Mervyn Warren, a five-time Grammy winner and 10-time Grammy nominee, got his start back in the ‘80s with the immensely influential a-cappella group, Take 6. With a degree in music and a Master’s in arranging, Warren went on from the Grammy-recognized success of Take 6 to become a highly accomplished record producer, arranger, songwriter, lyricist and film composer. He has worked with and written for such notable artists as Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Boyz II Men, and countless others.
Recently, he was selected by Quincy Jones and Mary J. Blige to write the underscore for the recently released Amazon Original Documentary Mary J Blige’s My Life.
Read on for our interview with Mervyn Warren, where we take a deep dive into his storied career, songwriting process and most recent projects.
You were playing piano by age 5 and writing songs by age 10; at that young age, why was music so special to you that you had to pursue it so passionately?
Mervyn Warren: I don’t remember music ever not being a part of my life. I’m sure the fact that my parents listened to a lot of music was part of it, but just listening to music didn’t necessarily force me to be talented, if I could use the word. But somehow, I was drawn to it. And there was always a component of analysis. I was always analyzing the music. And that was something that just came naturally to me. I don’t think I was taught to do that, I just started doing it. My mom taught me some chords at the piano, and once I understood the basics of harmony, I began to build upon that exponentially. I think that also led to my analysis of music that naturally took me in various directions.
With a degree in music and a master’s in arranging, and songwriting/composition work in so many different musically complex genres and subgenres, what did your musical education look like?
Warren: It actually began long before, for me, I began to study formally. That sort of analysis that I mentioned before had to do with quantifying musical styles. What makes something Jazz; what makes it Classical; what makes it R&B? I just sort of developed a dictionary in my mind of styles. I took some piano lessons as a child but I didn’t love it. I loved music but I didn’t love piano lessons. And I don’t say that to discourage anyone from taking lessons. My parents allowed me to discontinue the lessons, but I kept playing, I just kept playing my own music. Later, when I got to college, I took piano lessons again, but by then I had a different appreciation for the classics. I also continued to work at arranging and writing and working with different ensembles. Also at that time, I later became a member of a vocal group that became known as Take 6. One of the guys from Take 6, Mark Kibble and I, went down to a local recording studio and we told the guy, “hey, we can kind of do everything, start hiring us on these records.“ And he did.
We demonstrated to him what we can do, and he started hiring us, and we either played keyboards, or we sang on all kinds of stuff from Rock to County to Heavy Metal to Gospel—that also fed into this kind of learning what to do on a Country record, what to do on a Rock ‘n’ Roll record. We were 16 and we would go down to the studio and we would work for three hours and he’d give us a check for 50 bucks, and maybe today that doesn’t sound like a lot of money but when you’re 16, 50 bucks is a lot of money. And we were doing that a couple times a week, that really, not only helped us pay some bills, but also helped us learn about the styles. Finally, when I got my bachelor’s degree in piano performance, what I really wanted to do was study arranging and composition, and that’s what I finally got to do on the master’s level, which is where we really explored styles.
Just a few years after graduating college, you won several Grammys as a member of Take 6—what was it like winning that first award?
Warren: It was mind blowing. It was mind blowing. Cedric and I finished that Master’s degree—we both did the same program—and that summer, instead of getting a job teaching or a job doing who knows what, we got a record deal with Warner Bros. And made that first album. And a year and a half or two years later, we were standing on stage winning, I think we won three Grammys that first night. And it was just mind blowing. And, for a lot of people, it seemed like we came out of nowhere, because that album came out in ‘87 or ‘88 and we won awards for that first album a year later, but they didn’t know that we had been at it since we were kids. Mark and I were doing concerts together when we were 13. For us, it was the culmination of many years of work, but for the public, it seemed like an overnight success. Either way, I’m very proud of it. In a way, it sort of took the pressure off. To win a Grammy in your twenties, in a way it’s like the pressure’s off and we can continue doing what we do.
How did you take the jump from being a performer to being a record producer?
Warren: It was something that I always enjoyed doing. I had done some producing on a small scale before the group became well-known. But after Take 6 became well-known, I continued to do that in my down time. We were signed to the Nashville division of Warner Bros. and so we all lived in Nashville. There was a lot of music being recorded there. We met a lot of people. And I just let people know that I was available for arrangements and things like that. And word sort of got around town. The phone just sort of kept ringing. I had a lot of fun. When we came off of tour, I was cranking out arrangements for this artist and that artist and I loved it, I really enjoyed it. Ultimately, when the difficult decision came, a few years later, for me to step away from the group, I had already established myself as an arranger, as a producer. That sort of dovetailed as I segued out of the Take 6 thing, I segued into producing, which of course, later segued into my film work.
