How Shabbat dinner helped launch Grammy-winning, Black-Jewish songwriter Autumn Rowe
After collaborating with Diana Ross and Jon Batiste, the artist dishes about pulling herself up by the bootstraps and how she's paying it forward with The Songwriter Fund
NEW YORK — When Autumn Rowe appears on my video screen from her Southern California porch, she isn’t sounding her best. “Well, I’ve got COVID,” she shrugs, her voice scratchy. But it doesn’t wipe the smile from her face.
In April, she took home a Grammy award, as one of the co-writers and co-producers of “WE ARE,” Jon Batiste’s celebratory R&B-jazz-pop-gospel-New Orleans hybrid album that ultimately won four prizes. (Rowe herself was also nominated for Record of the Year, for the track “Freedom.”) It represents a triumph for a woman who has had an unusual career path in the music industry.
Rowe, a Black Jewish woman, grew up poor in the South Bronx, absorbing all sorts of musical genres. She began singing professionally in choirs at the age of 16, then had significant success as a DJ and songwriter. A good gig came her way, to work as a vocal coach on television for shows like “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent.” But after many years she realized it kept her from her true passion of creating meaningful music, so she ditched it for the extremely unstable world of freelance songwriting.
With much tenacity, she eventually hooked up with Jon Batiste, the musical polymath of the famous New Orleans Batiste family, and also the bandleader on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” (It is insane to me how two of the most dynamic, musically omnivorous creators of our time — Batiste and Questlove — also have steady gigs on corny talk shows about seven minutes on foot away from one another.)
Anyhow, Rowe’s work with Batiste will now stand the test of time, as will other recent projects, such as a track with Diana Ross, as well as the work she’s recorded on her own. In our conversation below, which is edited for clarity, we talk about the nitty-gritty of how one gets into a record-making “camp,” how an artist may end up working on your song without you even knowing it, and while it may not be the most righteous way to look at it, attending Shabbat dinners can be very good for your career.
The Times of Israel: Ugh, COVID, you doing all right?
Autumn Rowe: [Sniffle] Yeah, yeah, considering. I’m upset because there’s an artist, Juliet Gilden, who came in from the East Coast to do an exhibit on Black and Jewish women, for the Black-Jewish Entertainment Alliance — and she’s doing it because she met me! And I’m in the exhibit! It took months to set up with a gallery, and now I won’t even be there.
As you know, Autumn, there is the old Yiddish expression, “Man plans, God laughs.”
Well, I know this is a month old by now, but mazel tov on your Grammy award. That’s something that’s not yet dull to hear, I am sure.
No it is not. It is a life goal. It’s corny, but I feel like a Disney princess. “All my dreams came true.” Being able to work on an album I believed in, made out of pure love of music, not checking boxes for radio hits, and it happened so organically. I met Jon [Batiste] on Instagram, so…
Wait, how did that work?
I contacted him in 2019. There’s a song on the album, “Sing,” which I started, then he worked on it without me ever meeting him. Months after I worked on it, I heard someone else singing on it, sounding like an angel; it was the best thing I had ever been a part of.
It took me months to hear from him. He writes me back the second I landed in New York to surprise my mom for Mother’s Day. He writes “Oh, the last time I checked my DMs it was Madonna! I’m glad I checked again. Let’s get together.”
So I book my mom’s restaurant near where Stephen Colbert shoots. I booked her at Serafina, and brought a friend so she had someone to talk to when I ran off for an hour. “Ma, I gotta take this meeting quick, it’s important.”
When I met him, he was doing a Prince tribute, so he’s in full makeup, a wig, and heels, and he’s already tall and thin. But he could have been in a potato sack with that voice and talent. So we played music for a while.
Just up in his room above the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway? That old school, not-too-modern building?
In Carol Burnett’s old room. And that’s where we wrote “We Are,” “I Need You,” and “Show Me The Way,” in Carol Burnett’s dressing room, not a recording studio. We had a drum set in the shower, and we had access to Jon’s band. We had our songs done in about a week.
I’ve had Spotify’s “Autumn Rowe: Songwriter” playlist on all day, and I’m struck by how you are able to work in so many different modes. Sometimes singer-songwriter type music, then the more jazzy Jon Batiste New Orleans stuff, then soul/R&B, then current Top 40 pop, plus the songs you recorded —
Which is all over the place!
Well, tuneful and peppy and sticks in your ear, certainly! But there’s a bit of a shapeshifter element to your work. I mean that is a positive way, especially in a business that demands versatility. Not everyone can do this.
No, they can’t. It’s a rare thing, and I’m able to do it because I connect with multiple genres of music in an authentic way. My mother, a Jewish woman, raised me in the Bronx. We were really poor, we didn’t really watch TV, and I just listened to what she listened to: Carole King, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. Then we moved to the projects for a while, where I learned a lot about hip hop. Open your window in the Bronx and you hear hip hop and a lot of Spanish music. Then when I was 16, I started singing in choirs.
I was in a show called “The British Rock Symphony.” We were the choir for people like Ringo Starr, Roger Daltrey, Phoebe Snow, Peter Frampton, so I studied all that British rock, I learned every part. So by the time I was 16, I had a love for all kinds of music. Also Swedish pop, and Britney and Backstreet; any well-written song.
That’s when I started encountering people who would say, “Girls who look like you can’t do that kind of music.” It took me a long time to get to a place where I am allowed in certain rooms. I now feel like I am a genre-less person. Jon Batiste is also like that. Music is music.
I started encountering people who would say, ‘Girls who look like you can’t do that kind of music’
All those artists your mother played for you, those are Grammy winners. Now you’re part of that. Was this always a brass ring for you? Did you ever say, “In X amount of years, I will have one on my shelf”?
