Steph Chambers | photo by Danyel Little | courtesy of artist
Songwriter Steph Chambers is ready for the spotlight with her debut EP Face It
One of the best parts about the hit battle Verzuz, created by legendary hip hop producers Swizz Beats and Timbaland, is discovering the creative voices behind songs we know and love.
While many artists who get into songwriting or producing do so because they feel more comfortable behind the scenes, every now and then it’s good to see those folks get some of the spotlights for themselves. This spring, Philly songwriter Steph Chambers decided it was time for her city to get to know with the release of her debut EP Face It.
The South Philly native has had a passion for writing at a young age by writing poems, then turning them into songs. When she was 11 years old she wrote her first song by remixing Billy Joel’s “Longest Time,” which was the start of her love for flipping old records. Her love for flipping timeless jams prepared Steph Chambers to contribute to her childhood friend and R&B singer Beano French’s debut project Just Beano. The magic made by Beano, producer Dilemma, and Chambers led to the creation of a local hit “Monday Morning” where she flipped Lionel Richie’s “Easy (Like Sunday Morning).”
Chambers tells us it was mind-blowing for her to watch Beano perform at Coda while seeing a sold-out a crowd sing a song that she wrote word for word. Steph Chambers has always preferred to worked with other local artists such as Natalie Imani, Suzane Christine, and Dayne Jordan instead of writing for herself, but that all changed this year with the release of her debut project.
Listening, you can see that Chambers is into heart-felt ballads; a song like “Good Enough” has an emotional feel to it that felt similar to Evanescence’s “My Immortal.” The project was Chambers’ way of facing things she felt by putting them on paper; a writer’s way of looking at themself in the mirror. The irony is that songwriter/singer faced two spotlights during this project; one for Steph Chambers the artist and for Stephanie Chambers the person.
While it’s been rough being locked up in the house for the artistic extrovert during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to talk to Steph Chambers about her humble beginnings, writing for Beano and herself, and her thoughts on the late great music executive Andre Harrell’s opinion on today’s R&B music.
The Key: As a singer/songwriter what came first for you, singing or writing?
Steph Chamber: Writing came first. I’m a songwriter that can sing. [laughs]
TK: [laughs] I totally understand that. It’s funny that you said that, because based on my research, it does seem like you prefer being behind the scenes writing than to be out in the spotlight.
SC: Absolutely, that is me. I’ve been like that since I was young, I’ve always been really shy. I do not like performing; it freaks me out and I get performance anxiety. It’s something that I’ve been trying to overcome, but I’ve always been involved with music, whether it’s voice or piano lessons. I went to Settlement Music School and even did dance as well, but I stuck with writing because it was my thing and my outlet. I started off writing poetry first and then I started taking my poetry into songs and that’s how I started writing. I’m very expressive and I like to talk. I like to get to know people, travel, and experience different things. I’m very big on exploring the world and seeing the people in it and talk about it.
TK: One thing that has kept us all entertained during this pandemic is Verzuz; where amazing songwriters like Babyface, The Dream, Erykah Badu, and more have put their discography up against one another for good sport while celebrating good music. What songwriters do you feel have helped influence your pen game?
SC: Babyface, number one! I love Babyface, I love Dianne Warren. Diane Warren has written so many ballads and, as you can tell off my EP, I love ballads! She is the biggest one for me because I discovered her many years ago and saw how many songs she’s written in her discography. I like timeless music, songs that we don’t ever get tired of hearing. You can play it years from now and still feel like this is your jam. Dianne Warren is probably the biggest influence for me more so because of her being a woman, but I really really do love Babyface too. They both do write timeless music
TK: Do you remember the first time you wrote a song for someone?
SC: The first song that I wrote for someone, that’s a good question! I think the very first song that I wrote for someone else was this girl I went to The Young Performers Theater Camp with. It’s so many people that went there who are doing great things like Suzanne Christine, but there was this pop artist who was a friend of mine named Angela Devine who also went to CAPA as well. She might have been the first person I wrote a song for and I think I was about maybe 18. Like I said, I was writing before that, but that was the first time I was writing for someone and involving their input to it. When you’re writing songs by yourself you don’t really get that feedback. I was just writing, singing, and recording everything that I was doing, but to write for someone else is definitely a different feeling.
TK: What’s the most challenging thing when writing songs for other people?
SC: I think it’s challenging when you don’t get a chance to spend some time talking to that person and getting to know them. I actually had a not great experience with that. I was living in L.A. at the time and I was working with a known artist and that’s when I learned you have to fail a couple of times before you can succeed. I working on this record for her with another writer while this artist was in the studio. The other writer and I were excited to make this record for her but she was kind of her in her own little world. Then when we presented it, she was like “I would never say that, no, that’s not for me,” and my heart was so crushed. I think I went home and cried, because this was an artist that I looked up to and watched growing up. That broke my heart. But it didn’t stop me because to me it was a lesson. You know my advice to anybody that is a writer going into a studio with an artist at the same time is to talk to them. Get an idea of who they are, what they’re going, and how they feel. You got to know how they’re feeling in order to know what you’re going to talk about for that person.
