Why you should care

Because making it to success is always more complicated than we realize.

It’s a quiet day in downtown Los Angeles, which is kind of a surprise, since only hours from now, the 57th Grammy Awards ceremony will take place down the street. Me and singer-songwriter Candice Pillay, along with Kendrick Lamar’s road manager, are the only ones hanging out in a lobby of what’s usually a bustling hotel. Pillay is low-key, unassuming — but intimidatingly beautiful, even in a tie-dye shirt and jean shorts. Still, no one recognizes her, and she likes it that way. For now. No, she isn’t heading to the Grammy’s tonight, but she’s working on it. Meantime? She’s come a long way from Pietermaritzburg.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Pillay’s hometown — it’s in South Africa. But unless you have lived under a really big rock for a really long time, you know about Kelly Rowland, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Rihanna. For more than half a decade, Pillay, 34, has been writing songs for all of them and more. These days she’s worked with famed producer Bangladesh and is garnering praise from Kendrick Lamar and Jermaine Dupri. With her debut full-length, The Mood Kill, she’s hoping to shoot from behind the scenes into the full spotlight.

The album, a smart melding of R&B, trap, dubstep and electronica, is sensual without spoon-feeding us sex. There’s a grit and even occasional somberness to the work, with dark, distorted vocals adding contour to Pillay’s own voice. Which is feminine, yes, but not bubblegum. Her work has emotional intelligence and energy, and so far she is successfully straddling the tricky line between music fit for mass consumption and treacle diluted for the lowest common denominator. She’s “an exceptional songwriter in her own right,” says Meka Udoh, a DJ and the co-founder of influential hip-hop site 2DopeBoyz.com, pointing to that roster of platinum-selling superstars who sing her songs. He says she’s cut from the same cloth as fellow songwriters-turned-artists Ne-Yo and The-Dream. “It’s simply a matter of time before her own star begins to shine the brightest.”

Nanny, shoe saleswoman, music instructor — Pillay worked any job that could finance her dreams.

Born and raised in the small town of Pietermaritzburg to middle-class parents, Pillay’s first musical experience came via the church choir. Over time, the “badass tomboy who was always doing something wrong,” as she puts it, fell in love with music and transitioned from singing gospel to a true infatuation with American hip-hop and R&B. Influenced by the likes of Mary J. Blige, Brandy and Mariah Carey, Pillay decided at an early age that she needed to be stateside. And at age 12, she already knew she wanted to sing in America — and ASAP. It gave her singular focus, she says; after a year of college she skipped out, realizing quickly it wasn’t for her. So at 19, she packed her bags and headed for the States.

Nanny, shoe saleswoman, music instructor — Pillay worked any job that could finance her dreams as she bounced around the tri-state area. In her off time, she performed at every open mic she could find. “It’s really difficult to come here from South Africa,” she says, and startles me with a vehement pounding of her fist. (There are also some F-bombs. She likes to curse.) “I was going to get here by any means possible and stay by any means necessary.” Which wound up meaning moving to L.A. and modeling. Not a bad side gig? Yes and no.

Those breathtaking good looks hang over everything Pillay does. As a model, she did well. But her music struck many as a hobby rather than a career. “All people wanted to talk about was modeling,” she says. So she made a tough choice: “to be a broke musician over an unhappy model.” Which put the pressure on, financially and mentally. Seven years ago, after quitting modeling at age 26, she began to gain some notoriety singing covers at the Sunset Room in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with producer Dem Jointz got her into a studio, recording for the first time. Soon after, she would release a couple of mixtapes. That led to jingles on Power 106 in 2009 and to a meeting with producer Bangladesh — of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” fame. It started to come in hyperspeed: She signed with Bangladesh’s label.

But under the wider scrutiny, she realized she wanted to hone her sound more. At the time, she was singing what she calls “very ’hood R&B.” Someone called one of the songs she wrote “dope for Rihanna.” Just in time for Bangladesh, who was producing Rihanna’s 2011 album Talk That Talk. He turned to Pillay and Dem Jointz for assistance. Pillay had never written for anyone but herself, but soon penned what would become her first placement: “Cockiness (Love It).” Soon after, she became an in-demand songwriter, penning a whopping seven songs for Christina Aguiliera’s 2012 album Lotus. Although it wasn’t necessarily the route she anticipated, songwriting got her foot in the door of the music industry and led to her signing a deal with Interscope/Universal. Which meant? She was officially being taken seriously, trading on words and not wiles.

To be sure, new artists are always clambering for career explosion. Rick Carnes, president of Songwriter’s Guild of America, says it’s certainly possible to transition from songwriting to center stage — it’s done “quite often.” But the challenges, he says, are numerous — like age. “You have people who have certain expectations of what an artist is, and after a certain age you don’t really project that image that well.” Carnes says the major consumers are very young: “Once you get to be 34, it’s harder to engage them.” Then there are the realities of an ever-changing industry. More music is being consumed than ever before, “but nobody’s paying for it so there’s so little money in the system to create new artists,” he says. Carnes estimates that one artist a year, tops, could find breakout success on a Rihanna level.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the badass tomboy who hustled herself halfway across the world, hawked shoes and changed diapers for rent, and blew off a modeling career to stay true to herself is undaunted by those odds (or her age). Heads-up to all you megastars: Candice Pillay is coming for you.

Libby Coleman contributed reporting to this story.

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