Three or four years ago, it looked impossible. I was still coaching “America’s Got Talent.” I was a television vocal coach for six years. While there were great moments doing that, it started to take away from the creative parts of my brain. So when I left, I focused 100 percent on songwriting. I basically started over.
I had done 10 years of writing, but it’s a tough industry. If you haven’t done anything recent, you are forgotten. In 2010, I was flown to different countries, had car services pick me up, treated like a princess. But after I left the show I was an afterthought. Paying my own way, staying at crappy hotels — you should see this one Yelp review I wrote! — it was tough.
You were a freelancer. You had credits, but you are always looking ahead for the next gig.
A songwriter’s life is showing up in a room that your manager puts you in, you work for a week putting in those eight hours, and you hope that you write a song that is recorded and makes you money in a year-and-a-half. I was doing this every day.
So I stopped taking sessions. I said, “I’m going to start working like I’m rich, and only doing work that I really love.” I said “no” to 80 percent of the jobs. I saved my energy for something that really matters, even if it meant writing one song a month.
You’ve collaborated with so many people, and in different ways. I’m curious about the nitty-gritty. When you come in, is it, “I’ve got just the melody for you?” Or is it the beat? The arrangement? The lyrics? The production? I was having trouble finding this info when I was researching about you.
You won’t find it, because I do it all. I do production, and I’m also a DJ. I do whatever is needed in the room. I meet the artist, and first we talk for three hours. Songwriting is easy when you know what you want to say, but first you have to know what to say.
So I see how I am needed. It could be an overall concept. It could be a track idea. And I can, technically, write and do a basic track 100% on my own.
I listened to the Diana Ross song today. I mean this as a compliment: I felt like I’d already known and loved this song before I heard it.
That song came out of a Shabbat dinner. My friend, a producer named John Levine, lives around the corner and has these Shabbat dinners. All these artists and writers and producers come, really just to hang. And I ran into a friend who lives in Germany and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were in town, I’m putting together a Diana Ross camp.”
I said, “You have to get me into that camp! Please! Anything you can do, I know I will nail it.” She moved mountains and got me in that camp. Then I’m walking on Ventura Blvd. and I’m thinking, “Let me think of ideas for Diana Ross…” and I wrote the chorus right there, on my phone. Just sang it into my phone. Two days later we came to the studio and said, “Let’s go, guys, I think I’ve got it.”
I mean, I’ve been listening to Diana Ross my whole life, so it just felt natural.
You mention this Shabbat dinner, but aside from bumping into people, are there ways that being Jewish influences your work?
I think it influences my humor? Eh, maybe not.
Look, it only comes up when it comes up. And people are usually surprised by it. I was at a birthday party last weekend with two Jewish women and I said, “I’m Jewish, too,” and that’s when I get this look. Then I’m like, “Well, my mom is Jewish, and that’s how it works.”
I don’t walk around telling everyone, you know? Unless it comes up. Or if someone says something antisemitic, then I have to say something. That’s when there’s the, “Uhhhhhh, I gotta stop you right there.” Which does happen!
Is there an aspect of Jewish identity that you connect with most?
My mom would say shopping at Loehmanns [a discount department store chain]. That was about as deep as she went. By the way, I just met Fran [Drescher] two weeks ago. I had to tell her that.
Anyway, I wasn’t raised practicing. My mother didn’t have a great relationship with her family. She raised me on her own, and is a bit of a hippie. Sometimes she wanted a menorah, sometimes she didn’t. She certainly never had a Christmas tree, but there wasn’t too much consistency. My mom was the only Jewish person I grew up with; we were in an all Black and Latino community. As I get older, I’m learning more. Friends are teaching me things, and it’s a process of discovery.
Speaking of the Bronx, I saw pictures of you on Instagram with Rep. Ritchie Torres from that district, then Nancy Pelosi. What was that all about?
I love Ritchie Torres! I was with Grammys on the Hill, the Recording Academy’s advocacy group, trying to get bills passed that will help make music a more sustainable career. A lot of people are quitting songwriting. If you aren’t in the top tier with huge hits, it’s impossible to do it full-time.
Right, for musicians, you have to tour. For someone like you, who isn’t in that world, there isn’t much safety net. Though, you are recording your own work now. Does touring appeal to you in any way?
No. Absolutely not. No, no, no. Not… no, just no.
I’m getting a “no” vibe.
I was even asked to play a festival out of town recently, and I was like, eh, I’m good on that.
So for people who just want to write songs, it’s becoming a job that is only viable for people who have the hugest 1% of hits, or people from privileged backgrounds who can afford to do this with very little income. When that happens, you eliminate so many people from where the culture is created. It will water down the music, and our culture will not grow.
There’s also the issue of AI [artificial intelligence], where AI can make a song. I say humans are important! Maybe we can’t be replaced just yet.
I am also the co-director of something called The Songwriter Fund, and we have given out $500,000 in grants to songwriters affected by COVID.
Put it out in the world, who do you want to work with next?
Beyoncé is the dream.
You worked with Diana Ross, Beyoncé should be banging on your door any minute!
Well, Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder are the goals.
He’s the greatest there ever was.
I happen to know that he listened to the album.
The Batiste album? Of course he did! Are you kidding me? He didn’t just listen to it, he listened to it 5,000 times! His whole philosophy of life and art is in that album! He loves that album!
Okay, you are making me very happy right now. The chorus for “I Need You” was inspired by Stevie. I thought, “What would Stevie say?”
It’s funny, I went to see Jon’s show in LA, and I was walking to congratulate him, and I was cut off by Stevie Wonder. I basically lost my mind, I didn’t know what to say. But he was there. And my dream is to work with him. And Beyoncé.