Interview: BC Jean
Meet the Californian singer-songwriter who penned Beyoncé’s ‘If I Were A Boy’ and partnered with Mark Ballas as Alexander Jean
San Diego-born singer, songwriter and actress, Brittany Jean Carlson – better known by her stage name BC Jean – became an in-demand artist and collaborator when Beyoncé recorded her song If I Were A Boy. The only track Beyonce didn’t write on her double album I Am…Sasha Fierce, it became a worldwide No 1 smash and was one of the most played songs of 2009. It topped the charts in the UK and throughout Europe and reached No 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Championed by Clive Davis, the huge break led to BC getting signed as an artist to J Records – which became Sony Music Entertainment’s RCA Records – and she released a solo single. However, in meeting professional dancer-turned-guitarist and performer Mark Alexander Ballas Jr in 2012, her career took another turn as the pair became a couple and began writing together. As Alexander Jean, the duo have just released the superb Head High EP, once again showcasing BC’s songwriting prowess and shining a spotlight on her incredible voice.
We caught up with BC in LA, packing her bags – preparing to relocate with Mark to the East Coast – and got the chance to talk about her fascinating journey so far…
When did you first start writing music?
“Since I was very young, probably since I was six. I started writing stories and creative writing was my passion, and so was singing. Then, around 13 or 14 years old, I started converting my poetry into pop songs. I took my favourite pop songs and I’d write down all the lyrics, and realised what the format was for a pop song – verse, pre-chorus, chorus, etc. From there I wrote my very first song, called What’s A Girl To Do? I basically just took my poetry and put it into that format. I’d write different sections and figure out which parts are the hookiest, then I would use another person’s melody and make my own melody… I kind of just taught myself.”
What sort of songs were inspiring you then?
“The first album I ever bought out of my own money at the age of 11, was Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt and my second one was Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. Those two albums really taught me a lot. Then I remember sitting on my stairs as a child and being like, ‘Mom, Dad, I wrote my first song!’ The lyrics were pretty good, I think, and the melodies were pretty good, and I still think it could be a hit. I feel like I should rework it, or something.”
That’s unusual. Normally people want their first songwriting attempts to be long forgotten!
“Well my poetry, no-one needs to hear! But What’s A Girl To Do? I’m actually pretty proud of. I ended up recording it years later.”
What was the moment when you started taking the idea of a music career seriously?
“I wanted to be a singer, so the songwriting was just part of the deal for me. I’m a very intimate and personal person – I didn’t show my emotions at a young age. I’d hide in closets and that’s when the poetry started pouring out of me, and that was definitely the way I was expressing myself. Then around 14, I said, ‘Mom, Dad, stop talking about college. I already know what I want to do with my life and I can’t wait to get out of high school. The moment I get out, I’m going to go to LA and perform and sing and write my own music.’ It wasn’t until I wrote If I Were A Boy that I considered myself a writer for other people. I just didn’t put two and two together.”
Were you signed as an artist by that point?
“No, I was trying to get signed. I’d written lots of songs and used those demos to get to the next collaboration or producer I wanted to work with, to work myself up the ladder, until I met Toby Gad. I flew to New York to work with him, and then he flew to San Diego where I grew up to work with me. We did this a couple of times and wrote a handful of songs – probably 10 or 11 in those weeks – and If I Were A Boy was at the end of that. I was 20 years old at this point.”
Have any of the other songs been cut?
“A couple of them were done by Miley Cyrus for the Hannah Montana show. One of them was called Que Sera and the other one was Are You Ready but she renamed it Superstar or something like that.”
Did it make you think you could write for literally anyone else?
“Absolutely. That was definitely a critical turning point. I had a lot of calls and a lot of offers, but the artist part of me couldn’t take people’s money if I didn’t believe in them. I’m very picky about who I work with, but I do take sessions – I’m constantly writing. So now when I go into a session with a producer or a collaborator, it’s about writing the best song I can write. I still try to write from that honest place, because that’s when I write the best material. Then if it’s something I want to use then great, but if somebody else wants to use it, then great! I just let it fall the way it’s supposed to fall.”
Was the way you worked with Toby any different from how you worked with other producers?
“I’m definitely a super-chameleon; I go with the flow in every situation. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way, so then I’ll take control. If I’m walking into someone else’s studio, I’m respectful to what they do, but if it’s not working and we’re not getting the creative juices flowing, I have lots of different techniques.”
Is that how you avoid writer’s block and getting stuck generally?
