Brittany "Chi" Coney and Denisia "Blu June" Andrews have been working together as the songwriting and producing duo NOVA WAV for over a decade. Based in Los Angeles, the Grammy-winning pair has collaborated on hits for Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna,
Ariana Grande, H.E.R., and many others. They chatted with
Lisa Machac of Omni Sound Project about their current work and the future they envision for themselves.
You’re known as a duo. How did you start in music and recording individually before you met?
Blu June: The way that I got into music, it’s something that’s been innate in my family. My mom was a singer. My dad. My sister is musically inclined. My brother. Once I graduated from college and I stopped playing sports, I thought, “Okay, cool; now I’m going to dive more into my love for music and my passion for it.” I started out as an artist. I wrote my music because I thought that all artists wrote their own music. Then I found out that wasn’t true. The artist side of it wasn’t for me, because I didn’t like the spotlight. I met this guy who said, “You should just be a songwriter.” A lightbulb went off. I thought, “That’s my calling.” I started concentrating on writing songs and learning more about the songwriting process. That’s when I met Chi, through a mutual acquaintance.
Chi: I played alto saxophone in band growing up. I remember my granddad and certain people saying that I would get on the piano and make up songs when I was 3 and 4. I stuck with the saxophone from 6th through 11th grade. I was in marching band as well. I remember being in high school and walking through a hallway, and I heard this rapper. He was talking about how he made his own beats on FruityLoops [now Image-Line’s FL Studio]. I went home and downloaded it. I’ve been crazy about making music ever since.
I heard something where you said you recorded your answering machine messages when you were little?
C: I’d make up raps and songs for my answering machine.
BJ: The golden days.
C: The golden days, yeah!
You’re both from Florida, and then you joined forces in Atlanta. How long were you in Atlanta before you moved out to L.A.?
C: Maybe six years. She was living in Tallahassee and I said, “Yo, if you quit your job and move to Atlanta, we’re going to be huge. Quit and move here!” She was crazy enough to do it. We stayed there for six years, then we realized that there was faster traction here in L.A. for us. We were like, “Yo, let’s go and see what happens.”
How were you collaborating before you lived in the same town?
BJ: Chi was sending tracks through email, and I would record myself via [Apple] GarageBand. She even taught me to use [Avid] Pro Tools screen-sharing. I didn’t know how to use Pro Tools, and Chi was like, “You need to learn how to use something other than GarageBand, because this doesn’t sound good.” That’s how we started to work remotely, before I decided to move to Atlanta.
Chi, you started with FruityLoops, right?
C: I started with FruityLoops, then moved to [Propellerhead] Reason, then [Apple] Logic, and then Ableton [Live]. I found out about Pro Tools by interning at Grand Hustle Records [formerly Grand Hustle Entertainment]. It’s now called Hustle Gang Music. It’s T.I.’s record label. I was super unqualified for the job. I was like, “Yeah, I know Pro Tools!” I just picked it up on the spot.
What did you find to be different once you moved out to L.A.?
BJ: Things move at a much quicker pace here, like getting into the spaces we wanted to get into. It is also a lot more collaborative. There are so many different talented people. We started learning about so many things that we had no idea about – especially in the pop world – like sequencing and song structure. You think you have it figured out, but then you get thrown into the fire.
C: Being here, the accessibility to the artist is so different than anywhere else. To be able to say, “Hey, we’re going to do this song together today,” your chances of being able to do that are a little bit greater than sending tracks through email. That’s been fortunate for us. We’re in the studio with the Beyoncés, the Jay-Zs, and all kinds of people.
You have said that you’re looking forward to mentoring younger folks someday.
C: We’re just getting into it. Our first one is going to be coming up with She Is The Music with Alicia Keys. We’re super excited to connect with her on that and to be a part of it. To have spent so much time to do all of this on our own; we could have had somebody who helped us skip some steps and taught us some things. That would have been dope. But to be that person, that’s humbling.
How does being a duo impact your workflow in the studio? When you go to work tonight, what will that look like from when you walk in the door?
C: Well, when we walk in, we always have a little bit of conversation with the artist first. We’re very intuitive, so any little thing that they say, we’re going to be able to put it in the record at the end of the night. We’re good at that. We always have a little bit of dialog. Then we pray. We set the intention for the day, and we get started on the track. We fill it out. It depends on what we’re feeling. We’re starting with the track, and then building out from there.
BJ: It’s usually building the track from Ableton. It depends on whatever needs to be done. Usually Chi’s going to sit down and start production. We’re able to interchange; and then, from that point, we’ll go to melody. Then we’ll chop melodies until it feels like a song.
