Making a drastic career change from the monotonous world of finance to the colorful realms of music production and songwriting isn’t the traditional path into the music industry. New Jersey’s Jennifer Decilveo, however, takes unusual moves like this in stride.
“I hated it, [and] I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says of her former life behind a very different desk at Deloitte. “I just thought, ‘I’m 23, and I wanna make music, and I’m gonna be pissed if I don’t,’ so that’s what I did. My mentality with everything is that I have to give it 100%. So, I started to dive deep into sounds and picked up a bunch of gear I didn’t even understand and just learned it. It’s still a process every day with new plug-ins and gear. It’s always a challenge I love because it’s endless.”
Since then, Decilveo’s skywards trajectory has led to studio collaborations with Beth Ditto, Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus. Plus, she boasts contributions to Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” performed at President Biden’s inauguration parade. The pandemic has had little effect on her productivity. Decilveo has lined up impressive credits for MARINA’s new album, Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land, and Christina Perri’s impending fourth venture.
However, as someone in the technical side of music overwhelmingly populated by men, the path to success has never been straightforward. We spoke to Decilveo about her approach to producer-artist relationships, the hard truths of crafting hugely successful tracks and more.
Were there any specific producers or songwriters who inspired you to take up this career path?
Honestly, no. People come to me asking if I can be their mentor, but I never had that myself. I’m obviously fans of producers, and I remember thinking, “Oh wow, that Ryan Tedder is so good. Oh, he’s an artist, and he’s writing songs for other people. Kara DioGuardi writes songs for people, too.”
As for production, the first big producer I worked with that I thought was so cool was Timbaland. Working with him and any of the great producers like Louis Bell, everybody has their own thing, and that’s what I try to do as well.
How would you describe your approach to production?
If you work with an artist whose world is pretty developed, I think that’s a dream come true for a producer because you don’t have to figure out what they should be. I’m picky with my projects because I want to jump into their world and enhance it. Probably one of my greatest skills is listening to the artist, identifying where the holes are and where we should grow them and where we should detract from. Even from a writing capacity, too, I don’t want to write something that isn’t true to them. It’s all about bringing out the best in them, sonically and song-wise.
How do you handle projects where the artist wants to turn away from their previous sound and establish a new one?
With someone like Beth Ditto, who comes from the punk-rock band Gossip, I wanted to do something heavy when we made her record. I’d have guitars, intense synths and tones of distortions. When I met Beth, [there] was [a] song we wrote, which was a little bit more organic but still had the undertones of Black Keys meets White Stripes with synths, but that song never made the record because she wanted to make something more chill. That was interesting because I had to help her find a new sound even though she had a completely developed sound with Gossip.
Then there’s Anne-Marie. She was a new pop chick in England, and she hadn’t come out with a record. I produced a couple of songs on the record, but I liked writing with her more, to be honest. [It] was interesting to see how the stuff she’d released before, like “Boy,” “Karate” and “Gemini,” wasn’t anything like the record. To be fair, I always wanted her to be in the left-field arena, but obviously, she’s going for the jugular with pop sounds.
Do you feel you’ve struggled to get opportunities and credits purely because you’re a woman?
It’s hard as a woman, period, regardless of the industry you’re in. I think when you’re in an industry that’s dominated by men, [it’s] just [a] fact that it’s more of a struggle. If you ask for something, you’re being difficult. If you stick up for yourself, you’re a bitch, [and] if you ask for a price similar to a man’s, you’re expensive. I can’t think about it because it would probably inundate me with frustration, and I’d question why I’m doing anything. I’m sure there are jobs that go to men just because they’re men, but I like to think the people getting the work are the ones that are capable and chosen for that project. Generally speaking, production is technical and dorky. You have to know things because it’s not as simple as, “I wanna make it sound like this.”
It’s a multifaceted and multilayered skill set where there’s engineering involved, there’s sound design—it’s techy. Because of that, I feel a lot of women might be intimidated by it. I was at first, but once you get into it, it’s like a language. You get better.
Does having an established relationship with an artist beforehand, like yours with MARINA, help or hinder your work as a producer?
I definitely think if we get along and like each other, it’s better. I’ve been asked to make records with people I’ve never met before. They’ll just hit me up, and you don’t know what they’re like, especially during the pandemic. Thank God I had a relationship with MARINA, but there are a couple of people I hadn’t even worked with before, let alone met in person. Some of those records were cool, [and] some of those records were a headache because the artist was really di cult, but you know when you meet someone if you’re gonna vibe.
You’ve been busy with Christina Perri for her next studio venture. How has that experience been for you?
I’ve been working with Christina since the summer of 2019, and she’s just a dream to work with. She takes care of everyone because she’s Italian and from the East Coast, so she’s got that whole “welcome to my family” vibe. When I did the vocals, I flew out to New Jersey. She had me stay in her house, which I don’t like to do because I need separation, but she has a separate house to hers.
I’m hard in the studio. I’m sensitive, but I get the job done. So when she found me waking up early running around the driveway with her 2-year-old daughter, she said, “Ah, you do have a heart! I knew when you were talking to Carmella that you were so soft, Jenn!” I’m just a bit more intentional in the studio. I don’t like to fuck around and waste time. When it’s time to work, my attention span for giving a shit about something is small. I have to ride that wave as long as possible and as quickly as possible.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned in your songwriting and production career so far?
I’ve learned if you don’t have a hit, you don’t make money as a writer. I thought for a long time that once I got a Demi Lovato single or a Miley Cyrus single, I’d be able to buy four houses. That’s just not the case. Truthfully, streaming has ruined it for creators, and that’s a hard lesson, but hopefully that’ll change. The economy and income of a songwriter are pennies on pennies per stream, and that’s not fair to me. I think everybody should be rewarded for their art, so that’s a lesson everyone should know. I’ve also learned that it matters what everyone thinks, but no matter how opinionated I am, it’s always the artist’s decision and their prerogative to choose what they want to release and how. I lose all control once it’s mixed and mastered.
What advice would you give to budding producers looking up to industry stars like yourself?
Find your sound, find your edge and give it to artists.