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Nova Wav

are climbing the charts, breaking the ceiling, filling the dance floor

Interview by Ann Friedman
Portraits by Clara Balzary
Issue nº 27, Spring and Summer 2023

When pop’s brightest stars are looking for a new smash hit, it’s Nova Wav they call. Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu June” Andrews’ shimmering grooves and provocative lyrics have made them one of the most in-demand producing and songwriting teams in the music biz, creating white-hot tracks for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna and Mary J. Blige. It’s a success story that has been more than a decade in the making — and now the cosmic pair have gone supernova, with banger after banger on Bey’s blockbuster Renaissance and Grammy glory on top.

Nova Wav knew it was a hit.

Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu June” Andrews, the songwriting-producing duo known as Nova Wav, had been in the studio working on Beyoncé’s new album. The minute they finished “Cuff It”, one of eight songs from 2022’s blockbuster Renaissance that they had a hand in creating, Blu pulled out her phone to mark the moment.

“I just wanna say on camera I fuck with you heavy,” she says, pointing her phone at Chi, who is sitting at the mixing board wearing big black headphones, her hair in long braids, clad head to toe in sweats. Her exhaustion is palpable, but so is her joy. “Yeah, you really that girl,” Blu says over the jaunty horns, bouncy disco beat and rhythm guitar and Beyoncé’s soaring arpeggios. “That’s my dog!” They clink their tulip glasses.

For more than a decade, ever since their 2012 breakout, “Loveeeeeee Song” by Rihanna, Nova Wav has been working with some of the biggest musicians in the world to create massive hits that span R&B, pop and hip-hop, from DJ Khaled’s “Just Us” to Nicki Minaj’s “Megatron” and Jazmine Sullivan’s Grammy-winning “Pick Up Your Feelings”. And in a pop scene dominated by Swedish men, they have done it as two young Black women from the American South.

On the night that “Cuff It” was completed, it was just Chi and Blu – they always insist on working unobserved – to note that they had found a magic recipe. And true to their excitement, the effervescent disco anthem ended up winning a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song, charting in 12 countries and inspiring a viral TikTok dance.

That moment in the studio, which they posted on Instagram on the day “Cuff It” was released as the second single from Renaissance, feels like a different sort of accomplishment, though. Before the external validation of awards and sales, this is the pure creative high of executing an ambitious vision.

“Gotta put in the time, gotta put in the seed, then things gonna come up,” Chi says, beaming. And then she sings, “Beau-ti-ful.”

Nova Wav had a hand in creating eight of the 16 tracks on Beyoncé’s Renaissance. The album, which was nominated in a record-breaking nine categories at this year’s Grammys, picked up four awards, including Best R&B song for the single “Cuff It”, co-written and co-produced by Chi and Blu.

It is difficult to convey just how intertwined Blu and Chi are. Nova Wav work together, often live together, socialise together. And they clearly eat most of their meals together, too. When I meet them for lunch at an Argentinian restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles where they’re regulars, Chi orders for both of them – a shared pollo a la brasa with rice, salad and a side of courgettes – without discussion. There is a bit of debate over what prosecco to order, and when I say I’ll have a glass they opt for a bottle.

They’ve been busy lately, working with international hitmakers such as DJ Khaled and City Girls. Logging studio time with legends like Diddy and Babyface. And, of course, maintaining their place on the prestigious list of frequent Beyoncé collaborators. They are accustomed to being the only women on the production side: a 2021 industry survey found that only 12.6 per cent of songwriters and 2.6 per cent of producers were women. “The very fact of their existence shouldn’t be so rare, but it is,” the critic Kitty Empire tells me from London. “I can’t name any other Black women production duo actually making hits with famous names, and that’s shocking.” Right now, Nova Wav is in the midst of a publicity campaign as they push for a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, an award for which only six women have ever been nominated, starting with Janet Jackson in 1989, and one no woman has ever won.

While we wait for the food, we make small talk about astrology (Blu is a Libra; Chi is a Pisces), and then they tell me their story from the beginning. They were both born in Florida (Chi in a small town near Tampa and Blu in Fort Lauderdale) and have been drawn to music for as long as they can remember. By the age of five, Blu was performing for her older relations at family gatherings – a favourite was Karyn White’s “Superwoman” – and she grew up singing in a gospel choir. “We even had a little group called the Andrews Family, with my dad, mom, sister, brother and myself,” she says. As a teenager Chi was obsessed with the marriage of harmonies and rapping on Ja Rule’s Venni Vetti Vecci.

