Over the last few years, Shy Carter has turned out hit songs for artists from all corners of the music world. A co-writer behind No. 1 records like country duo Sugarland’s smash hit “Stuck Like Glue” and Rob Thomas’s single “Someday,” Carter’s recently penned tracks for Jason Derulo, Meghan Trainor, and fast-rising R&B-pop star Charlie Puth. Now the Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, rapper, and producer is making his debut as an artist in his own right, signing with Latium Entertainment’s joint venture with RCA Records and releasing “Bring It Back” — an impossibly catchy blend of Southern hip-hop, R&B, soul, and pop.
With its references to super pimped-out cadillacs and diamond teeth, “Bring It Back” is a groove-driven homage to trill, the Houston-born hip-hop subgenre that Carter describes as “soulful gangsta music.” In making the song, Carter joined forces with fellow musicians like Brent Paschke (a guitarist known for his work with Pharrell Williams), Aleon Craft (a Decatur, Georgia-based rapper who’s previously collaborated with George Clinton), and producer Ahmed Oliver (formerly one-half of Mo’ Beats who has also worked with Nelly). Also featuring a full horn section, “Bring It Back” reveals Carter’s finesse in building a genre-defying sound that’s both masterfully arranged and freewheeling in feel.
Growing up in Memphis, Carter took up singing in his early teens and joined an R&B group that performed at local fairs and talent shows. By age 16, he’d started writing songs and experimenting with production. “I was working at Sears and met this dude who made beats and sold them for 150 bucks,” Carter recalls. “He showed me how to make beats too and we did a song together, my first song ever. After that, I was addicted.” Then, just before his senior year of high school, Carter’s family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan — a rough move he describes as “a culture shock.” Trying to cope with his new surroundings, Carter started writing songs on the piano at school. Once his mother noticed his growing fascination with songwriting, she helped him buy a keyboard so that he could make music at home. “I didn’t really know how to play, but I figured stuff out on my own,” says Carter, whose earliest influences range from Curtis Mayfield to Van Morrison to ’90s R&B group Jagged Edge. “Making songs was all I would really do back then.”
After high school, Carter headed to Grand Valley State University on a full-tuition scholarship. While earning his degree in marketing, he kept up with his songwriting and eventually stumbled across a recording studio named Audio Bay in nearby Rockford. “I’d go there and sit in while all these rappers were recording, and the guy who ran the studio, Andy Mitchell, would show me what to do,” he says. “After a while we worked out a deal where I’d run sessions for him, and then I could use the studio to record my own stuff at night.” By the end of his time at college, Carter had self-released a solo album and seen his single “I Got Soul” put into steady rotation on a local Top 40 station.
In 2007, a year after graduating, Carter landed a production deal with Nelly and began producing tracks for artists like Ashanti and Chingy. Signing a publishing deal with Primary Wave Entertainment the following year, he soon expanded his songwriting into other genres. “I’d moved to Atlanta, and I used to drive up to Nashville all the time to see my girl,” he says. “I’d hear country music on the radio and think, ‘I like to write soulful songs — this is a place where I can do that.’” Primary Wave set him up with songwriting sessions in Nashville, and Carter began crafting songs on guitar and mandolin. Within a couple years he’d co-written Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” a double-platinum hit that shot to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Digital Songs chart and No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Country’s my favorite place to write now,” says Carter, who’s also written a number of songs for hitmaking country artist Billy Currington. “Some of the best things I’ve written have come from there. It’s all about just making great songs with beautiful melodies.”
Further broadening his horizons, Carter next began popping up as a featured artist on such eclectic songs as Mexican pop singer Gloria Trevi’s 2013 hit “Habla Blah Blah,” Currington’s rendition of Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pancakes,” and Meghan Trainor’s “Mr. Almost” (a track he co-wrote for her Grammy Award-nominated album Title). With his most recent features including Charlie Puth’s “As You Are” (one of the two songs he co-wrote for Puth’s hotly anticipated album Nine Track Mind), Carter’s also been working on developing material for his debut. And when it comes to his own songs, he draws a great deal of inspiration from artists with a certain fluidness to their form. “Someone like Lauryn Hill — she’s an amazing rapper and an amazing singer, and I want to be both those things too,” he says. “Whatever the jam calls for, that’s what I’m going to get in there.”
Whether shifting vocal approach or bending genre, Carter maintains a deep musicality that prizes indelible melody above all else. “I always need there to be some kind of melody to my music,” he says. “A song like ‘Bring It Back’ — you could play that on piano and it’d still hold up.” To that end, Carter makes a point of using plenty of live instrumentation in his music. “So many producers now just do everything on computers, but I like working with musicians,” he says. “I’m into groovy and funky, I want drums that hit hard.” So while he admits to operating according to his own time schedule (“I work on stuff a long time — as long as it takes for it to feel right”), Carter ultimately aims for his songs to serve a higher purpose. “Just trying to write hits, that’s not what I want to do,” he says. “I try to think about the music as being a gift that I’m giving, something that might make people feel better. When I do it for that reason, everything just falls into place.”