Johnta Austin Biography
For nearly a decade already, 25-year-old Johnta Austin has been doing just that. And he's showing that high personal and professional standards pay off, big time. An accomplished songwriter, Austin is the respected pen behind such hits as the Top Ten Urban ballad "Sweet Lady" (1998), recorded by the talented singer and actor Tyrese and written by Austin at just age sixteen; Toni Braxton's "Just Be A Man (About It)" (2000); and his first R&B No. 1, Aaliyah's "Miss You (I Miss You)" (2002).
But Austin's reputation has rocketed from the impressive to the stratospheric in the last year or so, as a string of songs co-written by Johnta drove over six million sales of Mariah Carey's Grammy-winning The Emancipation of Mimi, the best-selling album of 2005. They included the lead single, "It's Like That," the Billboard No. 1 bonus track "Don't Forget About Us," and the all-time ballad classic "We Belong Together," a 14-week pop No. 1 which also won Johnta his first Grammy, for Best R&B Song. No sooner was his Grammy in hand than Johnta returned to the top of the charts as a mega-hit songwriter, with "Be Without You," Mary J. Blige's lead single from her album The Breakthrough. By April, with 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart, the song had broken the 14-week No. 1 record held by "We Belong Together" to become the longest-running R&B chart-topper in 40 years.
So it hardly needs saying that Austin is extra-well-prepared for his So So Def/Virgin Records debut, OCEAN DRIVE. "When you think of Miami's Ocean Drive, you think elegance, you think classy, sexy, fresh - all of the things we feel this album is," says Austin. OCEAN DRIVE is the album Austin has waited years to make: classic R&B with poignant ballads, soulful rhythms and easy-going sex appeal: "We tried to create an album that's timeless."
Southwest Atlanta native Austin showed his talent at an early age. An aspiring child actor and singer in his church choir, Austin was 12 when he co-hosted a children's television series on Turner Broadcasting Station (TBS). Austin got the chance to interview entertainment icons like Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, and he was invited to be a guest on "The Arsenio Hall Show." When Austin revealed that he liked to sing, Arsenio immediately prompted the little prodigy to sing with the show's band.
An A&R rep from RCA Records was watching that show, which led to the 13-year-old's record deal with RCA in 1994. However, Austin's tenure on RCA was cut short once puberty set in and his voice changed. He was dropped from the label in 1995 and replaced by another young male singer, the Coca-Cola commercial star Tyrese. "It was rough being dropped from the label," admits Austin, "but I understood early that this industry is a business. The people who initially signed me were no longer at the label. I was never really bitter about it, I just knew I wanted another shot some day."
Far from being discouraged, Austin redoubled his efforts in songwriting. Within six months of his dismissal from RCA, he submitted the lyrics to "Sweet Lady" for Tyrese's debut album. By the time Austin 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 Tyrese," says Austin. "I didn't know it was gonna be as successful as it was. Honestly, I felt a little bit of satisfaction to be able to look at the people who dropped me and show them what I could do." It was also in 1998 that Austin hooked up with Atlanta-based Noontime Management.
With the success of "Sweet Lady," his songs were in demand by such artists as Ginuwine, Aaliyah, Faith Evans, B2K, Ciara, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, and Mario. Austin's work led to a 2003 introduction to So So Def founder, superstar producer and current President of Virgin Records' Urban Music Division, Jermaine Dupri. As the two composers began working together on various projects, Dupri also took notice of Austin's singing talent. "J.D. would ask me to write on some tracks," recalls Austin. "I would demo the vocals on records for other artists and as I did more and more records, J.D. started listening to my voice. Then I did this song called 'Lil More Love.' After he heard it, he was like, 'When I get this new situation [with Virgin], I'm gonna sign you.'"
True to his word, Dupri signed Austin to So So Def/Virgin Records in the spring of 2005. This time, Austin was able to bring a wealth of experience, musical knowledge, and hit-making talent - not to mention some serious vocal chops - to his new deal. "I don't think I 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."
* * * *
Among the highlights of OCEAN DRIVE is the sensual "Lil More Love," the song that convinced Dupri to give Austin a deal. Produced by Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, and written by Austin, "Lil More Love" celebrates the pleasures of "grown folk" love-making as Austin croons over a piano-driven melody.
"I try to sing with a lot of emotion," says Austin. "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. Marvin Gaye did it best. He could do all the riffs and acrobatics with his voice, but it was his emotion and feeling that really brought the records home. That's what I try to do every time I get on the mic. I just really try to concentrate on the feeling."
And there's certainly a range of feelings to explore on OCEAN DRIVE, from the catchy tune "Joy" to the sultry "Dope Fiend." "Subject matter is key to a good song," says Austin." You have to talk about things that people can relate to, be it love or an argument or wanting to be with someone and you can't. Melody goes a long way too."
He may still be young, but you can't deny Johnta Austin's "old soul" gift for songwriting. For years, he's lent this talent to dozens of other artists. Now, on OCEAN DRIVE it's his turn to shine.