Award-winning pop master writes the songs that the whole world sings, because no one sings along to production
FROM HIS KMA studio space in Times Square, songwriter/producer Claude Kelly lives his dream and builds his legacy. After getting his big break with Akon in 2007, he soon signed with Warner/Chappell Publishing. Scarcely two years later, the New York native sat at #14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Songwriters, having penned smash hits for Kelly Clarkson (“My Life Would Suck Without You”), Britney Spears (“Circus”), Miley Cyrus (“Party in the U.S.A.”), and many others.
Now, having barely cracked his third decade, this musical natural who was playing piano before he could climb onto the stool by himself could brag about his songs selling more than 25 million copies worldwide—that is if he wasn’t so busy writing and producing more singles. Kelly hosts a never-ending string of top pop artists in his studio—names you may have heard of, like Flo Rida, Bruno Mars, Pitbull, Ke$ha, and Christina Aguilera.
He’s graduated now from “it boy” multi- Grammy-nominated songwriter to multi- Grammy-nominated executive producer of albums from Tamia, Jessie J, and there’s plenty more on the way, on Kelly’s breakneck journey to becoming one of the new musical auteurs—a behind-the-scenes mensch guiding the path for some of popular music’s biggest stars of today and tomorrow.
When did you start writing songs?
I actually didn’t start writing until I graduated from Berklee College of Music. I went to college thinking I’d get into A&R, and wasn’t even looking at songwriting as a career path. I discovered it kind of by happenstance. I came back to New York, and a bunch of my friends were in a studio, writing, and I was sitting in the back giving my two cents and saying what I thought was good or not. I got bit by the bug just hanging around the studio and quickly fell in love with it and made it my passion really fast.
A very high percentage of your writing credits on albums end up becoming singles. Is that something you know will happen go- ing into it, or do you just have a knack for it?
It’s definitely something that is never promised. And that doesn’t change throughout your career. Getting singles is never a guarantee. You really have to earn it by being the best of the bunch. I try to get in with artists on a personal level and find out what’s going on with them. That helps create something the artists can attach themselves to, so they want to perform it and fight for it as a single. I’ve been very fortunate, but it’s not something that’s promised. I just really worked my ass off and do my homework to make sure the songs are capturing who the artist is.
Is there a feeling you get when a song has hit potential?
Honestly, I am the suckiest at knowing what’s a hit, but I definitely get a feeling when I know a song is special. It’s something I really can’t explain, but it’s the knowledge that the right voice hits on the right lyric and the right melody. When you know it can’t be any more perfect, I know I have a good song. I try not to leave the studio with an artist before I have a feeling that we have something special, and that’s important to me. Whether it’s a hit or not is determined by so many other things—the label, the marketing, the timing. But I like to leave the studio with something that could potentially be a hit.
You often have artists watch movies before or during a session. What’s the concept behind that, and what kind of results do you get?
First of all, it’s a good conversation starter. Sometimes you’ll work with an artist you’ve never met before; it’s kind of impersonal. Movies and TV break the ice. I love Game of Thrones, Scandal, and a few others. You can get a lot of a person’s personality from what they’re watching, and sometimes a movie in the studio on mute can set the mood. If you want it to be epic and grand, you’d put on Avatar or The Lord of the Rings— something big and over the top. If you want romance, you might put on a love story. It allows the artist to feel comfortable because it’s a movie they love. It’s kind of a cool little trick I use to set the emotional tone for the writing and recording.
What’s your greatest strength at songwriting?
I’m really big on melodies that are unique and that people can sing along to. And I don’t want lyrics that are for nothing; I like to tell a story all the way through that people can relate to. People don’t sing along to production. They don’t sing along to the beat or the drums. They sing along to the lyrics and melody that will stand the test of time. I fell in love with music that had stories, and I want the same for my songs.
You branched out into more genres around 2011. Was that a deliberate choice or was that due to opportunities that came from your growing reputation?
I think it’s more about people searching out my style. I was always interested in everything from pop to rock, R&B, gospel, and jazz. The industry has a bad habit of putting you in boxes. I don’t believe in genres. I believe genres are to attract sales. That’s not my responsibility. So in 2011 I think the industry caught up with what I could do with my diversity, but I’ve always been there.
Now that the industry caught up with you, are you able to pick a lot of your own projects?
If it’s a big, top artist, it could mean a lot of money, and you don’t turn it down. I like to balance that with passion projects with artists who may not be that big or have the budget. A lot of R&B artists don’t have the money that Britney Spears has, but are incredibly talented. I get a lot and learn a lot from working with Miley and Britney as much as I do working with Ledisi and Tamia and artists like that.
