are definitely a few of them.

You don’t have to give any names.

I’m definitely not. (laughs)

Why would it be those people?

You know what it is — I think any artist that’s given the opportunity to be in the position, take it. Don’t take things for granted, don’t misuse it, and then don’t get mad when it doesn’t work out for you. Then you get mad because you feel like you should’ve been this and da-da-da-da, and no one believes in you anymore. Because you were a bum! Come into the studio with a reason. Don’t come into the studio, where you need to be high and say, “I can’t work unless I have my drugs.” You have to go. “I can’t work, I need alcohol!” No, you have to go. I’m never going to work with these people ever again. My manager calls me some nights where he says, “I know you said no, but just double checking.” No. (laughs) Then he gives me the speech, like, just understand it’s a different situation. I said I’m never working with this person. Then, we went in that same day. I was like, “You see, this ain’t changed. It’s the same thing. It’s exactly the same thing.”

What’s still on your bucket list of things to do or accomplish as a producer?

Definitely over the next year, breaking my own artists is the only thing I think about right now. Because I feel like I believe in music in such a way. It’s cool to make a living off music and you’re working on the thing that they have — they have it written up. This is my artist, this is what they do, and you’re hired to come in and help. But, to really break your own and pay attention to what you have and developing and watching your own artist turn into a superstar, is my goal for the next year. Like I said; Mentor Fridays, and I definitely have one or two TV shows I kind of want to merge with music. I feel like it’s just the perfect time.

In the business of music and entertainment, timing is everything. And with Samuel’s vision and commitment to discovering, developing and introducing new artists, along with his talent and creativity, it looks like “Harmony” will be in a lot of people’s careers for some time to come.