TK: Your talent also contributed to Beano’s debut project Just Beano. How did you two link up to work together?
SC: Oh my God, I’ve known Beano since he was 12. That’s the cool thing about it is that I know him so it was easy writing songs for him. I actually used to date his cousin [laughs] and we all spent time together. We all basically grew up together like high school days, he would literally come to my house and this was way before anyone knew him the way they know him now. We would just be in my mom’s house working on songs, getting tracks from producers and I would write to them. I would either send them to him or tell him to come by and sing them for him and that’s exactly the same thing that happened with the Just Beano project.
TK: Do you enjoy writing songs for others more than writing songs for yourself?
SC: Oh, yes! This project is the first thing that I’ve ever released as me, Stephanie, and who I am. Usually, I’m just writing for other people or working on records for them to be pitched. What I noticed, which is so interesting, is when I’m writing for myself it comes more so from a place of hurt and pain and I tend to get the most creative for me when in pain or something life-changing has happened. Writing for Beano is fun and that’s easy. [laughs] I actually like writing for men because it feels happier, it feels like I’m saying things that I want him to say to me. “Monday Morning” is like, everybody hates Monday, so imagine a song all about me the woman and you’re going to make me feel good and I ain’t even mad that it’s Monday because of how good my man makes me feel. So that’s easy for me to do and I also wrote “What My Ex Do” on the project and the single that came after the project “Feel Good Love.” I can be more fun and creative when writing for men and I enjoy it more.
TK: Two years later after the release of Just Beano you dropped your own debut EP Face It. What was the process like of working on your own project instead of on someone else’s?
SC: Honestly, it’s strange. [laughs] It’s weird because it’s the first time I’ve ever done it. That’s why I called the project Face It: because it was something that I felt like I had to face. I’ve never really put out music from me telling my own personal story and that type of vulnerability is a scary thing. I’m allowing people into my life, my heart, and my emotions by telling my story and that’s really my thing to tell stories. I like it when people listen to the lyrics. I feel like those older songs that are timeless are because we listened to the lyrics and to me I feel like we don’t do that with some of today’s music. We don’t care about the story as long as there’s a dope melody with the track, but I want people to actually hear what I’m saying and to relate to it. That’s what my project was about, definitely something for the ladies to have but I wanted the men to listen and hear what we feel. I’ve had so many women that they felt it because they’ve been there so I’m like maybe the men will listen and consider that in their next relationship. [laughs]
TK: You had a Facebook status that said “I’m a loving ‘heal the world’ kind of person who has gotten caught up in my own emotions so many times and I’ve allowed that emotion to control me rather than having control of it…I wrote a 5 song project which was the start of my emotional healing and journey towards finding my power and purpose.” What power did you discover that allowed you to have more control over your emotions?
SC: I was able to go through a very very painful time with this project and [make music] instead of doing what I was feeling — which was crumbling and being in bed crying. Don’t get me wrong I had my moments were I felt sad, but instead of staying there, I was like “I need to get this off my chest and write about it.”
I wanna say I did this project in two weeks. If I’m in the zone, I know exactly what I want to do and how to do it and I felt in the zone. The pain took over and it made me move because if I didn’t then I would just buckle and I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I was calling people for tracks. I hit up Dilemma, who’s a good friend of mine who also produced Beano’s project. He and I make magic, Dilemma is definitely one of my favorite producers. I had written to a track that he had sent me before, but I didn’t like what I had initially come up with before because I was in a different space. So I talked to him, told him how I was feeling and what I was going through and so he let me come through the studio to listen to music. And from there I sat back and waited to see where it was going to take me.
The outcome that session was “Hell of a Time” and after that, I got into a zone and reached out to more people. I was blessed to work with a bunch of amazing producers and musicians on this project like Kris Kargo, Andre Harris and Alvin Isaacs, Herberto Weaver, Phil Iacone, and recording/vocal arranging was done by Blake Winters. I even hit up my brother-in-law Charlie Bereal who did “Good Enough.” He’s amazing, he’s a guitar player and he’s played for everyone like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Lil Wayne. The most phenomenal guitar player that I’ve met in my life.
