Crystal Nicole, Grammy-winning Atlanta songwriter, competing on ‘The Voice’

The Atlanta artist wrote Rihanna’s 2010 No. 1 hit “Only Girl (In the World)”
THE VOICE -- "The Blind Auditions Part 5" Episode 2405 -- Pictured: Crystal Nicole -- (Photo by: Greg Gayne/NBC)

Credit: Greg Gayne/NBC

Credit: Greg Gayne/NBC

THE VOICE -- "The Blind Auditions Part 5" Episode 2405 -- Pictured: Crystal Nicole -- (Photo by: Greg Gayne/NBC)

Atlanta’s Crystal Nicole, on the surface, seems supremely overqualified to be a contestant on NBC’s sturdy reality competition show “The Voice,” even by “Voice” standards.

Nicole has written two No. 1 Billboard hits: Mariah Carey’s 2008 smash “Touch My Body” and Rihanna’s iconic 2010 tune “Only Girl (In the World).” Over the years, she has worked with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Beyoncé to Brandy to Jennifer Hudson.

“The way God designed it, my writing ability was the first thing that people came to know me for,” Nicole said in an interview Friday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve always been an artist. I had a good problem which is I would write a song for myself but someone else would hear it and want it for themselves. That’s a great problem to have.”

But Nicole, now 39, said she also wanted to be known as a performer and singer as well as songwriter. So she decided to audition for “The Voice.”

“Singing was my first love,” she said. “Going on ‘The Voice’ is my declaration: ‘Hey! I’m doing this now and no one is going to stop me!’ ”

For her opening audition, Nicole sang “Only Girl (In The World).” That is the first time in the show’s 24 seasons that a contestant sang something they themselves penned for their audition song.

Coach and country legend Reba McEntire gave her a chair turn.

“Reba turned almost immediately, which shocked me,” Nicole said. “I was a little nervous she did that so quickly. Is she allowed to turn it back again if she doesn’t like the rest of the song?”

NBC only played a portion of her audition and did not air any acknowledgement Nicole had written the Rihanna song.

“I heard a very powerful, strong voice,” McEntire told Nicole. “I applaud you and I am thrilled to death that I get to be your coach.”

NBC did not air comments from the other coaches, but Nicole said John Legend told her his oldest kid had just played “Only Girl (In the World) on her weekend pool playlist. Then he asked Nicole to write a song for him.

{UPDATE: Nicole lost in the Battle Round that aired Nov. 6.]

As for McEntire, “she’s an entertainment powerhouse. I just love how multi-faceted she is. She has such poise and presence on stage. She is so fully herself. She pulls you in. I want to be able to walk in that confidence.”

Nicole said she had a tough childhood. Her father was abusive to her mom, she said. The best times she had was when the family sang and harmonized to songs by Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and the Drifters. “Music was the only time things were okay,” she said. “I realized early on just how powerful music is and how it can take you out of certain situations. You can escape just by listening to music.”

She recalls writing some awful songs in fifth grade. But by her early 20s, Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri signed her and placed her in a studio with Carey in 2008.

“She walked in the studio and immediately called me by name,” Nicole recalled. “I couldn’t believe she knew my name. Mariah was my vocal coach growing up whether she realized it or not... My first time writing with her, we sang and harmonized one of her songs. This was heaven.”

Dupri would send Nicole tracks and ask her to write songs based on them. “I had to wipe the slate clean each time using the same music,” she said. “They’d call me a machine because I could write three or four songs a day, back to back. I realized you didn’t have the luxury to have writer’s block in the songwriting industry because they could just hire someone else who didn’t have writer’s block.”

She penned “Touch My Body,” which became Carey’s 18th No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Carey the solo artist with the most No. 1 singles in chart history, passing Elvis Presley. (Carey now has 19 No. 1 hits, courtesy of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”)

Nicole got the news “Touch My Body” was No. 1 while in the middle of a mall. “I was broke at the time,” she said. “I’d hear my song on the radio and I’d be jumping out of my skin but I was hungry and my car note was due. They were looking to repo it. My mom was struggling to keep her house.”

The “Touch My Body” songwriting royalty checks, she said, arrived in her mailbox at just at the right time.

That song opened doors for her. Two years later, she was hired to help out already huge star named Rihanna: “They grabbed 10 producers, 10 songwriters and locked us in a studio for a week.”

Nicole was given three tracks by famous record producers Stargate. Two did nothing for her. “I was frustrated,” she said. I figure I’d give the third track a try, then go home and watch ‘Lord of the Rings.’ I heard it and it sounded kind of fun. I imagined Rihanna walking down this street by herself as the only girl. That flowed out. I didn’t know how good it was. I didn’t think anybody would go for it.”

Nicole recorded her own voice track to “Only Girl (In the World)” and recalled that she sang the chorus really big. “At the time Rihanna had never sung a song with that power of vocal,” she said. “There was no way she’d pick it. It wasn’t her normal sounding song. But when [famed record producer] L.A. Reid came into the studio and heard it, he began jumping up and down and going crazy.”

The song ended up at No. 1 in multiple countries. “Her vocals on that song were so good,” Nicole said. “She went to another level when she sang it. Her presence cuts so clear. It was an honor to hear her presence on my song.”

Nicole also won two Grammys. “I came from such humble beginnings,” she said. “I didn’t have enough clothing in elementary school. I didn’t graduate high school. To be counted out in so many ways to land at the Grammy’s and be part of it was so humbling. I had a lady make me a dress. I lost 98 pounds after going on this crazy diet. It was just an amazing situation during that time.”

She is well aware that “The Voice” hardly guarantees an artist fame and fortune. In fact, most winners are not exactly household names. But she said “The Voice” offers “such a huge platform to get in front of people so you’re not a secret. It lifts the basket off. You still have to work. You still have to network. There’s so much of the music industry still at play that is out of the hands of ‘The Voice.’”

It’s unclear when NBC will air her battle round but the show is airing Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m.


“The Voice,” Mondays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m. on NBC and available on Peacock the next day