On the face of things, it would seem that Justin Timberlake and veteran artist Bill Withers, best known for his early ‘70s hits, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me” and “Use Me,” wouldn’t seem to have much in common given the 40 + year-age difference. However, they displayed a stirring number of similarities as they discussed their creative processes and record company struggles during a joint session during the April 22-24 ASCAP Expo, a three- day conference organized by the performing rights organization for songwriters and producers in Los Angeles.
Neither the two artists, nor the interviewer, ASCAP’s Randy Grimmett, explained the link between the two artists, which was a shame, but a fondness between the two, with Timberlake deferring to Withers a number of times, was apparent from the start.
Speaking before the audience of aspiring songwriters, Withers stresses playing to one’s strengths, but added that having a gift meant little if it wasn’t partnered with commitment and willingness to take rejection. Withers walked away from the music business a number of times and, at one point during the session, declared his envy of Timberlake’s drive: “I’d do anything to have the gift to be driven to do it over and over again,” he said. “I admire that gift most of all.
Both artists shared stories of contention with their record labels. Withers talked candidly about his fights with his label, Columbia, after he turned in his second LP, which he had produced. “The A&R guy got really insulting to me. He heard one song and said it was [terrible],” and questioned if Withers had wasted the label’s money. The song the A&R executive heard? “Lean on Me,” now considered a classic. Small wonder Withers said “I have a name for A&R: antagonistic and redundant.”
Timberlake said he’d gone through a similar experience when he played his Jive Records label head the electronic “Sexyback,” the first single from 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” the follow-up to his multi-platinum “Justified.” “The first thing he said was ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘It’s a feeling.’ He said, ‘You’re not singing in your falsetto.’ I said, ‘Damn straight, I’m not even singing.’” Timberlake even had to call radio stations to assure them that the song was not a joke. The label also insisted that he shoot the video for second single, “My Love,” immediately following the clip for “Sexyback,” since the label expected it to bomb. Timberlake had the last laugh: “Sexyback” was not only a huge hit, it stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard 100 for seven weeks.