Berklee Today: Claude Kelly '02, Chasin' the Chills

Mark Small
June 12, 2012
Claude Kelly '02
Photo by Jimmy Katz

Claude Kelly's songwriting career is red hot. For producers and record labels, he's the go-to guy for a great song in almost any popular style. Armed with a driving work ethic, Kelly spends most days in his studio in Manhattan's historic Brill Building writing and demoing new songs. If he's not there, he could be in a studio in Los Angeles, London, or Nashville cowriting with major artists or rising stars that have turned to him for a breakthrough tune.

While Kelly has had considerable success writing R&B tunes, his music hardly fits neatly into a stylistic pigeonhole. The lengthy list of artists who have written with Kelly and recorded his songs includes stars from the pop, rock, country, and hip-hop worlds. He's penned number-one hits for Kelly Clarkson ("My Life Would Suck without You") and Britney Spears ("Circus") as well as tunes that have earned him Grammy nominations ("Grenade" for Bruno Mars, "Pieces of Me" for Ledisi, and "Bittersweet" for Fantasia). Other artists who have sung his songs cover the spectrum, from Michael Jackson, Martina McBride, and Whitney Houston to R. Kelly, the Wanted, and Miley Cyrus.

In 2002, after Kelly graduated from Berklee with a degree in music business/management, he wasn't thinking about becoming a songwriter. A great vocalist with solid piano chops, Kelly started working as a session singer pursuing gigs in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. He began offering his ideas for how to improve the songs he'd been hired to sing before deciding to write his own tunes. A pivotal connection came when he crossed paths with Lady Gaga and her producer RedOne before either one had gained much traction in the American music business. From there, opportunities started multiplying. By 2007, Kelly had signed a publishing contract with Warner/Chappell. Over the past few years, he has emerged from relative obscurity to create charting songs with a range of artists.

He credits his familiarity with many musical styles to his Jamaican-born mother's practice of keeping radios tuned to jazz, reggae, blues, R&B, and other stations in the different rooms of his childhood home in Manhattan. (The radio in his room played hip-hop or alternative rock.) His mother also saw to it that he participated in music early on. Kelly remembers being 2 years old, sitting on a stack of phone books to reach the keys of the piano, as well as later experiences playing flute and singing with the New York Boys Choir.

Kelly's talent for developing catchy melodies and lyrics is complemented by his affable personality and unique ability to help his cowriters give musical life to their feelings and experiences. He's an expert storyteller with an uncanny gift for crafting iconic songs that are personal to the artist and engaging to the public. Those attributes plus the fact that Kelly, a.k.a. "Studio Beast," can walk into a session with an artist he's never met and emerge several hours later with a fully produced song explain why so many people want to work with him. Kelly sandwiched this interview in on a morning when he was working on ideas for Pink and rapper Eve. That's all in a day's work for one of the industry's top tunesmiths.

How did your songwriting career begin to unfold?

I batted around New York for couple of years, like any other struggling musician. I am fortunate in that I grew up in New York. Other Berklee students who grew up in small towns had to figure things out when they got here, but I was just coming home. I had done a lot of music in churches and choirs here, so I already knew a lot of New York musicians.

I took sessions as a singer wherever anyone wanted me. I drove to sessions in New York, Philadelphia, and as far away as Maryland. Later I figured out that I wanted to write and [homed] in on that. I wrote an r&b song that didn't work out over here but made it to a production company in Japan. They translated it into Japanese, and an artist there cut it. That was the first time someone cut one of my songs, and it gave me encouragement to keep going.

It was probably another year and a half until the opportunity with [singer] Frankie J. came along. That was another accident. I was working on a remix with DJ Clue, who has done remixes for some big artists. He liked my vocal producing and called me to work with Frankie J., who was signed to Columbia Records. That enabled me to meet with the A&R people at the label. A song I wrote for Frankie, "Daddy's Little Girl," made it onto his album. While it wasn't a big hit, it gave me a second wind when they made a video for it and released it as a single. That got me more work.

When did your songwriting really start taking off?

Everything started happening around 2006. My manager arranged for me to meet with RedOne. He didn't have a lot going [in this country] at that point. Many people don't know that RedOne, Lady Gaga, and I were working together in the studios around here. None of us had anything going on but were hoping to make hit records. Lady Gaga was working on what would become her first album and RedOne was working with various artists. He was introduced to Akon, who wanted to bring him to L.A. to work with an artist. RedOne said he needed Lady Gaga and me to come with him. We all went and wrote some songs that weekend. Akon loved Lady Gaga so much that he helped her to get a deal with Interscope Records. He also liked my writing and gave me a CD with five tracks and told me to take it home and write to it to see what I could come up with.

I worked on those tracks, and that music opened the door for me. All the songs on that CD were supposed to be for Whitney Houston. The label took two for Whitney and gave one to Leona Lewis. Akon liked "Hold My Hand" and pulled it for his own album. There are three versions of that song: my demo, Akon's demo, and a version that Michael Jackson recorded.

As a musician, my goal was to work with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. And by the time I was 23 or 24, my two idols were singing my songs. That freaked me out a bit but also encouraged me to try whatever I wanted. Since I'd already climbed a mountain, I felt I could have fun and be creative. I set my sights on pop radio, country, and rock. There was no box that anyone could put me in.

At this point, do you prefer to write alone or to cowrite with others?

I like to be in the room with the artist. The writing I do is very personal, [so] I want it to be what the artist is about. I don't want to force a title or a phrase on someone if it doesn't fit them. I'm well aware that, even though I am writing the song, it becomes the artist's statement. If it becomes a hit, the artist may have to sing it for the rest of their life. There is nothing worse than someone having a hit song that they don't want to do. They have to feel it's their story. So I like to have the artist in the room and ask them what they are going through, what mood they are in. Often they don't know it, but I am studying them as I talk with them. Without realizing it, they are writing the song as they speak.

I wrote "Bittersweet" with Fantasia. She came into the studio and we talked. She said, "There's this guy—I shouldn't be with him, but I love him." The whole story came out and she said it was "bittersweet." There it was. She just didn't know how to put it together. I consider a song to be a puzzle. The pieces are all there, you just have to put them together to see the picture.

Do you keep a notebook with lyric ideas or titles that you bring to a cowriting session?

I usually go in with a blank slate. In fact, I don't write anything down at all-not even the lyrics. If I'm writing to a track, I go behind the mic and I write the song line by line as it comes to me, and my engineer records it. I have to go with what I feel rather than be confined by the lyrics I think should be there.

But sometimes, a great concept comes to me and I'll put it in my phone or make a mental note. If it's meant to be, I'll remember it later. For me, the general rule is if I can't remember it, then it wasn't worth keeping. We love songs because they strike a chord somewhere in us and we want to go back there when we are happy or sad. You hope that others will share in what you are creating. If you can't remember the idea, then there was no point in doing it.

Do the lyrics or the music come first for you?

They usually come together. I'm pretty visual. I picture the scenario, and that leads to the lyric and melody together. I start to explain the song's video to the [artist] before the song is written. I might say, "You're sitting on the bed. The house is dark, and it's evening." That could trigger the first line. It's all a story to me. I never write the chorus first and then go back to write the verses. I have to write the first verse straight through into the chorus. It has to have that development, or I can't see the story.

Do you get many requests to write something and bring it to the artist?

More often than not, I have the privilege of going into the studio with the artist. And that is a privilege. For a new writer, it would be very hard to get into the studio with somebody like Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson. I spent many years demoing songs for artists and making the demos so good that they would get the artist's attention. Now it's faster for me to just go into the studio with the artist. It's one-stop shopping. You get in there with the artist, feel them out, write the song, and they can sing it right away. The label gets to hear it with the artist singing and not be left to imagine how it will sound with the artist's voice rather than mine.

But I still demo things. That's where I get my kicks as a singer—I'm a singer first. I demo all my songs whether they are for a male or female artist. No matter what the key is, I'll find a way to get it out.

Can you describe your approach to making demos?

I'm somewhat of a chameleon in the studio. I usually turn the lights off and try to become the person I want to sing the song. I'm good at vocal inflections and ad libs. People ask me how I make a song for Miley Cyrus, Mary J. Blige, or Britney Spears. I tell them the songs and the topics are all the same. The topics are still "I love you," "I miss you," "I want you," "Let's party," or some kind of social commentary. But Whitney Houston said I love you in a different way than Britney Spears says it. One person might whisper it, another might scream it. One may say it with pain, and another would say it in a drunken stupor. That's what makes the demo process so interesting for me. I go into the studio and ask myself, "How would Toni Braxton say, 'I miss you'?"

Is it true that you finish every song you start?

Yes, as a rule. Sometimes you know when you are writing it that it's not the best song. But I never walk away from a song after I've gotten a first verse and chorus. Once the theme and idea are out there, I have to see it through. I have lots of songs on my computer that are pretty good. But you want a song that's going to get out there and that someone else will feel.

Does that mean you'll go back and take a good chorus from a song that you feel didn't have strong verses?

Oh yeah, but I had to finish it to know that the verses weren't great. That's how "International Love" for Chris Brown and Pitbull came together. I wrote a whole song and felt the chorus was great, but the verses—not so much. I took the verses out and got a rapper on it. Chris Brown sang the choruses, and Pitbull rapped over it. I'm good at editing my work once I can sit back and see what I've created.

How did the chance to work with country singer Martina McBride in 2011 come up?

Lee Dannay, who works for my publisher Warner/Chappell, knew Martina was writing. I'd never met Martina or her producer Nathan Chapman, but I flew down to Nashville and we wrote a song together. That one didn't stick, but we got along really well, and she requested me again. I went back and, together with Tommy Lee James, the three of us wrote "One Night." Martina wanted a song that was youthful and energetic to open up her concerts, and that's what we came up with. We had a blast. She is an amazing singer and writer.

For a song like that, did you start by coming up with the groove?

Absolutely. When you're in the room with someone, you can feel where they're at. With Martina, I knew she had been very successful and had sold a lot of records. She didn't have anything to prove. She just wanted to have a good time in a way that was age-appropriate. We sat there bouncing ideas back and forth, and we were honest with each other. She might say, "We could make that line better." And I would do the same thing.