The pair met in 2009, when they were in their early 20s. Chi was posting tracks online, doing a music engineering internship at Grand Hustle, the rapper T.I.’s label in Atlanta, while she studied marketing at Georgia State University. Blu was in Tallahassee, freshly graduated from the University of North Florida with a degree in sports management, engaged and living with her mum to save for the wedding. Chi got a Facebook message from the rapper Shawt Deezy, who had heard and liked her beats on MySpace years before. He said he was going to get a singer to do a vocal hook over Chi’s beats. The vocalist was Blu. “Her voice is incredible,” Chi says. “She just opens her mouth and God comes out.” Soon Blu and Chi were sending tracks directly to each other. Chi would send Blu a beat, and Blu would sing over it and send it back. Finally, in 2010, Blu called Chi and said, “I think we should get to know each other if we’re gonna be working together.” So Blu went to Atlanta, and they did some sightseeing and worked on tracks in person. “It was like, this just feels right,” Blu says. They started to figure out their creative dynamic.

While both women are interested in melodies and words, Blu is the songwriter and Chi is the producer. “I’m really more math and science,” Chi says, “so I’m diving into the beat and the synco-pation. Sometimes when the melody is right I don’t care what the words are saying. But I do know for a fact that the most important thing is the word. And so that’s why I have a partner.”

Blu was about to start putting down deposits for her wedding when Chi said to her, “If you quit your job and move to Atlanta, we’re gonna be big.” Blu realised she’d been letting her fiancé’s dreams come before her own. She broke off the engagement and in April 2011 headed to Atlanta, where she planned to live on her wedding savings until she found a job. She felt instantly at home with Chi’s mother, Felisha Keturah Hallback, she tells me. “I stayed there rent-free, and she was just like, ‘Make music. Make sure you make it.’” They set up a modest recording studio in the house and spent hours writing lyrics and hooks. “We were just on a grind,” Chi says. “Like, we just were super laser-focused.”

Chi had worked her way up at Grand Hustle from intern to engineer to assist-ant studio manager and was starting to make more meaningful connections in the industry. She introduced Blu to a producer at the label, who played some of Blu’s songs for a guy who worked in A&R for the executive Abou “Bu” Thiam’s BuVision publishing company, which had a deal with Def Jam/Universal Music Group and was looking to represent songwriters. With Chi’s encouragement, Blu signed with BuVision in October 2011, just six months after she’d gambled on the move to Atlanta. But together they continued writing songs, honing the Nova Wav sound.

At this early stage in a songwriter’s career, they are mostly hoping for placements – to have a major artist select one of their songs to record and release. The artist’s management puts out the word that the artist is heading into the studio and looking for new songs. The songwriter then submits a song or two that might be a fit, sometimes without even learning if it’s been selected until the album comes out.

“Blu’s voice is incredible, she just opens her mouth and God comes out.”

In October 2012, Blu’s representatives told them Rihanna was in the studio for the final week of working on what would become Unapologetic. Blu and Chi flew to LA to take a placement meeting with her. “That’s when everything happened,” Blu says. They arrived at the Westlake Recording Studios, where they were set up in a small studio every-one called “the monkey room” because, according to lore, it was where Michael Jackson’s monkey, Bubbles, hung out while Jackson recorded. It is above the main studio spaces where producers like The-Dream and David Guetta were hard at work; from another studio they could hear the pulsing beat of “Pour It Up”. “The intimidation!” Blu says. “I was like, This song is so good. How are we gonna create something better than this?”

But a young songwriter doesn’t need to write the best track on the album – simply making the cut is enough. And one of their tracks, “Loveeeeeee Song”, made it onto Unapologetic. “We were like, OK, everything’s about to happen,” Chi says. “We’re about to blow up.”

Except that because Blu was the one signed with the publishing company, only she got credit for the track – even though they had written it together. “We couldn’t talk about it for a long time,” Blu says, still visibly upset. “We didn’t find out until later that we could have fought that. We just did not know. Chi took it on the chin, like, ‘I am your friend. I care about your career and our career before the BS, so let’s not let this get in the way.’ That was a very determining factor for us. I made sure she was compensated, but it could have ended.” But the enquiries that started to flow in were directed solely at Blu, not Nova Wav – and occasionally Blu would head to the studio to work with producers in need of a songwriter. Nova Wav continued to work together, submitting co-created songs for artists’ consideration and taking meetings jointly whenever they came up.

