After being stuck in the major label system for the best part of the last decade, Brooklyn multi-hyphenate Justine Skye — who signed her first record deal at just 17 years old — regained her independence with 2019’s BARE WITH ME, and was working on rediscovering her sound and establishing her artistic identity just as the pandemic hit.
When the world went into lockdown, it felt important to cling onto the things that made us feel like us. For many, that meant binge-watching old series, or revisiting familiar albums. For Justine, it meant returning to her roots; performing covers online with her friends. Like the rest of us, she didn’t expect this to lead to a career breakthrough — she was just filling in the sudden excess of time that landed on her when the tour for BARE WITH ME was cancelled. But that all changed with a DM.
Holed up in his Miami home, iconic producer and maverick creative, Timbaland, used the opportunity to be as active as possible: “I just felt like all the quiet time gave me a surge of inspiration on exploring new ways to create,” he explains, having founded two new online music platforms; the music creator community Beatclub and the online battle series Verzuz, the latter alongside fellow production heavyweight Swizz Beatz.
When Tim saw a clip on Instagram of Justine singing Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1969 folk song “Helplessly Hoping” alongside her friend Simi Khadra on guitar, he felt moved to reach out, suggesting that he’d like to be next in line to collaborate. After Justine suggested revisiting Nelly Furtado’s Timbaland-produced classic “Say It Right,” Tim replied that he wanted to try something original, and a 10-week virtual collaboration began with the two releasing weekly minute-long song clips, dubbed the "Space & Time Sessions."
Eventually, after racking up millions of views and attracting the attention of Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Syd, Mike Will Made-It, and Murda Beatz amongst others, it became apparent to Justine and Tim that their back-and-forth couldn’t end with Instagram. Justine, along with Emily Pires and Elena Hristu of creative direction and management team E&E Creative, took the trip to Miami to meet Tim in person and build their remote work into Space and Time, Justine’s third studio album, which she describes as “a rediscovery for the people who know my name, and a discovery for the people who don’t.”
We spoke to Justine, Timbaland, Emily, and Elena to assemble an oral history documenting the process that allowed Timbaland to rediscover his passion for breaking new artists, and helped Justine Skye rebuild confidence in her writing as an independent artist.
Space & Time Sessions
Justine Skye: I was supposed to go on tour for a project that I just put out at the time, BARE WITH ME, and all of that came to a halt. We didn’t know how long this was going to happen, and I was just like “Alright, well I gotta keep doing something, so let me just sing some songs on Instagram like back in the days.”
My friend Simi [Khadra] — she’s really talented, she does many many things — she was like, “Oh, I just learned this song, learn the words to it.” And so I learned the words to the first verse — “Helplessly Hoping,” I think it was called — and we did a side by side, split video; she just sent her part and I sang over it and I posted it.
Timbaland: I saw the live session she did with her friend, and it sounded really fresh. It felt new to hear her just singing over her friend playing the guitar, and I wanted to see how it would feel over my production. Because I was inspired by watching her cover, I didn’t want to do a song that had been done before. I wanted it to be something completely new; that’s part of the experience, creating something that people didn’t have any memory of. Something new for their ears.
JS: He sent me a beat. That was already insane to me, because I’m just like, “The Timbaland is just going to send me a beat, through text message? That’s crazy. No encrypted file or anything like that? And we’re going to put this out? How does this work; Do I have to sign a contract or a confidentiality agreement?” I was like, “Whoa, this is crazy.”
I was so nervous — I do this thing when I get nervous or shy, my body just turns cold. I wasn’t confident about my writing; BARE WITH ME was when I really started writing again, because I’d just been in a system where people send me songs all day. I love to write, but I just never felt confident enough in it, because it’s very personal; artists, we’re very sensitive about our own personal thoughts. And I’m like, “What if I send him something and it's awful and then the Timbaland just thinks I suck?” I put some headphones on, I started jumping around; just walking, pacing around the house, screaming out melodies. I sent it to Tim the next morning, and I was like, “Here, this is what I did.”
I was just waiting at my phone. Part of me was like, “Ugh, did I really just send him this? Why did I do that?” [But then] I was like, “No, this is your moment. You can’t be afraid.”
He was like, “Yo, your pen is fire. That was sick.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s crazy. You think I did something cool? That’s insane.”
Emily Pires: [Justine]’s a dominant writer on this project, and every single song on this album comes from her narrative and her story. There’s not a song on here that could have been for another artist, and I think that is what she needed to empower her and allow her to believe in herself. There were moments where Tim was like, “Do not sleep on your writing game.” I think sometimes when you’re put into the system at a young age, you feel less confident.
JS: That was the birth of “Intruded.” That’s where we started the first single. It was the first Space & Time Session that we did, and it did so well that we were just like, “Oh, we have to do this every week.” And why not do it every week? Like, what else do we have to do, we’re just inside. So we came together and created Space & Time Sessions, because that’s exactly all we had — space and time to think about what we wanted to do, and to create.
It was a game with myself, because he would send a beat and we had a deadline, but I always tried to turn it in before the deadline. So I knew we had a week to put it out and as soon as I finished one, he would send me another beat, so they kind of started to pile up on each other.
T: It was real easy. That’s the beauty of this project. We just had a connection that was natural and easy, even before ever meeting in person.
