Fresh from her 2022 Grammy win for ‘Album Of The Year’ with Jon Batiste, songwriter Autumn Rowe is on a roll. She was nominated at the 64th Grammy Awards for not just one but four awards, including “Record of the Year” for “Freedom” (a track she also produced); “Album of The Year” for WE ARE (she co-wrote five of the album’s 13 tracks); “Best Traditional R&B Performance” for “I Need You” and “Best R&B Album” for WE ARE. She also recently collaborated with the legendary Diana Ross for a remix of “I Still Believe”.
Over the years the South Bronx native has worked with some of the biggest names in music including Dua Lipa, Zendaya, and Avicii. The talented songwriter is also a celebrated vocal coach, having appeared on season 2 of The X Factor and America’s Got Talent for five years. She has also been hitting the decks herself as a DJ. As a Black and Jewish songwriter with a primary focus on the fight against racism and antisemitism, Autumn is making a name for herself as an activist. She not only mentors both established and emerging artists, but came on board as the co-director for the Coronavirus Songwriter Emergency Relief Fund in 2020, offering grants to support songwriters through the pandemic. We thought it was time to catch up with Autumn to chat about her journey in music and what keeps her inspired. Read on for the full interview below.
Congratulations on your recent Grammy win for your work on Jon Batiste’s ‘WE ARE’ which won Album Of The Year! That must have been a very exciting moment! How was the experience for you?
I waited my whole life for this moment, yet nothing can prepare you for your biggest dream coming true. Album of the Year was the last award of the night, and it was an incredibly long day. I didn’t eat for 24 hours, was dehydrated and full of a million emotions. When Lenny Kravitz said “WE ARE” … I was in a state of shock. I believed in this album and Jon Batiste with my whole heart but watching it all really happen has been a truly beautiful and humbling experience.
You co-wrote five of the album’s 13 tracks – can you tell us about the collaboration with Jon Batiste? How did you start working together?
I met Jon through a record I started called “Sing”. Sing was a strange song, it kind of had spiritual energy behind it. It came about in a last-minute session with King Garbage. I couldn’t connect with any tracks that day and asked if I could just sing something in the room and out came this song. Ricky Reed then showed the idea to Jon, and they all took it to another level. When I heard Jon’s vocal and production, I just knew I had to find him and make music with him. He brought the song to a level I couldn’t even imagine. After months of tracking him down on social media, he finally saw my DM, and soon after we began writing in person together.
Can you describe the overall inspiration for ‘WE ARE’ and the direction you took with the music you worked on?
WE ARE is inspired by generations of music, culture, pain, and joy and pays homage to those who paved the way for us today. It’s a celebration of Black culture. One of the many things I love about Jon is he would do well in any time period in history. He is That good! I can imagine him up there with greats like Marvin Gaye, James Brown, or even in a jazz club in the 1920s. That is very exciting for me because it means musically there are no boundaries. My production partner Kizzo and I love all kinds of music and we finally found a project we didn’t have to hold back or have to follow any rules.
The song ‘WE ARE’ was also used on the “Mask Up America” campaign? Can you tell us how that came about and the impact of that campaign?
I don’t actually know how that came about but as a New Yorker, I was thrilled it did. I was in New York with my mom when it debuted, and it felt like a really important part of the pandemic. Covid was high, no vaccines yet, and at that time masks were our best form of protection. I was really honored to have a small part in something which could save lives.
Over the years you have collaborated with some of the most celebrated names in music including Dua Lipa, Pitbull, Zendaya, Fka Twigs, Fifth Harmony, and Avicii – how did you get started as a songwriter?
I started out in this business when I was 16. Interning for record companies and singing in choirs. It took me a long time to develop as a writer and then find my voice as a writer. I didn’t have my first hit till I was 28. I spent years and years working as a session singer, in wedding bands, background vocals, my own band, and working tons of jobs until I was able to do music full time. I just didn’t give up … that’s how I’m here now.
We understand that although you currently live in LA, you are actually from the South Bronx? How do you feel your upbringing in New York City influenced your music and career path?
Growing up in the BX was tough. High crime, low opportunities but lots of cultures. I would open my window when I lived in the projects and there would often be a DJ playing outside. That’s where I learned a lot of hip hop and old-school classics. Then you walk in the street and shops and learn salsa, merengue, and bachata. My mom would listen to Carole King, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. Music was everywhere and I was a sponge. New York is a jungle. You have to learn to survive and be street smart. It wasn’t an option not to succeed as I already saw what would happen if I didn’t work really hard. No one gives you anything in this world. Once I decided this was the field, I wanted to be in at 16, I worked nonstop to make it happen. I’m not a big fan of a plan B. If you want it. That’s it. Go get it. That’s the New York way.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations as far as music is concerned?
Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson are my two favorite artists. “ I need You” on WE ARE was inspired in part by Stevie. Mariah Carey is also a big influence of mine. She was the first biracial person I saw growing up. It meant a lot to me to see someone like myself.
We heard that you recently collaborated with the legendary Diana Ross, can you share more about what you worked on with her and how the experience was collaborating with such an icon?
