Studio Beast in the Hot Seat: Claude Kelly On How To Write Hit Songs
February 10, 2010 by Janice Brown
“There’s nothing new that can be said in pop songwriting,” says Claude “Studio Beast” Kelly, in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “So, it’s not about writing some groundbreaking love song, it’s about writing a love song the way Miley Cyrus or Kelly Clarkson would write it. It’s the same song from a different point of view, you just have to find that unique perspective. It’s all about perspective.”
Listen up, all you aspiring pop songwriters — Kelly was ranked #14 in Billboard’s Hot 100 Songwriters of 2009, right behind Beyonce. The NYC native and Berklee grad penned hit after hit last year, including #1 songs for both Clarkson (“My Life Would Suck Without You”) and Cyrus (“Party in the U.S.A.), as well as Britney Spears’ “Circus,” Whitney Houston’s “Like I Never Left,” Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment,” R. Kelly’s “Like I Do.”
Coming off such a huge year, Kelly is in high demand, studio-hopping on both coasts to work with producers like Akon, Dr. Luke, Tricky Stewart and Stargate and artists like Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Ke$ha, Simple Plan and Saving Able.
Kelly’s versatility and intuition in the studio enables him to embody the artists he works with, tap into their styles and sensibilities and write songs from the heart, from party-girl pop-rock and dance-floor anthems to rock and R&B power-ballads. He seems to transcend style and gender, writing melodies and lyrics that resonate powerfully with the biggest names in music and with the masses.
Here, we ask Kelly about the road to the top, his approach in the studio and how he keeps the inspiration flowing.
I read that you graduated Berklee in three years, and it seems like you’ve been moving really fast ever since. What would you say were the most formative experiences you had either in school or early in your career that really helped to launch you?
Well, first of all, at Berklee, I surrounded myself with amazing musicians that were better than me! This encouraged me to broaden my horizons to different styles of music that I may not have listened to had I not been there. That was really key for me, even more so than what I took out of the classroom. Being around amazing musicians always makes you better.
I saw how much I improved while at Berklee and I promised myself that when I got out, I would always surround myself with singers and producers and writers that were better than me so that I would continue to grow.
I try to keep myself humble everywhere I go because it puts me in the position to learn and make myself better and that’s going to help me afterwards. There’s no ego for me so when I went into the studio with Akon for the first time, I knew I’d learn from him. Same with Dr. Luke and all the other producers I’ve worked with since then.
So, who did you work with in those first few years after Berklee in the NYC scene?
I’d known a lot of musicians and singers, so when I came back to NYC, I would sit in on friends’ sessions with other young, up-and-coming producers who weren’t established yet either. And we grew together. I learned from them, they learned from me and we all honed our skills together.
Did you see a snowball effect once you had a big song, then other bigger names came calling?
Definitely there’s a snowball effect where people hear the song and call you for more work, but it definitely didn’t happen over night. Maybe one A&R hears the song and tries you on another project, but it was definitely a process of several years of networking. I think what really set it off was the work I did with Akon [in ‘07]. That really sped up the pace of my workload.
And how did you hook up with Akon?
Actually, it was by accident. I was working with RedOne, who’s a huge name right now but who was trying to break his name in the industry then. We were writing songs together for Kat DeLuna and Menudo, and I went with him to LA to do songs for a new artist that Akon was going to be working with.
Akon overheard me singing in the hallway and working on stuff and said “hey man, you’re good,’ and invited me to come into his studio to listen to what he was working on. And it was a session with Mary J. Blige. I’ve never been shy, so I gave my two cents and he liked my attitude and my vibe, so he gave me some his tracks to write to.
Right away, back in NYC, I wrote to all four of those tracks, and they all got placed — two on Whitney Houston’s record, I Look To You, one for Leona Lewis [“Forgive Me”], and one for a duet with Akon and Michael Jackson [“Hold My Hand”].
Wow, so in that case, what did Akon actually give you to work with? And then what was your writing process like?
I’m pretty flexible, I can really write in a variety of ways. But in that case, he basically had some beats he’d created himself. He wanted me to write melody and lyrics on top of that. I took a CD of those beats home to NYC and demoed them the best way I saw fit. I’m a singer first, so I sing everything, both male and female records. I also write songs on piano and from scratch on guitar.
