Balady is more than two years into her music career, writing songs and regularly performing live in an effort to build a fan base. She just started her freshman year at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, where she sings in the choir and studies several styles of music. “There’s music coming out of every corner in that school,” Balady says.
Balady's career is just getting started, but her talent is enough to make producer J. Oliver make room in his busy schedule to record songs with her. Sitting in the family’s living room with Balady and her parents, Oliver cannot stop lavishing her with praise. Oliver saw her perform three songs and knew she was special right away. “I’m just trying to figure out how a 15-year-old can write like that,” he says.
He was also surprised that she was even composing her own music. And while Balady recorded her song, “Coconut Cake,” at Never Satisfied, Oliver looked over and saw his colleague, Nick Escobedo, crying. “She sounds like Adele and Amy Winehouse put together,” Oliver says. “She’s 15, she’s playing the piano, she’s writing and singing her own music and her voice is powerful. Was Adele doing that at 15?”
“Writers are the most important piece of the music industry,” Oliver continues. But he also believes that only about 10 percent of those writers are good enough to produce songs that could win Grammy awards. In 2012, an industry executive told him he was part of the other 90 percent. But he has made great strides since then. “She’s part of that 10 percent,” Oliver says. “The music speaks for itself.”
Oliver was surprised by the effort it took to work these songs out in the studio. “The compositions are not easy,” he says. “The ideas are not easy. It takes time.” He is used to doing five-hour sessions with hip-hop artists, but the three songs he is recording with Balady are taking much more time.
Oliver plays an unmixed song he fleshed out with big soulful production, adding a full band and even horns. The song is ridiculously upbeat and Balady’s piano has a terrific jazz sensibility. She skates through the vocals effortlessly, sounding anything but shy. The song sounds inspiring, but Balady says the idea came from watching a TV show and wanting to make something that sounds like a carnival.
“The emotion you could feel from that song,” Escobedo says, and shakes his head. “There is just raw emotion that you can hear. You can feel the song and put yourself in that position.” Balady’s grandmother always makes her mother a coconut cake for her birthday. But last year she fell while making this cake and her daughter found her on the floor. Balady’s grandmother is now in hospice care. After seeing the grief on her mother’s face, she went to the piano and wrote “Coconut Cake.”
Balady offers to play the song on the piano and the group migrates to a room with a piano from the 1880s where she typically writes. Oliver and Escobedo stare at the floor as she plays “Coconut Cake.” This is an incredibly moving song. Intelligent lyrics incisively fit into the verses and Balady’s soaring vocals on the chorus are shocking and make the hair stand on the back of your neck.
Once the tracks are edited and mixed, Oliver plans to share them with label executives. He believes the three songs are enough to secure a publishing deal if she decides to pursue that path. “This music we’re creating is really a way for her to showcase what she has,” Oliver says.
Making people remember someone they used to love isn’t nice, it’s a kick in the eyes, and yes I mean Adele. But “Coconut Cake” is sad and beautiful, like the memories of a grandparent lost. It’s nice to be reminded of someone who is actually worth remembering for a change. Balady’s vocal prowess is impossible to ignore and there is an emotional edge to the music that cuts right through you. “It could make me cry,” Oliver says, after Balady finishes the song. “I’m just not about to cry in front of a whole bunch of people.”