DETROIT – Singer-songwriters Antea Shelton and Anesha Birchett are masters of musical mind reading.
Together, the R&B and pop sister duo known as APLUS know how to compose hit songs without even saying a word to each other.
“Because Anesha and I know each other so well, it’s such a natural process across the board for both songwriting and artistry,” Shelton said. “I think I didn’t value how we have a natural connection as sisters until we started working with other people, and I realized she and I may have our bickering and our battles, but man, like the records get done, and we have a smooth flow.”
That smooth flow and intuitive songwriting process has helped APLUS pen songs for Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber, Tamar Braxton and a host of other R&B and pop artists as well as music for the TV shows “Empire” and “Star.” Once a producer plays a chord, Shelton and Birchett start their songwriting magic.
“She’ll go, I’ll email her, and we’re literally in the same room while I message her,” said Shelton, 36, who’s head of songwriting at the Detroit Institute of Music Education (DIME). “I’ll email her a couple of titles, she’ll go into the booth, she’ll sing some melodies, sing the title like I said, and I’ll be like, ‘Yep, I want that one.’ Then, they’ll play it, put it on loop, I’ll fill out the lyrics, send it back to her, she’ll go into the booth, sing it, and it’s done.”
Shelton and Birchett used that same songwriting process while recording tracks for their debut APLUS album, “Pride Liberty Detroit,” which drops Feb. 9 on Original 1265 Recordings. In December, they released their latest single, “Strangers,” a groovy R&B track featuring lush harmonies backed by a piano.
Another single from the songwriting duo’s upcoming album, “Pride Over Me,” a breakup piano ballad, dropped last spring. “Pride Liberty Detroit” will feature 12 tracks, including five or six ones that are somewhat autobiographical and personal in nature.
“Some of them are – ‘Broke,’ ‘117’ and ‘The Other Side,” Shelton said. “It’s a little bit of everything.”
Together, they spent three days recording “Pride Liberty Detroit” live at Studio A in Dearborn, Mich., and collaborated with a slew of talented guitarists, percussionists, harpists, cellists and other musicians as well as Kevin Nixon, DIME co-founder and producer of the album.
Birchett came up from Nashville, Tenn., to record the album with Shelton. Fortunately, the 500-mile distance doesn’t make a dent in the siblings’ musical bond. Birchett moved there four years ago and continues to collaborate with Shelton by email and frequent visits to the Motor City.
“It was just nice being on the other side of the whole creative process, and we had already done all the hard work,” said Birchett, 31. “Like these were records that we wrote years ago and still believed in, they all have a big sound, and we got a chance to focus in on the body aspect of it and just us being artists and really paying attention to our vocals.”
In APLUS, Birchett’s and Shelton’s musical talents also complement one another. Birchett prefers to sing and perform while Shelton gravitates more toward songwriting.
“It also makes for a really good fusion for the both of us,” Birchett said. “I have a soulful voice, and Antea brings more of a pop flair, and I think that’s what makes us really unique.”
While growing up in Detroit, Birchett and Shelton sang as part of a gospel group called The Birchett Sisters with older sister Angela Birchett before becoming established songwriters through previous publishing deals with Universal Music Group and Grammy-winning producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. All three sisters grew up in a Detroit-based musical family with their father, Anthony “Tony” Birchett, and mother, Andrea Birchett.
Tony Birchett had two hit singles in 1968, “Your Thang My Thang” and “Don’t Put Out The Fire,” on L.B.J. Records at age 17. He later joined bands like Federal Reserve and started his own band called Anthony Birchett & Company, which performs at private parties.
Besides honing their musical chops with their father and sister, APLUS also sought musical inspiration from gospel singers Karen Clark Sheard and Kim Burrell, the legendary Stevie Wonder, ‘80s rock and hit songwriter Diane Warren.
“My dad started singing two-part harmony with (Angela),” Shelton said. “We had a little trio – my dad, my older sister Angela and me, and then Anesha came along, and then my dad backed out and said all three of them can sing. My older sister pursued education and theater, and she’s now an actress on Broadway. Then, me and Anesha started doing writing and singing together. Obviously, we’re from a church city, so it’s a big church gospel background … and then from there, it just branched out.”
APLUS will continue to branch out as artists in the coming weeks. The duo will host a record release party for “Pride Liberty Detroit” on Feb. 9 at Northern Lights Lounge, 660 W. Baltimore St., in Detroit.
“We’re doing a lot to gear up for it,” Birchett said. “We’re also getting ready to shoot a video for ‘Strangers,’ so we’ll be pushing that.”