That Grape Juice Interviews Claude Kelly

Published: Thursday 23rd Jun 2011 by Sam

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!


Your thoughts?

Comments 36

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  1. carl June 23, 2011

    Pink? LMAO… I ain’t NEVER heard that word associated with her… but ok.

  2. ASAP (As Sincere As Possible) June 23, 2011

    Interesting interview. I loved what he said about Bionic.Such an amazing album.WooHoo, that was co-written by Claude Kelly, is a personal favorite. It doesn’t take itself too seriously,it’s fun and it’s just epic in its own right. (I agree with almost everything that he said in the interview, but Pink a legend???Chris Brown a budding legend????I love them both and I own all their albums but they’re NOT there yet.

  3. Malibu Barbie June 23, 2011

    Pink is amazing! shes underrated heavily! shes a TRUE artist.. and paved the way for alotta of ur favs.. for example christina aguilera’s STRIPPED album.. e.t.c.
    this interview bored me. it seemed as if SAM was begging Claude to throw shade

  4. A G N E L LO__ D E I June 23, 2011


  5. XXOO June 23, 2011

    Yall clearly cant read. He said Pink was on her way to becoming a legend not that she already is one.

    Love Claude Kelly, great interview.

  6. ASAP (As Sincere As Possible) June 23, 2011

    @XXOO We actually can read and there is no need to be defensive.I just don’t think that Pink has contributed enough to be considered a soon-to-be legend.When you say that someone is “heading at a legendary territory” he/she must have a huge back catalogue of critically acclaimed AND commercially successful singles/albums.Does Pink have that???

  7. ASAP (As Sincere As Possible) June 23, 2011

    I actually love P!nk and I think she’s one of the best in the industry, but she has a long way to go until we can say that she’s close to legendary status

  8. Kemical June 23, 2011

    yall need to format the interviews..better so it’ll be easier to digest..
    …ima walmart guy myself, but since Kmart giving away shopping sprees JUST 4 a damn email.. i said why

  9. Stage June 23, 2011

    i love what Claude said about Whitney. In fact most people who have worked with her always say that she is one of the nicest persons to work with. Also, she’s helped som many other artists in thier careers by sharing her shine from Mary J Blige to Brandy to Monica to Faith, to Kelly, I mean I don’t know of anyother other artist who has done so many female collabos at her level with no hint of jealousy.

    I love her to pieces.

  10. dane June 23, 2011

    Imma need claude to go sit down somewhere with Pink , i don’t think of her that way. Glad to see an up and coming person come into their own and realize their dreams and potential.

    Whitney is a living legend, nuff said. her and MJ, there will never be any like hem again.

  11. st.ALLAN June 23, 2011

    im really hoping Tamia comes out with an album this year. that girl can SING! and i have no clue as to why she remains underrated. i hope he wrote her some good song to

  12. st.ALLAN June 23, 2011

    i gave no clue as to why yall hating on P!nk… she has had a better and consistent career from all the artist of her generation (late 90’s early2000). as you can see britney xtina jessica simpson are flopping like fish out of water…but not pink. when she came out they said she would have a short career cuz she was the bad girl.. now i laugh cuz britney xtina and jessica are the ones with the eating disorders and drug and alcohol addictions…

    she won 3 grammy’s on her own while remaining an underrated artist….this girl is phenomenal

  13. Robier June 23, 2011

    Abut his Music construction….. spoken like a real musician. I like his words.

  14. Royalkev June 23, 2011

    Wow, I found this guy to be really inspiring. All that he said was sensible and I think songwriters and performers really should study their history like he advised. There will always be more to learn, but having some knowledge gives you a foundation. it will help with your artistry. This guy was really impressive.

    I’m so glad to hear those kind words about Queen Whitney. I didn’t expect anything else.

    Pink, hmmm okay. She has 1 really amazing piece of work with Missunderstood. I’d say the rest has been hit or miss!

    Bey & Usher – I agree with 100%

    Ciara – Great job with summing up the key to her comeback!

    Xtina – Really good observation!

    Rihanna, Chris and Gaga – That’s fair. There’s room for improvement. I personally think Chris has the most talent. Rihanna does have her own lane and with Gaga I just need to see something from her that feels honest.

    Tamia’s summer’s album – I look forward to.

    Cool read!

  15. MKoe June 23, 2011

    he seems to be a really nice guy and he has written amazing songs, but i don’t see what’s so special about pink, she’s totally overrated!

  16. Legendtina4life June 23, 2011

    Pink ain’t s***. She was never really big and still isn’t. She didn’t pave the way for anyone and hasn’t done anything groundbreaking.

  17. Lock June 23, 2011

    Chris Brown? Nope!!! Usher? Nope!!!! Pink? I love her.

  18. Holla June 23, 2011

    Good interview Sam!

  19. stargazer June 23, 2011

    Very good interview. Claude seems to be a very versatile songwriter and producer and that is rare in this business. I enjoyed this interview and the kind wrods he had to say about Miss Whitney Houston.

    I expected nothing less, i’ve never heard her peers say anything bad about her and i hope that Claude gets to work with her on the waiting to exhale sequel soundtrack.

