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Interview: Claude Kelly – Songwriter Extraordinaire

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Although a talented singer, Claude Kelly has been nicknamed the “Studio Beast” for good reason. His songwriting credits include: “My Life Would Suck Without You” (Kelly Clarkson), “Party in the USA” (Miley Cyrus), “Forgive Me” (Leona Lewis), “Blame It On Me” (Chrisette Michele), “Like I Never Left” (Whitney Houston), and “Circus” (Britney Spears).

The diverse roster of Claude Kelly’s discography shines as a testament to his ability to write across multiple genres. More amazing, however, is the fact that in seven short years, Kelly has transitioned from being a college grad into the music industry’s hottest musical wunderkind. Even so, Claude Kelly was gracious enough to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Whitney Houston, his quest for musical diversity, and his mother’s lasting influence.

Your mother was a principle influence during your early years. What kind of specific impact did she have in shaping and forming your musical interests?

My mother put me in everything as a child. At two and a half years old, I started piano lessons. I still play piano now. I’ve been singing in the church all my life, singing in the family choir and the boys’ choir. Music was always in the house. Every room in my house had a radio playing, every single room on a different station. The kitchen would be playing the light and easy station. The bathroom would be playing the smooth R&B and jazz station. My mom was a big Motown and soul fan, so she would always be playing Sam Cooke, the Supremes and Aretha Franklin when she was in the living room. Of course, my bedroom always had pop music blasting! [laughing] So I was also listening to TLC and Biggie and Green Day and Nirvana. Whenever I walked around the house, I was always encountering diverse forms of music. So, all my musical influences were really a part of my mother’s doing.

You’ve written a lot of music for some of the industry’s biggest female stars: Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Leona Lewis, Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks, Chrisette Michele, and the list goes on and on. Is there a particular lesson that you picked up from your mother, in terms of how to relate to women?

More than anything, my mom taught me how to respect women. I try to treat everybody – women especially – with a great amount of respect. I found that the more respect you give, the more respect you get. Also, take pride in what you do no matter how small it is. If you wrote one line or a whole song or a whole album, it definitely shows in the end result. One of the things I learned from her is to take pride in your work, and if you start something, finish it. I’ve never walked out of a session. I’ve never started a song and not finished. Not every song is going to be a great song, but if you start it, finish it.

After graduating from Riverdale High in the Bronx, you left New York to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. Why did you choose that particular school?

It was a matter of being a perfect fit at the right time. I was graduating from high school. I knew I wanted to be involved in music. I wasn’t really sure where I’d find myself, whether as an artist or in the business side. I wanted a school where I could explore more my type of thing, which was piano. I applied to several schools and Berklee had the perfect setup. I’d been to the school and I felt like I could blend in and I could stand out. It was kind of a no-brainer.

Is there a particular experience that you had there that you think has helped your career? Oftentimes, a lot of artists don’t go to college. How did college help you professionally?

I learned the most at Berklee by being around people that were better than me. It’s a music school so there is always a concert thing going on. I would sit in other people’s rehearsals or classes. There were concerts going on once a week, and I tried to soak in all the talent of other people that were doing things that I wish I could do or I would like to do. Then I would go home and practice myself and study. That was the biggest asset, biggest treasure. Even if you turned a corner, there’d be something going on that you’ve never heard or you’ve never seen. It’s also an international school, so there were students from all over the world there. You’re getting points of view from different places and different people. Music hasn’t changed – it’s still 12 notes on a scale. All songs are really about love or heartbreak and things. It’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s really great to see people doing the same thing you’re doing but with their take on it. It inspires you and helps you get better and do things differently and see things from a different perspective.

You have a knack for writing across multiple genres: R&B, pop, whatever. What do you think is the common thread that binds all music together, no matter the genre or musical category?

They say music is the world’s biggest, most common language. When everything is in sync perfectly – the rhythm, the drums, the melody, the voice – no matter what language it’s in, no matter what country it’s in, the feeling you get when you relate to a song is the same. Everybody knows that feeling. It’s those goose bumps up your arms and at the back of your neck. “Oh my God, I’ve been through that,” or “I feel her pain,” or “I feel his pain,” or “I’m feeling love.” That’s what everybody relates to the music. It doesn’t matter whether it’s country or rock or R&B or hip-hop.

As a writer, what elements do you think make the perfect song?

Melody. First and foremost, you need a melody. Without it, you don’t really have a song. You have to be able to hear it. “Will it be pleasing to them? Is it something they can sing with or dance to?” Of course, the next level is the lyrics. You want lyrics that will really touch people’s hearts in some way. It goes deeper than the surface. The lyrics and the melody together are really what I fell in love with songwriting.