“Yeah, I just come prepared. I have a list of titles and themes for songs, I have lots of poetry and lyrics, and I have melodies saved. I don’t have to use those unless I have to, or unless there’s something I’m dying to write, because I think I work best in the moment. So if it doesn’t flow automatically and naturally, it’s probably not going to work.
“I like to start blank, but sometimes if I’m writing for another artist I’ll come prepared with some ideas and concepts, just in case.”
What would you say to a songwriter who was trying to write a smash hit pop song? Is there anything you learnt from that process?
“Yes, I say: completely let your guard down and be completely honest. If it’s relatable, people will want to listen to it. Of course, there are other hit songs on the radio that aren’t relatable, but I’m talking about from a real songwriting standpoint. Something that translates from your heart, someone else is going to feel that exact same thing. No one’s alone in this world and that’s what people need to remember. And also, don’t take no for an answer. I’ve heard ‘no’ way more times that I’ve heard ‘yes’, and it’s just made me think that’s not the right moment, it’s not my time. Having that steel spine – if you don’t stop, they’re going to have to do something, right?”
Tell us the story behind Alexander Jean.
“We met four years ago at a singer-songwriter night at a mutual friend’s house in Los Angeles. We’d take it in turns to sing a few songs and he loved the sound of my voice, but he thought I was going to be much older and more like Janis Joplin – with a cigarette, a bottle of something, dreadlocks and a crazy girl. I stuck around for his set and he was giving it the extra hip-thrusts and fast fingers, and giving us the whole show! Then after he asked for my number and wanted to grab dinner or drinks, but at the time I wasn’t looking for a date at all. He kept calling me and I eventually went out with him two months later.
“We’ve been together pretty much ever since, but it wasn’t until a year and a half into the relationship that we wrote a song together. We didn’t want to cross our lives in that way. When we did finally write together, we sat down on the couch, got the guitar, a pen and paper, a bottle of wine and said, ‘Let’s just write something honest, let’s write a song that means something’, We hadn’t done that in a while and were both hitting a wall. The outcome of that session was the song Head High. Then we took it to the studio and, for fun, we recorded it and did all-live instrumentation. It was first time Mark and I had self-produced. Then we listened back to the recording and said, ‘This is really cool!’ We didn’t expect anything out of it, just to have a good time. So we continued writing and not putting any pressure on it, but anytime we were on vacation we’d write – it just became part of our routine. Then we did a whole summer of recording and did the same we did with Head High. We finished a handful of songs and picked our favourite six.”
Do you have defined songwriting roles as a duo?
“It definitely crosses over and with this particular project, we worked a little bit differently and just let it happen. I had a couple of songs written prior to us joining forces, like Roses & Violets and Thief, but I didn’t have the right team behind me, and Mark was all about the song as much as I was, so we finished them together. With the rest of the material, Mark is the perfect student because he practices all the time – he has so many riffs and he follows me around with them! Sometimes I won’t even notice and hum along, and he’ll record me. We see which ones take form. Both of us work on melodies and sometimes he knows what’s better for my voice than I do. And sometimes I’ll tell him if a guitar lick is too much. When one of us feels really strongly about something, the other will take the back seat and listen.”
You clearly love collaborating, but do you still enjoy writing on your own?
“Yeah, although I haven’t sat down at the piano in a long time because we’ve been moving to New York, so my life is literally crazy right now. But I write poetry and melodies in my head, so that’s how I write by myself.”
Do you try to write every day?
“Yeah, but right now, with the chaos… I find I write when I’m in a moment or feeling stressed. But when I do have my sh*t together, I wake up, have my tea, let my dog outside and write a page at least of freehand of my thoughts – not even rhyming, not even lyrics – and sometimes that’ll turn into more.”
What’s next for Alexander Jean and yourself?
“We just got off our first US tour this summer: we took a Winnebago around and got to meet lots of fans and perform. I think we did 23 different cities. Then Mark got a call to say he’s going to be on Broadway playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, so we’ll be there for four or five months. The good thing about Mark is he’s a well-oiled machine, so we’re planning to continue writing while we’re out in New York – we don’t really stop. We’re working on EP two and we’ve already got a bunch of songs we’re really excited about. Of course, I’d like to take advantage of being there on the East Coast, so I’d like to write with everyone while I’m out there.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Alexander Jean’s debut EP Head High is out now. To find out more about the duo, check out their official website: alexanderjean.net