Do you help define the overall creative direction as well? Like, in addition to writing melody and lyrics?
Yeah, I think songwriters on a whole play a bigger part in the creation of the record than they probably get credit for. There are times when, for example when I wrote “Circus” with Dr. Luke, where it was a track and there was no concept and no idea of what the song was going to be about. I knew I was intending to write for Britney so I created the whole concept for the record and we built it from that.
There are other times when the label has a completely fleshed out idea of what they want and they just need you to bring it home. Case-by-case, it’s always different.
What are the most important instruments you use for songwriting? Do you ever build tracks inside Logic or another software platform with virtual instruments?
I have great engineers I work with and I use both Logic and Pro Tools. I use Pro Tools a little bit more because it’s more common in American studios. But a lot of the producers I work with from overseas, like RedOne and Stargate and a few others, love Logic and it works just as well.
I’ll typically play live piano into a track. My main instruments are piano and voice. And, for example, Dr. Luke plays live guitars on everything because he’s a great guitar player. So, there’s definitely a mix of live instrumentation and MIDI.
Do you feel like there’s any sort of trend, where people are looking for more live instrumentation nowadays?
I think what’s beautiful about right now is that there doesn’t seem to be any one trend — everybody is doing what they feel, which is awesome because it creates diversity. There are songs that are winning right now that are all live instruments and then some that are heavily computer-based. And a lot of them are mixed.
A lot of the songs I’ve had success with — like Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” and Britney Spears’ “Circus” — are really a mixture of both. People want that computerized sound but they also want the warmth of live instrumentation. So we’ll use live guitars and live drums.
Then, in my work with Chrisette Michele, it’s a lot of live instrumentation, which caters to her audience as a soul/R&B artist. They want to feel the live music. There definitely seems to be space for everything though, there’s a lot of variety right now.
And which producers are you working with regularly?
So let’s pick one of those guys – Akon, let’s say – what do you think makes your collaboration work so well?
With him, and everybody, we really have respect for each other. I don’t write anything down when I’m in the studio. I usually write my songs right behind the mic, which is why Pro Tools comes in so handy. I go behind the mic and listen to the music or whatever we have and I write the melody and lyric from there.
So, what Akon allows me to do, which is kind of incredible, is he respects that I’m a good songwriter and allows me the space to flesh my idea out. We keep open minds — if he has suggestions, I’ll try them, and then he’ll ask for my opinion on what he’s doing. At the end of the day, our job is amazingly fun, but there has to be that level of respect where we’re both bringing something to the table.
Do you ever work directly with the artist? Is that common?
All the time, yes. I get the best records when I’m able to be in the room with the artist and find out what they’re going through. “Circus” was written beforehand, but I had met with Britney and had gotten an idea where she was at in her life and what she would want to say. I co-wrote the records with Chrisette Michel. I also collaborated in the studio on the Ke$ha records, R. Kelly and even with Kelly Clarkson, we went back and forth on lyrics to perfect “My Life Would Suck Without You.”
When you really connect, do you feel like you have a sense of when a song will be a hit?
Never! I’m the biggest critic of my work, and it would be too arrogant for me to anticipate that. But often times, songs that you never expect to be big, become huge. I’m fortunate that I’ve had a few songs that have become really big on the right artists at the right time.
When you look back on some of those hits, do you see anything common in them, where you see why they resonated with the public at that time?
What I hear in all my songs is the element of storytelling. It’s never a song about nothing. Because of the way the world is, nowadays, people want to know who this artist is, they want to learn something about the artist as a person. Give them a story that reflects that person’s personality so they feel they’re buying into a great experience but also buying into the artist.
With the records that have done really well — “Party in the USA,” “Circus” and “My Life Would Suck Without You,” they’re all telling a story and they’re all fun songs. But you feel like you know a little bit more about that person by listening to it. You feel like you can relate — Oh, so that’s how Miley feels, or that’s Kelly’s perspective — but it’s also fun as you’re listening.
Is there any one artist, or someone you’ve worked with recently, where you feel you really connected and worked exceptionally well together?
There’s a bunch. But most recently, the one who’s gotten me super excited is Christina Aguilera, who I’ve spent many days with in the studio working on songs for her new album, as well as songs for her movie. She’s totally inspiring because she eats, sleeps and breathes her artistry. She’s visual like I am, she’s a perfectionist and wants the best possible product.
