Maybe he was born to do it. He doesn’t know. But his ma called him Bump-back before he can remember, back before he could walk, back when she would blast the speakers and he would crawl over to the sound, pull himself up and bump to the beat. Now, at age 27, Bryan-Michael Cox is the man. After seeing his friends’ names start to pop up on the charts, Cox moved from his hometown of Houston to Atlanta, where he began to work his way into the industry-volunteering his services in production while connecting with the musical bigwigs.
Now he works with Toni Braxton, Jagged Edge, Lil’Mo and Mariah Carey, among others. He’s writing and producing songs such as and “Come Over” (Aaliyah), “U Got it Bad” (Usher), “Don’t Mess With My Man” (Nivea), and has had one or more songs on the music charts for an absurd number of weeks. Recently winning his fourth straight SESAC “Songwriter of the Year,” Cox has placed himself in the upper-echelon of r&b music-makers, but that’s not the pinnacle-he wants to do more. American Songwriter recently sat down with Bryan-Michael Cox and asked him to tell us about his success, his music, why he’s in the groove of the Atlanta music scene and what every songwriter needs to know about finding success in the business.
What’s up in Atlanta?
So you’re Bump, huh? Does music really go back that far for you?
I’ve been writing songs, writing little poems and writing little diddle-dattels as far back as I remember. It’s just something that was always a passion of mine. It’s all I’ve ever thought about doing.
Well, damn, should the rest of us just pack it in if we weren’t dancing before we could walk?
It doesn’t have to go that far back. Some people discover they want to do music when they’re teenagers. It just depends. I have a friend who was an athlete and then he got hurt and discovered that he could write songs and was good at it. Now he’s an accomplished songwriter. The music bug can bite you whenever. For me, it’s all I’ve ever known.
Is there a specific reason your songs have been consistently successful?
Well, it’s melody. Melody and the chord progressions that people feel. I try to do things that are more melodic than average. Music’s just not as chord-influenced as it used to be. A lot of records nowadays-a lot of mainstream records-lack progressions, or they’re really influenced by the beat. I think that’s what makes it easy for me to write for my records. When I collaborate with other people and I give them a track, they automatically get it melodically.
You’ve collaborated with quite a few people.
Yeah. I wrote three songs for Toni Braxton. Most recently I co-wrote some records with Mariah Carey.
When you write for somebody like that, how do you go about it? How do you write for a woman, or from another point of view?
To tell you the truth, I have the most success with writing when the artist is there. I wrote a song for Destiny’s Child called “Bad Habit,” which I wrote by myself, but I was in the studio with one of the members [Kelly Rowland] who I had known and we were just catching up. She told me some stories about past relationships and we were just talking for hours. Then she gave me about 45 minutes and “Bad Habit” was written.
So what do you think is more successful-writing from other people’s experience or your own?
It just depends. When Jermaine Dupree and I wrote “Burn” with Usher, we were just in the studio talking about a personal relationship and we said, “Man you should probably just let it burn,” and it was like, “Yo, that’s a song. “Let it burn.” He sang the first line, [singing] “It’s gonna burn for me to say this.” I just started vibing with him and then I finished the verse up. We did the hook and the second verse and then Jermaine and Usher did the break part. It just kind of came together organically, but it came from personal experience where all of us meshed our personal experiences together. There was something that at least one of us had been through.
For somebody who’s trying to become successful at songwriting-what makes a good song? What does somebody need to do to write a good song?
Everybody has a story. That’s the first step. But the attractive thing about a song is not just the story. It is melody; it’s the hook. It’s “Can I sing along with it?” Can I sing along and can I relate to it? Is there ear candy in the record that makes me want to go sing it-want to hear it over and over again? On “You Got it Bad,” you’ve got the part that interests people-[singing] “Let it say I’m your man.” That’s ear candy, something you can just drop in there to make people really feel the song. And that’s a formula that I’ve learned from Jermaine. That’s always a part in every record that I write with him-a main part that people get.
As far as lyrics and what you’re calling “ear candy” go, what’s more important?
