In a landscape where many people claim to do it all, singer-songwriter and producer Blake “Shy” Carter shows what it looks like to take “multi-faceted” to surprising and remarkable heights. Growing up in the musical mecca of Memphis, he absorbed the soul music of his surroundings, as well as the Southern rap of acts like Three 6 Mafia and 8Ball & MJG. Not long after studying marketing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, he tried his hand at producing himself, and found early success crafting hits for Ashanti and Nelly, with whom he signed a production deal in 2007. Not content to stay in one lane, Carter moved to pop, co-writing “Someday” with Rob Thomas, a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Adult Top 40, in 2009. But it was in 2010 that he pulled off a “mic drop” of a transition that’s still reverberating today: Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” an out-of-left field country song he co-wrote with the duo and Kevin Griffin, that includes a stunning rap breakdown by Jennifer Nettles. “Stuck,” was a game-changer, earning the GRAMMY-winning group the distinction of having the highest ever debut on the Billboard Hot 100 for a country group or duo, and the 11th most downloaded country song of all time.
Now Carter, who penned Charlie Puth’s “One Call Away,” (2x platinum and No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart) as well as “Speak to a Girl,” which gave Tim McGraw and Faith Hill their highest ever debut on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, is letting his talents shine in his own solo project. The Fountain of Juice, Carter’s full-length debut, finds the dynamo crafting stick-to-the-ribs soul full of lush melodies and positive messages. BMI caught up with him in New York City where he talked about his influences, wanting to make a better world through music and why he’s embracing his real name.
How did growing up in Memphis impact your writing?
At this point I’ve grown up in so many different places. Memphis was like my formative years. But I lived also in Atlanta and in Little Rock, Arkansas and in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And then I was in LA almost seven years, then I went to Santa Barbara for a year, now I’m in New York. I’ve got a chance to go to different countries. I’ve seen a lot of different stuff. But growing up in the South still impacts my outlook on life because a lot of other countries - they don’t look at the race barrier the same. I’m mixed. My mom’s white and my dad is black. And it’s really a strong thing in America. And you know, it’s coming to the forefront these days. Memphis, it’s got the blues…it’s in the distant past for me, my childhood, but 8Ball & MJG and Three 6 Mafia and then Beale Street and all that. That’s what raised me. I still carry those cadences and that Southern rap influence. It really was a little flip what I did, coming from hip hop to writing for country and pop music and all that. And I was influenced by a lot of R&B music too. They want to infuse all that. That Memphis Three 6 Mafia sound, it’s never going to die. So me coming from that same city and that same environment, it’s a natural thing that helps me.
Why’d you want to make that transition into pop and country, and how’d it happen?
I wanted to do it because I wanted to branch out and hip-hop was becoming so saturated. Everybody was making beats. I was producing for Nelly and everybody was making beats on their computer and whatever. I realized a lot people couldn’t write a whole song. My friend [who was] managing me at the time, Courtney Benson, said “You could write songs but you should check out pop artists and get in this lane.” We were like, ‘Let’s do it, advance in the world!’ (laughs.) The country thing came about because I was living in Atlanta and my wife – my girl at the time – she was living in Nashville. I would go up there all the time to see her, and I realized the correlation in the music. Her uncle would be playing country songs and I realized it was similar to the music I grew up on, like Babyface or Boyz II Men or Van Morrison or Curtis Mayfield – something that I could connect to. But you got a lot of country songs that are not like that, but then you got a lot that come from that soul. Memphis and Nashville are right next to each other. I recognized the soul in it. I make soulful jams, that’s what I do. Soulful jams, something you can feel and I appreciate the fact that they still use live instruments and stuff – something you can feel more.
Is there a consistent thread through all those styles of music?
I’m a rhythm dude. I come from hip-hop when it was swinging for real. That stuff I grew up on, it was hitting hard. And then the stories. That’s why I always like country – I always like to tell a story.
The rap break on Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue” will go down as one of the most unexpected cool music moments of the 2000s. Why did you think that would work and what inspired you to take that chance?
That was Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush that did that. We gave them the template, the rhythm to show. I was beat boxing and hitting the guitar, that’s what the groove is on that song. It’s all just rhythm tracks that I put together. And we sent them the skeleton you know, with the bridge open. (Laughs) And that was how they felt about the bridge! I was like, ‘Cool!’ It was definitely unexpected. I’m glad she did it because she snapped off on there.
“Speak to a Girl,” is another of your country hits. What were inspirations for that song; how did that come about?
You could just see the first line of that song, “She don’t give a damn ‘bout your Benjamin Franklins, she wants Aretha.” It’s a real cold dude named Dave Gibson, Scottish dude, he had the idea for this song and we wrote it in Jamaica. Him and this dude Joe London. It’s a beautiful song. These are things that coincide with what I want to do and what country is doing. You can make a song that means something, that’s just saying something nice. You don’t got to be vulgar. For so long people were trying to tell me…to insert all this negativity into the music. I just stayed on this wave and it took me where it took me. Dave was like ‘How do we say, she don’t want you for your money, she wants you for your respect?’ Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, they appreciate stuff like that. I could tell the way they do the songs and the things they tell me about the songs, they appreciate that. That’s what I like to do, craft something smooth. I’m old school, man.
