As we gear up for the 2013 Academy Awards, airing Feb. 24, The Root is speaking with black Oscar winners and nominees — past and present — about the prestigious honor.
(The Root) — Siedah Garrett is a burst of energy. Anyone in the presence of the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter for just the smallest amount of time can feel it. It beams from her aura. Effervescent. Funny. And real.
The vibrant Californian got her big break in 1984 at age 23 when she met Quincy Jones, who plucked her from an 800-person "cattle call" audition. After connecting with Jones, her star began to shine more brightly. She co-wrote and sang backup on several of his 1980s and 1990s hits, including "Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me)," "Back on the Block" and "The Secret Garden."
She also sang a duet with the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson, for the 1987 hit "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." Soon after, Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," which Garrett had co-written, shot to the top of the charts. Her first Academy Award nomination for best original song was for "Love You, I Do" from the 2006 musical film Dreamgirls. Last year she received another best original song nod for the Brazilian-flavored "Real in Rio" from the animated feature Rio, making her the most Oscar-nominated black female songwriter.
The Root spoke with Garrett about her latest endeavor, working with Quincy Jones and missing the King of Pop.
The Root: Tell me about the day you found out you were nominated for "Love You, I Do" from Dreamgirls.
Siedah Garrett: I'd been up very late the night before, and my phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing. In my haze of sleep, I couldn't figure out why everyone kept calling me. By the time I got to the phone and started listening to the messages, I kept hearing, "Congratulations!" and "We're so proud of you!" I was literally stopped in my tracks when it sank in what had happened. That was such rare air for me. I was stunned by the moment. And the phone calls came in days and days after that.
TR: When you're writing the song, does it go through your mind that this could be a hit, or I could be nominated for an Oscar?
SG: Oh, no! That was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to fulfill the promise that I had made to the director. I was focused on giving him what he wanted because I wanted him to call me again. That was my only plan. I didn't think so far enough ahead to think "Oscar." That wasn't even in my thought process.
TR: How was it different when you got your second nomination five years later?
SG: It was very different for me the second time around because instead of being one of eight songs, it was one of two. And I had a 50-50 shot. But I lost to a muppet — "Man or Muppet" is the song that won.
TR: What projects are you working on now?
SG: I'm getting ready to embark on a new adventure with my writing partner Glen Ballard, where we're going to write a musical based on the life of Madame Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of Louisiana. She was extremely special for her time [the 19th century]. She had power where women didn't have power at that time, especially black women … It would be a Broadway musical. But we haven't even started yet, and it could take as little as a few months and as many as a few years.
TR: You said you like to live in the moment. How has that helped you in your career?
SG: I think since the music and entertainment business is so busy, in order to just really give something the attention it needs to make it the best it can be, you really kind of have to focus. Multitasking really isn't productive in the creative process. So I guess I'm really good at focusing on what I'm doing at the time. I wrote, I think, 25 or 26 songs for Dreamgirls. And most of those were rewrites. I got two songs in the film, and one of them was nominated for an Oscar.
TR: Aside from yourself, who would you say has been the most influential person in your career?
SG: It would have to be Quincy Jones. Quincy made it a deal to be a songwriter. All I wanted to be was a recording artist because that's all I saw for me. But Quincy introduced me to the world as a writer, and he introduced me to the world's biggest pop star — Michael Jackson. And Quincy introduced the world's biggest pop star to a song that I wrote — "Man in the Mirror." So he is by far my biggest influence and my mentor. And he's my brother for life.
TR: How did that change your life?
SG: Well, it got me to talk to people like you. If I was filing at the insurance company I used to work for, I doubt we'd be having this conversation. It was a real introduction, a real entree into the elite of the entertainment industry. And from that introduction, Michael liked my voice so much he wanted to do a duet with me, which was my No. 1 pop song ("I Just Can't Stop Loving You") that I was an artist on. When Michael Jackson says, "I want to sing with you," that means you've got something — something that somebody else doesn't have.
TR: It's been nearly four years since Michael Jackson's death. Are you still affected by it?
SG: He's everywhere, you know. His energy and his music is pervasive in my life. He never really goes away, so I think about him all the time. But it's not as constant as it was when he first passed. I released a song last year in honor of Michael because I never got a chance to tell him when he was alive how much I appreciated his impact on my life and his introducing me to the world as an artist to pay attention to. And Michael was a great artist. He drew and painted. Very few people know about that.
TR: You've worked with some great people, but is there anyone you'd like to work with who you haven't already?
SG: Prince! I want to work with Prince! I want to work with Prince! He's, like, the guy. [But it hasn't happened yet because] Prince doesn't write with anybody. Prince does what Prince wants to do. He's not a co-writer, so I don't know how that's going to happen, but I want to collaborate with him on some level.
I have no idea how it's going to happen, but chile, I didn't know I was going to meet Michael Jackson, either, so I just put it out there. That's all I can do is put it out there. Where did I get the audacity to think I would meet Michael Jackson, let alone sing with him and write for him? Hello?!
Previously in the Black Academy Awards Series: Louis Gossett Jr. on Post-Oscar Heartbreak.