How much do the Grammy and Billboard nods affect you business-wise? Are you able to raise your rate, get bigger projects, etc.?
I think it’s awesome that people respect your work and want to reward you for it, but this industry works different, I think. If you’re nominated for an Oscar as an actor, your pay scale is better and you get more elite roles, but that’s not really the case here. You earn your work day by day. I’ve seen plenty of Grammy winners who never had another hit record, and plenty who’ve had many, many hits. It’s really about re-proving myself day by day, and in terms of price point, I don’t price myself out of any opportunity, because you never know where your next success will be. It’s almost more enjoyable to watch a rise to the top, like [singer/songwriter] Olly Murs, than an artist who already had several Number Ones.
You have production chops, too. When did you get into that?
Songwriting and production came together at the same time. I’m a bit of an imaginative weirdo; I hear all of this in my mind. I know what I want to hear sonically, so it’s more about me saying, “I think this should be piano, rather than guitar,” or “you should change the drum sound here because it’ll make the chorus better.” It’s all for the sake of making the song as good as possible. I don’t profess to be a Timbaland or a Dr. Dre, but I put my two cents in.
Do you consider yourself to be a vocal specialist?
Yeah, I’m a singer first. I demo all the songs almost to a T how it should be on the radio. I’m really good at bringing out a singer’s best, vocally. A lot of songwriters have someone else track their vocals; I’m very hands-on. I tell artists at the beginning I’m going to be hard on you; I’m going to get the best vocal out of you as possible, and because of that, they trust me. They see my track record and allow me to really push them to get—not so much a perfect vocal— what’s believable. I’m looking for emotion.
Besides capturing emotion, do you have any vocal production tips?
Everyone uses [Antares] Auto-Tune, because it’s very popular and gives your vocals perfect pitch. It’s a great tool. I’ve used it, but I don’t believe in over-using it to the point that it sounds robotic. I’ve found that a better program is [Synchro Arts] VocALign. That’s one of my favorites. A lot of times it’s not the artist out of pitch, it’s when you’re asking them to double their own voice. It’s really difficult for anyone to match themselves identically on vocal comps. VocALign kind of ties your vocals together, and a lot of times it sounds perfect without using Auto-tune at all. I spend a lot of time making a sound that’s true to a live performance.
How important is it for a songwriter to know at least some production?
Bad engineers can make or break your session. If they’re slow, if they don’t know what they’re doing, if they’re messing it up with plug-ins, it kills the vibe. Really early on, I worked with a producer who made me record myself, and I hated it. I was so bitter. But that was the best, because I know if something’s wrong, I can fix it. I know how to go in there myself and make things right. It’s really like helping yourself. I don’t profess to be an engineer. I don’t know all the details, but I know the basics of how to mix and how to record.
What’s the balance between concentrating on songwriting and studio production?
First thing is always creating an amazing song that you’re proud of all the way through. Once you have the song, the production is secondary. The production could go a million ways. You could make it a country song, a rock song, or even hip-hop using the production and arrangement. The third thing is the vocal. That’s the order for me: an amazing song, an amazing production that supports it, and an amazing vocal performance.
What’s the most important equipment in your studio?
I’m always partial to singers, so I love to use [Neumann] U47 and U87 mics for top vocals. Of course, Pro Tools or something like Logic, but I’m more of a Pro Tools guy. You need some preamps and all those things, but really for me, it’s funny. You spend so much money on equipment and all these crazy tech things, but we are the business of selling vibe and emotion. The most important thing about having a studio is creating an environment where artists feel comfortable to create. I’m essentially a therapist. You’re asking someone to come into your therapy room and feel comfortable enough to share. You want to make sure that the colors are right, the lights. Sometimes you want flowers or candles that set the tone.
Do you have any ambitions to do solo projects?
I’ve always put it on the back burner because I know what it takes to be an artist, and I respect it so much that in order to do it, you have to dedicate 100 percent of your time. Songwriting takes up so much of my life, but I definitely have aspirations. I have a great respect for people like Quincy Jones and Babyface for being the maestro and bringing people together. Doing soundtracks or specialized projects where I call in some of my very talented friends to sing with me or sing on songs I’ve written: I would never rule that out. But it has to be a creative project rather than just being an artist and going through the bouts of emotion that I see every day.
Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools and Charged Electric Vehicles.