- Insider spoke to Ne-Yo in an interview tied to a Kennedy Center event for his music with the National Symphony Orchestra.
- The Grammy-winning artist reflected on his career in music, film, and TV, and his hit songwriting for other artists.
This weekend, The Kennedy Center will host a two-night event honoring the career of Ne-Yo, where the three-time Grammy-winning artist will perform from his catalog with accompaniment from the National Symphony Orchestra.
In a Zoom interview last week, Insider spoke to Ne-Yo about the event and his decades-long career in the entertainment industry. The Kennedy Center performances follow the release of his ninth studio album, “Self Explanatory,” which dropped in July 2022.
Having sold over 20 million adjusted albums and penned multi-platinum singles for the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé, Ne-Yo reflected in our interview on the trajectory of his career in music at “43 years young.” We also discussed his work in film and television and what the future holds for his growing line of acting credits.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I wanted to say off top, congrats on these Kennedy Center shows.
Ah, thanks man. I’m looking forward to it. I performed with a orchestra before, but this is gonna be something special. It’s gonna be something real special.
What’s the process behind that been like though, incorporating the National Symphony Orchestra in your music, in that particular way?
Well this is the part where I have to give credit to my crew and my band, and my sound guy. They’re the ones that are making sure that the orchestra and the band kind of become a well-oiled machine, you know what I mean? You don’t want too much of the band, because then what’s the purpose of the orchestra? But then you don’t want too much of the orchestra because you don’t wanna lose the essence of what the song is. So it’s a very, very intricate dance that has to happen. And I gotta say that it could not happen without these people. So, you know, much love to Dorian and everybody over there that’s making sure that everything sounds as good as humanly possible.
What do you draw on personally to execute something like that? What sort of sources of inspiration do you look at when you’re singing in front of that kind of instrumentation?
So my man, Dorian, who I just mentioned a second ago, he’s my sound guy. He used to be Prince’s sound guy, may he rest. And he’s always musically educating me in some way. Like for example, for this, we started listening to, Sting put out an album with him and an orchestra, and I think it was called, “Symphonicity” … or “Synchronicity,” is the name of the album. And we just sat and kind of listened to that and listened to where his voice sits versus where the instrumentation of the orchestra sits. And that’s just from a sound standpoint.
From a performance standpoint, I’mma just pretty much get up there and do what I do. You know, we change up the way that we dress just slightly, you know what I’m saying? It might might be slightly more pulled up, with a tux or something like that, just to get the full essence of having something as grandiose as an orchestra behind me.
Gotta do it. [Laugh].
Oh yeah, it’s a must. But at the same time, performance is performance is performance, and this is what I do. And I’m just anxious to hear my music accompanied by a full orchestra. That’s gonna be amazing.
Ne-Yo performing at the 42nd Kennedy Center Honors in 2019.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
You know, you’ve leaned into acting in recent years, though you’ve done it in the past. How does film and TV acting compare to the music for you in terms of creative fulfillment?
Well, I gotta be honest. Music is somewhat instant gratification, you know what I mean? You go in the studio, you come up with an idea, you lay it down, you can listen back to it that night if you want to. Even if it’s not all the way complete, you can at the very least have some sort of semblance of what it’s gonna be. When it’s TV and film, you’ll shoot a TV show or you’ll shoot a movie and you might not hear anything for two years almost. And then all of a sudden, that’s when they start advertising for the film, and you go, “Oh, yeah, I did do that, didn’t I?” It’s kinda a hurry up and wait type game, you know? So I’m developing a love for it that I don’t know if it’ll ever equal my love for music.
I grew up with music, you know what I mean? It was the third sibling in the house, me, my sister, and music. But I will say that the concept of stepping outside of oneself and becoming somebody else is something that I’ve always been intrigued by. You know, it’s one of the reasons that I started writing. It’s like, don’t get me wrong, I love myself, but just the ability to look at something from another point of view, you know, make a decision that you wouldn’t make as yourself. Things of that nature. Those are some of the things that kind of attracted me to acting. And, uh, yeah, man, I’m developing a love for it. I genuinely am.
As a man with no particular talent, I gotta imagine …
… with the tools you’re blessed with … EGOT … That’s a long-term goal for you, I gotta imagine.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Some of my peers have made it there, and I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a little jealous. Yeah. Much love to John Legend. He’s a EGOT. Much love to Jennifer Hudson. She’s a EGOT. Yeah, man, that is definitely a long-term goal. I know that it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to craft, and that’s something that I’ve never been a stranger to or afraid of. So, yeah, uh, in the future, we’ll do this interview again, and you’ll ask me how it feels to be an EGOT.
I was taken back, prepping for this call, to when, as a white kid in his feelings, I wrote out album cuts from “In My Own Words” long hand, by memory.
That’s the power of the pen. [Laugh].
That’s love, bro. That is love. Appreciate that.
Do you get nostalgic for any particular part of your career, looking back?
