Interview with CLAUDE KELLY, songwriter for Christina Aguilera, Jason Derülo, Akon, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus - May 24, 2010
"In the music industry, you’re only as good as what you’ve done."
In a industry that, behind the scenes, favours proven blood over new blood it can be difficult to make your first decisive marks as a songwriter, a reality with which this week’s interviewee Claude Kelly would no doubt concur.
Since discovering his writer’s voice fresh out of Berklee College of Music in 2002, he struggled hard to establish his name, but once the breakthrough came and he was able to show the industry what he could do - first with Frankie J and then Akon - the gates to the cream of the pop crop opened. In the few years hence, Kelly has built up a resume most songsmiths would give their right arm for, with the likes of Leona Lewis, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, and even Michael Jackson having sung his words and melodies.
Now, on the eve of the release of his latest project - Christina Aguilera’s eagerly anticipated ‘Bionic’ album - we talk to the New York-based artist about working with a bona fide superstar, living in a studio and how the King Of Pop came to sing ‘Hold My Hand’ …
You’ve said you stumbled into songwriting, so how did you first get into the industry?
I’ve been involved in music since I was two or three, playing piano and singing but I never thought I was gonna be a songwriter when I grew up. It was always, I’m gonna be an artist – maybe even an A&R.
When I graduated from college and came back home, I realised that to make it in the music industry you have to try anything. So I stumbled in the studio and tried recording, and then tried my hand at songwriting for the first time. I realised I was pretty good at it and was like, maybe I should keep doing this and see where it goes.
And what were the songs that helped establish your name as a songwriter?
The first major song I got placed was called ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ for Frankie J, which was a single for him on his last album Priceless. I then did ’Forgive Me’, a single for Leona Lewis, and worked with Akon, and that was what really established my name in the industry.
You had a break earlier on in 2002 when one your songs ended up on a compilation for the Japanese clothing line A Bathing Ape. How did that come about?
That was literally the first or second year I turned to writing. It was a song I’d written for an urban artist called Tweet. It didn’t get to her, but somehow a producer got it to Japan for this compilation. The song is called ‘You’re Taking It’.
At the time I had no management so it was all a big surprise to me, and it finally gave me the confidence I needed to pursue and keep going.
You’re now managed by Michael ‘Make’ Mentore - how did you first hook up with him?
That was about eight years ago. We met through a mutual friend. He was looking for people to manage and I was looking to be managed, and we tried it out and it clicked, and we’ve been together ever since.
The music industry judges the success of a song by how well it does in the charts and many units it shifts. How do you measure the success of your own songs?
It’s based the reaction of people, never by the charts – it’s when people say, “Oh my god, that’s my favourite song!” or, “It made me cry!” or, “I’m going through that!” At the end of the day music is about touching people. So when people come up to me and say that they danced to that song or sing it in the car on the way to work then that’s the ultimate reward for me.
And by that reckoning which of your songs are you most pleased with?
There’s never a song on an album that I’m not happy with. I’m very, very particular about my work.
I’m really happy about the success of ‘Party In The U.S.A.’ [by Miley Cyrus]. I feel like it’s a song that has brought back happy fun pop. And I’m excited about the work that is coming with Christina Aguilera, because I think it’s very, very forward and futuristic and a style they haven’t heard from me before.
I’m also looking forward to some of the work I’m doing with Fantasia, which is almost like throwback R&B – it’s heartfelt “make you cry, make you laugh” music, and the complete opposite from Christina.
You’re clearly a busy individual at the moment – what’s the day-to-day life of Claude Kelly like?
My day-to-day life is probably never as much sleep as I want. I pretty much live in a studio – otherwise I’m between the airport and the studio. But honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love music and I love my job.
Besides being good at writing hit songs and enjoying living in studios, what other skills does a songwriter need to have in order to be as successful and prolific as yourself?
You need to be a people person because a lot of the time it’s not about you, it’s about making artists feel comfortable. You have to make them open up their heart, mind and voice to you in the studio.
It’s important that you’re pretty business savvy. You have to be on time for things and respectful …
Often A&Rs have a specific sound they’re looking for so you also have to be able to take good directions. You have to listen to what they tell you to do and try to deliver that.
Most of all, you need to do your homework outside of the studio. You need to constantly be studying music and listening to new and old music, and finding new inspirations. I’m learning all through the day when I’m not in the studio, digging through iTunes and buying things I’ve never heard before, or revisiting songs from the past that have helped me become better now.
As you say, you need to be a people person. You’ve worked alongside many hugely influential modern music makers - such as Dr Luke, Max Martin, Tricky Stewart – so as a songwriter are you always trying to cultivate good relationships?
Of course. It’s important to maintain relations with everybody you meet in the industry because it’s such a topsy-turvy industry, you never know who you’re going to need tomorrow or who’s going to help you the next day. How you treat people is sometimes more important than the music you’ve made.
I get along with everybody I work with. I respect them all for their talent - Luke, Tricky, Max … - they’re all incredible and I respect them, and they also respect me, so we work well.
Eventually it happens that you spend so much time with these people they become your friends. We spend hours and hours just sitting together - we laugh, we work hard, we get tired together, and hopefully we see success together.
As each producer has their own working styles, who would you say you have a natural fit and rapport with?
Luke, Tricky, Chuck Harmony (HQ interview) - that’s another one I really really adore. I’ve got great companionship with Akon. And JR Rotem, is someone I get along with well.
You seem to have a particularly productive relationship with Dr Luke in particular …
Luke and I have a very natural relationship - we have a great chemistry.
There’s never been a time that I’ve worked with him where we haven’t produced something that I’ve really loved. And after we finish collaborating and having a good time, we send our records out to who we think they could be great for at that point. It’s never a forced situation - like we’re writing this record for somebody.
One song you and Dr Luke created together is Britney Spears’ ‘Circus’. As the title song for the album, were you therefore asked to come up with a song with a circus theme?
When I went in with Luke we knew we were going to write something for her, but there was no concept, it was just knowing her style and knowing what she does.
Once Luke and I were in the studio, he played me the music he was working on for her, and we then based the song on what her life was like at the time and how people viewed her. It was a cool way to get people dancing and having fun, but also to have a slight message underneath of it all.
How does the writing process unfold?
I can’t give you all my tricks, but for the most part, Luke plays guitar and keys, and he’s incredible on programming, and also comes up with some amazing melodies sometimes. And then I write lyrics and melodies as well.
We sit down together with a guitar or maybe just with drums and programming, and come up with it all on the spot. It’s a very equal relationship.
You’ve recently worked with a variety of producers on Christina Aguilera’s upcoming album ‘Bionic’. It’s another stylistic reinvention for the artist. Did that affect the songwriting process for you in any way?
I welcome the changes and the creativity, as it keeps my mind fresh. She’s an incredibly aware artist and she knows what she wants to say and how she wants to sing it. So, for me, it was just jumping on board and helping bring some of her ideas and her concepts to life.
So she was giving you input on what she wanted from the songs?
Absolutely. I think people know her for her voice, and obviously for her videos and performances, but what people don’t know about her is that she’s actually a really good writer. She has good ideas, good melodies, good concepts … She’s really involved from the very beginning to the very end.
Apart from ‘Glam’ you supposedly wrote three other songs – can you give any idea about the inspirations and sounds of any of those tracks?
I’m really not allowed to speak about the tracklist or anything like that. I can say that the sound of the album on a whole is very futuristic and very fun. The records I did for her are all up-tempo and fun, they’re party anthems but at the same time have underlying messages. It’s all very edgy stuff.
There are some people wondering whether we’ll hear Christina’s signature voice that she’s become famous for, and I can definitely tell you that that’s there. She’s just exploring different parts of her voice.
What’s Christina like to work with? Did you have any expectations beforehand?
I didn’t hold any expectations. I obviously knew what her voice can do vocally, but I didn’t know her as a person - I had never met her before. I just thought she has this goal that whoever you go in with you’re going to have to work hard to meet her expectations.
I will say that she blew my mind, she was amazing, a very nice person too, very open to suggestions. Artists often get the name ‘superstar’ or ‘diva’ or whatever, and she really lives up to it, she is the full package. She can do it all, and she’s also nice and gracious throughout the process.
Once you’ve written a song, how involved are you then with how it is then produced? Are you still an active participant in the studio?
I’m active until the world hears the song on the radio. Once I put my thing on there it becomes a collaborative effort, and we all want to be happy with how it sounds. So after I write it I hear the production before it’s done, and we all come to an agreement on how it sounds.
With that control there aren’t any instances then where a song hasn’t come out like you hoped?
No, not really. I had instances where songs have leaked before they were supposed to come out, and so in that case the world had heard them before they were ready to be heard. That happens far too often, and that pisses me off. But when a song has actually gone to the label, I’m always happy with it, because at that point it’s as good as it’s going to get.
How about when you’ve been unsatisfied by a song you’ve written and then the final version has then exceeded your expectations?
That has happened many times, yeah [laughs].
Can you tell us how you got involved with contributing to Kelly Clarkson’s ‘My Life Would Suck Without You’?
That song I did with Max Martin and Dr Luke. I was looking for a first single for her album. I’d already recorded another song on her album called ‘Don’t Let Me Stop You’, so I’d already worked with Kelly to some extent on the album.
I believe Clive Davis had heard a rough idea of the guitar lick and some ideas that Max had put down, and then they brought me in to collaborate and flesh it all out with them. I wrote the top-line and melody with Max.
Although as yet unreleased, another very significant song in your discography is ‘Hold My Hand’ - can you describe the inspiration behind that and how it originally came to life?
The song was originally written with Whitney Houston in mind. Akon and I were in the studio working on songs for her for the ‘I Look To You’ album.