I'm not starstruck by anybody. You don't get the best songs when you're starstruck. You have to be honest with them to get their respect. I learned that quickly when I was producing vocals for Whitney Houston. I was a fan, and when she walked in, I was thinking, "Wow, here's Whitney Houston." As we worked, I thought to myself, this may be my one shot, and I want her to sound good. I wasn't afraid to tell her, "You should go over the second verse again. I know you can do it better." I find that people respect you for that.

Are you always at a session when an artist records your song?

Yeah, I do vocal production for every song I write. I am very picky about the vocal performance. When the artist sings it, I want great pitch and the best performance, but more than that, the song has to be believable. That's what people get attached to.

At Berklee, the emphasis is on fine-tuning your craft. But there is a fine line between the art and the science. You can get so into the specifics that you lose the feeling. I realized that we don't love a song because it's perfect, but because it make us feel a certain way. There's a point where you have to trust your skill and then let your emotions run wild. So I'm not just looking for a technically perfect vocal performance. I'd rather someone sing flat and give me chills rather than have them give me something perfectly in tune but kind of blah. That's my personal preference when I produce vocals.

Do you know inside when you've written a song that it will be a hit?

You know when you've written a good song, but there is a lot more involved with something becoming a hit—including timing and what else is on the radio. There may be other factors such as if there is a sensational news story about the artist at that time, if the song was in a popular movie, or whether the video for the song is good or bad. It's like lightning in a bottle. I know when I feel a song should become a hit, but that doesn't mean that it will become one.

Aside from a hit, what do you think artists and producers want when they collaborate with you?

I think I am known for storytelling and good melodies. A lot of pop music lacks those. You can make a verse up from one note, but I subscribe to a more melodic style. I work with a lot of the singers that have range.

Do you study an artist's voice to learn where he or she sounds best?

It's mostly intuitive, but I do my homework listening to records to see what keys they sound good in and how high or low they can go. Sometimes I've felt that an artist hasn't gotten it right on their records yet. When I worked with Fantasia, I didn't think anyone had found the sweet spot in her voice. She can sing anything, but I decided to start the song low in her alto range. It's really pretty and a lot of people haven't heard it. I knew it would give her more space to do the gospel thing. People appreciated hearing that and I think it's a big part of why she won best vocal performance for that song at the [2010] Grammy Awards. After her third album, people saw that her instrument is beautiful and there was a texture to her voice they hadn't heard before. I try to push the limits a little bit to see if I can get something out of artists that they didn't know they could do.

Your Song "Better Than I Know Myself" for Adam Lambert has a soaring high note at the end of the chorus. Is that an example of how you highlight someone's vocal abilities?

I put that note there because I knew Adam could sing it. If you don't capitalize on the artist's gift, you are almost doing yourself a disservice. You don't want to overdo it, but you want people to understand why this singer's voice is so special. With Adam, he can hit anything he wants. When we did that chorus, I wanted to give him a "money note," something that would blow people away. He nailed it every time. With a song, you have three minutes and 30 seconds to get people's attention and make them forget about what's going on in the world. You want those minutes to count.

Can you talk about your work writing for TV and movies?

I love storytelling and imagery, so when someone gives me a script or a theme and wants a song for it, I thrive. I wrote a song for Sex and the City 2 called "Love Is Your Color," a duet by Jennifer Hudson and Leona Lewis that played with the ending credits. I wrote two songs for Christina Aguilera to sing in the movie Burlesque. It's funny: The movie didn't do that well, but the soundtrack did very well. It went gold and stayed in the top 200 charts for almost a year. People liked the music. I want to do more work for film. One of my goals is to do a whole soundtrack and get into film scoring at some point.

What artists have had the most influence on your writing?

I would say Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Whitney Houston, Sting and the Police, Babyface, and Sade. You find yourself going back to things you loved. The reason we are all in music—whether it's playing the trumpet or scoring a film—is that we're chasing the chill factor. Probably as kids, we heard a song and it hit us, giving us goose bumps on the back of the neck. As musicians, basically we are trying every day to get that feeling back again. Some days we get it, some days we don't. It's the reason we buy CDs and DVDs, go to concerts, and write music. It's a little bit of heaven that we're chasing.

This is why I'm in the studio every day trying to write a song that might have the chill factor. Sometimes you realize as you're writing that there is something special happening. I had that feeling about "Hold My Hand" and "Bittersweet." But other times, you don't realize you've written something like that until you hear the performance. I wrote "Grenade" pretty quickly. Then I left town and kind of forgot about it. It wasn't until I heard it on the radio that I got a chill from it. We're chasin' the chills. That's the bottom line.

People who really love music and are in it for the right reasons understand that. The chill factor is more important than money or other things to these people. You can feel it when you're in a room with someone who feels that way. These are the only people I want to work with. That's the reason why people live and die by their music and commit to this lifestyle and career, which are difficult. I can't see myself doing anything else. I do nothing for the money, I'm always thinking, "Today might be the day that I get a song like that."

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