“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.