If you’re looking for the hitmaking formula, just ask Claude Kelly. As the songwriter behind Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” Britney Spears’ “Circus,” Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” and R. Kelly’s “Echo,” he has applied his Claudratic Formula to hits for some of music’s biggest names. The New Yorker took his degree from Berklee College of Music and set off with a dream in tow. With no plans after graduating, Claude decided to throw himself into the game head-first. “Screw this! I’m going to try and write a song and see what happens,” he recalls as the first words he uttered before putting pen to paper. Good thing he did. Not long after writing his third track, he nabbed a spot on a compilation CD created for Japanese clothing line A Bathing Ape. Next Akon stepped in and asked for Claude’s expertise. It wasn’t long before Leona Lewis, Whitney Houston, and even the King of Pop came knocking.
1. Can you recall the first song you ever wrote?
I wish I did [remember]! You know what? I probably blocked it out of my memory because it was that bad. Let’s not relive the bad days.
2. When you write a song, do you first get the melody or the words?
Usually it comes to me together, actually. I’m very visual and perception-[based], so I picture the scene of the movie or the video that is taking place. It all kind of hits me at one time. That was definitely the case with the Circus album for Britney Spears. I was actually on a plane coming to L.A. to write the song; obviously I had six hours to spare, and the melody and the concept hit me at the same time. Her life could be compared to a circus so it came to me, “All eyes on me in the center of the ring, just like a circus…”
3. What’s the weirdest inspiration you’ve had for a song?
I’m probably making matters worse for myself by telling you this, but I’ve had a lot of titles from soap operas. Songs I wrote on Chrisette Michele’s album [Epiphany] and songs I wrote for Whitney Houston, a lot of them came from “Days of Our Lives.” I’m kind of a weirdo. The thing that’s incredible about soap operas, for some strange reason, is that the story never ends. They constantly get your brain going and your emotions going, so there’s always a different song popping up somewhere. And they always have the cool catch phrases.
4. What’s a good way to get out of having songwriter’s block?
Sometimes you just have to do things to jumpstart your mind. So I do this thing sometimes where I close my eyes and count to 10, and the first thing I see when I open my eyes, I have to try to incorporate that into a song somehow. It forces you to tell a story, and it forces you to use a creative way to put things into a song. If you open your eyes and see a kitchen sink, for example, “How do you put ‘kitchen sink’ in a song to make it sound cool?” I actually did that and that is why “sink” is in the song “Echo” that I did for R. Kelly.
5. How did “Party in the U.S.A.” end up in Miley Cyrus’ hands?
“Party in the U.S.A.” is the accidental song that won’t end. I co-wrote it with Dr. Luke and this other artist Jessie J for Jessie J’s project, and it ended up not being a perfect fit for her album at the time. We ended up having an amazing song that had no home. It ended up somehow getting in the hands of Miley Cyrus’ people for her Walmart campaign she was doing for her clothing line. But it was originally a song about a girl coming from London to L.A., how she was in culture shock and she heard a Jay-Z song, and then there was a party in the U.S.A. We tailor-made the lyrics to make it a girl from Nashville to L.A., and it kind of exploded. I’m really grateful for that record. It burned through the summer, all throughout the wintertime, through New Years. Yay for Miley!
6. What was your high school superlative?
Funny, my yearbook said I was “Most Likely to be in the Music Industry.” I actually saw that a year ago, I went back to my yearbook and laughed. I’ve been talking about being an artist and being in the record industry forever! When I was in school, they’d tell you, “He wants to meet Babyface. He wants to do a song with TLC. He wants to be a part of Arista Records.” It’s that deep for me. I didn’t know it would be songwriting, but I knew I was going to be in the game from way back.
7. If you could ghostwrite on a rap album, who would you write for?
First of all, I wouldn’t ghostwrite. I need my credit, damnit! If I were to write on a rap album, a hook or anything like that, Eminem, Snoop, and Kanye are my top three. Their creativity and left-fieldness always win for me. I can listen to Eminem’s “Stan” once a week.
8. Have you ever written a song that an artist didn’t like and asked you to redo?
Every day. It’s actually rare that I write a song and it doesn’t get some kind of tweaking. It’s not always a bad thing. People don’t realize that when you write a song for an artist, if the song does well, it’s a song they have to sing for the rest of their lives. I always say a song is never done until it hits the radio.
9. If you could branch outside your craft into other writing outlets, what would you consider?
I love jingles! I would do jingles in a heartbeat, a 15-second little tune off the top of your head like, “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” That’s so cool because everybody in the world knows them, more than some of the songs that we love.
10. Who are you currently working with?
I have Jason Derulo’s album that comes out in March, as well as Toni Braxton, Fantasia, and Christina Aguilera. I have two club bangers on Lil Jon’s [Crunk Rock] that are coming out soon, like hard ass-thumping Lil Jon crazy beats. I’m working with Jennifer Hudson right now and Jessie J, and I’m working with Akon on his next album. I did Christina Aguilera’s [new album Bionic] with Tricky [Stewart] and I did [other] work with Dr. Luke, as well as Danja, Stargate, and J.R. Rotem. Those are the main go-to guys.