Meeting in Miami
Elena Hristu: In July of last year, we went down to Tim’s [in Miami] to cut the album.
T: We had created like 10 Space & Time Sessions already; we wanted to get in the room and finish them in person. When Justine and her team E&E came down to my house, the energy was just flowing; as we started finishing the sessions, I was inspired to create new music. We all collectively were like, “We have an album.”
JS: I was so nervous. I was more nervous because I hadn’t been in a studio for so long. And I was just like “Fuck, what if today’s a bad day for me and I don’t impress him? What happens?” I was more scared of disappointing him than I was about actually meeting him. I was like, “I gotta impress him!” And I kinda snapped out of it; I was like “Bro, just be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Just chill and cut the song, and you got this.” But that’s how I am even on stage; like, the first 30 seconds I’m freaking out, and then after that happens, I’m like, “Alright, you’re that bitch.”
T: Man, she felt like family; it felt so normal and natural. E&E and I have been knowing each other and working together for like eight years, so they brought her in and it just felt like instant family. The vibes were so good, it felt like magic while we were creating. We had these big summer thunder and lighting storms and they were just the most amazing ambiance for the creative process.
JS: I’m a Virgo, so I’m a perfectionist, and it drives me crazy to have something that’s incomplete. I was there for two weeks and every single day we were in there all hours, just finishing these songs.
“In My Bag”
EP: We had this conversation with Tim the other day, and it was like, the whole album is incredible, especially for us. I think it’s such a journey, track by track, but “In My Bag” is just an undeniable stand-out single record. It’s definitely the big moment on the album.
JS: [Writing “In My Bag”], I was in such an emotional state that I was like, “Damn, I’ve never really written a pop-leaning song. What do I do?” And so Tim gave me some melody ideas; he was just like, “You need to attack this like a rapper. What would a rapper do? What would Roddy Ricch do on this?” I don’t know what came on to me, but I was like, “Alright, I’m from Brooklyn. I’m from New York. Tap into that, you got this.” And then I just started going off and I wrote the first verse.
Then the hook — we had the melody for it, but it was really stumping me, because I didn’t want to just half-ass the hook. I really wanted it to be something great. I tried so many different things; I’m like, “I don’t want to just settle for this. Pop hook, pop hook, pop hook… where do I go? Oh my god. Victoria Monet!” And I’m like, “Victoria, help me. I need to do this!” I sent her what I had, like the melody idea, and she sent me back that hook, and I’m like, “You are a pop genius.”
EP: [Justin Timberlake] knew we were at Tim’s and he knew we were recording, and I think he was really getting interested. He might’ve had a little bit of FOMO, too! And so we finally sent him the link and he was so excited. He called and he just was fired up about it. Something about it gave him that feeling, too, like, “Damn, this feels like the days when it was like Ginuwine and Aaliyah and Tim.” He jokingly was like, “Yeah, you’re just missing one thing, and that’s me.”
EH: It was like, “Wait, wait, wait… if you want to be on this, of course! Are you kidding me?”
JS: He asked me to be on my album — I didn’t ask him. That was crazy. And that was just another moment to me, like, “Damn, these people think I’m sick. They want to be on my album. And they want to work with me.”
T: He asked to hear the album and he loved it; he wanted to get on it. It was all just natural, it felt like the way we used to create back in the day. No rules or favors, just people being inspired and wanting to create.
EP: I think that was such an incredible moment for her — the time he takes with people. He really cares about this album and of course her and us, so it’s just been a crazy experience. But particularly that — these are legends, and they’re not charging us fees. That was Justin’s session that he had booked and he took the whole session to work on her record, and play her record for every single person who came in, and really be such a supporter.
JS: The fact that these are such well established and well accomplished artists and producers, and they want to take out the time to actually work with me and help me craft my sound and make my way into this industry, is just insane. Because you meet so many people on this journey and they’re like “Ah, we’ll get to you when we get to you.” Those moments can discourage you, and I’m glad that I never let it.
[Timbaland taught me:] “Just stay firm in what you believe. If you believe in this project, don’t ever let anyone tell you any different. And you have to really give this your all. This is an amazing body of work that I stand behind; now you have to stand behind it. I don’t want anything from this. I’ve had my opportunities and times, and I’ve done so many things. This moment is about you, so you have to take this and fucking kill it.”
T: The take away for me was inspiration. Her energy, her hunger, her emotion and her talent. She has intuition, all of it reminded me of how I felt when I was 25 and working and feeling so driven and inspired. Her hunger lit a fire in me. I always feel like I’m just getting started. I have so many ideas and so much passion, as the world changes there’s always something new to do, a new way to feel inspired, a new energy to build from. I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life. The most healthy, the most grounded, I’m just having fun.
J: I think that one of the things I appreciate the most about Tim is that he doesn’t have to do this. He’s accomplished so much. But the fact that he took the time out to work with me and help push and challenge me on these songs, I’ve learned so much as an artist, as a creative, and as a person from working with him. Those are the moments I’ll never get back and I appreciate so much. It’s helped push me into being more confident about myself and my writing and just my voice too.
T: That’s always been my passion, breaking an artist. That process is what makes me feel my most creative. There’s no tricks to it which is why we can be so transparent. It’s just about energy, connection, and passion.