  20. SweetLeaf June 23, 2011

    “I’m also back in the studio Adam Lambert on the Pop side” ~ ~ ~ YEAH! I’m sooo looking forward to Adam Lambert’s second album!!! =)

  21. Antonio June 23, 2011

    #DEAD at the people saying P!nk isn’t a soon to be legend.
    Can’t Take Me Home – 5 million WW
    M!zzundastood – 15 million WW
    Try This – 2.5 million WW
    I’m Not Dead – 6 million WW
    Funhouse – 7 million WW,
    Greatest Hits So Far – 2 million WW, her total WW album sales are approaching 40 million, without the addition of singles/videos and DVDs
    The Funhouse Tour grossed nearly $175 million WW and is one of the 25 highest grossing tours of all time and the I’m Not Dead Tour grossed over $125 million WW, and P!nk has done all that with only 3 #1s and 3 Grammys. P!nk is a great writer: Just Like a Pill, Family Portrait, Don’t Let Me Get Me, Dear Mr. President, U + Ur Hand, Sober, Please Don’t Leave Me, I Don’t Believe You, Glitter in the Air and F*****’ Perfect are some of the best Pop songs I’ve ever heard. She’s easily next to Beyonce, Gaga and Ciara, the best female performer of our generation, she’s just underrated as f*** because she’s not in the spotlight. I kind of agree of the with his comments on Ciara. She does need to go back to that Urban/Pop sound she had with songs like Get Up, 1, 2 Step, Like a Boy and Lose Control, then she’ll have some more hits, but Ciara made that sound hot and when she stopped doing it, it faded away, so maybe if she brings it back, she’ll be back on top. Ciara has the potential to be a legend, because everyone, especially people within the industry, recognize her talent. She’s a good writer: Goodies, And I, Other Chicks, Promise, Like a Boy, My Love, So Hard, Heavy Rotation, I Run It, Love’s Funny and Flaws all have really good lyrics. She’s a great performer and her videos are all very good, she doesn’t have a epic single or album like P!nk had with Mizzundastood and Get the Party Started, Beyonce had with Dangerously in Love and Crazy in Love and Rihanna had with Umbrella and GGGB.

  22. st.ALLAN June 23, 2011

    as an underrated artist P!nk out sells and out shines overrated (sometime talent lacking) artist like Britney Spears and Rihanna.

    i agree with @antonio p!nk has committed herself to being a real artist doing what she wants to do and not what she is being told to do or is being done by other artist… she is truely unique…and if you cant agree with me then u really need to sit down and listen to her music and then get back to me

  23. ASAP (As Sincere As Possible) June 23, 2011

    Nobody doubted Pink’s craftmanship, but legend is a HUUUGE word (and massively overused).I don’t need you to provide sales stats, that’s not what makes a legend.P!NK is an icon and I would never try to discredit her but saying that a person with 5 albums could soon be proclaimed a legend is far-fetched. I think she’s one of the best and most consistent ARTISTS in the industry, but she is by no means close to being a legend

  24. nice_gurl June 23, 2011

    Glad he mentioned Bey and Usher for legends. My two favourite artists. But what about Alicia Keys? People seem to forget about her these days. Nice interview, and glad that different questions were asked.

  25. tae June 24, 2011

    Well spoken about ciara n I actually agree with the pink statement

  26. browngirl June 24, 2011

    i can’t believe i just read all that. lol
    good interview.
    agree with what he said about pink, beyonce, usher and chris brown.

  27. RP June 28, 2011

    Thankyou Claude!!!! I can’t STAND peopel sometimes
    ! it’s just music! peopel are SO freaking sensitive! They shouldn’t jump to conlusions all becuase of one single. Look at dirrty, That was a crazy first single but then came Beautiful. Where are the TRUE xtina fans? Im not saying they had to like bionic but AT LEAST respect it cuase whether u like it or not, xtina worked hard on it and peopel only parise something if THEY like it! how selfish! And noooooooo!! It’s not fair. When was xtina supposed to know peoepl were ready? Xtina made no mistake people need to get a freaking grip! They act like the world will end cuase of a first single! Sometimes, i want to give people a good slap in the face! I mean, i can see where some are coming from, but come ON! Lets not be ignorant…she’s a reinventor. It’s not fair! Im starting to think NO time would have been perfect. It’s not fair to xtina….how was SHE supposed to know when people were ready? I don’t think people EVER would be! This is why it’s hard to be an artist cuase peoepl are stuck up, selfish, and picky! shame! Don’t worry xtina..i respect all ur work and always will.

  28. Rakel Park June 28, 2011

    Thankyou Claude!!!! I can’t STAND peopel sometimes
    ! it’s just music! peopel are SO freaking sensitive! They shouldn’t jump to conlusions all becuase of one single. Look at dirrty, That was a crazy first single but then came Beautiful. Where are the TRUE xtina fans? Im not saying they had to like bionic but AT LEAST respect it cuase whether u like it or not, xtina worked hard on it and peopel only parise something if THEY like it! how selfish! And noooooooo!! It’s not fair. When was xtina supposed to know peoepl were ready? Xtina made no mistake people need to get a freaking grip! They act like the world will end cuase of a first single! Sometimes, i want to give people a good slap in the face! I mean, i can see where some are coming from, but come ON! Lets not be ignorant…she’s a reinventor. It’s not fair! Im starting to think NO time would have been perfect. It’s not fair to xtina….how was SHE supposed to know when people were ready? I don’t think people EVER would be! This is why it’s hard to be an artist cuase peoepl are stuck up, selfish, and picky! shame! Don’t worry xtina..i respect all ur work and always will.

  29. Mr. D March 4, 2012

    Really enjoyable read. I wish he’d asked how a writer can get into the biz who does not sing or produce?

    I can’t get anyone to sing my songs even as demos. I write great lyrics intended for top 40 music . Any interest please email.

    Names Rob. Btw, i’m proud of you Claude!!

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