Out of all the artists you’ve worked with, is there one that sticks out as being a favorite musician to work with?
Warren: I’ve worked with so many amazing artists. And I never put my name on anything that I’m not proud of. But I do have to say that I loved working with Whitney Houston. She just… so many cliches come to mind, but they’re true cliches. She had the voice of a lifetime, once in a lifetime artist. And again, there’s so many amazing singers today and there will be more. But she was just phenomenal, and I was a fan of hers before I met her, before I worked with her. When I finally did get to work with her and I found that she respected me for my work, and I got to create arrangements and then hear that voice over my arrangements, it was something that I will never forget. I feel honored to have been a small part of her career, and honored that she was part of mine. Again, there’s so many other artists that I’ve worked with that I respect. Maybe my work with her is particularly crystalized and poignant because she’s no longer with us.
In writing songs for other artists to perform, is there still some personal element to those creations, or is it an entirely different experience to write for someone else?
Warren: It’s really the same. Not to be corny, but if I’m writing for someone else, I sort of think about that person’s voice and I sort of channel what I think is what they do. It really goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about styles. If I was writing a song for Whitney, or if I’m writing a song for Barbara Streisand or writing a song for Boyz II Men, I sort of think about what I know about what they’ve done in the past. It’s a style. And I think about that style, and I imagine that artist or that group performing that song and that helps me shape the song. Having said that, the artist that I have in mind doesn’t always end up writing that song. There’s no one solution.
A couple of years ago, I produced an album for a vocal group called the Manhattan Transfer. They recorded a song that I wrote called Sometimes I Do. I actually wrote that song 30 years ago when I was with Take 6 and we were on the road. I wrote that song about a breakup—it was a generic song. At the time, I pitched it to Al Jarreau, because we were on the road with him. He listened to it and he loved it and he said “I’m gonna think about it.“ While he was thinking about it, I played it for Quincy Jones who, at the time, was about to produce Sarah Vaughan. And he said, “I wanna record that song with Sarah Vaughan.“ Unfortunately, she passed away before that album materialized, and I just sat on that song for years. I pitched it to Queen Latifa and she actually recorded a demo of that song, but that Jazz album that she was conceptualizing has yet to materialize. So again, it’s kind of sitting. And finally, a couple years ago, I worked with the Manhattan Transfer. And now that song, 30 years later, has a home with the Manhattan Transfer. You can have someone in mind, but a song certainly can be interpreted by any number of people.
Moving from record producing to composition, how and why did you take the jump into the film composition world?
Warren: Again, going back to early life, film was something that I always wanted to do. It’s a different type of thing, writing a song and writing a film score. Writing a film score is very mathematical, there’s a lot of computation that has to take place. The duration has to match what you’re seeing and change in tone. It’s a very different experience than writing a song. I was always fascinated with that. Even as a kid, we used to play or sing and someone would say ‘oh, play rain,’ and you would do something on the piano that sounded like rain. Those were simplistic examples, but it was always something that interested me. After I left Take 6, I ended up producing an album called Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, where we had an all-star cast doing pieces from Handel’s Messiah in a lot of different styles. And that album won a Grammy and we performed at the Grammys, and a few days after that, I got a call from Disney saying “we saw you on TV, we’re working on a movie, would you be interested in working on a movie?“ I said “of course.“ And that ended up being Sister Act 2, with Whoopi Goldberg and Lauren Hill. And that’s where I arranged all of those songs for Lauren Hill and the kids in that movie. I also asked if I could write the score for that movie. They had already hired a guy named Miles Goodman to write the score, but Miles was generous enough to invite me to co-compose a few scenes with him, sort of teaching me the craft. And again, I just kept pounding the pavement. Again, it was not an overnight thing. It was sort of a segue, and then I wrote a score for an independent movie that no one ever saw, and little by little I got these opportunities to score films and that helped to solidify that segue.
What does the process look like when you go to compose a film score?
Warren: When you’re composing the score for a film, you’re already looking at the film; now it’s just a digital copy that they send to you. We have what’s called a Spotting Session where you sit down with the director, you watch the film and you talk about where music should go. Now what’s interesting is that the Spotting Sessions these days are a little different than they used to be. Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, you were watching the movie with no music at all, but these days, because movies are just a file on the director’s computer, they will grab music from wherever and stick it onto the movie, they call it temp music. These days, a Spotting Session is not so much about where music should start and stop, it’s really just talking about the tone of the score. You have that big meeting, you talk about all of that, and then you jump in. The first several days or week is about finding that tone and sending things to the director, figuring out what instruments you’re going to use. And then it’s about cranking out all those scenes.
