The proverb ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ loses meaning when it comes to Billy Mann. This 52-year-old American has been there and done it all, that too remarkably well. If his achievements are to be listed, here’s how it would sound: Grammy nominations, corporate label boss, hit after global hit songwriter, major label recording artist (90s), session vocalist/musician, bucket-list checking record producer, venture capitalist, entrepreneur, music publisher, artist manager, a digital media pioneer, and philanthropist.
Billy Mann is also said to be the “Silent Godfather” to a whole host of stars, execs & managers. But in spite of there being so much to his name, his proudest moment remains of him standing at the Oval office watching the then POTUS Barack Obama sign a bill on Autism Funding into a law and then handing over the first pen to his son. Mann is father to two autistic children and has ever since fought for the cause, which eventually bore results.
In an interview with Opoyi, Mann spoke about his journey with music, his creative process and his partnership with ADA Worldwide.
Your journey with music began at a young age. Who or what was your inspiration? Could you elaborate a bit on childhood musical days?
I think if you ask most musicians who wind up making a living doing music that their curiosity woke up with the records their parents played and even when you’re little, music can make you feel a way. Like everybody else, my mom gravitated towards artists who were singing what she wanted to be saying. So all the singer songwriters of the 70s like Carole King, Roberta Flack and Jim Croce. If there had been playlists back then, hers would’ve been called “Bell Bottoms and Bra Burners.” My dad was more into soul music, the Sound of Philadelphia, Grover Washington. Jr.
But, I think when I saw my older brother, Dan, play piano and trombone, and my sister singing, the idea that I could create music on my own grabbed me by the shoulders. I started playing guitar and writing my own songs and just got lucky with a load of super talented childhood friends, from the time I was about 12 until I left Philly. So many of us went on to credible music careers from drummer Steve Wolf to Mocean Worker (Adam Dorn) to BoyzIIMen to DJ Josh Wink to members of The Roots… For young artists I realize now the key is finding your own tribe that get you and help you form your musical language.
What is your creative process like?
On the one hand, it’s definitely changed over the years. I became really comfortable as a straight melody topliner and hopping studio to studio to topline on other people’s tracks has always been like a videogame for me. Each room was like a little bit speed dating and a little bit shark tank… So you walk in and the producer plays a variety of tracks and you just see what vibes with you, what inspires and then I keep a massive bank of song titles and lyrical prompts in a virtual book that I contribute to constantly—for years… I find that fun and I love playing teams so it’s fun when a couple of people are in a room working together on something like that.
But nothing is better for me than sitting down with a guitar on a bench or under a tree with an artist, free of the smoke and mirrors that tech gives us, and just writing and singing. Songwriting has started morphing into a mosaic of tetris pieces and there are publishers who I really adore who will chop and audition different verses and prechoruses and hooks together over tracks and not only curate these pieces into “frankensongs” but have hits doing it. I don’t begrudge anyone for doing that but I am going to keep holding on to that “under the tree” songwriting approach as tightly as I can, even while I get how the marketplace allows for so many laptopliners.
What’s the worst and the best bit of advice you ever received regarding your songwriting?
The worst advice regarding songwriting or any creative endeavor is the idea that there is only one “right way” to do it. And that’s just not the case. People have to find their own way using the tools that they have. There can be a more successful way to do it if you want commercial success, for example, but there are some people who just want to write to write and they are as much songwriters as I am. The best advice I got was “don’t bore us, get us to the chorus” which is as true as it is annoying. In today’s world of overchoices and overbooked living, artists and our songs ask a lot of people…so when it comes to pop music, I like a big fat chorus. That’s also a very Philly thing.
You are considered the “Silent Godfather” to so many stars and are known for your ability to identify talents at the earlier stages of their careers. What is it that you look for in an aspiring artist?
Honestly, I am looking for self-starters who don’t need prompts to be motivated and ambitious about their art with the heart that allows for growth and guidance. Emma Stone created a powerpoint and presented it to her parents about her career aspirations before she booked her first movie. Alex Aiono sang on the street as a 14-year-old and was writing and recording and investing in himself from day one. Supah Mario was driving overnight in and out of Atlanta from South Carolina to pitch his beats to get his career going…. You can have talent but do you have the drive and an honest heart… The three I just mentioned are successful and are still just as ambitious and curious and open hearted as they were when I first met them. In fact, I would argue they are even more now than in the beginning.
ADA Worldwide recently signed a partnership with you for the launch of a new JV label called Icons+Giants. Please elaborate on the collaboration and your part in it.
Benton James, who’s really one of the most awesome A&R executives in the game, started working across management and publishing with Liz Baylog (another amazing executive) and he is just a star creative, but also a star human being. We had been talking about starting a label for a couple of years—something I resisted because finding the right music partner can be a challenge. Warner Music Group and dozens of the executives and artists in the company around the world are people we are close to professionally (and some personally). We wanted a relationship that would reflect more depth than a “plug and play” distribution model but still provide us the autonomy to continue to be the talent venture types that we are. Couldn’t be more excited about building icons+giants with Cat Kreidich and the ADA team. This process takes time but we are grateful to be given support to build something meaningful.
What is a message or advice you would like to give aspiring artists?
I would just tell young artists to ask themselves their “why.” Why are they doing this? For fame? For money? Or for music? Whatever the answer is, I hope music is and always remains their first answer.