Alumni Profile: Claude Kelly ’02

An Ear for What Works
Claude Kelly
Claude Kelly

Hit songwriter Claude Kelly ’02 always remembers his mother’s words: “When you’re talking, you can’t listen.” It was advice he took to heart. Being a good listener is one reason Kelly has become so successful at penning songs that connect with A-list artists such as Whitney Houston, R. Kelly, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus as well as their audiences.

Kelly attributes the fact that his songs resonate with various artists to his willingness to be an observer and step into the background. “I think my ability to connect with the artist is an even greater talent than my songwriting,” he says. “Then when I write their song, I can almost become them. I can write it the way they would. I can match their phrasing, their lingo, the licks they use. It might be my song, but they’re going to have to sing it over and over. An artist needs to have a connection with the song if it’s going to be successful.”

Kelly has written such chart toppers as “Party in the U.S.A.” for Miley Cyrus, “My Life Would Suck Without You” for Kelly Clarkson, “Blame It on Me” and five other songs for Chrisette Michelle’s album Epiphany, to name just a few. Indications of Kelly’s gift for connecting through his songs came soon after he signed with Warner/Chappell Music in 2007. Michael Jackson recorded “Hold My Hand” (unreleased); Leona Lewis recorded “Forgive Me”; and Whitney Houston sang “I Got You,” “Like I Never Left,” and “For the Lovers” on her 2009 album I Look to You.

Music in Every Room

Kelly’s parents were medical professionals who were avid music lovers, and had radios dispersed throughout their Manhattan apartment. Walking from room to room was not unlike a stroll through the halls of Berklee. Smooth jazz filled the kitchen, blues sounded in the living room, and alternative rock ruled in Kelly’s bedroom. He recalls taking it all in, singing along, and absorbing song lyrics.

During his school years, Kelly pursued piano and flute lessons and sang with the New York Boys Choir in addition to his schoolwork and sports. His musical acumen and driving work ethic brought him to Berklee, where he was exposed to jazz methodology for the first time. “I’d been playing classical music all my life,” Kelly says. “So lead sheets and chord changes kind of wigged me out. I also felt like I’d explored the piano as deeply as I wanted to, and it was a natural time to make a transition, so I became a voice principal. I was really excited to work on my singing in a formal way.”

At Berklee, Kelly began listening even more intently. “A lot of the classes at Berklee flew over my head. I learned the most from the things I heard while watching rehearsals, sitting in on ensembles, and hearing comments teachers made to other players. I left Berklee a better musician because I listened to what was going on around me.”

After earning his degree in music business/management, Kelly moved back to New York and began tagging along at his friends’ studio sessions. From time to time, he was asked to sing background vocals, and soon began suggesting improvements to songs. He observed how the artists worked and decided to try his hand at writing. One of his early songs was picked up for a Japanese compilation CD, and Kelly thought, “Hey, I can do this!” His work soon caught the ear of artist and producer Akon, and that opportunity led to a request for Kelly to write material for Leona Lewis’s debut album, Spirit, which climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 200 charts.

Custom-Made Songs

Kelly tailors his songs to each artist. He puts the melodies in keys that suit an artist’s range, with high notes placed in just the right spots. He offers a finished song with music and lyrics that work for each performer and present him or her in the best light. “When I’m writing a song for an artist, it’s about them, not me,” he says. “You can’t be a good songwriter if you have a big ego, because you can’t be empathetic. To do this job, you have to be really interested in people and take time to learn about the artist. For example, when I wrote ‘Circus’ for Britney Spears, [the lyrics describe] what her life was like at the time, with the tabloids and all this craziness going on with her at the center of it.”

Kelly’s booming career keeps him on the move, but that suits him perfectly. “I live in New York, but my time is spread pretty evenly between New York, L.A., London, and Nashville,” he says. “I love to travel; it’s very inspiring for me to always be someplace new.”

Ever the background observer, he says, “I also love airports. They’re great for people watching. In airports, everyone is equal; they all have a destination to get to. You see people crying, hugging, kissing, laughing. It’s very real. I like to imagine what their lives are like and listen to their conversations.”

These days, with his career continuing its upward trajectory, Claude Kelly is someone to watch. All his listening has paid off, and now he’s the one with something to say—and millions are listening.

Adam Olenn is a musician, writer, and the Web producer in Berklee’s Office of Institutional Advancement.