Claude Kelly ’95 has three Grammy nominations under his belt and has written hits for a host of pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars, Britney Spears, Jessie J, Kelly Clarkson and Adam Lambert. Music legends Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson have recorded his songs. On TV, he’s been the vocal producer on Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor.” In November, Claude came back to spend a day at Grace to talk about his career and offer feedback and advice to some of GCS’s most talented aspiring young singers.
Claude began playing the piano at the age of three at Third Street Music School and was thrilled when he came to GCS to find two of his first Third Street teachers at the school. After Grace, he attended Riverdale Country School
and then Boston
's Berklee College of Music
. He returned to New York and spent several years finding his way in the music business—at first he wanted to perform himself, then he started writing songs, honing his craft and meeting producers. He got his first big break in 2006, when Latin artist Frankie J. recorded one of his songs; since then, his career has marched a steady line up—straight to the red carpet.
For Claude, writing songs is a deeply psychological process. In the beginning, he wrote songs with an artist in mind, but had no idea who might end up recording it. “Hold My Hand,” the song ultimately recorded by Michael Jackson and Akon, was written for Whitney Houston. Somehow the song got to Jackson’s lawyer and MJ decided to record it. “I’m really proud of that song. Michael Jackson is one of my idols.”
Now that he’s more in demand, he has opportunities for more collaboration with artists. He explains, “Usually the song is already there and someone needs to come put it together, so it’s my job to listen to everything that’s going on with you, or even if you don’t talk to me, I am studying you, or even if I see you and you’re not talking, I can study your mannerisms. I get an idea of how you would say something, not necessarily your point of view, but how you would say it, because really songs haven’t changed in 100 years. It’s I love you, I miss you, or I want you, or let’s have a good time, lets party, or some kind of social commentary like war, or rights, or civil rights. Like ‘Price Tag.’ That’s a political statement masked in in a fun song, but the difference between Jesse J doing it and Britney Spears doing it is in the difference in the way they talk.”
How did he come to figure that out? “I spent a lot of time as a kid doing plays, …being in my own head and creating characters, so I know how to think in terms of other people. You have to be selfless to be a songwriter because it is never really about you. When I’m writing for Britney Spears I think, ‘how does she say this? How does she move when she’s saying this--which parts does she accent and which parts does she not accent? How does Britney Spears say I love you as opposed to Whitney Houston saying it?’ Kelly Clarkson says ‘My Life Would Suck Without You,’ but Whitney Houston would say, ‘I Have Nothing if I Don’t Have You,’ it’s the same sentiment, just different ways of saying it. That’s the therapy and the psychology in it.”
So what’s next? For one thing, Claude wrote a song for a charity called ‘Keep a Child Alive’ to raise money for AIDS relief in Africa and India. It’s being released this year. But generally he says, “I’m thinking of creative ways to get music out there, not necessarily to be a star myself, but to introduce new sounds and new song ideas to people in the same vein. Quincy Jones and David Foster are not necessarily known as artists, but they’re known as ambassadors of music, and they do put out albums with their own material to introduce artists and to introduce new sounds or a new style. That’s the next phase in my career. I’ll never stop writing songs for artists, because I love doing that.” But Claude is branching out—he has been writing for film and he is beginning to think about Broadway too.
Claude spent a full day at Grace, talking to Middle Schoolers, High Schoolers, and working with aspiring singers who got a chance to perform for him individually. Throughout he was thoughtful and encouraging, and offered up generous helpings of supportive feedback. Claude was as impressed with the kids as they were with him. Before heading back to his studio and work he turned and said, “I don’t think I would have left Grace if there had been a high school.”
An abbreviated list of Claude’s hits: Bruno Mars (“Grenade”), Miley Cyrus (“Party In The USA”), Kelly Clarkson (“My Life Would Suck Without You”), Britney Spears (“Circus”), Michael Jackson (“Hold My Hand” featuring Akon), Jessie J (“Price Tag”), Ke$ha (“Take It Off”), Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez and more…