Diana Ross the Boss! I was a part of a songwriting camp for her last album run by She Writes. The camp was already booked up, but I squeezed my way in once I heard of it and just knew I had to be there. I started an idea for Diana Ross while walking on Ventura Blvd… recorded it on my phone and brought it to the session. That chorus became the chorus for “I still believe” Charlie Mcclean produced it and is also one of the founders of the Writers with violet skies. Jack Antonoff then came in later on and did the final production with Charlie. Crazy story. On the day of the song’s release, I ran into Evan Ross (her son) at a lunch. He was so kind and excited we met he called his mom so we could speak. I couldn’t believe I was talking to Diana Ross on the phone. It was such a magical moment we all had goosebumps.
You were the only vocal coach on “America’s Got Talent” for five years and also appeared on Season 2 of “The X Factor” as a vocal coach – can you tell us some of your favorite vocal tips for talent? What advice would you give an aspiring singer?
Some tips, listen to your body. Eat and drink things that serve you. Sleep … the voice is a human instrument and needs rest. Do your scales… it’s not good enough to just sing songs. You need to actually train your voice. Get a coach but not just any coach. Make sure that the coach is right for the genre of music you are in. The last tip … make your music work for you. Pick keys and tempos which suit your voice don’t force something that isn’t. My advice to aspiring singers… decide if you want to be a singer or an artist. If you want to be an artist… have something to say. Don’t sing with the intention of proving you can sing. That’s not what this is about. Sing because you are a vessel for a message. When you can figure that out, everything starts to make more sense.
Do you also perform as a DJ? Can you tell us how you got into spinning?
I wanted to be able to release music without necessarily having to sing but wasn’t sure how. It was suggested I DJ so out of respect for the art I went to DJ school and learned about turntables. I felt so connected to it, as DJing came from the Bronx. It was a full-circle moment for me and felt very natural.
What are some of your most memorable experiences as a DJ? Any exciting performances you can share?
Oh man, playing the CRSSD festival and Smokin Grooves for Sinead Harnett was incredible. Also, Veuve Clicquot 2 years in a row was amazing. One of my most fun gigs was at Soho House. I would recreate this New York club energy. No phones, no pics. Just dancing. It was so much fun.
You were the co-director for the Corona Virus Songwriter Emergency Relief Fund in 2020, which offered grants to support songwriters through the pandemic, can you tell us about the initiative and how you got involved?
Giving back to my community is something I’m very passionate about; I just got back from D.C with the Recording Academy advocating for our rights as music creatives. I got involved with the songwriter fund and SONA (Songwriters of North America) very organically. At the beginning of covid, I started raising money from my friends who lost gigs and tours. It was apparent they were immediately affected by covid… soon after tv shows were delayed as well as project release dates. This affected Songwriter’s income. Most people don’t know it can take us up to a year and a half to get paid after a song is released and we, unfortunately, don’t profit much from streaming. So as your favorite show is delayed, so is all the music used in the shows. There is a whole ecosystem that keeps many people’s lights on, and this was disrupted. It’s becoming harder and harder to survive as a songwriter so I wanted to help as much as I can. Through the pandemic, we gave out over 500k in grants to songwriters. I’m still co-director of the fund and working on new ideas for our community.
You are making a name for yourself as an activist using your platform to fight against racism and antisemitism – can you share some thoughts on the issues and some of the ways you are trying to make a difference?
My mom is Jewish, and my father was Black. I consider myself an anti-racist. Overall, I feel like there are a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to other cultures and ethnicities. I’m hoping for more empathy and less apathy. I speak out and am a member of the BJEA (Black Jewish Entertainment Alliance)… but more importantly, I just try to have conversations within circles and rooms I’m in when someone says something offensive even if it doesn’t affect me personally. I think it’s all about having open and honest convos more than canceling someone. The more divisive society is the less we will prosper as a human race.
I understand you started an internet show called “The Conversation” which discusses experiences of racism?
The Conversation… one of my many mini covid projects… was an IG live show where we had open and honest often uncomfortable conversations. It started out with my good friend Jocelyn Alice. A situation happened between us, and she grew a lot since it happened. We then had a public and open discussion on the situation. I received so many shares and beautiful comments from so many women, many cried while watching. X factor star Dalton Harris was another guest and he talked about some really deep personal stuff. He later told me this talk helped him work through a lot. Maybe I’ll pick this up again sometime. I really enjoyed it.
Do you have words of wisdom you live by?
Words to live by… live your truth and in every sense. Listen to your mind, body, and spirit. Easier said than done and something I’m still learning. When you are tired… rest. Inspired… create. Depleted… refuel. Be good and patient with yourself. You only have one you… so show yourself lots of love. There really aren’t many rules to a successful life… just lots of random examples which mostly contradict everything we’ve been taught.
What can we look forward to from you in 2022? Any new releases or collaborations in the works we should look out for?
2022 I’m looking to branch out. Developing projects with my production partner Kizzo, currently working with Leona Lewis, Chris Mann, El Winter, and more. We are pushing some boundaries and not putting any limitations on the sounds we are creating. Focused on Development as a producer and projects outside of songwriting and producing as well. I’ve been working on a children’s book with a talented artist Berit Fossbakken for over 2 years. Also dabbling on the tv side, dipping into the comic world, and continuing to mentor. I like to have lots of pots boiling and am feeling very fluid in my creativity.