Hit Songwriter and Alumnus Claude Kelly Imparts Knowledge to Summer Songwriting Students

Salim ALi
July 28, 2017
Claude Kelly giving songwriting workshop
Hit songwriter Claude Kelly B.M. '02 speaks to students in Berklee's Songwriting Workshop summer program.
Image by Salim ALi

Students at Berklee’s five-day summer Songwriting Workshop recently received a wealth of knowledge in a clinic from one of the music industry's most prominent songwriters, alumnus Claude Kelly B.M. ‘02. A Grammy-nominated hit songwriter with credits on more than 100 songs, Kelly has written for Bruno Mars, Whitney Houston, Flo Rida, Jesse J, Christina Aguilera, and many more.

Kelly is also half of the duo Louis York, alongside his longtime cowriter Chuck Harmony. The pair founded Weirdo Workshop, an independent label presenting an eclectic array of artists, with its releases distributed by the Sony-owned RED Distribution.

Kelly’s session with students, which was was moderated by Bonnie Hayes, chair of Berklee’s Songwriting Department, included much great advice for the eager crowd of workshop attendees. He shared his music business experience and shed light on topics such as the songwriting process, collaboration, competition, self-care, and production. Below is an edited and abridged version featuring some of his insights.

Watch Berklee students perform a tribute to Kelly, featuring Kelly himself:

On collaboration:

“I’m always surprised at what comes out when I open myself up to collaboration. Even if I go in and have it all figured out, someone comes in and they say, ‘Well, what if you did it this way? What if you change that word to this?’ And sometimes I don’t agree. I try it anyway and it’s after hearing it or hearing an artist singing it that I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So I learned through trial and error that it’s good to be 100 percent open-minded. One hundred percent. It’s not really about you. If you’re writing songs to sell to another artist, then your only job is to write the best possible song for that artist.”

"I learned through trial and error that it’s good to be 100 percent open-minded."

On the value of writing some bad songs:

“Every song you get out makes room for the next song. So that really bad song you’re writing? Finish it. Get through it, because making those mistakes helps you get them out of the way for the big ones that are either for you or for somebody else. When I was a kid the rule was if you start something you have to finish it. For example, if I took up flute in September, I couldn’t quit because it got hard in December. It taught me that if you get through it, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a professional flutist, but it means you've learned a set of tools… So I’ve done many songs that were terrible because I was trying to do something different. Like, 'I’m inspired by George Michael today,' so I start writing this song and it comes out and it totally sucks. But in the process of doing it, I figure out how to arrange vocals differently… As a songwriter it’s all about collecting a bag of tricks.”

"Every song you get out makes room for the next song. So that really bad song you’re writing? Finish it."

On the importance of research:

"It’s important to know more than just the songs you like if you’re going to be a good songwriter. That’s how you get in the door…and part of it is knowing who is walking through the door. I had a session with the late and extraordinary Whitney Houston. I worked on her last album... I wasn’t worried about it because I knew all of her songs. I knew who she liked, and I know all the people they liked, and I knew where she was from, and I knew all of the musicals she had talked about liking. I knew she grew up around Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick… We talked about things that we both knew and had in common. That’s what helps in songwriting and that’s what helps move a session along.”

On knowing your worth:

“There is no music industry without songwriters. If people like us don’t come with clever ideas and melodies, there’s no business. So don’t let people shortchange you or use you because, at the end of the day, a songwriter needs to be there for the business to make money.”

On self-care and dealing with rejection:

“There's definitely not enough focus on taking care of yourself as musicians. It never gets easier. There’s a process of creation that’s a bliss...and there’s a process of let-down that feels like the end of the world. And if you don't figure out how to cope with that roller coaster then you have a hard time. I think we’ve all heard the success stories but not really the pitfalls. Peace comes from learning every day and knowing your best is good enough. No one has a monopoly on the 'goodness' of music. Just because a certain company says you’re not good enough, or a certain artist doesn’t get it, doesn’t mean you’re actually not good enough. It means it may not be the best place for you or the right home for your song."

"No one has a monopoly on the 'goodness' of music."

"But it can be devastating to be rejected—and by the way, the rejection never ends. I get rejected from stuff all the time. But having really supportive friends and family is good. So finding ways to keep yourself in love with music is important.”

Watch a music video for "Nerds" by Louis York: