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How a homeless songwriter’s story of heartbreak made it into Beyonce’s album

How a homeless songwriter’s story of heartbreak made it into Beyonce’s album
Vincent Berry II in the studio at Peermusic, an independent music publisher, in Burbank on June 7, 2016. Berry produced, co-wrote and self-published the song "Sandcastles," which was used on Beyonce's album "Lemonade." (Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

When Beyonce released her latest album, “Lemonade,” many saw the project – particularly a tender ballad about reconciliation and forgiveness entitled “Sandcastles” – as confirmation that tabloid speculation about her husband Jay Z’s infidelities was true.

It was, after all, one of the album’s most emotional tracks. In her film released as a companion to the album (also titled “Lemonade”), “Sandcastles” featured Jay embracing his tearful wife and lying at her feet – the most intimate of displays for pop’s most intensely private couple.

“Sandcastles,” however, was originally about another man’s heartache.

Vincent Berry II promised himself it would be the final song he’d write about his ex-girlfriend. Little did he know at the time that such a painful chapter of his life would translate into the most successful moment of his career.

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Berry was homeless when the song made its way to Beyonce last year, and uncertain how, or if, “Sandcastles” would be ever be used.

“When someone sings your song, it’s incredible,” said Berry. “But when the biggest artist in the world sings your song, it’s really a defining moment for yourself that you know you’re supposed to be doing what you’re doing.”

The idea for the song came when Berry, 30, was working with poet-rapper-actor Malik Yusef. It was early last year when Yusef pitched an idea for a song called “We Built Sandcastles That Washed Away.”

Gathered at a piano, Yusef sang the gospel-influenced lyrics he’d come up with -- words that “opened a wound” for Berry.

“I hadn’t really healed,” Berry recalled of a 10-year relationship that ended long ago. “When he sang the words I just thought about her and it was all I needed to get the rest out.”

“I said, ‘You know what, this is my last time writing a song about this girl,” he continued. “I’m putting it all in this.”

The record was originally intended for R&B singer Teyana Taylor, although Berry believed it needed Beyonce’s voice, even if he’d never met the superstar before.

Beyonce on the set of "Lemonade," her one-hour film which debuted on HBO.
Beyonce on the set of "Lemonade," her one-hour film which debuted on HBO. (Parkwood Entertainment)

So how did it reach Beyonce? Old fashioned word of mouth.

Berry got invited to another studio session where he was introduced to another songwriter, Midian Mathers. He played her the record. “When she heard it, she started crying,” he said.

The trio then developed the song further and Mathers sang it at a showcase. Later, Mathers had a meeting at music publishing company BMG and connects with A&R executive Teresa LaBarbera Whites, who famously discovered and signed Beyonce and Destiny’s Child to Columbia Records.

When Whites told Mathers about the records she was scouting for Beyonce’s forthcoming album, Mathers played her “Sandcastles.”

“Midian was like he’s gonna kill me and he didn’t give permission but I think this is the kind of song Beyonce needs to sing,” Berry said with a laugh. “And when she played it Teresa started to cry. I did this song to heal myself and I think that’s what people are experiencing when they hear it.”

Although Berry was close to landing the biggest placement of his career, he had to keep it secret for more than a year.

As Beyonce worked on the project – she received “Sandcastles” in February 2015, Berry said --  the songwriter knew he wanted to keep ownership of the record instead of signing a publishing agreement, but that meant making great sacrifices.

“I wanted to own it and that’s a harder road. That meant being homeless and sleeping in cars and garages and studios and that’s what I was willing to do,” said Berry, who now lives in Woodland Hills. “I knew I couldn’t sign a publishing deal knowing what they are -- essentially a high-interest loan. Why would I take that kind of deal?”

I said, ‘You know what, this is my last time writing a song about this girl,' I’m putting it all in this.

— Vincent Berry II on the failed relationship that inspired Beyonce's "Sandcastles"

While he waited, and couch-surfed, Berry placed records with Nico & Vinz, Shaggy and Mary J. Blige.

And then he got the call he was waiting for: The record he co-wrote landed on the album, and he would share a production credit with Beyonce.

On the final version of the record, which Berry heard ahead of the album’s April release, Beyonce wrote a more hopeful ending than the one Berry originally penned.

“And your heart is broken cause I walked away / Show me your scars and I won't walk away,” Beyonce sang. “And I know I promised that I couldn't stay, baby / [But] every promise don't work out that way.”

(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“There was no rebuilding, the relationship was gone. But my relationship wasn’t between a husband and a wife,” Berry said of the song’s original somber ending. “She’s singing about a husband, and there’s a different desire to hold on to that relationship.”

Naturally, landing the high-profile placement has greatly affected Berry’s stock.

He’s now highly in demand, logging studio time with Alicia Keys, Maroon 5, Big Sean, BJ the Chicago Kid and Eminem.

Berry is also working on music for two highly anticipated films, “Birth of a Nation” and the Tupac biopic, “All Eyez on Me”; and he will compete on NBC’s upcoming songwriting competition, “Songland.”

“When you get a great opportunity like Beyonce, you’ve got to leverage that moment,” Berry said. “The industry was already aware of what I’d been doing, but Beyonce opened so many doors for me.”

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