I was getting ready to run off to the airport, and had a few hours to go before I was due to leave and so just played the track. Akon wasn’t there, he’d left early to catch a flight too, and he left the track there for me. I’d heard it and loved it right away and wrote it, hoping that Whitney Houston would love it.
Then later Akon called me and said he loved it, and decided he wanted to keep it for himself, and so he recorded a version of it.
Then he went over to Michael Jackson in Las Vegas for what would have been his next album, and Michael Jackson heard it and loved it and decided he wanted to get on there, and so then it became a Michael Jackson record.
What do you think it was about the song that struck a chord with both Akon and Michael Jackson?
The song is really, really emotional. It’s about unity and has a message of friendship and togetherness that definitely struck a chord with Michael Jackson – that’s what he always sings about. Akon is an international artist, and so with him it has that world feel because it’s all about bringing people together.
Even though it’s not actually been released, has that track proved to be a calling card for you?
I’ve definitely got a lot of attention for it, and people have heard it because it leaked, of course, and people love it.
I’m not sure how it will be used after this, but it’s definitely something that I’m proud of and people know I’ve done. Michael Jackson was my favourite artist of all time so the fact that he even breathed on a song I wrote is an honour for me.
As a songwriter how is your status judged in terms of getting more projects? How does it work?
As with anything in the music industry, you’re only as good as what you’ve done. So as I work and songs come out, people realise that you’re talented and that you can do more than one thing, and that you’re here to stay for a little while. And so you can call when people love your songs.
People love the Kelly Clarkson, the Britney, the Miley Cyrus, or the Jason Derülo song (‘In My Head’), and I get work because of that.
Are you choosy with regards to projects that you work on?
Absolutely. I’m not a snob; I will work with anyone who has talent - race, gender, that doesn’t matter to me - but I take a great pride in what I do and I have to believe that the person is talented and has something to say. If an artist moves me, either big or small, I work with them.
How much song pitching do you do?
I still do a lot of song pitching. I’m a fan of music first and foremost, so I’m still pitching songs to artists that I love. Every day I hear another artist that amazes me and that I’d love to do. I often send songs to A&Rs and to labels hoping they’ll take the song on, and love it for a specific artist.
Do you have any examples of songs pitched successfully?
‘Party in the U.S.A.’ was a song that was pitched. We sent it to a label and they loved it for Miley Cyrus and she cut it.
I have a song coming out on the ‘Sex and the City 2’ soundtrack. It’s the closing number (‘Love Is Your Color’) with Jennifer Hudson and Leona Lewis. I wrote it with Salaam Remi, who’s also an executive producer of the music for the movie. We wrote that song and pitched it to the movie people and they loved it.
Sometimes I pitch the songs, but you have to have keep some songs for when I’m in the studio with artists.
Whose next album would you be very keen to cuts for?
Right now I’m in the process of pursuing Kelly Clarkson again, because I had a blast the last time, and also Britney again.
For new artists, I really, really want to work with Pink. I love Pink and I really love Erykah Badu. I would love to work with Guthrie, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts … I mean, the list goes on and on and on. I’m a fan first, so …
You’ve recently been collaborating with X-Factor finalist Olly Murs. What is it like writing for reality artists that arrive completely fresh, without all the image and discography ready in place?
A little different. I mean it’s down to the personality. So, I can talk with the personality and write songs that are based on that, and also based on things you’ve been through but from their point of view - like with any other artist.
How has it worked out with Murs?
His A&R wanted us to get into the studio together. I went to London and wrote a song with him and Peter Robinson, which I’m not sure is going to make the final cut yet.
Do you prefer writing solo, co-writing or with the artist present?
I’m not crazy about co-writing with other songwriters just because I like it to come from the one voice – otherwise it makes it muddy. But I love writing with the artist because then I get their point of view, and that makes it easier for me.
What projects do you have coming up and what cuts should we be looking out for?
I’m really excited about Christina - I have a bunch of songs on her album. That’s going to be awesome. I think the world is going to love that. I have several songs on Fantasia, who obviously won American Idol. I have the closing song from ‘Sex and the City 2’.
I also have music that I’ve done with Christina Aguilera for ‘Burlesque’, the movie she’s doing with Cher, and that comes out in the Fall. I have the next single for Ke$ha, who’s already out - it’s a song called ‘Take It Off’. David Cook, who’s also an American Idol, I’ve done some great work with him too.
I’m hoping to get into the studio soon with Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson. So, I’m excited about the rest of the year.
Do you have future plans for your own solo work?
It’s definitely the next step for me. It’s always a struggle to balance songwriting and an artist project, but there’s different voices and things I want to say that only I can say. So you will definitely hear from me as an artist soon …
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Jay-Z, Destiny's Child and David Banner beatmaster and sample king 9th Wonder
Read On ...
* Kelly's frequent collaborator Chuck Harmony is interviewed
* Songwriter Nicole Morier on how she came to write for Britney Spears
* Kylie writer-producer Lucas Secon on where pop is heading next
* Producer RedOne on working with Michael Jackson