“I think it showed the loyalty,” Blu says. “I think that’s when it was stamped, like, we are in this together. That’s when we had to say, ‘Friends first, family first, before the music shit, because this could end any day.’” She turns to look at Chi. “I love you as a person.”

“She’s always been a person that has held me down,” Chi says.

It took another two years for them to land a solid placement, together, with another major artist – Ariana Grande, in 2014. In the meantime, Blu honed her songwriting and Chi worked on understanding song structure. They sat in the studio with Atlanta producers Mel & Mus, who were working for artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. Chi says it was valuable “to just be able to sit there and soak up the energy of what songwriting is, what production is.” That period “wasn’t all peachy keen,” Chi adds, “but everything is a learning process.”

They flew to Los Angeles a few times to take placement meetings. And they decided if they really wanted to make this work they would have to move there. So, in August 2014, Nova Wav left their friends and family, not to mention Chi’s beloved maltipoo, Mushoo Man (“He knows how to say the word ‘no’,” Chi says), in Atlanta.

To finish production on “Virgo’s Groove” – a super-sexy, six-minute disco-funk track on Beyoncé’s 2022 album, Renaissance — Chi and Blu (Pisces and Libra, respectively) worked through the night, taking it in turns to sleep in the studio.

We pay the lunch bill and head to their apartment, which is nearby in Downtown LA. (Blu maintains a residence in Florida but visits LA “very frequently”.) It’s on the 28th floor, with expansive south-east views of the skyline, including a neon sign that says JESUS SAVES – an auspicious message for two artists of deep Christian faith. The apartment is spare, with muted grey furnishings and gleaming appliances. They have moved every two years since arriving in LA, just because they like to switch things up – Chi chooses the place and Blu decorates – but they like this apartment so much they might stick around longer this time. They tell me a story about picking out a luxuriously shaggy grey rug from a shop in Beverly Hills, and their effortless roommate dynamic is easy to observe. They work here occasionally, recording ideas on their phones and messing with mixes on their laptops, but mostly they use rented studio spaces around town.

“You know, we always knew we belonged,” Chi says of those early years in the city. “We were just waiting on the world to catch up.” And the music world did catch up. In 2014 Nova Wav worked not only with Ariana Grande but also with Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Kehlani, DJ Khaled. The list has since become long and punctuated with platinum albums and Grammys. Instead of being asked by an artist to submit a handful of songs, they were being asked to come into the studio for a few days. “Usually our success comes from sitting down and working with people for a period of time,” Chi says. “We sat down and did a whole album with Teyana Taylor. Twice. We’ve sat down with Bey, we’ve sat down with Khaled. We just carry our energy, and the songs will kind of collect.” Their sound is “real, it’s raw, it’s relateable, it’s energy,” Kyle Coleman, a close friend and collaborator and a songwriter in his own right, tells me by email. “Working with them, they push the envelope, they’re not afraid to experiment on things, and this is what sets them apart.”

They explain to me that certain songs, such as Kehlani’s 2016 “Crzy” and Monica’s 2019 “Commitment”, are most palpably Nova Wav, with the words, the melody, everything, reflecting the ideas of Chi, Blu and the recording artist. With mega-popular artists like Beyoncé, Jay-Z and DJ Khaled, “it’s a little bit more collaborative,” Chi says, with more creators in the room.

But their process is more or less the same with every artist: Nova Wav try to channel that particular musician, to be a conduit for their energy and tone. They pray. Then they start on the music itself. “Whether it’s just a piano line, a guitar line, that’s basically usually where it starts,” Chi explains. “So within those first four bars we kind of know what the structure of the song is gonna be. Usually the beat can be built out. But what’s most important is that the word comes, right?” She gestures towards Blu. “So she’ll get on the mic, she’ll freestyle.” Then they’ll start playing with those elements and moving them around. Sometimes this means long nights with little progress. Sometimes it just clicks, Blu says, and “it feels like nothing is in the way.” They want the artist to feel as represented by a song as they do. “They seem to get where their artist wants to go,” Kitty Empire says. When Kehlani first heard “Crzy”, Blu says, “she was like, ‘Oh my God. You guys described something for me that I couldn’t do for myself.’” She pauses. “And she’s an amazing songwriter. We just know how to put the pieces together. I think that’s what we do well.”

