In continuing to expand our cause, That Grape Juice will, alongside our staple celebrity interviews, also serve up candid features with noted names behind the glitz of the industry. What better way, then, to continue this foray into the relatively unknown, than with a sit-down chat with acclaimed songwriter Claude Kelly.
The much-sought after songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston, talks openly with us about how he broke into the industry, working with Whitney Houston and her ‘new’ voice, Christina Aguilera’s ‘Bionic’, how he’d mastermind a Ciara comeback and much more.
As ever, we ask the questions you really want answers to. And answer Kelly did. A great read, if we must say so ourselves! Enjoy.
Sam: Hey Claude! How are you?
Claude: What’s up Sam?! I’m good. Busy as usual it’s raining over here.
Are you based in New York?
I live in New York. I’m not here as much I wish I would, I travel A LOT.
While many music enthusiasts are familiar with you and your catalogue of hits, there also some that aren’t. Tell us a little about your journey to date?
It’s a long twisted story (laughs). But I’ve studied music all my life. I studied classical piano since about the age of 2/3 years old. I played classical piano all the way through school and through high school. And then I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston when I was 17.
I always sang in choir in New York, I performed a lot as a child. I sang with some writers you probably know of like Little Eddie and Autumn Rowe and a bunch of other people. (I) Never knew song writing was going to be career for me, never knew it was a career. And when I graduated from Boston and came back to New York, I was broke and needed a way to make money, and a bunch of friends of mine were in the studio, and I kind of just tried song writing as an extra. Like “let me just try it since I’m sitting here and see if it works out”. And then all of a sudden it came to me, ‘like oh man I love this. I’m good at it”.
At 20 I went full force. I was at the studio non-stop, I took any session I could get, worked anywhere; any studio just writing. I built up relationships and then I finally worked my way up, I had little cuts here and then, and then I finally met Akon. We, of course, did Leona Lewis ‘Forgive me’, the Whitney Houston record (‘I Look to You’) and the Michael Jackson record. From there I met Dr Luke and then from there I did a bunch of Pop records, and it’s been non-stop ever since!
Wow. This is all so recent; the Leona record came out just a few years ago?
Yeah! However, at that point, I’d been songwriting for a while. Since 2001 – to be exact. I believe Leona came out, when was it? 2007? So 6 years of non-stop ‘no’s’. Doors slammed in my face, or “no you’re not good enough, come back again.” Basically, lot of that before I actually started getting major placement attention. In 2007 it blew up, it didn’t blow up in a small way… everything just happened really fast.
As you mentioned, you’ve penned hits for everyone from Whitney Houston, to Michael Jackson, to Christina Aguilera to Fantasia. Beyond the financial pay-off, whose project has been most rewarding for you personally?
I would say there are two: would be Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. Only because they are still my idols. Those are the people I wanted to be like; I wanted to sing like them, that is the music I listened to day in day out. So the best thing for me was to have those placements early in my career. While everyone was aspiring to get that Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston record, I got that earlier on and it allowed me to put that in the pack and be creative and do things people wouldn’t expect me to do. You feel me? Now that I’ve done that, let me try writing a Rock record, a Country record, let me try do this. That was my old type goal, now it’s my new type goal.
What was it like working with her? And what many have identified as her ‘new voice’.
You know what, Whitney Houston is actually one of the nicest artists I’ve ever worked with. For someone of her stature, her caliber, she was so supportive. She was really encouraging and she’s actually done more for me – encouraging me behind the scenes and in public.
I spent a lot of time with her in the studio; we did 3 songs on the ‘I Look to You’ album. So she was nice, she gave me advice, she encouraged me to keep on going.
She told me how she knew I would make it and how proud she is of me. So that’s priceless, a priceless experience I don’t think I could have ever received from anybody else.
And in terms of vocals, I’m not a star-struck person. I never have been. My main goal as an artist is to make sure I can get the best vocal performance that I possibly can and when I went in with her it was no different. We recorded until we got it right. So if I had to, I’ll tell her she needs to do it again and she was also was very open to suggestion and wanted to get the best performance she can, so it was good for both of us.
Another notable project you leant your pen to was Christina Aguilera’s ‘Bionic’. Yet, while received well in some corners, the LP didn’t fare well commercially. Why do you think that was?
I think it was a number of reasons; there’s a right time, right place for everything. I think the album – even right now – has never really been heard. I think people heard the first single and drew their conclusion and panned it without really giving it the fair listen it deserved. I did about 5 songs on the album, none of which got the exposure they deserved.