C: Yeah. Usually after the track is done in Ableton, she’ll get on the mic and do melodies. We might switch out. If she doesn’t like the beat, she’ll say, “No, you go in there first,” until we catch the vibe. But, yeah; we’ll do that, and then we build it out from there.
Are you starting with parts you’ve already written on your own, or are you working it up once you get there?
BJ: Most of the time we start from the top. Sometimes we’ll play with ideas – where we start with a hook, a melody, or something – but most of the artists usually like to start something from scratch.
C: Yeah. It’s a magical thing when you do it on the spot, even though it’s super nerve-wracking.
I’ve listened to a lot of different recordings you’ve worked on, and you’re pretty percussion and beat heavy. Do you dig into that first?
C: Yeah, man. Some of our biggest influences are Timbaland, Lil Jon, and Mannie Fresh; those guys that were drum heavy. We always want to push that. We want it to bang. That’s important to us.
How have you seen your ability to make more authentic-sounding beats change with technology since the FruityLoop days?
C: That’s a good question. It’s about keeping the core of what we like in what we do, as well as our influences. Say The Neptunes and Timbaland; taking some of the things that we like that they did, but also knowing how to infuse that with what’s going on for us. We never want to be behind. I know some producers hate Splice [sound library] and samples, but when you think about it, The Neptunes, Tim, and all of those people, they sampled. So, yeah; it’s about incorporating the new thing with what they were doing back in the day.
Once it’s time to lay down vocals and any instrumentation, what are you using?
BJ: Definitely the Neve console, especially when we’re in the big studios. When we’re traveling or at home, it’s all plug-in based. We do have a Neve 8801 [channel strip at home] which has the EQ and everything on it. It’s super dope. Honestly, we’re really, really plug-in based. We’re on the move, all the time.
BJ: It’s more efficient.
C: Yeah. Most of the time we’re making music out of headphones. We’re the type of people who have been doing it so long in headphones that they’ll rent us the big studios, but we’re in there with our headphones on.
How much mixing are you doing on the spot, and how much are you doing later?
C: We’re mixing for demo purposes. We actually got our first co-mixing credit today, for a song called “Y” by a group named Citizen Queen. We’re super excited about that!
BJ: So excited.
C: We saw this from beginning to end. Wrote, produced, and co-mixed it; all of it. Most of the time when we’re doing mixes, it’s just for demos.
BJ: Yeah, it’s demo purposes. Super light mixes.
What are you looking forward to learning and doing next in your careers?
C: We want to start picking up some instruments.
BJ: Yeah, we’ve got a couple of guitars here sitting around.
C: Yeah, a shout-out to Fender! They sent us some of their limited-edition H.E.R. [Stratocaster] guitars. We’re getting into using live instruments. We’re calling people in right now to do that. It’d be dope to learn how to do that. But, at the same time, businesspeople don’t spend a lot of time learning something that they can pay somebody else to do. It’s a double-edged sword. We could spend time doing that.
BJ: Or just perfect what we already do.
C: We’re expanding to bringing in people. People who are playing acoustic. People who are playing bass. When you think about it, the greatest people we mentioned before – Pharrell [Williams], Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, Quincy Jones – they had live instruments. Even Lil Jon; when he was making R&B records, he was bringing in people to play guitar. He still kept this balance.
BJ: Especially the type of artists we’ve started to work with. We’re more in the pop genre now. We really write songs. To be able to do that, we need more of those live sounds. They extract a different type of emotion. We’re evolving in that way.
C: We want to pick that up. I would love to get more into seeing something all the way through. The writing, the producing, and the mixing. Eventually getting into mastering as well.
How are you writing the music in your DAW?
C: A lot of it is getting on a keyboard and figuring it out. A lot of times people who are geniuses at music, they don’t really know the theory of it. They’re figuring it out. Then, on top of it, sometimes things magically find you.
BJ: You kind of just know it. I remember years ago, before I even realized that I was semi-good at what I do, I went and saw Jan Smith. She’s a vocal coach in Atlanta. She was on the piano, and said to me, “Follow.” And then she said, “Whoa, your ear! These notes that you know intuitively; it’s crazy.” It’s a natural thing. I have no idea.
What keyboards are you using for writing?
BJ: I’m going to be honest with you.
C: MIDI keyboards.
BJ: MIDIs all day.
C: I did have a Yamaha MO8 back in the day, and I loved that. I love the [Roland] Fantom and the [Korg] TRITON. That’s what guys like Lil Jon used to use back in the day. I don’t have any room for it, but that would be dope to use.
BJ: Also, the other thing that you made that one beat on that you only used once. I liked that.
C: Oh, the Ableton Push [MIDI controller]. Love the Ableton Push.
What did you create with that?