A few years ago, they started feeling as if they’d finally arrived. The work was coming steadily. They got season tickets to the Lakers and matching necklaces that say “Nova” in diamonds. Chi suggested they get each get a Rolex, and the purchase was sort of a private celebration of how much they’d achieved.

Chi is wearing a mid-blue denim shirt by STELLA McCARTNEY with a pair of blue 501 jeans by LEVI’S. Blu wears a black cotton-and-nylon jacket and matching trousers by PALACE. In the opening image, Chi is in black-and-white shirtdress by LOEWE over a white shirt by JOHN ELLIOTT, with black culottes by STELLA McCARTNEY. Blu wears a white ribbed jumper by FERRAGAMO and black washed trousers by WILLY CHAVARRIA.

Chi and Blu first met Bey in 2014, when she and Jay-Z were recording at Record Plant and Nova Wav had just arrived in Los Angeles. They spent two weeks in the studio alongside the producer Hit-Boy. Then, a few weeks later, they were called back to the studio with Beyoncé. It wasn’t a huge group of writers and producers, so they felt confident: surely she would select a Nova Wav track.

Beyoncé released her groundbreaking “visual album” Lemonade in 2016. Blu went to a friend’s house with a bottle of liquor, ready to celebrate. “I was like, ‘Let’s watch, because I know I’m gonna make this album,’” she says. When the end credits started to roll and not a single Nova Wav song had appeared, she texted Chi. “I don’t think we made it.” She was surprised by how hurt she was. “You know, it feels like shit at that point,” Blu says. “It feels like you’re never going to be able to achieve it.”

But just months later, they were back in the studio with Bey and Jay to work on Everything Is Love, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s debut album as the Carters. They collaborated again, on some tracks for Beyoncé’s 2020 film Black Is King. Then came Renaissance. Beyoncé’s latest album is indelibly stamped with the Nova Wav sound: big, juicy beats; flowing melodies; a feeling of empowerment. “They brought disco house to Beyoncé,” Empire says. Mariel Gomerez, an A&R manager at Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé’s label, told me by email from New York that Blu and Chi’s appeal is that they are “forward-thinking. Out-side of R&B and hip-hop, they have a unique sound in terms of pushing music, both melodically and sonically,” adding, “they’re super collaborative, always inspiring, both in the studio and outside.”

“We just know how to put the pieces together.”

Their involvement in some of Renaissance’s biggest hits has led to a lot of recognition beyond the behind-the-scenes world of production. In October 2022, they co-led a songwriting camp in Atlanta attended by 30 up-and-coming songwriters eager to learn the ropes. The idea, Chi says, was to bring writers and producers together to “do some songs and let them create. And then we go and we find places for it. We patch it up. We put our sauce on it.” The duo now have their own fans – they’re leaving in a few days because someone is flying them to Detroit to perform at a party.

“We’re very spiritual people,” Chi says. “The Bible says that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God. Right. So everything is about words and thoughts.” Every year she sits down to make a mood board, a collage of the sentiments, ideas and achievements she has her sights on. She leads me into the walk-in closet in her bedroom, where she pushes aside clothes to show me previous years’ boards perched above a rack of trainers. The collages contain words like “compassion”, “power”, “realness”, and “legendary”. An image of a healthy, toned body. A picture of Grace Jones, who Nova Wav ended up collaborating with on the Renaissance track “Move”. A few Grammy Awards.

“A Grammy is just something tangible to say I did something valuable. Something that will really, really go down in history,” Blu says. “Something that no one can change, you know?” They didn’t end up getting the nomination for Producer of the Year, but several of their songs got the nod, including those on Renaissance. “It’s super inspiring,” Gomerez says. “In the amount of records they were able to contribute to and how they were able to contribute.”

The album has, they tell me, already changed “everything” for them. “Working on the album, it was like a masterclass to see certain things that Beyoncé did. We’re at our most creative when we create for her,” Chi says. “For a long time, I felt like we were invisible,” Blu adds. “And so just having the visibility now, and the representation as women producers, it’s really, really dope.”

Chi and Blu’s “Crzy” tattoos are in homage to Kehlani’s platinum-selling 2016 single, “Crzy”, a stomping R&B track they produced. Chi wears a 14-carat solid gold bracelet by CATBIRD. All other jewellery, accessories and shoes are Blu’s and Chi’s own.