And I think if people did hear the full album the way she intended it to be heard, people would have a different impression of it. It’s not for me to say it’s her best album or her worst album. But… it’s a damn good album and I think people kind of trashed it after the first single like a piece of crap and didn’t want to hear it.
She works very hard and she has a vision and had a lot to say and did a lot of cool vocal things that was out the box for her. I think people weren’t ready to hear that from her yet, but she’s risen and learnt from her mistakes. And I think the next time she’ll come out even bigger. We are already planning on working again. I’m not even going to worry about it.
You’re funnily enough the ‘Moon Head’, Jessie J refers to in her smash ‘Price Tag’, which you co-wrote. What would you say has been the secret behind her success?
There’s no secret about it. It’s just that Jessie’s success is long overdue. She should have been a huge massive star 2 years ago. I heard Jessie J at a showcase, I would say at the 2009 Grammy’s, and she performed in front of a bunch of industry people in LA back then. And she was a star back then in my eyes. Her success is totally based on her will-power and her just fighting, fighting to the top.
Often times when people sing that damn good, people get scared and they don’t know what to do with it.
She’s really that amazing. So we wrote a lot of songs, we wrote ‘Party in the USA’ (Miley Cyrus) together – which was initially for her album at the time. The powers that would be didn’t really feel like it was a suitable fit for her so it ended up with somebody else, so I say thank God it’s a good hit.
From then we got back to work and did ‘Price tag’ and the record label liked it. So I guess everything in its time ‘cause she’s blown up now so and I can’t be more than happy for her. She deserves it. She’s the real deal. There’s no fakeness, there’s no auto tune, no fake vocals. It’s all her. You watch her sing live you can’t deny her.
There tends to be confusion among those who don’t compose music about how the songwriting process works. Beat first lyrics first etc. How does your typical process work?
For me, I go by gut first, so the songs usually come at the same time. I’m a story-teller; I’m kind of an imaginative weird creative person. So I usually picture some kind of video or scene or what I want to say right away. I don’t write anything down – I go behind the mic.
I literally write the song line by line from beginning to end as if I’m telling a story. I start with the first line, second line, go into the chorus second verse, choruses. Bridge. However the song pans out (is how it is), but for me there’s no real structure to the writing of a lot the songs I’ve written.
But for me it has to feel right first, I have never forced a lyric. I feel like music should be honest, even if it’s a silly cheesy Pop song. It has to be something that you believe the person is saying when you hear it. It has to be something everybody can relate to in the song.
Do you incorporate your own experiences?
(Laughs) I don’t do it on purpose, I think a lot of times I look back and I’m like oops, that’s my life. I never do it on purpose because usually when I’m with the artist, I asked them what’s going on with them, I want it to be their personally story because gives them a better performance when they sing about their own life experience.
A lot of times with the artists whom I’m good friends with now, we share similar backgrounds, similar up-bringing or similar experiences. It kind of becomes a case of my life story is their life story – by accident but never on purpose.
In recent years, many acts have come under fire for not penning their own music. How important, in today’s industry, do you feel it is for an artist to write their own material?
I don’t think it’s that important honestly. I think that if the artist is a good songwriter, then by all means write your own lyrics. I feel like a lot of the times the artist feels like they have to write their own music, If not they aren’t cool enough. I think that is totally bullshit.
There have been many artists that we know of, Whitney Houston being one, and a bunch of others in that caliber that didn’t write their own music. But you have singers, you have singer-songwriters and you have interpreters; some people are this, then they take a song and make it their own.
If more artists understood that, I think the music industry in some way would be better off, because it’s not always meant for you to write your own song, if you close your mind off that, you might be missing out on an amazing song because you feel like you can’t sing it because you didn’t write it and then it becomes bad business for everybody because a good song don’t get to see the light of day.
What are some of the new project’s you’re working on?
I’m doing a lot of R&B right now. I’m in R&B land and I’m happy about that. I’ve now done a lot of Pop, people forget that I write R&B as well (laughs). So I did 3 songs on Ledisi’s new album. She’s amazing. Gosh I don’t even know, I think 5 or 6 songs on Tamia’s new album.
Wow. We love Tamia. When is that coming out?
I believe she’s shooting for a late summer release; Tamia’s new album is so awesome, she can sing her ass off. I mean REALLY sing, we took some chances, we’re doing some classic, beautiful R&B as well as some simple things, but it’s good beautiful singing and storytelling.
