Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: You are a very goal-oriented person. How did this aspect of your personality take shape?
Chris: I was always the kid who had to come up with the big idea. As young as 7, I would have these summer projects I just had to complete. I had these endeavors that my mind would wrap itself around. For example, one summer, I tried to build a solar grill. Another summer tried to design a new board game. Then, in the summer of 1984, when Michael Jackson was at the pinnacle of his popularity, I entered a Michael Jackson performance contest. I remember being determined to find every contest in the area––I accumulated over $1,000 in prize money that summer. As that summer ended, Purple Rain came out, and it changed my life. Prince, being a song-writer and master of so many instruments, inspired me so much that I took that Michael Jackson contest money, and I bought my own keyboard. By the next summer, I was putting bands together and doing talent shows. I was always into creative writing as a hobby, so when I started getting heavier into the piano, song-writing became my hobby. It wasn't until college that I took it seriously as a career path.
QFTD: Since the turn of the millennium, you have achieved a significant amount of success in the music industry. Describe what your journey has been like to get where you are today.
Chris: There have been periods of heavy activity––then, there have been periods of rest, where I would have to reload, regroup and figure out the new Matrix. Because the music industry has changed so much the last 15 years, there have been a few times where I needed to pause and figure out where I needed to be or what I should be doing differently. The mission has always been to get music out, and figuring out how to get my songs to the right people was a challenge. In the beginning, I didn't have management behind me. I remember driving to NY from VA to pitch songs to record labels. Some songs were placed but never heard because the artist was dropped, or in some cases an entire urban division, or the label itself, would be dissolved because of rapid label consolidation. Then, as the downloading era took over and label budgets shrank, I learned the way to get records placed was changing. Trying to get a song placed through a record label seemed to be a waste of time because labels stopped developing acts who were either self-sufficient under management or with a production company that took on the development role. So, I started pitching songs directly to artists, either through their management or the production company that was handling them. I'd use my network of people to navigate my way to these artists' camps, from friends I grew up with, to people I went to school with, to fellow writers, producers, and managers I'd gotten cool with along the way.
QFTD: What has it been like working with so many talented platinum recording artists like Jamie Foxx, R. Kelly, and Trey Songz?
Chris: Surprisingly, the bigger the artist, the easier it's been to work with them, so far. Jamie was very open and completely conformed to direction in the studio. We didn't have a phone signal in the studio, so every now and then he'd ask to go outside to call and check on his daughter. He'd actually ask. Of course it was always cool; it just tripped me out how respectful he was the whole time. R. Kelly is very relaxed and cool. He flows with so many ideas right on the spot that it's hard to work on just one thing at a time or put a time limit on a session. Trey was always focused and self-sufficient when I've seen him work. On our collaboration, we actually passed it back and forth to one another, so I didn't see him work on the song. Babyface and Jamie both had the most interesting and funny stories. They were especially memorable because the characters in the stories were all legends and familiar names. Face had a lot of great insight and observations about where the game has been and where it's going. I try to pick up as much as I can from anyone, but those are some of the stand-outs.
QFTD: You’ve been influenced by a variety of celebrated musicians and singers, from Stevie Wonder to Prince. Who is an influential artist you’ve met, and what was the conversation like?
Chris: I have spoken to Jimmie Jam and Terry Lewis. Terry was very approachable. He came across as someone who really wants us younger guys to succeed. He was very informative.
QFTD: Anyone you haven’t met that you’d like to talk to?
Chris: I’d say Prince, but I might be intimidated since I've heard about him being highly critical of those who haven't had as much formal training. So, I guess my questions would be more about some of his abstract lyrics. I have my own theories about what some of his songs mean, so I'd love to find out what his actual perspective was and test my theories out.
QFTD: The recording scene, mainly due to technology, has changed a lot since you began producing hits. Compared to when you entered the music business, where is music right now?
Chris: Technology is there to make things easier for people, but it does drive down the qualifying skill level of your work force, and I think that's true with anything. Where is music, currently? Great music is still out there and technology makes it possible to find it from obscure sources. Great music just isn't considered mainstream right now, and mainstream music is not great. Fortunately, I am in a unique place where I am young enough to absorb new techniques, but old enough to have come from an era where we were more creative with everything, from tweaking sounds and making them original, to building harmonies and song structures that changed and went somewhere instead of everything being loop based or keeping one groove throughout the song.
QFTD: Where do you find inspiration for the music lyrics you write? As far as the other side of your talent, how do the melodies that drive your production pieces come about?
Chris: Sometimes I wake up with a song melody playing in my head that didn’t exist before. That’s how my first records, before I was getting paid for them, came about. Somehow, they just churn and remix themselves. Nowadays, being a professional though, I have to deliver more songs than I wake up with. Occasionally, I have to make a song to order by either engaging the artists directly, or just keeping in mind who the end artist is going to be. In any case, lyrically, words expressed in a conversation can attach themselves to melodies in my mind. I'll target an emotion of a time or place I can remember, which will inform the vocabulary needed for the song. I can always find a moment in my life that is relatable, whether it's my history or the experience of someone close to me. When it comes to songs about relationships, I listen to women because they're more sensitive and open to express their feelings. The good thing about being a listener and empathizer is you are not limited to your own experience in your writing. When I was writing the verses to Blame It (on the alcohol), I was reflecting on my college party days specifically. Those stories just painted a clearer picture for the subject than whatever I was going through at the time the song was being made.
QFTD: It took millions of other people back to their party days, too; the success of that song was enormous. I remember being at a 76ers game and hearing that song––three years after it was released!
Chris: Really? Wow…that's cool! I think that's main difference I found with having an up-tempo or club hit versus having a slow song that hits. You actually get to witness people enjoy your club record. When I had a big slow song, like Happily Ever After by Case, people came up to me and told me they loved it, but when Blame It hit, it was cool to just anonymously see people enjoying it.
QFTD: If you could go back to the beginning of this music journey and offer any advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Chris: (laughing) I don’t even know if that dude would listen.
QFTD: (cracking up) Now that’s funny.
Chris: But seriously… I was a strange mix of a hard-headed person and a good listener. What I would try to tell myself is … ‘start NOW to work on your balance.’ One trait of mine is that I like to focus and work on something until it is completed. My life now, and even in the past, seems like my focus is on this and only this before I move on to focusing on that and only that.
QFTD: Any advice to an aspiring artist who hopes to achieve success?
Chris: One of the most important things is to show up. If you can survive the slow times, there’s wisdom you’re picking up even when you don’t realize it. There is a lot to be said about survival. Also, an accurate self-assessment should be done…don’t be delusional to what your strong points are and what your weak points are. You need to consider if your time is better spent on strengthening your weaknesses or just focusing on your strengths. To be successful, you need to be aware of how you are spending your time and invest it wisely.
QFTD: What are you up to these days? Who are you working with, and what can we expect in the near future from Chris Henderson?
Chris: Right now, R&B is a shrinking genre, so yes, on the song placement chasing-side, I'm either working with or trying to work with the handful of R&B artists that you can name and are putting out records. Outside of chasing song placements, I'm working harder with associates to find new talent and develop great projects from scratch. It gives me a better chance of expanding, going outside the genre and making more of the music I want to hear. I was also inspired by a project I did for charity a few years ago when I ran a song-writing workshop for kids from a local at-risk community. Since then, I have been imagining a few ways to start an educational initiative. I have started archiving more of the song-building process and hope to edit the footage into a tutorial format. I'll have a scholarship fund created before the year is over. I have a few bigger ideas that I am not ready to speak on, but as I build my network and beef up my online presence, I'll find ways to raise the money to initiate those also.
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