Uh, you know what, now? Yeah. I’m 43 years old now. When this whole thing started, I was roughly 22, 21, somewhere in there. And, yeah, man, I definitely do get nostalgic. I think back on the first time I went to the Grammys, the first time I left America. You know, all of these moments that, mind you, in the moment, we were kind of moving so fast and so much that we didn’t even give ourselves time to realize, “Oh wow. We’re in London right now. Oh, wow. We’re in Japan right now.” Like, we didn’t have time to sit and really bask in what was going on. It wasn’t until about maybe 10 years after the fact, where I actually got to sit still for a second and go, “Wait a minute. I did win three Grammys. Oh, wait a minute. I did sing at the White House twice, three times, four times actually.” Yeah. So it’s nostalgic now to think back, and and I gotta say, I’m more than happy with what has transpired in my career, but at the same time, I’m anxious to see what the next chapter is, you know? Because I’m 43, but I’m 43 years young, you know what I’m saying? This is not your uncle’s 43, you know what I’m saying? [Laugh]. I’m not…
You know, Black don’t crack. And we still in a good space. So there’s a whole lot of living to do, a whole lot of, uh, other opportunities, and other things to accomplish, other mountains to climb. And I’m more than anxious and willing to climb.
You know, it’s anomalous for a man to write from a woman’s perspective with authenticity and do it well. What do you think it is in your background or character that has allowed you to do it successfully?
Well, so, whenever I’m asked a question like this, a similar question to this, I always have to point out that it’s not possible for me to write from a woman’s standpoint because I’m not a woman. I write from a standpoint of a human being that is not afraid of emotion. That’s where I write from. Now, mind you, I grew up in a house full of women, my mother, my sister, my grandmother, five aunts, and me. However, again, I’m a heterosexual man. I’m not a woman in any way, shape, form, or fashion. However, I was brought up to appreciate emotion as opposed to running from it. You know, some men are raised to only delve in certain amounts of emotion, you know, anger, and things of that nature. “Real men don’t cry.” That’s bull. That’s complete bull. You are given these emotions by God for a reason. You’re not supposed to abandon them. You’re not supposed to ignore them. You’re actually supposed to use them depending on the situation or the circumstance.
You know, and the problem with that is that, in a lot of cases, men tend to let these emotions take control, and then you wind up doing something stupid. I feel like that’s why a lot of people are sometimes afraid of emotion. That’s why a lot of men sometimes shy away from emotion. Whereas my mom raised me, like, “If it hurts, cry. If it feels good, smile, laugh. And never be ashamed or afraid to do either one, because you’re given all of these things for a reason.” So I write from a standpoint of a person that’s not afraid to be vulnerable, a person that’s not afraid to not be the coolest in the room. A person that’s not afraid to cry, you know? And it just so happens that women tend to resonate with that a little bit more than men do. That’s just what that is. So it’s not so much from a woman’s standpoint as it is just a person who is embracing emotion as opposed to running from it.
In your approach to new music, with “Self Explanatory” last year, how have you navigated staying current and, uh, true to you at the same time?
I think the true secret to that is not trying to stay current. You know, when you, when you kind of wrap yourself around a fad or a trend, you kind of put an expiration date on yourself, because trends and fads are meant to come and go. And once that trend and fad goes, if that’s what you’re locked into, then you go with it, you know what I mean? I’ve always been the kind of artist to focus on the parts of this that never go outta style. Like, love will never go outta style. It may not be the most the most popular topic nowadays, you know what I’m saying? It seems like most music is more about the hookup than love and true love and affection and emotion and things of that nature. But at the same time, love is not something that can go outta style. It’s like water and food. We need it to survive. So it’ll never go outta style. Which is why I write from that standpoint.
The sound of a guitar, the sound of a piano. These things don’t go outta style. You know, the cadences might change up, the lingo might change up a little bit. The look might change up, and that’s all fine and good. I’m not saying that you ignore what’s going on in your present, because to be honest, all we have is the present. The past is gone and the future’s not promised. So we got right now. I get that. But if you lock into that as if the past never happened, as if the future’s not possible, then you put an expiration date on yourself that way too. And I just never wanted to be that guy that got washed up. Mind you, my definition of success has definitely changed over the years, you know what I’m saying? I got kids and things of that nature. So success is definitely something different than winning an award every year. I don’t need that. I don’t need that validation anymore. You know, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. Being invited to the MTV Video Music Awards, I don’t necessarily need that anymore. It’s great if it happens and when it happens, but if it doesn’t, I’m not losing any sleep.
Now it’s more about making the kind of music that’s gonna resonate with people, cuz at the end of the day, that’s what this is all about: People, and being relatable to other human beings. We all go through stuff. All of us. None of us are exempt to the trials and tribulations of life. You know what I’m saying? Be it the person with the most money on the face of the planet, or the guy struggling to figure out what he’s gonna eat today, we all go through similar problems, or different problems. But we all go through problems. We all go through things, and we need to know that we’re not alone. And that’s kind of what my music has always been, you know, letting it be known to the people listening, “Yeah. You’re not alone. I’ve been through that too. I’ve gone through that too. And here’s how I handled it. I’m not saying that you should do it the same way, but, you know, it worked for me. Maybe it’ll work for you.” That’s where I write from.