New York-based songwriter Claude Kelly has come a long way since landing his first song on a CD compilation for Japanese clothing line A Bathing Ape in 2002.
In the last decade, he's made a name for himself co-writing hits for Kelly Clarkson, Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus and Fantasia. Now, Kelly says he's finally at a place in his career where he has the luxury of choosing artist collaborations that aren't based on the paycheck.
"I'm past the point where I'm doing things because I have to pay the bills every month," says Kelly, who splits his time among New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and London. "Sometimes you don't see the money right away, but the payoff for me is long term. I plan on being around for 30 more years, not just three more."
Earlier this year, Kelly received Grammy Award nods for song of the year (Bruno Mars' "Grenade") and best R&B song (Ledisi's "Pieces of Me"). In addition to being a vocal coach on the U.S. version of "The X Factor" in 2011, Kelly can add executive producer to his growing resume. He co-executive-produced Karmin's recent "Hello" EP as well as Tamia's new album, "Beautiful Surprise," due Aug. 28.
Kelly has recently written for Jessie J, Olly Murs, Karmin, John Legend and Faith Evans. He also hopes to help launch the career of New York rock vocalist Masha, whose album he's executive-producing with Nathan Chapman.
"We're trying to bring back female rock," Kelly says, noting that he and Chapman are shopping Masha around for label and management deals, "like real hardcore female rock in the vein of Alanis [Morissette] and Janis [Joplin]."
What have you learned from executive-producing albums?
I found I was doing that job anyway before they were willing to give me the title. I had my hand in a lot of records with Jessie J in the very beginning. And they didn't give me credit for executive- producing, but I definitely feel like I've had a hand in helping shape her sound. I spend a lot of time with artists, whether I've been appointed that job or not. I don't like to force things on people. I want a song to be personal. With Karmin, I spent several weeks getting to know them, because then I feel like they have songs they love and will sing for a long time. The audience can tell that the songwriter is coming from a real place and it's not something that's fabricated.
Songwriters and producers like Tricky Stewart, No I.D. and Ne-Yo have recently taken on executive roles at major labels. Is that something you're interested in?
Never say never, because this game is so full of twists and turns. But right now I really enjoy the creative process, being hands-on in the studio. My fear would be that being in a building would make me lose sight of that because you have to think about deadlines, numbers and bills. But executive-producing is definitely a form of leadership. I'm in there, but not to the point where I'm a label exec. I'm not a suit.
You're an avid user of Twitter and Tumblr. Has social media provided new opportunities for you as a songwriter?
Definitely. You get instant feedback on records. They're honest on Twitter. They'll tell you if they like it or don't like it. It's good to hear that and not the filtered version of what a music industry insider would tell you. And I've met a lot of cool people. I'm a music fan at heart, so I'll tweet things. I tweeted that I really liked R&B artist Tamia. She and her people read it, we started connecting the dots, and now I'm executive-producing her album. I never would've met her otherwise.
Is it easier to tap into the songwriting business now than when you started?
Hell no. If it were easier, I'd be sitting in Hawaii right now. You're only as good as your last hit in this game. As many songs as I've done that have been successful, it's amazing how quickly they're forgotten when you haven't had a new one. There are fewer artists, so the talent pool is smaller. The good thing is that someone will always want songs and they'll need someone to write them. If you're good at your job, which I know I am, there's always a slot for me.
What did you take away from your experience as a vocal coach on "The X Factor" last year?
You learn very quickly the difference between TV and radio. I was in the radio business before I did "X Factor," trying to make songs for artists that would be No. 1 hits on radio. "X Factor" was very much about what songs would translate to people in their homes on television. It changed the way I wrote songs, because you want songs that will be hits on radio, but also classics that people want to sing along to at home, in clubs, when they watch TV and movies. That's what "X Factor" is about. You have a minute and 30 seconds to show all you've got. The song you sing has to be so powerful that people vote for you to stay until the next week. For me as a songwriter, I tell myself that if I'm not writing those types of songs, I'm not doing my job. I'm a better songwriter because of the show.
Whitney Houston said in an interview that in addition to being an experienced songwriter and producer, you "can sing [your] butt off." Have you ever thought about going solo?
Singing is my first love. I don't know if I have the same passion that I did even five years ago to be out there as a singer. I demo every song that I write, whether it's a female or male artist song. So I get my rocks off singing in the studio. I get asked every single day when I'm doing an album. One of these days I might just give up and do it. I might do it under an alias, but I might do it because I do love to sing. It's something that brings me a lot of joy.