Motown Icon Valerie Simpson Talks ‘Girls With Impact,’ Songwriter Advice & New Projects

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“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “I’m Every Woman.” “Your Precious Love.” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” Those are just a few of the gems recorded by Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and Whitney Houston, among others, that were penned by the legendary songwriting team Valerie Simpson and the late Nickolas Ashford — aka Ashford & Simpson. In honor of International Women’s Day, Simpson will be performing many of her and husband Ashford’s signature songs for a benefit concert honoring the Girls With Impact organization at New York City’s The Town Hall Wednesday (March 8).

The benefit concert’s additional performers include America’s Got Talent winner and singer-songwriter Darci Lynne, and the family musical collective Infinity Song. In tandem with the concert, Girls With Impact — a live online business and leadership program for young women aged 14-24 — is also saluting its 2023 Advancing Equity honorees. In addition to recognizing Simpson for her music contributions, the organization is honoring The Luke & Meadow Foundation founder Amy France (philanthropy), Citi’s head of brand engagement and global integration Nikki Darden (business) and Tina Tchen (public service) for her work with the Obama Foundation and White House Council of Women and Girls.

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“It’s very inspiring to think that after all these years, I can be an inspiration to young women who are just finding their way,” says Simpson. “And also that my career represents something that gives them hope; where they can see opportunity through what I’ve been through … and I’ve been through a lot.

“That’s also why I’m looking forward to tonight,” she continues, “because [Girls With Impact] also serve women in the Bronx, which is where I’m from. I know how hard it is to come from an area that doesn’t see you the way you want to be seen. I made it out of the Bronx and was able to keep going, so I certainly would like help young women from there.”

The Songwriters Hall of Fame member, Motown icon and multiplatinum artist also touched on other topics during her chat with Billboard. Read on for more:

Her biggest challenge as an emerging songwriter: Looking back, it was almost like [she and Ashford] went to musical college, which was Motown. And they gave a song the benefit of having great artists. So we were very fortunate as they were all open to us. Coming up with the right piece of material was hard, but then it became easy. However, I think the hardest thing was getting a producer’s contract. Because for a woman at that time, there were very few of us working as producers. So when I finally got that, it made things a lot easier because then you could instruct how you wanted your song to come out.

But we were having so much fun [writing songs]. We just wanted to get an advance so we could keep writing. It became a heart’s desire; something I didn’t know I would be good at. The more we did it, the more we loved it and the better we got. So I never got discouraged. The thing that I loved most was the idea that you could come up with something that had never been said, say it in a way that nobody else had and, from there, touch people and change lives.

The song prompting the duo’s first producer contract: That came with our third song. We had “Ain’t No Mountain…” with Marvin and Tammi, which we wrote but didn’t produce. Then the same thing happened with “Your Precious Love.” But we would always send [Motown] great demos. So they knew we knew how we wanted a song to go. Finally, we came up with “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” And I went to Berry [Motown founder Gordy] and asked if we could produce it. He said no because other producers wanted to do it. Then he decided to give us a chance and then see whichever producer’s version came out the best. That was all we needed. And that’s how we got our start as producers.

Becoming a singer in addition to writing: We both thought of ourselves as songwriters; that was the first thing we wanted to do. Singing came much later: After seven years at Motown, we decided let’s try it now. But as a singer then, I felt like a novice even though I done some background [singing] before. You could always make a little money doing that. Actually, it was Quincy Jones who was the first person that taught me as a singer because my first solos were on his albums. I recently reminded him of that, remembering that I  didn’t even think of myself that way. But he heard something in me and put me on those records, you know? And that’s what started me realizing that perhaps I could sing.

Advice to women and women of color aspiring to be artists, songwriters or producers: You have to know and practice your craft. You also have to be able to take criticism. Then if you take the criticism but still really believe in yourself, then go ahead. There are a lot of little things that can stand in your way. But you have to hang in there long enough and not be discouraged after the first time that you don’t make money. At the Sugar Bar Restaurant in New York, which I still own, I see young singers, songwriters and producers, and I’m happy to talk to them.

New projects: I don’t want to take so many bows for what I’ve done; I also have things I’ve yet to do. One of those is working on the Ashford & Simpson story. We’re talking everything from documentary, biopic, book, podcast, a Broadway or off-Broadway show. There are so many avenues open now that weren’t open when I first started. But right now, I’m having fun writing the story. At this point in my life, I’m going to show warts and all; be honest about what it was like. And as I’m going through it, I’m really finding myself.

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