I’m also back in the studio Adam Lambert on the Pop side, Kelly Clarkson – working with her again. Some country music with Martina McBride. I’m keeping myself busy, a bunch of UK artists, I’m working with Olly Murs again for his new album, I hope I can get back with Jessie again.
If you were given the role of executive producing a new Ciara record, which direction would you take her in and why?
Good question… let me think, let me think… I think Ciara is an easy one. Like when she first came out she was like an Atlanta down South chick that all the girls loved and boys wanted to be with. She was cool, the life of the party.
I think she needs to go back to that field; like very much base, drum-driven dance records, but also very fun, catchy Pop on top of it. A little less mysterious and dark and you know steamy. More “I’m your girl next door with the fly body, who can dance and who has fun”. Like that fun summer time bop she had, when she did ‘1,2 Step’ and ‘Goodies’. I love that stuff. And I think that stuff is honestly missing on the radio and I think she can do it.
Name 3 artists who you would say are heading towards legend territory, and 3 who have the potential yet need much more work?
Ok heading to legend territory…I think Pink. Pink in my opinion is probably the best Pop artist we have. The most consistent female Pop artist in the game right now hands down. She never sounds bad, her records are consistent every single time, she looks great, and her songs always have honesty and are real. so Pink is definitely heading towards legend status. I think Beyonce – obviously. She’s amazing! And Usher.
Man these are good questions (laughs). I think GaGa is heading there, she’s still a new artist so there’s no telling. But obviously she has the world domination now for her to do that. I think the whole world is waiting to see what is next with her; she has the world in her hand right now.
It all depends what she does with the next album and the next album and the one after that, she’s certainly on her way.
I think Rihanna has a clever lane, I think at some point she will certainly have a number 1 album. She has a niche all on her own. At some point she should try to switch it up. I think her music is fun and has it’s place. And third person, gees, who is not there yet, dammit! These are good questions let me see… I don’t know man, let me come back to that, I want to give you a good answer.
(Laughs). I’ll hold you to it!
For as big as the industry is, it’s still somewhat closed off to newcomers. What would you say are the most important tools to make it in today’s industry?
Internet, it’s that simple. It seems that is closed off but it’s actually way more open then when I was trying to get into the industry and pass generations.
Because you can get heard the way that you could never get heard before. Back in the day you had to have a meeting at a label and people were camping outside record labels, and outside manger’s offices hoping to give them a CD or a tape or whatever it was back then.
And now people can just subscribe to it with the press of a button on a computer. I always tell this to people who ask me how do I break into this business.
I’m like YouTube and iTunes and all these different things, because I find new singers that way. I find people that I love that way. Twitter, Facebook all that stuff just makes it so easy because you can just find people by word of mouth and you can find out if you are good or really are what you say you are in like 5 seconds. Whereas before people would have to go out your way to meet people and find people to be heard.
It’s so easy now and there’s also no excuse not to know what you’re doing and not be on top of your game. Because all the information is there. So if you tell me you’re an R&B singer, and I ask you ok what are the roots of R&B? And you don’t know who Aretha Franklin is; I’m not going to respect you because you can type in Aretha Franklin name on iTunes and find that out in 2 seconds. That means you’re really not that serious about your craft.
When all is said and done, how does Claude Kelly want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered for having shattered the barriers and stereotypes of what a songwriter is capable of. Especially a Black songwriter, I should say. There’s an expectation that if you’re a Black songwriter you should only be doing R&B music. Yet, the reality is that I’m not the first Black person to write a Pop record or a Rock record or even a Country record.
But that stereotype hasn’t been shattered yet and my goal is when I leave here, when I leave this earth or when I stop working, is for people to say, ‘man this guy was really that good’, not a good R&B writer, but a good writer. He wrote for everyone. Not because of the money but because he did his homework and really loved music and did whatever he could do whether people said he could do it or not. And that’s what I fight for every day.
Thanks Claude Kelly for your time, I really appreciate it.
I appreciate you more man, I’m a huge fan of your website I check it out every day. I don’t know how the hell you guys get your news first! You guys are like 8 hours ahead before anybody else in the game I go to you guys first.
Oh yeah I never gave you the third artist I said Rihanna and Gaga right. I think Chris Brown; I think he has some growing up to do. Obviously everybody knows that, I mean he’s been a public figure for a long time, but it’s been a little bit rocky for him. He’s talented if he can get past this stuff I think he has got a long, long career.
Claude Kelly, thank you very much for your time!