As an instrumentalist, you have a lot of experience with the piano, as well as the flute. When did you make the professional shift to songwriting?

It’s hard to answer because I don’t really know how it happened. When I was in college, I was listening to a lot of artists that I [have worked with in the past] – like Whitney [Houston], Michael [Jackson] and Kelly Clarkson. I would always think, “What would one of my songs sound like?” And I’d just do that over and over and practiced and practiced until I got better and better. It wasn’t a gift I naturally had from the beginning.

At the beginning of your career, you developed a tremendous relationship with Akon. How did the two of you connect? And in what ways has he been a mentor?

We were working with an artist that was signed to Konvikt. He heard me singing and he pulled me aside. He said, “I like what you’re doing.” There were four songs I wrote. One was “Like I Never Left,” [which was featured on Whitney’s I Look to You]. One went to his album [“We Don’t Care” on Freedom], and one went to Leona Lewis [“Forgive Me” on Spirit]. Since then, he’s taught me about simplicity in melody, making music without squandering too much. He’s a genius, and really, really good at it. I watched him do it several times. He would guide me through it. It was always a meeting of the minds. He’s one of the most open-minded, cool, level-headed artists I ever worked with.

Even though you’re writing all these wonderful songs for these awesome singers, you’re also a talented singer. As a child, you even performed with the New York Boys Choir. Do you mind being in the background or is that a place you prefer to be?

I don’t mind being in the background. I’m a singer first. I’ve been singing since I was a child. I love to sing. Pretty much every song that I got placed that you heard on the radio, I demoed it first. I don’t envy singing over songwriting because they go hand-in-hand in helping me be where I am right now. When I’m in the studio with artists, big artists like Whitney Houston and Britney Speaks and those guys, it becomes a really big benefit for me to sing to them.

I’m completely in love with Chrisette Michelle’s album, Epiphany. In my opinion, it is the best release of 2009. Since you lent your songwriting talents to five songs on that album, would you mind walking me through that experience?

Chrisette is awesome. On her sophomore album, she wanted to branch out, explore more. Other people were pushing her to see where she could go vocally and creatively. She was really, really open about that. I always wanted to come in and meet with her. We started writing together in Atlanta. In the first two days, we came up with “Fragile” and “Blame It On Me.” Right away, we had chemistry and just kept going. I think I was able to push her vocally where I don’t think she would have gone by herself. She killed those records. She demolished them. She poured her heart and soul into each song. She really meant it. She spent time making sure it was believable. My favorite record, I think, would have to be “Blame It On Me” because it’s heart-wrenching the way she sang in that record. From beginning to end, she picks you right up and she climaxes and then she brings you back down. Perfect vocal performance, perfect emotion, perfect song for her. I think that song is going to be around for a long time.

Another song that’s not really well-known is “I Can Change Your Life” from Lloyd’s third album, Lessons in Love. What life experiences formed the lyrical content?

I didn’t really write that song, to be perfectly honest with you. That’s actually two different songs. I’m not sure how it happened but I guess I’m going to credit YouTube and the internet for making this whatever it is. I wrote a song to that track and so did Lloyd. Then it kind of melded into one song. So I don’t really have an answer to that question because we didn’t really work directly together but it became an internet phenomenon.

It’s funny how the Internet allows music to take on a life of its own! [laughing] Well, the web is currently abuzz about Whitney Houston’s comeback album. That had to blow your mind, having this kind of opportunity to work with a legend. When you think about your time working with Whitney, how difficult was it to keep the “fan” side of your relationship from overriding the “professional”?

Well, I love Whitney Houston more. Quote me on that. She’s incredible. I’ve been a fan since I was a child. I grew up listening to her music, so she was one of the people on my list that I had to work with before I died. I’m very grateful that I had this experience so early in my career.

As one of the major contributors to I Look to You, do you ever sit back and say, “Wow, this is crazy!”?

I’m not scared of myself because I don’t really give myself enough time to enjoy these moments as much as I should. I’m trying to work everyday so I’m constantly looking towards what’s the next step for me. While in the moment, there’s no time for me to be a fan and dwell on it. I’m just trying to get the best vocal and the best song possible. But there are definitely moments, especially now after all is said and done and the album is out and you see the reception, it hits you like, “Wow, I worked with Whitney Houston.” She’s been so gracious and so nice to me. She’s given me a lot of advice. We really clicked. I’ve seen her several times since then. It’s an honor to even be in that company because she’s the best voice of our generation.

