From “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Ooh-Ee-Ooh-Ahh-Ahh” to “Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong and “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy,” pop songwriters have periodically long struck gold with nonsense syllables incorporated into their songs.
Sometimes it’s been by design. Other times the result of belated inspiration, as was the case for Joelle James when she settled on keeping the now-ubiquitous phrase “ba-dum, boo'd up/Biddy-da-dum, boo'd up” in a song she came up with to express the feeling of nascent love.
“The whole song was written in about 30 minutes” James said recently of “Boo’d Up,” which was transformed into one of the biggest pop hits of 2018 with a bit of tweaking by producer DJ Mustard and the hit version’s singer, Ella Mai. The latter added a bridge to what James had written and recorded herself about four years earlier.
James explained that she thought it up spontaneously when she was given a three-hour session in one of Atlantic Records’ studios and decided to take advantage of the opportunity not just to sing someone else’s song, but to try writing something for herself.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “I always say my heart wrote the song. I was late [to the scheduled start of the session] and I had to get out, and when I listened back to what I had, I heard the ‘biddy-da-dum boo’d up’ part and thought, ‘What am I gonna put there?’ As I was listening again, I sang with it ‘Boo’d up,’ and realized that’s what the song meant to me, it’s where it was coming from. It was very deep feeling and it just came out.”
Come Feb. 10, James will be watching nervously to see whether her improvised-on-the-spot composition will be named overall song of the year and/or R&B song of the year when the 2019 Grammy Awards are handed out in Los Angeles.
It’s the culmination of what’s been a surreal journey for the singer and songwriter from Murrieta, in Riverside County, roughly 80 miles southeast of L.A. Considered a commuter town that is home to soldiers stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton and their families, and for many who work in the adjacent city of Temecula, Murrieta is hardly considered a hotbed for contemporary R&B music.
“Murrieta is not like a hub of culture,” James said with a laugh. “I always felt like a fish out of water — especially in my family, because nobody in my family has done music [professionally].
“But we were always listening to music,” she said. “My mom put on [records by] some amazing artists who I heard very early on. She introduced me to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, when I was really young.”
James began getting noticed at talent contests, and found her way to showcases, including Showtime at the Apollo when she was just 11.
“I did a lot of singing all over Southern California,” she said. “Then I got the opportunity to do ‘Star Search,’ ‘American Idol,’ ‘America’s Most Talented Kids’ and things like that.”
All that, however, was strictly as a singer.
“I wanted to be Whitney Houston,” she said. “I wanted people to come to me with these phenomenal songs all signed, sealed and delivered, and I’d just sing them and put my heart and soul into them like she did…The songwriting thing, I kind of stumbled upon it.”
She didn’t even delve into songwriting after graduating from high school and enrolling at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she earned a degree in music studies and voice.
Songwriting came after that, she said, because the songs being pitched to her didn’t fully sync up with her own feelings.
“I don’t want to say they were sleeping on me, but I was kind of put to the side. I wasn’t the main focus of people’s attention, which is something that can happen when you’re a young artist and people are telling you what to do.
“I felt neglected, kind of left for dead,” she said. “That made me realize I can’t rely on other people, and as I started getting session time with A&R people, I became friends with some of them and one day one of them offered me some time in the studio at Atlantic.”
Among the people she met along the way was DJ Mustard, and she also as recruited for Chris Brown’s CBE label after the singer spotted some videos she had posted on YouTube. The association did not build any significant career momentum for her, and she parted ways with the controversial artist’s company.
One thing she did pick up from her time with Brown was seeing first-hand how the collaborative process that’s so prevalent today in R&B and hip-hop music works.
“I learned a lot about songwriting with Chris. He would hear a track, go into the booth and these things would just come out of him. You’d have to be quick — you could hit the talk-back button and suggest something, and he’d take your idea or not. I learned that confidence of hearing the music and going with whatever came out from him. I loved writing, meeting the people. If we have similar melodic ideas, I think co-writing like that can go well.”
When Mustard, whose given name is Dijon Isaiah McFarlane, began working with Mai, he thought James’ song might be perfect for the English singer and songwriter. They came up with the song’s bridge, with additional input from a fourth writer, L.A. producer and songwriter Larrance Dopson, and modified it into the song that last year spent 16 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay Chart, setting a record for the longest run at the top of that ranking by a female artist this decade.
That success means James is now getting more invitations to write for, and with, others.