Songwriter Claude Kelly '02 can't remember how he came to be nicknamed the "studio beast," but when you get a moniker like that, it's not something you dispute, right?
"I've been trying to figure out where that came from for years," says the wunderkind, who really hasn't had long to mull over it anyway. Check the math: in just seven years, Kelly went from college grad to writing #1 hits for Kelly Clarkson ("My Life Would Suck Without You") and Britney Spears ("Circus") and giving Chrisette Michele one of those enduring, career-defining ballads ("Blame It On Me") that helped send her album straight to the top of the charts in its first week.
So yes, "studio beast" fits. But "chameleon" might work too. Kelly does it all—from pop to r&b to rock and soul—and the versatility is no doubt the effect of growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "I was hearing reggae and super-soulful stuff like Marvin Gaye and pop and rock. I think people are surprised I can do it, but I really genuinely did grow up listening to it all." By age two, he was playing the piano and by seven, the flute. His single mother, a nurse who moved to the States from Jamaica, made sure Kelly's talents didn't go to waste. "She kept me busy," he says. "There was swimming and dance—activities every single day, church on Sunday, and back at it on Monday. There was no time to linger in the streets, ever."
He can also credit his diverse ear and writing skills to his travels. Instead of giving him new Jordan sneakers when they hit stores, his mom took him on weeklong jaunts to foreign environments, including the Caribbean, Italy, and Canada. Looking back, he says, "It was really helpful for me to see different parts of the world. You realize life goes on outside of our bubble."
Kelly's mother was serious about his education too. He attended the noted private school Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, and he performed around New York with the New York Boys Choir. Upon graduation, Kelly decided to formally study music at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. Eager to begin his career in music, Kelly doubled up on coursework and completed his degree in three years.
Kelly landed his first song on a compilation album for the popular Japanese clothing line, A Bathing Ape. In 2006, his song "Daddy's Little Girl" landed on Frankie J's album Priceless. It wasn't long before Akon heard about the emerging talent and in 2007, the year Kelly signed to Warner Chappell Publishing, Akon suggested that Kelly write some of his music.
Kelly handed in three songs. Leona Lewis took "Forgive Me," Whitney Houston got another, and none other than Michael Jackson claimed the song "Hold My Hand"—a major accomplishment and a testament to Kelly's ability.
Yet Kelly song placement with Jackson became bittersweet when the icon died. "Hold My Hand" has since leaked, but Kelly will of course never get to hear MJ sing the final version of his song live, or tell him how honored he was. "Michael is my all time favorite artist, so the fact that he sang one of my records is an honor within itself."
And that was just his beginning. Kelly has since been tapped to write songs for some of music's biggest names, including R. Kelly, Christina Aguilera, Carrie Underwood, and Toni Braxton, as well as buzzed-about newcomers like Melanie Fiona and popular American Idol rocker Adam Lambert. With each turn, like creating Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA," which debuted at #2 on Billboard's Hot 100 and became iTunes' #1 download, Kelly displays a knack for working across genres. Many great songwriters master a particular sound, but Kelly flows from r&b to pop to rock and soul with ease.
Among the artists endorsing Kelly as a new phenom is Whitney Houston. "Claude is an accomplished writer," she says. "He's experienced. He knows production, he knows harmony. He can sing his butt off."
As he continues to shape the future of music, Kelly is giving back: he was well known for his MySpace blog posts, which dispense all kinds of advice and living tips—not just to up-and-coming musicians but people in general. They've become so popular he'll soon be moving those, as well as his v-logs, to his own website. "The blog is my way of giving back," he says. "Charity is important to me and I want to do more."
At a time when many contemporary songwriters are "stamping" tracks with sonic insignias to advertise themselves, Kelly instead prides himself on coaching singers to do their best work, and treats each song as a journey.
"I think I have a gift, but what keeps getting me work is the attention that I give to the artists themselves. I really pay attention to what songs make the artist better. It's not about me—It's about respecting the art, and making the best songs whether it takes five minutes, five hours, or five days. Ultimately I'm there to make everyone sound better."
He's a songwriter deeply devoted to his craft, determined to put the pursuit of quality over everything else. "To me, a song is supposed to take you to a special place . . . The reason we love music is because it can take you to place where you were heartbroken, or want to dance, or were in love for the first time. As soon as the song comes on you should feel that vibe and get lost in it."