Siedah Garrett: Songwriter Gets ‘Real’ About the Oscars

Feb 25, 2012 6:12pm
 Siedah Garrett: Songwriter Gets Real About the Oscars

Songwriter Siedah Garrett hopes to take home Oscar for her song. (Courtesy In the Mirror Productions)

When the 84th Academy Award nominations were announced in January, one category was noticeably sparse: Best Original Song.  For the first time since the category was introduced 76 years ago, only two songs, “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets,” and “Real in Rio” from “Rio,” are up for the award.

The reason for the lack of nominees is the rating system the Academy has in place. First, no more than five songs can be nominated and the song has to play an integral role in the film. Then the 236 members of the Academy’s music branch score submissions on a half-point scale from 6 to 10 and only those with a rating of 8.25 or above will be considered.

One woman who isn’t complaining about the lack of nominees is Siedah Garrett, the lyricist for “Real in Rio,” who is best known for co-writing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and dueting with the legend on his number-one hit, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”

This isn’t Garrett’s first opportunity to take Oscar home. In 2006, her Grammy Award-winning song “Love You I Do” from “Dreamgirls” was nominated, but lost to “I Need to Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge.

Although Garrett said she is “ecstatic” that she has a 50 percent chance of winning this year, neither she nor Sergio Mendes, co-composer of “Real in Rio,” were happy when they learned they would not have the opportunity to sing the song at the ceremony after it was decided the nominated songs would not be performed.

“I’m so bummed I can’t even tell you. I was so looking forward to performing our song with Sergio on that night,” Garret said. “Then when they told us it wasn’t going to happen, it was like wa,wa, wa, wa.”

Garrett got involved in “Rio” toward the end. Mendes and musician Carlinhos Brown had already been working on the soundtrack for close to a year.

Initially, they were writing songs in Portuguese, but then it was determined they would go in another direction. Garrett was tasked with writing English lyrics that sounded like the Portuguese ones that had already been written and recorded. With just days to complete the assignment, Garrett came through.

Life for the 51-year-old Los Angeles native has come a long way since she worked at an insurance company. She’s had her share of opportunities that have led her to where she is today. She said her first break came while washing her car in her driveway. She had the radio on and heard the DJ say that callers could call in and talk with Sergio Mendes. Garrett ran to the phone.

“To this day I do not know why I asked this question. I asked, ‘Sergio, are you looking for any singers?’” Garrett recalled.

Mendes informed her he was. She met with him at his home and played him a few of her recordings. The next thing she knew, Mendes’ wife handed her a cassette with three songs in Portuguese and told her she had five days to learn them. She did and was asked to go on tour with the Brazilian musician.

Perhaps her biggest break was being chosen by Quincy Jones in 1984 to join a group he was forming called Deco. More than 800 hopefuls auditioned, but it was Garrett and three male vocalists who won his attention. Their first project was working on the soundtrack for “Fast Forward,” a film directed by Sidney Poitier.

Although the film was a flop, Garrett wrote and sang “Do You Want It Right Now,” which hit number three on Billboard’s dance chart.

Through working with Jones, who had worked on Michael Jackson’s first two solo albums, Garrett was in the right position to cross paths with the King of Pop. When she heard he was working on a follow-up to “Thriller,” she began writing some lyrics around a phrase she once overheard someone saying on the phone: Man in the mirror.

After Jones played the demo of “Man in the Mirror” with Garrett’s vocals for Jackson, he not only loved the song, he loved her voice so much he passed on other notable singers who were being considered to duet with him on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and chose her.

Both “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Man in the Mirror” became number one hits and changed Garrett’s life.

Garrett is currently recording a new album titled “The Answer’s Always Love,” which will be released in May through ArtistShare, a fan-funded model that allows fans to finance new projects. The album will contain a tribute song to Jackson called “Keep on Loving You.”

Even though Garrett has had a successful career, she said she wishes she had received more recognition as a singer; something she had always dreamed of.

“I was going to be Beyoncé before Beyoncé,” Garrett said. “As a black female, every record label I’ve ever been on wanted to throw me in the R&B category because I’m black. I’m a pop singer and a pop songwriter. I think that was my problem as an artist. I couldn’t be pigeon-holed. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

That’s why Garrett turned to songwriting.

“You can’t keep going to the same trap when there is no cheese in it,” she said.

Garrett doesn’t hold on to what could’ve been. She knows the power she’s had as a songwriter. A woman once told her that “Man in the Mirror” saved her life. The woman said that after contemplating suicide, she reconsidered after listening to the song over and over.

“Baby, as a songwriter, that is the highest compliment,” Garrett said. “That is the reason I write songs — to change lives.”

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