Lyrics are equally important-take an artist like Ashanti and her song “Foolish.” Females really connected, not only because it’s lyrically attractive to them, but it’s melodically attractive. The ear candy was equally important as the lyrical content and that’s what made that song so big. There was something that the females got. They understood the words and it was a great song for them to relate to.
For a songwriter just starting out, how does he take it from his home out to where it gets noticed?
There are different ways to go about it. The main thing is to put your best record together and try to make some contacts. Try to call up labels, try to figure out who is the A&R person and even the intern of this A&R. Try to figure out the channels to get through to. Nine times out of ten you’re not going to be able to get the record straight to the A&R person, but find out the channels and figure out who’s who.
What do you mean by channels?
When I say channels, I mean figuring out the chain of command. That’s what a lot of people misjudge about the music industry. They feel like, okay, I’ve got these records, and I’m gonna just go to New York…and it doesn’t happen like that. There are chains of command. You’ve gotta start at the bottom of the totem pole and go up.
So it’s a misconception to think, “Hey, my stuff’s good. I can just bring it in there and they’ll listen to it.”
It is. It happens rarely. A lot of times when CDs get sent to the A&Rs, they don’t listen to them. When I worked at a label, we had boxes and boxes of CDs. I’m talking, filled to the brim. You know what they do with those CDs? They throw them away. It’s too much music. It’s too much music to go through. It’s not personal. It’s like, I’m going to listen to this CD instead that my man brought me face to face. I’m going to listen to the CD that the intern put on my desk.” That is what I mean by chain of command.
So, even if the only person you can get in contact with is an intern…
That’s way better than mailing it. Think about it-an intern wants to be an A&R person someday, so this intern’s bringing somebody a hit record could be his key to becoming that guy that he wants so desperately to become.
What if somebody only has one or two songs on a CD? Are they going to even bother listening to a CD with two songs on it?
If it’s one song and they put it in, and it’s a hit record, they’re going to move on it. If somebody gets his hands on a hit record, it doesn’t matter if you sent half of one. They’re not going to laugh. They’re not going to say, “This guy is crazy, he only sent me one song.” If the song is a hit record, you’re in. But say you’re going up to bat, and you only have one shot to bat, not three shots, just one shot. There’s only one chance that you can hit a homerun or strike out. You’re going to want those three shots. If you get strike one and strike two, you might hit that sucker out of the park on the third.
If you’re going through the trouble of getting them to listen to it, you’re better off to have five or six songs on there, right?
You have a better chance if you send five songs versus sending one song. You might hit with something you didn’t think was going to hit. You might hit two. I try to write at least two songs a day. I will never stop writing songs because you never know. Not everything that I write is a hit record and not everything that I write is an album cut, but I’m batting, I’m swinging so much.
So what’s the music scene like in Atlanta?
It had slowed down a little bit, but now there are a lot of producers up here, a lot of songwriters, and a lot of artists. It’s back. The scene is getting thick again. People are making music. Atlanta is not as fast as New York or L.A. but it’s not as slow as Jackson, Miss. Either. It’s right on the verge-it’s slow enough for you to live a nice life, and it’s fast enough to get your business done and make some money. I love New York. I go to New York every week, but it’s so fast in New York. I don’t think I could spend more than a week there. It’s just too much. I was raised more laid back than what New York has to offer for me.
This may be an odd question, but why should somebody not be a songwriter? Who’s the person that shouldn’t be a songwriter?
The person that doesn’t want to grind, the person who thinks it’s going to come easy, who thinks that every song he writes is a hit, who thinks, “I’ll take the easy way out and be a songwriter.” This is not an easy job. It’s not like a nine to five. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. In the beginning you’re not gonna be making any money. So, a person who’s not patient, who’s not diligent…that’s who shouldn’t be a songwriter. If you’re lazy and think it’s going to come easy… if you think you’ll write hit records every day and are arrogant, this is not for you.
What inspires you?
My mother. My girlfriend. I just draw from everything around me. I listen to all kinds of music. To start my day, I may listen to some James Brown and then listen to some Jay-Z and then listen to some Maroon 5. I just get inspired by everything that gives me drive, and that makes me want to be better and get better. I’m a musical person. Music inspires me.