Marsha Ambrosius knows how to craft a hit.
The singer-songwriter -- formally known as one-half of the neo-soul/spoken-word hybrid Floetry -- had already crafted tracks for Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys and Jamie Foxx before she broke out with her solo debut, 2011’s “Late Nights & Early Mornings.”
Ahead of her follow-up, “Friends & Lovers,” and a slot at the 2014 BET Experience (she plays Friday alongside Maxwell and Jill Scott), Ambrosius told Pop & Hiss the stories behind some of her biggest hits.
“I remember it being somewhat of a solemn day. There had been a death in the family and it was one of those days where you either get up and get on with your life, or not. And I remember everyone feeling that sense in the room. I got at the piano and … it started to write itself. Once the music was together, I could only hear one word, ‘Run.’ It’s just about running away, or running towards. Before I knew it, we had a whole song. What used to be the bridge is now the hook -- we flipped a couple of things around. We preferred certain melodies. But it really started as an emotional-based, nonconventional song. ‘Run’ was about me fulfilling a dream I didn’t know existed. I didn’t know basketball would never be in my life. I didn’t know tearing ligaments would tear up my dreams and I’d have to find out what my Plan B was. It just so happened music was my Plan B and I’m thankful that worked out. So I ran.”
“I really wanted it to feel like 1958. I could see this woman. She’s singing and she’s heavyset and swinging her head and she’s got this press and curl. I did my own background [vocals]. I could hear like three other chicks in the background ... yelling ‘Don’t be afraid, girl.’ I had to be this whole character. What was initially just a hook and a song turned into a whole Floetry moment.”
“Alicia is one of those few artists that I’ve worked with that could truly embody strength and empowerment. I can remember the zone she was in for that album. It was very Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. I was feeling that vibe, so I kind of just tuned into where she was in her life and she wanted something strong and empowering. I feel like I filled that void that she didn’t have on the album and that’s why it worked amongst the songs on there.”
“They were recording in Philadelphia at the time. Timbaland sat me down to see where my head was. He said he had this song that had a couple of missing elements that he thought I could fine-tune. I’m listening to what is this phenomenal song and at the time it didn’t have the hook all the way [or] the outro. I went into the booth, matched my vocal with Justin’s and did it a couple of times to get the feel, which is why barely anyone knows I’m on the song because we sound the same. I sang that ‘You don’t have to say, what you did” [line], did the outro. I was playing when I did it and Timbaland kept it. I knew it was a great song in the studio. I didn’t know it would be that song.”
“I first recorded ‘Butterflies’ in London in 1997. Just me and the piano. It was about a boy I had a crush on that worked at McDonald’s. It was that simple, that initial feeling. Three years later I get to Philadelphia and start working with Andre Harris [of production duo Dre & Vidal]. I loved what he did with Jill Scott’s [debut] album. The night before we recorded ‘Say Yes’ together, so it was a kind of magical week. When we played it for everybody, they went crazy. Before I know it, it’s a part of the demo for the Floetry album and then Michael Jackson hears it and wants to cut it and the rest is history.”
“The one song that’s not a Floetry song at all. It’s actually a demo that I recorded for Ron Isley that he didn’t take, which I’m glad he didn’t because it changed my life and made my mark in the industry as a songwriter. So I thank him everyday for that. I just wanted to try something. Andre [Harris] started playing these chords. He slowed it down and looped it. I went in the booth and what you hear is a freestyle. I was trying to give that song away. It’s crazy that it turned into what was one of Floetry’s most notable songs.”
“It was really a freestyle on my UStream channel for a friend who got cheated on by his girl at the time. It was really bad. You’re trying to be a good friend, and you really want to call [the person] all types of [expletives], but you can’t because your friend is still in their feelings. I remember beatboxing and telling the fans what happened. We were going back and forth and I said “I hope she cheats on you with a basketball player, hope that she Kim Kardashian her way up” and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ So I continued to write it. Eventually I had this whole song.”
2014 BET Experience at L.A. Live
Who: Maxwell, Jill Scott, OutKast, Rick Ross, ASAP Rocky, Mary J. Blige, Trey Songz, Jennifer Hudson, Future and the Roots
Where: Staples Center and Club Nokia
When: Friday through Sunday
Tickets: Single-day tickets to Staples Center series are $39.50 to $149.50, bundle packages are $99 to $349; Club Nokia tickets are $29.50 to $79.50; VIP packages, $1,095 to $4,395, include access to the award show and the Staples Center series. Los Angeles Convention Center will host a free fan expo Saturday and Sunday.