I know you were selected to underscore the Amazon Original Mary J. Blige documentary, do you want to just talk a bit about that project, specifically?
Warren: I got that call, I think it was either January or February—I had just moved and I had boxes everywhere, the studio wasn’t even set up—and I get this call, you know “hey, we’ve got this movie can you start on this?“ The film had been shot and edited and was ready to go, but they needed a score. And Mary J. Blige reached out to Quincy (Jones) whom she’s known for a long time, and I have had a long relationship with Quincy, and Quincy referred her to me. And so I jumped in, full steam ahead. Had a wonderful meeting with Vanessa Roth, the director, again, over Zoom. I did not know much about Mary’s life; I had met Mary, this is kind of funny, in an elevator. I was shopping one day and I got in an elevator and she was in the elevator. That’s the only time we’ve ever met in person, but it was years ago and now here we are, Quincy refers her to me. I’m very honored. I learned a lot about her story. She’s had enormous success, but there’s some rough periods in her life and this film deals with all those experiences and how those experiences related to the album that she recorded, which is also entitled My Life. She was going through a lot that people didn’t know, behind the scenes. When they are interviewing her and interviewing people, and the film has these amazing animated sequences that show Mary as a child, that gave me an opportunity to really stretch out and do some interesting underscore to support and help her tell her story.
Did the fact that this was a documentary about an R&B artist inform the kind of music you wrote—i.e., the keys you wrote in, the kinds of Jazz or Blues scales or rhythms you might have used?
Warren: It informed it, but in the inverse. There’s no one correct or incorrect approach, it has to do with the director. She wanted the score to be different from the songs. Mary’s songs are very rock and hard-hitting and R&B and gritty and driving and Vanessa wanted the score to contrast with that. And there’s a good reason for that. You don’t want the listener to be fatigued by hearing just one thing throughout the movie. And if you’ve got bumping bass and kick and Mary singing her heart out and then you switch to an interview, you don’t necessarily want the same kind of music under the interview. You want to give the ear a break and do something a little bit different. Vanessa sent me some pieces from other films that she liked, which helped me understand the style she wanted. We went for a more traditional score. It’s an orchestral score. There are some rhythmic elements. I did a lot of electric piano, and I used the electric piano to sort of bridge—it’s a subtle thing, these aren’t things that people will necessarily pick up on, but there’s a lot of electric piano in Mary’s songs, and that’s the one instrument that I used in the score that sort of ties it to Mary’s song without having to use heavy drums and heavy bass. And then we use a solo voice, and that was Vanessa’s request, specifically for the animated sequences. She wanted to use a solo voice to represent young Mary; at other times it also represents loneliness or longing. It can be very powerful. And so I used that in those scenes.
Mary wrote a new song for the film that we don’t hear until the end credits. The song starts with four, very distinctive piano notes that repeat. As soon as I heard the song, I knew that I wanted to incorporate those four piano notes into my score in strategic locations. It’s subliminal, but it’s my hope that audiences will come to recognize those notes, so that later, when those same notes “become” a song that Mary sings, there will be a sense of familiarity that “pays off“ and makes them smile.
Your career spans several decades and encompasses so many different things—producing, arranging, performing, scoring, composing, etc.—is there one of these facets that you enjoy doing the most?
Warren: I’m making music, I’m happy. But, although I enjoyed performing, I didn’t, as much, enjoy touring. Touring is grueling. People think of it as being glamorous, but it’s grueling. Being in another city every day, so I don’t necessarily miss that, although I did enjoy performing for people. I do enjoy arranging quite a bit. I enjoy taking a piece of music and flipping it and doing another interpretation of that piece, and as I get older I’m getting to the point where I’m doing a second or a third arrangement of the same piece. I love arranging. I love writing songs and lyrics, especially, but both, I love crafting that. And I love writing for film. If I had to pick just one, I don’t know that I could. I don’t know that I’d be fulfilled.
In making a career out of the art of music, has there ever been a point where it’s lost its magic for you?
Warren: It’s never lost its magic. It’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else. There are things that interest me—I joke with people sometimes, “hey if this music thing doesn’t work out, I’ll be an architect.“ I love buildings, and I think had I studied architecture I would have been pretty good at it. There are other things that I enjoy, but I wasn’t passionate about them the way I’m passionate about music. And that’s what ultimately won out. One has to roll with the punches and it’s not all glamour and it’s not all a bed of roses. The industry changes and you have to do what you can to keep up with those changes. And so there’s always some sort of element of reinvention or stretching yourself, all of those little sayings sort of come into play. But it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else. Certainly has never lost the magic.
You can watch the new Amazon Original documentary, Mary J. Blige’s My Life here.