We have a similar work ethic and we clicked right away. And because of that, we created some of the work I’m most proud of because it really is a labor of love and creative, different stuff.
I’m excited for people to hear what we did together. I have three songs on her new album that’s coming out, called Bionic, and three songs in Burlesque, a movie she’s filming right now with Cher that’s coming out towards the end of the year.
Also, I’ve worked really well with Fantasia. I have a soft spot for really amazing voices and she’s one of those talents. So, I sat with her and picked her brain and saw where she was at in her life and what she wanted to talk about and I wrote a few songs that I feel really express her point of view that I also think people will really love.
Awesome, seems like you’re moving so quickly, project to project! Are you just writing constantly?
YES, I’m writing every day. Even when I’m not in the studio, I’m writing in my head or notes in my Blackberry about cool ideas, cool things to write about. I definitely live this 24/7, not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing (laughs), but I’m 100 percent absorbed in this. I always tell people, you have to really have a love affair with this to do it. It’s not about big, fast money, for me, it’s a love affair. I’m lost, I’m pretty much sprung right now, I can’t get out. (laughs)
And, how are you continually inspired by music? Do you listen to everything that’s coming out?
I’m constantly listening to music. When I say music is my life, it’s a combination of me writing ideas and me listening to ideas — studying old music, new music.
The misconception is that writing a hit song is about setting a new trend — there’s no such thing as a new trend; everything is borrowed and recycled. It’s about doing your homework so you have a huge library to dig from. I’m always looking for new songs, songs I’ve never heard. You might get a title or a cool melody from a jazz record, or from some underground electronic stuff you never knew was out there. I’m constantly scouring the web — You Tube as well as iTunes.
Some people who work on music have a hard time listening to new music when they leave the studio, but then feel out of the loop or uninspired. What do you do to prevent that?
At first, you’re so immersed in your own work, it seems all you want to do is listen to your own songs. But you have to stop yourself. You’ve already written that song. It’s like staring in a mirror all day, instead of going outside and getting influences from the outside world.
I draw influences from all kinds of creative things — film scores and movie soundtracks, and TV shows and nature programs will spur creativity in me. You have to look around and find all the ways to keep your creativity flowing.
OK, so you work extremely hard and immerse yourself in music and creativity as much as possible… but what would you say is your biggest asset as a songwriter?
Singing is definitely a plus. I’m very fortunate that I’m a good singer. I was a singer before I was a songwriter. But my biggest asset is probably my versatility and as other people have observed, my ability to get along with almost everybody and almost become that person in the studio. My nickname “Studio Beast” comes from that. Like a chameleon, I can almost imitate or perform as any artist or any style.
That’s because I do my homework and I listen to a lot of different styles of music; I can go behind the mic and write a Whitney Houston song and sing it in a way that it sounds like it’s perfect for her and then turn around and do a song that’s perfect for Fall Out Boy. My strength is my versatility, and the fact that the music is always coming from my heart, right out from behind the mic, instead of off of a piece of paper.
Anything else we can look out for from you, in the next few months?
Well, Ke$ha just came out and I have a song “Take It Off” on that record, produced by Dr. Luke. I have a song on Jason DeRoulo’s album coming out in March, and I also have a song on Toni Braxton’s next album, which I believe comes out this Spring. And I’m currently in the studio working with Simple Plan, Saving Abel and Jennifer Hudson. I’m all over the place!
Wow, yeah, and with Simple Plan – is that a different job completely? Working with a rock band?
Not really, it all starts with a good song. So we work together, come up with a great song and the production around it is what really makes it a Simple Plan record.
So much of your work seems to be happening on the West Coast — we hope to see you doing even more work in NYC soon!
Yes! So few of the artists I’m working with are based in NYC, but I’m really a New Yorker at heart. I wrote my Whitney Houston records and many other songs at Chung King. When I’m in NYC, I usually work at KMA, Germano Studios, CyberSound and several producers’ studios. I’m really at home in NYC and whenever I can, I bring artists there to record — like Fantasia and David Cook. I’m trying to bring some of this work back to NYC!
Claude Kelly is signed to Warner/Chappell Publishing. Follow him on Twitter for a regular stream of 140-character tips and inspiring bits @claudekelly.