“One Call Away” also has a sensitive sweet touch. How’d you come to have that approach? The lyrics you craft are, like you said, so smooth and old school and tender. Why is that important to you?
It’s so weird. When I first started playing, I’d sit at the piano and would play a song, I would just feel it. And I’d just be like ‘Something is up about this, because I felt the emotion.’ I was just trying to sing a song; I was freestyling, 15 or 16, barely knowing how to play, and I would just feel this real emotion. To the point I felt like could move someone if I wanted to. I could almost sit here and cry if I wanted to. I’m deeply in touch with emotion, man. I know that’s a key in songwriting to get someone emotionally involved with it. Whether that makes them get real happy, or they’re going through heartbreak and need somebody to say, ‘I can relate to you,’ it’s calming. I’ve been through a lot of stress too. I actually was sick a long time in my life. I had a lot of sadness from that and that helped me connect to emotions.
How did you get the name Shy and does it fit you?
Naw, it doesn’t, it don’t fit me. From now on call me Blake. That’s my real name. (Laughs.) No, really, though, it’s from my childhood too. But the new thing is Blake. That’s my real name. I just…that’s just a new thing that hit me. I like my name.
Can you tell me about your solo album, what was recording it like and what did you want to say?
The Fountain of Juice. You know what it is? I realized it’s a balancing of energy. Remember all the negative stuff I told you about? It’s a cycle going on. You see it all on the news. News is all negative. It’s just a mess. My life was messy. When my wife met me my whole bedroom was messy. She cleaned me up. This right here is like a cleaning for me. I went and talked to all these labels and it was the wrong energy. My friends at Big Yellow Dog in Nashville, they’re not like the average people in the business. It’s not about money. It’s about my duty to put some good energy in the world. So if you put on The Fountain of Juice, no matter what’s going on that might help raise the vibration into a positive zone. If it does that, it’s doing its job.
Your lead single “There’s No Reason” is really simple and timeless but also of the moment. How did you record it?
All my stuff is drum machines and all analog stuff. I did use some software on one song. Other than that, I didn’t hardly use any plugins. That particular song, of course I used Auto-Tune but I didn’t use any instruments, it’s just my voice and it starts with the hum and the sounds – I’ve always been making sounds with my voice. It’s the drums and the 808s…I was just experimenting, playing around in the studio. I get on mic and start freestyling. I do find meaning in the song after the fact. It’s amazing. I don’t try to write any more. I just zone out, vibe and let something beautiful come out. I got to be in a beautiful place. That’s what kind of experience and place and vibe I’m on. What’s going to come out of my mouth is what I do naturally. It’s no single on The Fountain of Juice. It’s like a Broadway play – you’ve got to listen from beginning to end. That’s what I wanted to say. There’s no reason we can’t make it if we put our mind to it. It’s amazing what we can do.
You post a lot of pics of your family and it’s beautiful. How does being a family man influence your process and how do you balance everything?
It’s the best thing. My son is three. When I found out we were going to have a baby we didn’t expect that. I didn’t plan it. Like I said, I had been sick all this time, I was just feeling like I was getting control of my own life. Like, ‘I’m not ready to do this whole thing.’ But then it hit me. It started creeping up on me as the pregnancy went on and then he came and everything else subsided - everything else fell to the wayside. The family is just intangible. The love and joy – little kids have so much joy. There’s nothing keeping them from being the person that they should be. And I just…I’m really striving to be more childlike. A hit song is going to take you a little while, so I don’t rack my brain being in studio trying to make a hit. I get my whole zone together and get in love with my family and my life and when that hit comes I’m ready.
What do you value most about your relationship with BMI?
I love BMI so much because they’ve really been the one solid friend I’ve had in the business. I’ve been with them from the beginning. When I would come to LA and NY they would welcome me into their offices and teach me or show me different writers who could help. Casey Robison, he’s not there anymore but him and Barbara Cane they’ve all been so sweet to me but Casey, he’s the one who set me up with Kevin Griffin when we did “Stuck like Glue” in 2009 or 2010. I had just come to LA and didn’t know hardly anybody and as soon as they set that up, Bam! we got a big old country song. They’ve done that on a lot of occasions – hooked me up with different writers. And they’ve just got great energy. Anybody that knows Barbara Cane or Samantha Cox or any of these people, they know Barbara Cane is the best person in the business. She’s the sweetest. I call her sugar cane.
What do you want to do next?
It’s time to change the game. it’s not something I planned on doing but it is my duty, I promise you. It’s time to change the game because these people, they know who they are, are poisoning the world with nonsense. It’s so true that if you do something powerful and make a change you can get a lot of money but if you’re really just doing it for money, your music is going to suck every time. I’m unapologetic. Anybody can come see Blake. The word is, the game has got to change and me and all my partners are going to change it. Check out that Kane Brown song “Heaven.” It debuted No. 1 on the Digital Country charts. Me and a cat named [Matthew John McGinn] and Lindsay [Rimes] wrote that sitting by the lake at a Kane Brown retreat they had. We all kicked it and he just broke the record [as the first country artist to have a No. 1 across all five Billboard Country charts simultaneously] – that’s changing the game right there. We got a song on his album called “Learning.” That’s a cold song, man. What’s next for me? I’m part of the movement of change.