Individually and as a duo, Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony have penned hits for a veritable whos who of the Billboard charts, including Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Jennifer Hudson and Christina Aguilera, to name but a few. Their songs have sold more than 25 million copies to date, blanketed radio airwaves around the world, garnered multiple Grammy and Billboard nominations and dominated international song charts.
Though this songwriter/producer team would be the last to bite the Hot 100 hand that's fed them, last fall they found themselves burnt out on what Kelly calls "the regular runaround of what the music industry can sometimes be for us: a last-minute call for a first single. So on a creative whim during days off between star assignments, Kelly and Harmony booked some studio time to work on a project of their own.
Let's put it this way: remember that moment when The Wizard of Oz graduates from sepia to Technicolor? Thats what happened when Kelly and Harmony emerged from the studio with an album's worth of songs that sound light years ahead of the prevailing pop orthodoxy.
At first, neither knew they were making an album or forming a group. They just knew they had a creative itch to collectively scratch and a day off with a studio available. That one day produced one amazing song, so they booked the next day they had mutually available, with the same fertile results. In all, they recorded 15 songs in 15 days, stretched over a period of four months.
They dubbed the project Louis York, named after their mutual cities of origin (Harmony's from east St. Louis and Kelly hails from New York) and their eclectic-but-hook-ridden sound is a genre-bending blend of modern pop, old school R&B, thick-grooved rock and tribal African sounds. Harmony played every instrument on the record, while Kelly wrote the melodies and sang vocals.
No one else attended the sessions except their engineer. They didnt tell anyone they were making an album until it was nearly finished. At the end of each day, they left their work on a studio hard drive, without even taking personal copies home to listen to, let alone leaking it to anyone else. People hear everything we create right away, because the sessions are always hire-for-profit, Kelly explains. Its like a restaurant: As soon as you take the food off the griddle, its going on someones plate. This, as far as they were concerned, would be the opposite. We didnt want to play it for anyone before we really knew what it was, even though we were really excited for people to hear it.
Louis York introduces itself via first track Clair Huxtable, an ode to the popular TV character. Chuck and I both grew up watching The Cosby Show, crushing on Mrs. Huxtable, says Kelly. She was smart, sophisticated, beautifulthe ideal woman. All these years later, she still sets the bar, he laughs. Not every black man is looking for 'the video ho.
As for the timing of the tracks release and the recent controversy surrounding the star of the famed show, Kelly says, Chuck and I wrote this song about a year ago. We didnt write it based on current headlines. We wrote it because that show was important not just an important part of pop culture, but a vital part of black culture. It defied racial and demographic boundaries and showed the world a proud African-American family without the shuck-and-jive stereotypes so common on other shows. The Cosby Show was my encouragement to fight for greatness without apology."
Clair Huxtable will appear on Louis York - Masterpiece Theatre Act I, a self-produced six-song EP scheduled for a spring release through the duos own label, Weirdo Workshop Records (Act II will hit in the fall).
The discs many highlights include the lush and crushingly heartfelt Things I Shouldve Said, the silky smooth Tylenol and the Queen-meets-Kanye rollercoaster ride of Nerds, which Kelly says was partly inspired by being the only black kid in an all-white school (youre the weirdo in the cafeteria/eating by yourself day after day/sitting there and staring at those pretty girls/but they never seem to look your way/patience baby just you wait and see/one day youll own the company/ And they'll be on your nuts/I tell you boys and girls/Because nerds rule the world).
You quickly learn that its ok if youre not popular, says Kelly. It taught me to be an individual, which is much more important. And theres a deeper part to the song that asks, 'as a young black male living in 2015, how can I best represent those who sacrificed for us? Are we wasting the opportunities that people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought hard for us to get? There are a few things we wanted to say with these songs, but its not so heavy-handed that you feel like youre listening to a lecture. But, he muses, if all you want out of your music is a hook and beat, thats okay - weve got plenty of both.
Kelly and Harmony met while working on a handful of songs for Chrisette Micheles highly acclaimed 2009 album Epiphany. They quickly became best friends while working together on records by Jessie J, Faith Evans, Olly Murs, Ledisi and Fantasia. But career-wise, they were hardly locked at the hip. Individually, Kelly has co-written songs with or for the likes of Bruno, Miley, Britney, J-Lo, Whitney Houston, Adam Lambert and more, while Harmony has hooked up as a producer and/or writer with Toni Braxton, Kelly Rowland, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, and Keri Hilson, among others.
Harmonys discography in particular looks diva-heavy, which has put him in an enviable positionand also a box. Its like being in a company where they bring you into the IT department, but you have all these marketing ideas that they wont ever hear because youre the IT guy. I think thats what it is for me: I came in as the R&B guy. So if I played a rock instrumental, theyd be like, 'Why is the R&B guy trying to play a rock track? People think its cool to work with pretty much every female in R&B and it is but theres some frustration that comes with that if youve got rock music in your head or a pop element to your production. And though Claude and I have been good friends, it wasnt until we started the process of making this album that I knew he was experiencing the same frustrations.
Kelly explains it this way: If youre a creative person with desires and potential that are not being met, you either shut up and take the check or you push yourselves beyond the boundaries of what people think you can do, or even what you think you can do. You take a leap.
Hence, Louis York.
Whats missing in a lot of music that I did and that a lot of other people are still doing is that it sounds cool but its fast food, says Kelly. It sounds and smells and looks like a good idea, but its actually not nourishing at all. We collect it on our iPhones, but its not part of our lives. It doesnt feel like the music we grew up on the music that was the soundtrack to our lives. A lot of what were hearing now feels like the soundtrack to a dayat best. Were trying to change that a couple of songs at a time.