With hit credits for Michael and Janet Jackson, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars, Celine Dion, John Legend and a slew of others, Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony don’t necessarily need to be performers themselves. But the duo’s Louis York — whose new single “Don’t You Forget” is premiering exclusively below — is something of a calling for the two writer-producers.
“We weren’t chasing to be artists at all. We’re happy to be behind the scenes,” Harmony tells Billboard. “But the more we did, we started to see and hear all the things that were missing in terms of sound and topics and male voices — singing black men, black American voices. We felt like we were charged to filling the gaps, which is what spurred us to do this. It’s a heart mission more than an ego mission.”
So what were those missing elements? “I think a lot of poetry is missing from songs today,” says Kelly, who serves as Louis York’s singer. “There’s not a lot of well-thought-out lyricism, which is what I’m obsessed with. I’m a wordsmith and a songwriter at heart; I think people forget that soul music, as well as country music, is all about the story you tell, and that’s been missing for me, big-time.” Kelly also feels that there’s been a paucity of singers “actually challenging your voice,” while Harmony has been “just craving arrangements. I feel like we’ve got this generation of people who write on top of beats, and you never feel like the beats and the melodies are intertwined. I think a lot of producers care more about beats and sounds than they do about the song.”
Based in Nashville, Louis York — named after the duo’s hometowns of East St. Louis (Harmony) and New York (Kelly) — has already released an EP trilogy and is planning its first album, The American Griots, to drop Oct. 18. “Don’t You Forget” reflects an Earth, Wind & Fire flavor that Kelly and Harmony acknowledge as a major influence on Louis York’s sound, and they say it was the last song they came up with for the album, stemming from an idea that came up during rehearsals for live shows.
“We knew where we were, sonically, at that point, but we’re always trying to beat ourselves,” says Kelly. “We’re hard-wired to write top hit records and with this (song) we wanted to get back to something that was celebratory and big and musically challenging. There’s a big horn breakdown in there that Chuck did, like (Stevie Wonder’s) Songs in the Key of Life — when was the last time you heard that? That’s my favorite part of the song. I’m excited for the world to latch onto that — maybe sample that as opposed to sampling the same thing over and over.”
Kelly and Harmony plan to promote The American Griots with shows during the fall, primarily on the U.S. east and west coasts. And according to Harmony the duo is eyeing a Louis York takeover just in time for the new decade. “If history repeats itself, every decade has a new sound — a new way of composing, new fashions, all of that, so it just opened up the portals of my mindset to the possibilities of what that could be,” he says. “That’s the point of view from which I produced this record — what would I want 2020 to feel like? The way people are consuming music now, all the genre stuff is kind of gone. It’s about real expression and people finding authenticity in your voice and in your production and your lyrics. I hope people will hear the freedom of expression in that.”