Earlier this year, Anthony Saunders flew to Los Angeles to meet with Justin Bieber. Saunders, a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, producer and Kansas City resident, had been steadily building toward such a career break, but still: Bieber!
Things worked out. Two new Justin Bieber songs are co-written by Saunders: "Fairytale" (which features Jaden Smith and appears as a Spotify bonus track on Bieber's recent album, Believe) and "Just Like Them" (a bonus track on the deluxe Japanese edition of Believe). But working with Bieber wasn't Saunders' first brush with a pop star. And based on The Pitch's recent conversation with the 29-year-old, it hardly looks like his last.
The Pitch: Before we get too far into it — you grew up in Kansas City?
Saunders: Yeah, KCK, born and raised. I come from a family of singers, writers, directors, instrumentalists. I started out as a singer, and about halfway through grade school, I started playing instruments. Started writing songs at about 15. And then when I was about 18, I started getting out and going places around town.
It seemed like more music was happening in Kansas City, Missouri, than in Kansas City, Kansas. Actually, for me, it really started at churches. Musicians I knew from playing at churches would encourage me to come check out other stuff at clubs.
The Evangelist Center in KCK; my home church, which was the Eighth Street Baptist Church; Faith Deliverance; Bethel.
The Juke House, the Blue Room. And then some other ones that have closed over time. But it was local bands like the Sequel or Groove Agency — I grew up with some of those musicians at church.
What nonlocal musicians influenced you while you were growing up?
Four guys, really: Stevie Wonder, Prince, Harry Connick Jr., and Michael Franks. Most kids who are 13,14 years old, they're listening to whatever's on the radio, whatever the trend is. I was still listening to my father's records. My father used to play us [Franks'] Passionfruit, and I would try to mimic his voice. He has this very smooth and textured voice that I try to bring to my singing. My sister won Rave un2 the Year 2000 from Hot 103 one year, and it totally changed the way I thought about music. I didn't know much about Prince other than the hits, but I listened to that and then I got into everything in his back catalog. Prince has that six-octave range, which I could also do. Everything he did, I wanted to do.
At some point you wrote a song for [R&B singer] Joe. Was that the first break?
Actually, my intro to the industry was a song for Tasha Scott, a song called "Gone," which appeared on the soundtrack to [VH1 reality series] Brandy & Ray J: A Family Business. I just produced the music for the song.
How did that come about?
Over the years, I've just met a lot of people in the music industry. And with that, I was invited by a musician friend to this meeting in L.A., and it was Ray J and Brandy and a bunch of people involved with the show. And they were talking about this song that somebody else had turned in. Everybody liked the song but hated the music. And Brandy's father turned to me and asked if I could remake the music and make it better, more commercial, more now. The way it was, it sounded a little dated. So I said, "Sure," and I worked on it that night and turned it in the next day, and that was that. I was on the project.
How'd you get hooked up with Joe?
My friend's father had a friend who was Joe's bodyguard or something. And I heard Joe needed a touring keyboardist. I knew I couldn't do that, but I also felt like the music I was writing and creating was something he might want to hear. So I was able to send him some songs, and he liked them. And he picked "Tonight," which I had written, produced and arranged, and actually released here in Kansas City a couple months prior. Hot 103 was playing it on the radio. But then Joe wanted it.
So in the music industry, that's what you'd call a "placement," right?
Yeah, a placement basically just means the artist picked your song and decided to record it.
Did you write these Bieber songs with Bieber in mind?
No. I write a lot of songs. When I produced "Just Like Them," it was more something I was doing because I felt like doing it. It was almost kind of anti-music-industry in a way — pretty far from anything on the radio or anything an artist of his stature would want. But my friend Bernard Harvey, who is also from Kansas City and is a great producer, plays bass for Justin on tour. And he said, "Why don't you let me take this song to Justin?" And then they brought me in.
So did you hang in the studio with Bieber? What was your interaction like?
At the time, Bernard and I had formed a production team together called Harv Squad, although I've moved on from that and gone my own way since. But, yeah, they flew us out to L.A., and we'd sit in the studio with Justin and play him stuff we'd worked on, and he'd say he either liked it or he didn't. And when he did like the stuff, we'd start collaborating on how the songs would work together. He's a pretty amazing person.
Do you feel like you're hot shit after that?
[Laughs.] No, man, not at all. I just feel blessed, thankful I got this chance. Thankful to God that I have a chance to do what I wanted to do all my life.
What kinds of doors does a co-writing credit for Bieber open up?
I'm currently working on a project for [The Voice Season 2 runner-up] Juliet Simms. There's a possibility I'll be going into the studio with Jennifer Hudson next year. And I've also got a song out to Jennifer Lopez that she is thinking about cutting. I'm still kind of trying to get my feet wet with all this. Also, I signed an international publishing deal with Reach Music.
How will that impact your career?
It's a publishing company — they take your music, try to sell it to people, movies, television. And they try to place your music with other artists.
I assume you'll be moving to L.A. soon?
I'll be going back and forth between KC and L.A. KC is still home at the end of the day.