You mentioned that Whitney gave you some advice. Is there a particular kernel of wisdom that really stands out?

I’m not going to quote anything earth-shattering, but she just encouraged me to be strong and keep fighting for the songs I love and to keep writing songs about love, which is really what she’s about – love songs. She reminded me that I have a God-given gift and to keep on polishing it. It was amazing to hear those words from someone so legendary.

Is there a particular song that you felt like you really had to push, because the artist or label did not receive it as well as you had hoped, but in your heart you knew that it was a gem?

Not really and I’ll tell you why. The song that you think is a hit is usually one that they don’t take anywhere. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. I’ve been grateful that a lot of the songs that I’ve worked on have done very, very well. I’ve learned not to have expectations at all anymore. I write the songs and do my best with each one and pray to God that He will guide you to the right one through to the very end and get it out to people.

Industry insiders have dubbed you as “The Studio Beast.” Where did that nickname come from? And when you’re in the studio, what kind of mentality do you have that helps you be so successful?

I don’t remember who gave the name or where I got the name from, but I know the name describes how I am at the studio for several reasons. Number one, I don’t write things down. I go behind the mic and usually, I make it up on the spot. I write it line by line as it hits me. I turn the lights out in the booth and it hits me. The second reason is – and I don’t know where this comes from – God. When I’m in the studio, somehow I can tap into artists. I can be behind the mic and turn the lights out, and if I tell myself to write a song for Whitney Houston, I can close my eyes and it’s almost like I’m her. “This is what Whitney would say and this is how she would sing it. This is how she’ll sound.” I can pretty much imitate almost anybody that I want to once I hear them once or twice. So I go behind the mic and demo the song and pretty much sound like the artist I’m doing it for.

I’m really intrigued by the direction Britney Spears took on her sixth album, Circus. I was pleasantly surprised by the final product and I really love the fact that she has a new level of confidence. We haven’t really seen that in awhile. As the composer of the title track, what memories do you have from the songwriting process?

It started as an idea on the plane going to LA to work with Doctor Luke on the record. “Wouldn’t it be cool to write a song about a circus?” I wasn’t sure if it would work, if the title would work, if they would buy into it. He heard the track and it kind of flowed. “Let’s go behind the mic and let me tap into this and see how I feel Britney would see this, sing it, perform it.” It just kind of all came out at one time. From there, it’s out of my hands. The label loved it. She loved it. It got prepped pretty soon. It was a snowball effect. It became the album title, the tour title and the imagery and the video with the elephants and the circus acts. It’s awesome, by the way, to see a little idea become that big.

When you look back over your career, do you think of one small moment that you consider to be your defining moment?

I don’t think there’s one moment. I think a career, especially in the music industry, is a combination of several moments. I think it’s too early for me to define that. I’ve so much more to do. To everybody, I’ve had a number of hits but I’ve just started. I have so much that I want to do still. I think what’s happening right now, all of this with Chrisette and Miley Cyrus and R. Kelly and Whitney Houston, Akon, Michael Jackson – it’s the beginning. I’m grateful it’s a pretty huge beginning but it’s the beginning.

When you look towards the future, what short-term and long-term goals do you have laid out?

Well, my short-term goal is to get two number ones under my belt. Those are always fun to have. And to get more records out there in different genres to prove that you don’t have to live within a box. You don’t have to be categorized and stereotyped. I’m doing that. I have some work with R. Kelly and the Backstreet Boys coming out soon, followed by Christina Aguilera. So that’s my short-term goal – to continue on this path of diversifying. My long-term goal is, of course, to branch out to some of my other passions in the entertainment industry, which are doing soundtracks and writing for musicals and plays and cartoons and stuff like that — still involved with music but a little more far-reaching than what I’m doing right now. And continue writing for a Broadway play. What I want people to really know about me is that I’m going to keep them guessing. As soon as you peg me as an R&B writer, I’m going to give you a pop record. I’m going to give you a rock record. After I exhaust all those, I’m going to give you a polka record! [laughing]

For more information on Claude Kelly, visit his official MySpace page.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Donavan

    why are you talking about yourself as a woman in like in iceburg from south-africa.

  • Krisque

    looking for a writer for my daughter. she is very talented and plays several instruments. You can check out some of her music on zobnot.com under musicians her name is Kallie Star. You can also contact her there if you are interested in writing for her

  • nick

    hes write songs for other people (women) and sings them like a true artist