C: It’s a record that’s unreleased. We’ve got some big people’s ears on it. I know Chloe Bailey uses it in Chloe x Halle. It’s like an [Akai] MPC, but a new age MPC for Ableton.
I envy your confidence. So much in the audio engineering world is a focus on gear and certain equipment, as well as feeling like you have to know what everything is before you walk into a studio. I like that you are, “We use what’s there and we play.”
C: You can’t put too much pressure on it. Music is a very magical, creative thing. You can’t put it in a box. I know what you’re talking about though. The pressure of knowing. I remember interning and the pressure of knowing all the inputs, where I had to stick it in and patch it. It was so insane. It’s like, “Let’s just get in here and make the music.”
BJ: I’ll leave that for the experts.
C: As long as we’ve got a gain knob, everything else should be fine.
I think it’s a form of gatekeeping. “We know what this is, and you don’t, so we’re going to keep you out of here.”
BJ: Yeah. That’s true.
C: You’re so right about that.
We’re all women in audio. I’ve heard you mention not seeing a lot of people who looked like you, coming up. But it’s also thinking like you. I know I’m very grateful and empathetic to my clients. Do you think that’s an inherently female quality? Something that women are bringing to the table? Or do you think that’s an equal trait, regardless of gender?
BJ: I think it’s regardless of gender. We get in and work with women who we can tell aren’t on that type of wavelength. I don’t think it’s gender-specific at all, to be honest with you.
C: That’s just who we are, and who we want to be. We want to show up and do “God’s work.” We’re not in the way of it. We more believe, “Bring your energy here. This is about you.” That’s who we are. We are there to support the artist.
Sometimes there’s such a speed and efficiency to it all that it takes the joy out of it.
C: We never let people rush us doing music. We’re not trying to do five songs
in one day.
BJ: It’s always been about quality.
C: We’re definitely quality over quantity.
That’s the way to go. Do you feel more people are looking more like us coming up in the audio world? Or are there still barriers we need to overcome as women in the studio?
C: You would think we didn’t have any, but I think there are still barriers. I told myself that I would stop saying that, but does that show up at times? Yeah, it does. But I’m going to stop saying that so I’ll stop creating it in my reality. But, yeah; it’s hard for us. Women, we gotta be ten times better. We can’t make a lot of mistakes. If we do, it’s like, “Oh, it’s because you’re a woman.” You know what I mean? Just trying to combat that. But we have been seeing more women come up. We really have. It used to be a, “You’re the only one in the city” type of thing. We’re super excited to see that [changing]. We know some amazing producers and engineers who are women. Sometimes we’ll walk into the studio and I’m like, “Wow, we have a female engineer today,” and it excites me. That’s happened a couple times.
BJ: It’s beginning to feel like you no longer have to ask, “Okay, so are you a songwriter? Are you the artist?” At this point, you could be anyone. That’s super dope to see.
One of my pet peeves is when people say only two percent of people in audio are women. That’s who’s winning the awards, getting the big jobs, or topping the charts. But in terms of the percentage, it’s growing and growing. If we’re represented in the studio, then we need to be represented in the magazines and the blogs too.
BJ: For sure.
C: That’s what we’re looking for too, to have more exposure so that people can see us. So, they can have an example of like, “I can do that? Okay, cool. Somebody’s doing that? Maybe I can too.” More exposure.
BJ: We’re trying to get Producer of the Year [Grammy award]. That’s never been done by a woman, and it’s time.
C: Yeah. We definitely are looking for that.
You collaborate on lyrics. How does that work out?
BJ: We just flow with it. We trust each other and it works. If there’s anything we’re unsure about we’re like, “Cool, let’s decide on something.” It’s never a power struggle when it comes to creating. We never make it about one person. It’s about what works.
C: We know who does what best. We know that we’re never going to get in each other’s way. That’s something we never want to do. We put our heads together and make a decision. “Okay, if you feel strongly about that, then I trust you enough to make the decision. Let’s roll. If I’m sure, and you’re sure, let’s go with you.”
Putting your egos aside and working on your craft together. It’s so lucky that you found each other!
BJ: I had to bury that ego.
C: Yeah, you have to be humble, because there’s always somebody better. There’s somebody better who’s never been heard of. We’re never bigging up ourselves. We know where it comes from.
Any last words you want Tape Op >readers to know about?
C: I’d personally say to contribute something every day to your craft, even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you’re thinking, “Man, I suck. This is whack. This hurts.” Go and look up some YouTube tutorials. Contribute something to your craft every day. Renew your minds.
BJ: I would like to add that you don’t have to know everything. Like you said, we get caught up in that. Be great at something. Hyper-focus on something. Learn here and there. And be self-sufficient. Know how to record yourself using Pro Tools, because that’s the industry standard. But perfect your craft.