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By Emma Sarran Webster | September 19, 2016 | People
Ne-Yo knows a thing or two about collaborating. In the 10-plus years he’s been on the scene as a singer, songwriter, and producer, he’s worked with everyone from Rihanna to Calvin Harris to Tim McGraw. So, it only made sense that Pop-Tarts would tap the multi-talented artist for its latest concept: Mashing up popular songs and performers to celebrate the brand’s new flavors, which combine beloved soda flavors with the classic breakfast treats.
Ne-Yo teamed up with the Joe Jonas-led band, DNCE, to record a new version of his “Let Me Love You” and DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean.” We cuaght up with Ne-Yo recently to talk everything from working on the hit show Empire to his own acting aspirations.
You were on an episode of Empire—as yourself.
NY: As myself, yes—to my dismay, honestly. I actually wanted to play a character, but they were like, "Come on, man. When people see you they're going to know it's you, and it wouldn't make any sense for you to be anybody but you." But I still had fun with it.
Tell us about the mash-ups you did with DNCE and Pop-Tarts.
NY: So, Pop-Tarts decided to do a mash-up with Pop-Tarts and two very popular sodas—one is A&W Root-Beer and one is Crush Orange—they're actually kind of dope. ([The] Root Beer one's my favorite!) So basically, in the spirit of the mash-up that they did, [Pop-Tarts] decided to take two artists that they were fans of and mash us up. So, DNCE has a song called “Cake by the Ocean,” and I have a song called “Let me Love You.” So, using the app Smule, we did the mash-ups. I featured on their song, and they featured on mine.
What was the most fun part of working with DNCE and crossing your songs over?
NY: They're some characters! I dig their music; I like what they do. It's fun, you can dance to it, and it's positive, as opposed to all the negativity going on nowadays.
You’ve done a ton of collaborations over the years. Do you have a favorite or any that stand out to you?
NY: The thing I love about collaboration—and about the collaborations that I do specifically—is that there's never an instance where I'm trying to be that artist or that artist is trying to be me. I make it my business to find a song that allows each of us to be our individual selves within the record, because I don't feel like it will work otherwise. When you listen to a song and you hear Rihanna featuring Ne-Yo, or Ne-Yo featuring this rapper or that rapper, whatever the case may be, you want to get the essence of both those artists. That's the magic that you search for in a collaboration. So I can't really pick one specifically, because every collaboration that I've done has been a totally different experience.
And as a songwriter, you write songs for yourself and for other people. Do you prefer one over the other?
NY: I am first and foremost a behind-the-scenes guy. I came up as a songwriter; I appreciate the quiet of behind-the-scenes. Not to say that I don't love the crowd, and the fans, and getting on stage, and giving that energy, and getting it back; it's a drug, it truly is. But, from the standpoint of being behind-the-scenes, from the standpoint of being the guy behind the guy, I just love the creative process.
Especially if it's [writing for] somebody I know; it makes things a little easier. Otherwise you're just kind of shooting around in the dark: “Would they say this? Would they handle this situation this way?" You don't really know. Of course, [when] writing for myself, I know what I'm going to say, what I'm not going to say, what I would do, what I wouldn't. So, that's a little easier, per se, than writing for somebody else.
But, I normally have a tendency to develop a friendship with the people that I write for. I just recently went in with Mary J. Blige on her new project; [I] love her to death. Every time Mary and me get together it's like a therapy session, because we sit and talk about life, and we eat ice cream, and just talk about everything that's going on. And I take those conversations and turn them into songs—versus writing for somebody I've never met before. That's the reason I write a lot of love songs. Everybody has experienced [love]—be it the good, bad, or the [indifferent]—in some way, shape, form, or fashion.
You've done some acting, including your role in The Wiz Live!, which got you a Critics Choice Awards nomination. And you've played yourself on Empire, but you said you'd love to play a character. Is there more acting in your future?
NY: We'll see what happens. One thing I've told my agent [was], "I don't want any parts given to me because of anything that I've done musically. I don't want to get the part just because I'm Ne-Yo, so to speak. I want to work for it. I want to audition. If I suck, I don't get it. If I'm good, give it to me. I want to do it that way."
So I'm going out on auditions, getting critiques and whatnot from people who do this on a regular basis, which is what you need in order to learn and grow. But [what I’m] even more attracted to [more] than the acting thing is the behind-the-camera thing: directing, screenwriting, and things like that. I'm learning how to write scripts. I know how to tell a story in three minutes and 20 seconds, [but with] movies and TV, a lot more time requires a lot more detail, requires a lot more skill. So, I'm in the process of learning how to do that and working on a few scripts. So, all of that [was] a very long-winded way to say yes, check to see a little bit more acting from me.
You said you've done some writing for Empire?
NY: Not the script, but the music. I was writing music for Empire.
Will you continue working on that show?
NY: I love the show; I love what it's done for music. I feel like when they dropped the soundtrack they took basically a dead medium, which is movie [and TV] soundtracks, and re-energized it. When they dropped all the music from Empire season one, Empire season two, people went out and got it. And I feel like it's because the show allows you to really invest in the songs—you kind of see the song come to fruition, because nine times out of 10, the song is about something that just happened in the episode. So, you're watching the episode, you’re invested in the character, and then you hear the song, and it's like an instant lock. I love that they give ownership to the audience with that again. It's been lost a little bit.
Photography Courtesy of Pop-Tarts