This project was also influenced by the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “Triggered” was like the anger, where I think moving on his going to make him bitter. On “Never Love” I’m still angry saying to him that he never really loved me because of what happened. “Good Enough” is like depression because I remembered all the things I did but I’m also in denial of how it all played out. On “Let It Be” I finally decide to let go of that anger and move on and once you do that you get to the final stage called acceptance. You realize that it is what it is, it ain’t work out but we had a hell of a time.
TK: I came across a video on Instagram about the late great Andre Harrell talking about today’s R&B music, saying “I think the generation that we are in now, the young people who are making records, I don’t think they have enough sensibility about church music and R&B from The Isley Brothers, The Temptations and Diana Ross. I think they’re moving all of their R&B a lot off of rap records. So I don’t think they’re emotionally aware enough to talk about love, because of rap talks about when it goes wrong and how I’m going to treat you when it goes wrong as opposed to ‘I want you and I’m going to be right with you.’” As an R&B songwriter/singer of this generation do you believe there’s some truth in this statement about R&B music of the last decade?
SC: Oh, absolutely, absolutely! It’s funny because if you see a lot of posts you see a lot of people saying how they grew up on Anita Baker; waking up to her and having to clean to her music on a Saturday morning. Phyliss Hymen, Patti Labelle, Peabo Bryson, like you’ll never feel that stuff again and I’m sad about it. I miss it, and don’t get me wrong I’m aware that music evolves and there are some artists out now that I really love and I like where they’re going with their music. But there’s a certain feeling you got from the music from the gospel records and old R&B records that we’re never going to get again. I’m praying that we can put it back and get that feeling again because clearly it still does something. People still want to hear those songs that make you feel a way and we got to find a way to keep that going. He was absolutely right.
TK: I agree too. To be fair, I do think R&B music had gotten better over the past five years, but I definitely was one of the folks that believed R&B died or that it wasn’t the same anymore. To Andre Harrell’s point, it seems like the vulnerability has switched from love and happiness to heartbreak and anger. We grew up listening to R&B that was vulnerable, about being open, about how a certain person made them feel in a positive way. Even when you think about Beano and his project, I think the songs that stood out for him were the ones that had that type of vulnerable side. “Monday Morning” and “Roll With Me” both had him being open with a woman and telling her how she makes him feel in a positive way. I think that vulnerability has changed now from being open and vulnerable to lashing out after being hurt as a form of protection.
SC: You know what, that makes a lot of sense. It’s funny, I actually wrote this song and it makes me think of that because I played the song somewhere and the person that responded to the song was a young girl who said it had more of an older feel. It had a vulnerable feel similar to Tank’s “Maybe I Deserved,” you know you do to me what I’ve done to you or worse. Like we don’t do songs like that anymore, and you’re right, it is more about anger and not letting someone into your emotions. I absolutely agree with that.
TK: It’s funny that you started off talking about your shyness and how you love being in the studio, because I saw a video of you performing and you said that you’d rather be in the studio than singing live. That was interesting because I talked to my good friend, soul singer Re-Mus, about his difficulties transitioning from a performer to a recording artist, so it’s interesting to discover that your difficulties are the exact opposite. What is it about singing in the studio that makes it easier than singing live?
SC: Well for one it’s just me and the producer generally. [laughs] It’s not a lot of people and the whole crowd thing, ooh the anxiety! I can feel it now just talking about it. [laughs] And I think that I’m able to get into character and to be ok with mistakes that I make. One day I’m going to work on it when we’re allowed to go back outside; go to some open mics and give it a try because I have to just face it. Singers go out all the time and they make mistakes live so it’s ok, but I think it’s because when I get in the booth I’m allowed to be in character and be one with the mic.
TK: It’s funny that you said that you feel comfortable making mistakes in the studio and I think that’s the part that becomes hard for singers once they transition from singing on stage to the recording booth. On stage, you feed off the crowd’s energy, and for that energy to be positive you have to have a very good performance. When recording, you go off your own energy and that type of energy welcomes mistakes. Mistakes allow you to experiment and try different things out to see what works and what doesn’t. Creativity knows no limits when it’s comfortable with making mistakes.
SC: Yeah. Also, I think what might the issues is when artists are coming in the studio they’re singing a song that they just had to learn and that can be uncomfortable. I usually either have the song written, so I am kind of familiar with it already, which makes me more comfortable. I’ve seen artists come in and have to learn a song while having someone tell them how to sing it and I can see how that can be overwhelming, especially someone who’s used to being on stage and killing it. So I do get that.
TK: What can you say about the R&B music that comes out of your city?
SC: I think it’s so special and that we have a uniqueness about us. Even going back to neo-soul, that’s not all we do but when we do something, it’s so special and unique. As far as R&B, I feel that it has more soul and passion; that’s what I’m seeing from my peers from artists to songwriters. I think that’s something that Philly always puts on the map.
Listen to Steph Chambers EP Face It below: