(Intro Music Plays)
John Gardner: Hello, hello and welcome again to the World Music Foundation Podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we speak with American multi-instrumentalist, song-writing and production duo, Louis York.
The World Music Foundation podcast is produced by the World Music Foundation, and we’re on a simple mission: to open minds and build respect across cultures through the beautiful power of music. Today’s interview came about through contact with an organization based here in the US, but they’re based out of Nashville, TN.
Now, if you’re not familiar with Nashville, it’s the home to the Country Music Hall of Fame and home to several country music stars and hopefuls, with countless studios and clubs dedicated to that style of music. It’s almost become synonymous with country music actually. But, the organization that helped us arrange today’s interview is literally called “Nashville Is Not Just Country Music”; that’s like if we were called “Close-Mindedness Is Bad, Listen to Other Cultures”. It’s right in your face, I love it, straight to the point.
So, they made it all happen and we’re so glad that they did because well, they introduced us to this amazing artist duo and they’re based in Nashville. This duo’s pretty hard to describe exactly and to define musically but country musicians they are not, that’s for sure. The band is Louis York and it’s two members, Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony. They have stacks of GRAMMY nominated work between them but as you’ll hear in this conversation, that’s just the tip of the iceberg concerning their similarities.
Y’know, speaking with them reminded me of conversations that we had back actually way back in Episode 5 with Strunz and Farah, the Iranian-Costa Rican guitar duo. There’s an uncanny similarity between the two artists of each of these duos but in both cases there’s also hugely valuable differences that compliment each other perfectly. Now, with Strunz and Farah, they’ve been making music together for over 40 years. Actually, when Strunz and Farah were meeting, first playing Csárdás together, right about that time I’m pretty sure somewhere else in the world Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly were being born. So, it’s a huge difference as far as their history together but that’s what made it so exciting, that’s why it was like this crazy pleasure to be speaking with Louis York about their first album together.
There’s no doubt they’re gonna be making music for a long time to come and I had a blast diving into the histories and experiences that brought them to this point. The album is called “American Griots” and the music you’re hearing in the background is one of the singles from that album titled “Don’t You Forget”. I love the music, completely love the guys. That’s another similarity right there. You can ask anyone in the music business about Strunz and Farah, you’re never gonna hear a bad story. I just love those guys, brightens my day to get any text, email, call or any kind of communication from them at any time. Same goes for Louis York, just one time conversation that I had during this interview it’s just so clear, you’re gonna hear it, they’re good guys. There’s no question about it.
So, I hope you enjoy it, I hope you get a lot out of it. It’s amazing, their stories and how they came to be artists in front of the mic in the first place. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Louis York.
John Gardner: Hello, hello! Welcome again to the World Music Foundation Podcast. I’m your host, John Gardner, and today we have the great pleasure of speaking with Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly together: Louis York.
Chuck Harmony: Yes.
Claude Kelly: Happy to be here.
Chuck Harmony: Thanks so much.
John Gardner: For voice recognition if y’all don’t mind just to say your names.
Claude Kelly: I’m Claude Kelly.
Chuck Harmony: And I’m Chuck harmony.
Claude Kelly: And we’re Louis York.
Chuck Harmony: Oh yes.
John Gardner: Right on.
John Gardner: So we’re gonna get into the story of what y’all have done. I’m sure y’all have gone through before on how y’all met. We’re gonna traverse that as well. We’re here right now in Weirdo Workshop.
Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly: Yeah yes.
John Gardner: So bring us up to speed on that because from what I’ve seen here we’ve got book clubs going we’ve got all kinds of things happening. Summarize, what is Weirdo Workshop.
Claude Kelly: Weirdo Workshop is the company we created to house all of our crazy creative ideas. It is a multi purpose creative hub. We do music. We do live shows. We do book clubs. We do lectures, put out music. But it’s really the dream company that Chuck and I really talked about from the time we met that would be the foundation for all of our wild dreams. Which is not just what I mentioned, but also doing movie soundtracks and probably plays, and we’re actually doing a ballet right now so that too.
It’s literally, we just wanted a springboard to dream from, and it’s a real house that were sitting in.
John Gardner: That’s right.
Claude Kelly: In Franklin Tennessee that which the other thing is that after the idea of running a workshop, we course on the business side of making it real, we want to actually be a place that you could come to to get those dreams out. And Nashville has that kind of style where you can have houses. Like, companies are in houses as opposed to big buildings and you know sky rises. So we’re in a house that the dreams come true in. When we record here, we dream here were actually sitting in the conference room where most of the ideas for songs and visuals and calendaring and plans takes place it’s a real place.
John Gardner: Right on. What a better setting for a family, right?
Chuck Harmony: Yeah exactly, that’s true.
John Gardner: So as I walked into weird workshop down the hallway, they had to kind of tug on me to get me into this room because I kept stopping just looking at the Grammy plaques, like I can’t believe you worked on that, you worked on this! So you both came together at a point now where you’re able to launch this large scale idea where you can both start exploring bigger musical ideas. You clearly have a record of success and high level music making together but I want to take us way back. So we’ll go, we’ll do one at a time, and we’re interested in the commonalities we find across music. So tell us a little bit about kinda origin story, you know? From the beginning and even memories of the first memories of music. What I’m also interested in is first memories of maybe music from outside of your culture, but first Chuck if you don’t mind, where did it all get started for you?
Chuck Harmony: Well, I was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, and from the time I can remember I was inundated with music my father was a avid music listener. He listened to a lot of R&B music, some pop stuff, but mostly R&B and jazz. And then on the flip side we were really involved in church, and so that brings a whole nother musical perspective to the table. When you mix black gospel music and R&B and jazz. So that was, that’s kind of like the makings of me. And then as I traversed through school I started picking up instruments. The first one was the trombone. I played a trombone for a couple years, and then I moved to tuba, and I actually finished out my junior high and high school with, on tuba. Got a scholarship to Alabama State University, and just started my musical journey in a classroom in the orchestra pit, in a church environment in just put adding all of those things together just gives me up a real perspective where my musical DNA comes from. It’s vast.
John Gardner: Yeah, that’s something. So you just a band kid.
Chuck Harmony: Yeah man. Just, just a band kid.
John Gardner: Look at that. Do you remember how you got started you know from the beginning like, when I go to school I’m going to pick up an instrument. It was a given, or did…
Chuck Harmony: I wish I remember my teacher name but, I had a teacher, and, and I. forget what grade it was, but he told every every kid to go pick up an instrument and all the boys, we went for the drums, and he just stopped me. I don’t know why. I don’t know what this this notion that I would be some musician came from, but he said, he literally said, he handed me the trombone he said, “you do this. You can be special with that.”
John Gardner: What?
Chuck Harmony: Yeah.
John Gardner: Wow, that’s a name we should dig up.
Chuck Harmony: Yeah. I know man! It’s crazy but, and, and it was like, it was so. First of all, trombone is not the sexiest instruments. It’s not something that you want to do as a kid it’s just learned, but it, it just became a friend and I learned it.
John Gardner: Right on
Claude Kelly: Is it my turn?
John Gardner: Yeah Claude, take us way back.
Claude Kelly: I’m from New York City I grew up in lower on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My family is from Jamaica. So I grew up in an immigrant kinda household where all my family does medicine. So they’re all in nursing, doctors, work in hospitals. I’m the only person, or one of the only people, that do music in the family.
John Gardner: Your own kind of medicine.
Claude Kelly: Yeah. Yeah, a different kind of medicine, but similar to Chuck, I grew up immediately going to church, but Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Was like very, very buttoned up. Pipe organ, I was, handbell choirs, and incense and the whole nine yards. The robes. Almost Catholic, and so I was introduced to the classical side of music first and really structured hymns, and, and structured string quartets from the kind of stuff. And my mother, who was a lover of music love her heritage, introduced me to Bob Marley right away. So as it was as reggae, and church music, and she is a product of sixties pop. So it was just that and Motown. And when she moved to America from Jamaica in England, she was here when, in New York rather, when all of the big acts that we now consider legendary were going to the Apollo Theater. She saw them all. So, she had all the records and she played them in, before I even remember speaking I just. She was teaching me the sounds of people’s voices. That’s Diana, and that’s Martha Reeves, and that’s Smokey, and that’s, just all across the board. And other unique thing with that because she let me so much she had radios in every room. They all were tuned to different stations. So you just walk around the apartment, and you hear in the kitchen would be the light station, or the bathroom, and the living room we would be playing Motown or Bob Marley, and another room would have on the jazz station and then in my room because I was also obsessed with music, I would, I was listening to whatever was out at the time so.The combination of those things with my growing up in the, in the late eighties, MTV era, and hearing everything from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston, and a lot of rock bands in the cities, it’s just a weird stew of influences. And so I knew I was going to do music when I was really young. I was just, I got bit by the bug when I was really young, and my entrance as a musician was actually classical piano. I started piano at two and a half in this thing called the Suzuki method. Where like you go term scales to minuets to big time performances, and I did that at a school called 3rd Street Music School in New York. And sag as well. I was kind of a jack of all trades. I sang in choirs, and, and the New York Boys Choir and stuff like that. And knew I wanted to do music, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So I went to Berkley College of Music in Boston, and immediately switched from piano to voice. Somehow I knew that I didn’t want to be a professional piano player.
John Gardner: Okay.
Claude Kelly: So I think, well now’s my shot to better myself as a singer.
John Gardner: Did you have a, a reason, was there something you saw? Or you just said I don’t want to travel with an instrument that big?
Claude Kelly: Pianos are heavy. I was an equally good singer. I was just concerned that my scholarship, to get a scholarship to Berkeley, would require the instrument that I had been officially doing the whole time. So I auditioned on piano because I knew I could get a reference from my music teacher, and all that stuff, but once I was in, I was like, I tricked you. I want to switch to what I want to do which was voice. And I think, I think Berkeley scared me because, because normally in school you’re either, there’s like two or three kids in the whole school that love music, and everyone else has their other interests, but Berkeley is a high concentrated room of, building of musical nerds. And there’s something really cool about that, but also something really scary about that because then you realize where you fit in the, on the totem pole of how intense you’ve been and all that stuff, so. I kind of shied away from singing and I end up being like the businessy guy that went out there, I produce everyone shows, I put, I kind of put on my quote unquote A&R hat and I would, I would tell everyone else that they need to do, and I, I would still sing. I was still known for singing, but it wasn’t till I graduated and I realized that songwriting was what I wanted to do. I didn’t even take a songwriting class. No. I just got back to New York, and loved it and that was a, finally when I realized that there was a way for me to have a career in the music business and from then it was off to the races.
John Gardner: So I want to get into your professional careers and how y’all get into it, but I have to stop on this fact. So, you went all through, through Berkeley. You didn’t take a songwriting club, where, did where did this come from, your song writing? Did you write poems growing up?
Claude Kelly: I think, I’ve, I’ve always loved storytelling, and I’d also did musical theater in grade school. I was always like you know in the plays and also so I had a passion for storytelling in musical theater, but I love words. When I had the choice I took Latin. All the way until college. I was interested in how words were broken down and came together and how they rhyme together. I was very, into that, and I thought maybe I’d be a journalist. That was my practical solution to how to get stories out, and it wasn’t until I graduated from Berkeley, and I was out of desperation. I was hanging with other friends who were in the studio writing, and I was. Chiming in when I wasn’t supposed to. And I think after awhile they got sick of me and said well if you, if that’s, if you have an opinion and they were good opinions, why don’t you come and join us or why don’t you get in on this and one day it just clicked. Maybe I should just try and write songs, and then as soon as I made the decision to do that, it came in like a flood. My mother used to have this, I was still living at home because I had no money, she had, you know the big packs of computer paper? That you get at like staples? So, she had like several stacks of those I just took a whole package and I would just write. There were yellow pages, it was yellow paper too. I’d write on both sides. Song ideas and all kinds of stuff like that. And then for me, it was just, when I realized I should be doing it, Chuck’ll tell you this, we’re both this way. I’m an over committer. So if I’m if I’m going to be a songwriter then I’m going to go all the way. So, anyone who would let me record, anywhere, in people’s houses, in their and make shift studios, in bathrooms and closets. Anywhere in the tri-state area New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Philly, and back to Boston, just to practice. So that’s why now when I go to Berkeley, I have no relation, I mean I know them now, but from my time there, I had no relation with the songwriting department because I was actually music business major.
John Gardner: Well, and fast forward some time in just real briefly tell us some of the people that have sung your songs at this point.
Claude Kelly: A lot of people. I started off with my first big cuts were, there’s four that are really important. Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were to my first really big cuts. I know. I nailed them, but the reason I say there is four is because, you know if you understand the timing of how records come up there’s always several months in between where they’re getting things together, the release date set. So just so happens that those two landed first, but the two that role for Britney spears and Kelly Clarkson came out first.So it seems as if those were earlier, but I actually got the Whitney and Michael ones first, but that was Iike kinda like the one two punch that kicked in the door.
John Gardner: Yeah. I can imagine.
Claude Kelly: And since then it’s been literally everyone from my dream so, Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus, Jessie J, to me, can you help me out I can’t remember anymore.
John Gardner: Louis York.
Claude Kelly: Well, of course Louis York. I mean, but it’s been awesome so I have nothing to complain about.
John Gardner: What was the time frame from when you had that epiphany it’s like, hey, I should be writing songs. How old when it hit?
Claude Kelly: It happened when I graduated in 2001. 2002 I’m sorry, and I was 21, and from 21 until I was 26 or 27 I was broke around the city just trying to figure it out. So there were several years of me trying to make it. Make sense and and figure out what my style and my sound was, and what worked for me. And I built up a name just being there the phantom writer in New York. I didn’t have a publisher. I didn’t have a manager for several years of that then, and I just, my goal was to get really good, and I learned really fast that the studio time was precious. So my other goal was to get really fast. So I could, I knew if I could give them a good song fast, then they’d say not only is the song good but he’s cost effective.
John Gardner: Makes sense.
Claude Kelly: I spent those next years doing that, and it’s 2007, 2006, when a, Britney Spears came out. Yeah 2006.
John Gardner: So five years of hard ground in, wow.
Claude Kelly: Yeah, five years.
John Gardner: And Chuck, kindly take us on the same progression. How did you go from trombone player in the band to your incredible professional history here?
Chuck Harmony: After Alabama State, I transferred to Clark Atlanta, and it was when I moved to Atlanta the the R&B scene was real heavy. Like the music scene it was bubbling knows after the face had came and made their mark, and So So Def was bubbling and all this stuff was going on, and so I had no clue where production was, I didn’t really know about the business. All I knew is that at this point I wanted to be a jazz piano player. So I went I went to Atlanta with that intention just kind of playing around the city with whoever will let me play. Sitting in Apache Cafe and places like that just bouncing around the city, and then when I had free time at home I would make these tracks that I would just improvise, do jazz improvisation over it. And so, I’m at a chance meeting with this guy name K. Kate said that that is a producer. He kind of showed me what what I was doing just, with the jazz tracks he showed me how they consider that production, and how he’s making money from that thing. And so, he introduced me to what the MPC was, and that that, the drum machine MPC, and from that point I was just obsessed with it was just I mean I’m, I was like, I made these for fun, I didn’t even know I can make money from it. I made it for fun, but now I’m just obsessed with that, that pathway, and so I did that real long and hard for like four, or five years. Just bouncing around doing tracks, and trying to land, in the meantime planned playing churches around the city, but mostly doing tracks and just trying to land it somewhere. And I just happened to catch a chance meeting with Ne-Yo by some round away kind of crazy story, but I won’t go into that. Yeah, and that was that was the beginning of my career as a, as a professional producer slash songwriter.
John Gardner: If you don’t mind just to put it again in perspective. Going through even a university level, same thing, seems like y’all are doing this what you end up doing for a large part so far your careers, it’s not something that you sat down and you enrolled in courses for these things. You were doing them, both of your stories overlap perfectly then, it’s for the love of it. You found out later the name for it, you found out later the career portion of it, so that’s, that’s amazing and, and now again fast forwarding from that point the story, could you tell us a few of the names that, that you’ve produced for?
Chuck Harmony: Yeah, well my one-two punch was Celine Dion and Janet Jackson. That was my entry point. See, Ne-Yo actually wrote those songs in the same day.
Claude Kelly: No big deal.
John Gardner: Yeah, just get those out real quick, and then he trusted you with them.
Chuck Harmony: Yeah. There was, it was a lot of different people from John Legend to Mary J. Blige to Jessie J. Rhianna. A little lady named Rhianna
John Gardner: So at this time you didn’t know each other. When you’re, when these are coming out. I’m guessing maybe in those circles you’d overlap every now and then? In the studios, or not even? yeah those are not even other than that you.
Chuck Harmony: Actually actually the guy, this guy that works for us Mike Johnson he introduced me to Claude’s music on the internet.
Claude Kelly: Wait a minute. This is actually interesting because to know Chuck now, and I know he knows me, we study liner notes.So it’s actually strange that we didn’t know about each other because we have both been doing it long enough where it just, people who were bubbling. I should have known who he was, and vice versa. So it was actually one of the first times that I was working with someone I really just did not know at all.
John Gardner: And what was that first project, how did y’all finally crossed by the universe was holding it, holding it, and now put y’all together.
Claude Kelly: Well, Mike Johnson told, who still works for us so he’s been he like, ride or die, he put Chuck on to me and how we actually met in person was this A&R for Def Jam at the time. His name was Steve Ferreri. He’s since passed away.
Chuck Harmony: Rest in peace Steve.
Claude Kelly: Rest in peace Steve. He had this brilliant idea to do something really amazing R&B wise to shake the business up. And they had the opportunity with this artist Chrisette Michelle who signed to Def Jam who it had a lot of buzz. She had done stuff Jay-Z and Nas, and L. A. Reid was considering her the darling of R&B there. So, the idea was how can we create something different, and I think where Steve was brilliant was also that L.A. was his boss and he knew that there was power to that duo because L.A. with a duo with Babyface. So he knew, if I can get he’ll like this. And that was brilliant on his part. So he gave both of us, I know he, he called Chuck but he called me and said, “hey, I want you to Chrisette Michelle.” And I respected him so I wasn’t going to say no, and I didn’t have enough going on to say no. So, I was like, why yes I will take this work. And he said, there’s this producer that I would think you work really well with in Atlanta named Chuck Harmony, and I’m gonna fly you down there, and just see what happens in. We’re still this way, but back then to get that kind of, close attention from an A&R, you know what mean? Like, he would call saying, how is it going and, and you get those emails. That was, that made you feel like you were really in on the process. Important person. So, the way he, he described his how, his hands would be on the product, and how he felt about Chuck made me take it seriously. So I flew down there to where Chuck was which was actually a Ne-Yo studio. Which was by the way was totally against what I’m, what I would normally do, because I mean, just kind of like respecting another king in his castle. It’s actually uncomfortable to go to Ne-Yo’s studio. Ne-Yo was huge and there’s just having that imposing presence, and having to do your best there, but I went down there because I, I had a good feeling about it. And the only thing I remember from that was on the plane going down which is what we end up talking about, I was like. What should I listen to? And I listened to the Supremes from New York to Atlanta in whatever old version of iPod it was. Right, right whatever MP3 device that was. And I say it was a little like blind dating because you’re supposed to go in and meet someone you don’t know and create magic. And, yeah. The rest is history I mean, we we met and it was off to the races immediately.
John Gardner: Wow. Now, y’all met, did the project, goes great. I’m sure you’re looking for other chances to work together, but at that point it wasn’t like hey let’s quit everything let’s become Louis York. Right? I mean how?
Claude Kelly: No, we weren’t looking.
John Gardner: How did how did this from that point until Louis York, how does that happen?.
Chuck Harmony: Every chance we got, if a label would put us together we would do a song and we were actually having a lot of success, especially in the R&B realm doing some, and so that was just the extent of our working relationship. Like even we would be nominated for Grammys together, and we would see each other at the Grammys, and then we just go our separate ways to different cities and then the next time the label, label would put us together we would do that. And it really wasn’t until we, until I moved to New York. I can’t remember the year.
Claude Kelly: It was like 2014. 13 or 14.
Chuck Harmony: Probably 14, but I moved to New York. And at that time we were sharing the same manager, and so and we were sharing, he had a studio in Times Square and so I was coming up there working out of that studio every day so we just became close.
Claude Kelly: And it was then like, we were literally in this studio working together and apart because Chuck had all these people coming in to meet him, and I was in the other room, and still like I’d be traveling or he’d be traveling and, and it wasn’t like we were working together every day. But we have enough time together where we spent some good conversation time and nothing was wrong. Nothing was technically wrong in terms of like, it wasn’t like the opportunity is dried up or that. Or the studio was fault like we were in the Brill Building.
John Gardner: Sounds like it.
Claude Kelly: We were in the Brill building which is like a very famous, famous writer building where Paul Simon was still recording underneath us. We met everyone that Carole King in there, and Dionne Warwick recorded in the studio. All that was in the halls, in the halls and the walls.That legendary magic and we took that for granted, but we had a conversation one day about how uninspired we were. And it wasn’t because the calls weren’t coming, but the quality of the calls that were coming was the problem. I think, I think we’d had a session that day with some artists, and the session went fine but we felt unfulfilled. We’re like, well we got that done but this is so boring.
John Gardner: Wow. Yeah.
Claude Kelly: We’re not being challenged at all.
John Gardner: And in that session, you’re songwriting you’re producing, so okay.
Chuck Harmony: And we always make, the songs weren’t bad, we make the best of every situation. We work hard, but I’djust know I could be doing so much more, and he knew he could be doing so much more, but the people calling us we’re only asking us for yesterday’s stuff.
Claude Kelly: Or a version of it, and that’s even worse is that, they didn’t even want the greatest we do, they want a carbon copy of the greatness that’ll sell.
John Gardner: It sells.
Claude Kelly: Well it’s not really, not if it’s not inspired it doesn’t sell. That, that was our problem with that. We thought we were going down a black hole that would kind of be career suicide because you know you can’t be just being inauthentic forever.So we sat down one day, and whether we told him I was like I’m going to quit. I’m going to walk away. I’m, I’m I had the brochures to apply to graduate school for a degree in world religion at Columbia University. And he’s the first person I told. I’m telling you this. I hadn’t told our manager I didn’t tell anyone and that’s when the real conversation started.
Chuck Harmony: Because I was gonna quit till I was I was, I was totally looking to go to seminary. I don’t know why I just figured that if I was going to quit music the other thing that always intrigued me besides musical spirituality. So I wanted to just explore it so I was going to start there, and so it was that conversation that just lead to us, I guess trusting each other with our fears because we, we had shared our dreams together, you know, but trusting each other with our fears is how we got to Louis York.
John Gardner: Look at that.
Claude Kelly: It sounded crazy like, sometimes when you’re, when you’re in your own bubble your fears can start to make sense to you. And then so you need someone that you respect, like really respect eye level. You know bare, bare truth. To, to tell you that you sound crazy. We would end up being merits for each other. Because I would be able to hear him say I’m quitting and that would sound like madness to me.
John Gardner: Look at that.
Claude Kelly: Even though I thought it was fine for me to quit, and I think it was vice versa so. More than me, how it started was was more than me saving myself, I was trying to save him. You can’t do this alright I’ll hold off for a couple more months.
Claude Kelly: And all, let’s just try something. Hold on. Just slow down and we talked with them. How we really talk is through music and so it wasn’t long before we’re like okay let’s just go in, and by the piano and see if we can figure this out, and the main thing was just what’s missing. From our lives. From our souls. From our careers, but then and then that turned into what’s missing from the world of music and from the world. And that led to the piano we started talking about the music that we love, and that same question you asked about what made us up, and that question alone we could talk for about five hours the list of people. So we’ve been working together since 2006 and we still haven’t covered all the artists that we both respectively love. So we just started thinking about all the things that we saw as broken. In ourselves and in this career that we loved. And we’re not Supermen, but we felt like we have enough knowledge and access, and we’d seen so much, you know. When you work with these artists, the beautiful thing is that yes, your name gets attached to Rhianna and Bruno Mars. That’s awesome, but you also see, even when it’s good all the hard work, and all the time that doesn’t work, and all the good bad and ugly of the creative process, the business process, and we just decided that it was our responsibility, both musically and business wise, to try and be a solution to the problem and that’s when the songs started to come.
John Gardner: We’re getting to the point where we’re gonna start I want to start talking about that. I want to start talking about what you did in response to where you were at that time. And I definitely want to talk about American Griots. I promise we’re getting there. This is all of this is. It’s so clear to me from hearing your music definitely obviously hearing you speak that without everything that you’ve described up into this point there’s no Lewis York. There’s nowhere to workshop. It’s in direct response. So, for, at this point, I want to kind of just stay at this section for a little bit. I want to kind of marinade in it. You, you mentioned both that it sounded crazy hearing the other person say it. If y’all don’t mind, I’d like to get just a quick snippet of from the songwriter perspective producer perspective. What is it like, like for songwriter? What is it like writing for somebody else and putting it in their hands and, and what, what is it like when it goes right? What is it like when it goes wrong?
Claude Kelly: It’s ironic because we have a song called this but, it’s bittersweet. It literally is bittersweet and I’ll tell you why. I love songwriting as much as I love singing, and I love songwriting as much as I love being an artist, and it’s because I love telling stories. And not every story’s for me to tell all the way through, and I understand that enough to be really, really, really, really fulfilled when I can get that story to the right places that someone who, who can tell it better can be the loudspeaker for it.
I say that because I had my original desire, this wasn’t a masterplan for me to write my way to my artist career, which for a lot of people I think that is their goal. It’s like, the labels didn’t get me first so I’ll write, and then I’ll have their attention or I can take a meeting with so and so. Then I’ll convince them like here’s my demo. Never had that plan, never had a demo. I tried artistry early in my career and I was like, eh, I was a full blown songwriter and I was happy. My idols were Diane Warren and Babyface. Like this, Diane Warren is a true blue songwriter. Doesn’t want to be anything else but a songwriter I loved that. It’s really rewarding to, I used to be so thrilled when, just by the idea that I could have this idea for the idea. The words would come and the melody would come. I link up with Chuck or a few other producers I work with, and then you could really, Britney Spears could really be doing it. That was a, that’s a pay off to me. So that’s the part I love, and I see songs as a jigsaw puzzle, so it’s a story. It’s a visual to me. It’s almost like, it’s a picture. It’s all art, and it’s all there. It’s just about figuring out where the pieces go. So there’s that, there’s that gold star I get when I get the jigsaw puzzle right. The hard part is that the business side of music means that you do have to leave, give it up and it goes out of your own care and you can’t control what happens when it’s our of your care. Sometimes, it’s not as much as it should, sometimes it gets treated really really well. And I’m not talking about in terms of it selling really well because that happens sometimes too, but really just I feel like this is a great fit and this person understands this relationship that we have here and they respect the song. This is going to be a lifelong thing for them. But it’s also extremely painful when it goes wrong because stories are, for me, stories are important to be told. Not just couple catchy lines that go together for the sake of that moment. So it feels like, for me it feels like your Romeo and Juliet didn’t get all the way out. Or Othello didn’t get completed. As opposed to a man I have to be catchy. I realized that glove rhymes with love and I hope people sing along with that. So it can be really painful in that regard, but I don’t have any regrets about my songwriting career because it also taught me that at the end of the day it really is about telling stories and that’s what we do now everyday is tell stories. Yeah exactly.
John Gardner: American Griots. And Chuck, could you kind of explain the same thing when you’re producing you’re, you’re making the whole vision come out. How much, and it might be different project to project, but how much, what is the process like, what is it like when you’re surrounded by a group that enables your full vision to come out when it goes right, what about when it doesn’t?
Chuck Harmony: Well I can honestly say that my full vision was never realized until I started working at Weirdo Workshop. Building Weirdo Workshop and working here, but because there, there is always that, that cloud of expectation. Like you as a producer and I was, I was not a forceful producer. Meaning I wasn’t like in my headphones creating this sound, and I ran up on this sound and I just gave it to everybody and I force my sound on everybody. As a producer, what drives me is to either the story or the voice.You know what I’m saying? And so for me it was about catering to these voices that I got a chance to work with. So that’s the awesome part. The limiting part is that those voices actually have a say so in how their album sound.
Chuck Harmony: And so that way, with that comes a lot of expectations, and so, and I’m a dreamer. Like if you listen to Louis York you hear, you hear how big my dreams are musically and so with those expectations I automatically had to come down several notches to just kind of try to meet in the middle when it came to what I think the voice would sound good over or what they actually wanted their album to sound like so.
John Gardner: And that can be frustrating.
Chuck Harmony: And I mean, way more compromising, and creatively sometimes compromise is frustrating.
John Gardner: Wow. To the point where in the middle of a career that’s going great.
Chuck Harmony: Yeah man.
John Gardner: It was enough to to pack it up.
Chuck Harmony: Because you, you just as a creative you just you want to get it all out, you know what I’m saying? It’s like nothing is worse than creativity lying dormant. I want to get it all out.
John Gardner: Now we’re to the point where we’re getting it all out. Now we have the venues so we see what went into it that was, that was stifling. Kind of like a, a funnel for your, your talents your visions. It’s getting out there but it’s getting restricted along the process. Now, I’m looking around, there’s no one to tell y’all this, don’t do that so, Louis York formed. What kind of music does Louis York make?
Claude Kelly: That’s a great question. Louis York makes world music. That’s the best way to put it because it’s multi-genre. It’s, the reason why we’re called Louis York as a band is because Chuck is from east St. Louis and I’m from New York City, and we wanted to reflect the fact that it’s a mash-up of all the things that make us up into this new thing. It’s really cool for artists to rep where they’re from. Which is a good thing because everyone, everyone to stamp their city as what their sound. And that’s how I relate to a lot of artists, but what’s interesting is, is, in my mind he stamps east St. Louis in a way and I stamp New York in a way and it comes together and what is that? What is that sound? And it’s bigger than both cities. It’s bigger than your stereotypes for those cities. Also, it’s a new thing. And because we both study everything from classical to spiritual music and all kinds of church music, everything from gospel to episcopal to CCM and everything in between, and then of course R&B, and hip hop and all the stuff that made us up. It becomes this melting pot of a thing. It’s hard for even us to decipher. We, we haven’t gotten to do this very often yet, but when we listen to the album, there’s this, there’s a thing that people hear when they hear the album because it’s new to them, but what I hear is the layering specifically like literally sandwich layering of a whole bunch of different influences at the same time.
John Gardner: I went to the edges just listening. Was that Sting? Was that Michael Jackson?
Claude Kelly: It’s like what if you put Sting over TLC with Biggie drums, and Seal, and Burt Bacharach, and Billy Joel and Ray Charles at the same time. Because that’s all these people that we loved, and it’s the stuff that we missed. So Louis York sounded international and it’s worldwide in that way and it’s also adventurous. We purposely make it not typical. It’s musical, and melodic, and poetic and that’s what we believe every song should be. So beyond that point, that’s the basics for a song period. But then beyond being a good song, structured song, what makes Louis York special is that we take you on a journey. Songs change suddenly. They get bright. They get hopeful. They get dark. They get edgy. Sometimes there’s no voice, vocals at all. Sometimes there’s no music at all. It’s just us telling story with as much fearlessness as possible.
John Gardner: And that story comes out from what I hear. Of course in the words, even beyond that because, Chuck what you do, I’ll be listening to a song and then I’m like wait, now that’s happening? How did we get here? And then you think oh man , he brought us here, and you’re taking us on a journey. Can you think of a, a track on, on the new album American Griots, that, that stands out of that process of matching the production to the message that you wanted to get across on any of the tracks?
Chuck Harmony: That’s a good question. It’s something about the track Electric Blue where I’m just so satisfied with how the sonic-ness of that track matches exactly what it feels electric blue, it sounds electric blue, and even when it switches to other kinds of grooves it’s still, there’s still a blue hue that I hear in the music. So sonically I’m, I’m really for lack of a better words impressed with myself for being able, I did it! Mom, I made it!
John Gardner: Without those outside influencing what it sounds like, you get to do it. What about overall for the for the album? Was there an overall, I don’t know if you work within the theme or mood or color of the album? What do you see as a whole for American Griots?
Chuck Harmony: For me, my thing was going into this project, I felt like music should be inspirational and aspirational. And so that’s what I think the aspirational part is what drove me to think beyond myself. You know what I’m saying? Like I wanted to create something that even I aspired to. How do you do that, you know what I’m saying? So that’s what, that was the journey that I was taking. And really that was the exercise that I was on in my mind is how, how do, how do you, you make something that’s so familiar now? How do you make the aspirational again? Because it’s not. Like I’m, I’m just being honest especially in popular music is not aspirational. It’s just something that’s happening. It’s nothing to aspire to.
Claude Kelly: Everything he did say about the album, the aspirational, and inspirational, is what, you asked us what the Louis York sound is, is why when we had to check the box of what genre it was we checked R&B. Because we checked the landscape out because we love it all. And it felt like the place that needed inspiration and aspiration. And we know that it’s rooted in that. We love R&B, we do R&B, but you know, you can be clever for the sake of award ceremonies or for different kinds of press things you could say we’re pop or edgy urban or whatever. All the weird words they use to try and describe it.
Chuck Harmony: What’s the new genre we just discovered Chill?
Claude Kelly: Chill Pop sounds like R&B, but it sounds cooler on spotify. But R&B is such a big part of what makes America a stand out country for music and for art. And it was the part that was frustrating us the most with like where is, where is the leadership? And where is the genre? Because R&B is responsible for telling a lot of the stories of the history of this country and of the world. Especially this country. I’m gonna talk about Motown. It’s pop music, but it’s also pop protest music from the sixties. And it can’t be like that without R&B music in there. Or the eighties and the nineties and so on and so forth. I was just piggybacking because when you said aspirational and you’re talking about the sound, that was deliberate.
John Gardner: That’s something. And you too, the production side and the keys playing, vocals. Come on. Local songwriting. I’m sitting in front of two men that so many people aspire to be like. That’ll bring them to a certain spot. That you two are still aspiring to go beyond. That’s exciting man.
Chuck Harmony: Yeah man.
Claude Kelly: Oh yeah. The biggest part of this journey for us has been the wisdom. I think you’ll be surprised to know that we spend not as much time they think we do in this studio recording. That’s like the last, literally the cherry on top. It’s a lot of growth. A lot of time in the gym, a lot of time reading books, watch, reading documentaries, and one of the first things we talked about was just. I don’t know we watched somewhere. I think it was Oprah. Everyone loves Oprah, but what stuck, sticks out to us was an interview with, why she said, I think it might have been a Super Soul Sunday actually, and she was talking to someone she respected and she was like, sometimes I wake up in the morning I just feel like, have I done enough? And we’re like what?! We were like…
Chuck Harmony: I totally remember that! You’re a self-made billionaire! With your own TV network
Claude Kelly: And that’s to your point! If Oprah starts beating herself up about has she done enough in her 24 hours, in her year, 365 days, then who are we to feel like we’re, we’re good. And the other thing that really hit us in that same regard was, you start this process, we were like in our early to mid-thirties. I’m talking about just kind of figuring out this whole Weirdo Workshop thing. And we started reading, doing homework on people we love. Shattering some of our, our idols and making some new ones. And we realized that like a lot of the people that we loved, that are now black and white photos or no longer with us were doing that stuff in their thirties. And it might seem like they were old now. Like Martin Luther King died at 39. I’m 38 now. So technically, he has a holiday now, right? So what that means now is that I’ve already not done as much as I could be by 39. So I have a lot more work to do. And so that’s why we keep that in the back of our head when we’re working so the music always sounds urgent because we don’t feel like we have arrived anywhere.
John Gardner: That is something. To classify, to classify what y’all do and we’ll get into what y’all are doing, could you first bring us is that reference point? Like you’re scanning the, the box. What do we what we check? You mentioned R&B. How would you describe, what is R&B and to someone who doesn’t know, if listeners in Singapore and India, and in different parts of the world, how do you describe what is R&B, and how would you describe what to listen for when listening to R&B?
Claude Kelly: Well technically it stands for Rhythm and Blues
Chuck Harmony: Yeah, it stands for rhythm and blues, and unfortunately everything that black musicians make at this point is considered R&B, and so it just falls, it all, if you’re black you just fallen under that umbrella, but R&B is specific in the fact that it’s a, it’s a vulnerable music You know what I’m saying? Whether it’s, whether it’s upbeat or whether it’s mid-tempo or whether it’s a ballad there’s a lot of vulnerability to it. That’s the, the bluesy soul part of R&B that, that rings true and it’s been ringing true forever. And so that’s how we’re classified our, our classified as vulnerable and, and hopeful music from black people.
Claude Kelly: Yeah it’s good. I would say R&B is the genre that requires you to wear your heart on your sleeve. Whether you’re playing it. Whether you’re singing it. Whether you’re producing it. Whether you’re writing it. You know gospel music is considered gospel because it’s about a specific topic. That’s what makes it such a specific genre. But I would venture to say that R&B is the gospel music about everything else. It’s the gospel, it’s the truth. It’s you wearing, you telling the painful cold, hard, sometimes ugly, sometimes hopeful and beautiful truths about everything from love, to war, to relationships, to partying, to drugs to all of it. It’s, it’s the honesty of it all. That’s why that’s why, it’s, it’s the heartbeat of American culture because our, our American story, in general, is the story about overcoming and freedom and so you have to, you have to have honesty. You’re supposed to at least.
John Gardner: Yeah, and that supposed to is pretty big because you both mentioned looking at the state of affairs across different music genres and R&B included and, and prognosis wasn’t that great.
Chuck Harmony: No, it’s not great.
John Gardner: So what do you see that was lacking in R&B, in the music industry, and how is Louis York fighting against that? And Weirdo Workshop in general.
Chuck Harmony: Yeah. I think, I think creativity is actually lacking, you know ? I think once we, once we became aware of the business aspect of it, and we start to see where you can like literally change..
Claude Kelly: The tax bracket.
Chuck Harmony: Your lives and the lives of your family, yeah your tax bracket. Buy your mom a house, and cars, and all that stuff. That, that kind of irrelevant stuff to creativity. Once that took the forefront of R&B. We stopped being creative. We stopped taking chances. We, we just kind of just our, everybody do the same thing to try to get that same result, and that, that is the definition of insanity so.
Claude Kelly: We talk about this a lot. There’s a false perception, and I think it happened around the MTV era we start to see R&B, and not just hear it and feel it. There’s a false perception that to be successful as a singer, of all genres, especially R&B, it means that you’re rich. Now don’t get me wrong, I think if you’re working hard you’re good, you should get paid for what you do, and if you’re the best you should get paid the most, and we should all be well off for what we do because music is important. But there is this feeling that music has failed. Not just we feel that way as musicians, our community, but the way we are judged that way. Is an artist successful because they’re, do great music, or is it because they’re rich? Or because they’re popular? And so we all accept, we all went into that contract and accepted it. And I think Chuck and I are starting to come out of that haze. And so we’ll say, we’ll talk about stuff like people we love. Think about how many people we love past or present, more past, that weren’t rich.
Chuck Harmony: Or we don’t know if they were rich
Claude Kelly: Do we know if Beethoven was a gazillionaire?
Chuck Harmony: Yeah we don’t know what he had
Claude Kelly: Did Mozart have a yacht?
John Gardner: Yeah, that’s true.
Claude Kelly: Did Shakespeare like, yeah. And my belief is that if they were you’d know. That would’ve been written about as part of their impressive list of credits so. It can’t be that your excellence is attached to a dollar figure, and a lot of what’s being done now is done with a dollar figure in mind. How much it’s going to cost, or how much you’re going to get because it’s so cool. And sometimes that works out in your favor, sometimes it doesn’t, but If you think that way, makes you lazy about the ways you can be creative. And a lot of creativity comes out of desperation and not having everything you need. So creativity and the honesty are missing from R&B, and it all goes in the same thing. Is that you in order to tell the truth you have to be honest about the, maybe you don’t have a lot of money, or you can’t afford to go to the club, or you didn’t get the girl. So that’s missing from the story and that’s, that’s for both men, men and women in that in that genre alike. The vulnerability’s not there.
John Gardner: Wow. One of the last things, thank you first off, for your times. I could talk to y’all all day.
Claude Kelly: This is the first of many, so.
John Gardner: Yeah. Get to know each other so.That’s a good segue because you’re talking about, we look to the past. We look to the group of, of artist, and if we judge them by their riches, their bank account we’re missing the point. There is another class of artist in West Africa. Not quite sure how rich they’re getting from what they do, but it’s an important work. Tell us about your album name.
Claude Kelly: The album is called American Griots, and when you get to know us you start to realize everything we do has a meaning. It’s deliberate. We did an interview over a year ago for a website called the Griot. Which at the time was a brand new, we were the first artist to do like a live content for them, like perform live. It was in New York and we didn’t know what the word Griot was so. We are research nerds.
Chuck Harmony: And it was spelled G-R-I-O-S
Claude Kelly: It was spelled just like the website But we didn’t know that so we looked it up like, what’s this word for this place we’re going to perform? And then we found out that a griot is a west African songwriter, poet, performer, instrumentalists, storyteller that travels from village to village performing and passing on the oral tradition of the society. And this has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. That spoke to us. So that was the first thing. It was also really relieving to understand that beyond the history we’ve been given there’s a, this reason why we feel this spiritual pull to be musicians. Like I said my family wasn’t a musician, weren’t musicians, and Chuck said many times that it was strange for him to be veering off and to do music. Everyone said he was crazy to do it. So why this pull what, what is the thing that I feel? This spiritual thing? And to know that beyond we’ve been taught, which is that for a lot of us it all started on the slave ship, I mean. You can’t make sense that there was this elaborate, beautifully designed career profession that you could have, and it wasn’t something that you can get up and do it for riches. You had to be born into it or selected by existing griots and trained for years. That felt like our life. Except in modern times. And then of course we’re American, so we felt like “Well, we can’t pretend that we’re West-African Griots, that’s ridiculous, that’s not honest”. (Laughs) You know what I’m saying? It’s totally ridiculous. But the tradition makes sense. So we’re like wait, let’s modernize this and apply it to ourselves and hope that by calling ourselves- not- we personally didn’t name the album “The American Griots”, which would’ve only pointed to us. But just “American Griots”, saying that, “hey, this is what we all are, doing this now”. And the idea was just that it gives you a renewed responsibility for why you do music. If you’re on tour- and for that matter, in an age where your music is going to foreign lands, which is what it’s doing, then you’re going from village to village and telling your stories. The oral history. And if you believe that besides the history books, the politics and the news that the music is actually telling the soundtrack of what’s happening in the world, then it’s a pretty big responsibility.
John Gardner: No doubt
Claude Kelly:So the album title is to describe how we see ourselves, how we see music, and also what we see for our peers, and for the people that come after us as what it takes to become a musician in this modern world which is confusing, and hard, but needs music to help us through it.
John Gardner: Without a doubt. We thank you all for your focus on bringing it. Bringing the importance to it and taking it that seriously, the message and the responsibility of a musician, it doesn’t get talked about a lot so-
Chuck Harmony: It doesn’t, but it’s so important.
John Gardner: But I- I love what y’all are doing. That’s great. This is beautiful. Again, like I said, I could talk to you all day. With respect for your times, we will wrap up. We don’t have much time, so I’m gonna ask just a few pretty easy questions.
Chuck Harmony: Okay.
John Gardner: We don’t have time for kind of long developed answers, maybe if we get a chance to speak again we can get into some stuff later, but we’ll just go one by one. This first one, you can both answer. What’s your favorite food?
Claude Kelly/Chuck Harmony: Rice.
John Gardner: Boom, look at this! Both of y’all rice?
Chuck Harmony: Yes.
John Gardner: What?!
Chuck Harmony: Yeah, man. I eat rice every day.
Claude Kelly: We just had rice
John Garnder: With the Jamaican background, I can see. Just any rice, y’all just big on rice okay!
Claude Kelly: White rice, black rice,
Chuck Harmony: Brown rice
Claude Kelly:spanish rice, rice and peas
John Gardner:That was so fast that you knew all that. (Laughs)
Chuck Harmony: Yeah because it’s honest, that’s why it’s fast
John Gardner: Okay, alright. So, I wanna hear from both of y’all. So, outside of music, what are your hobbies? Do you do anything outside of music?
Chuck Harmony: I play basketball.
John Gardner: Okay, Right on.
Claude Kelly: I love to read. We both love to read. We started a tiny book club. Which you guys are more than welcome to come to.
Chuck Harmony: I read too.
Claude Kelly. Because of our hobby of reading, we wanted to incorporate it into what we do, so we actually started a book club. It’s for books under two hundred pages, everyone’s welcome. Because you just wanna meet other people that love to read.
John Gardner: That’s awesome.
Claude Kelly: And lately, I’ve- this is probably bad as to say this here-But lately, I’ve been introduced to the wonderful world of cigars. And they’re pretty awesome, I like them. I would do them with caution, though.
John Gardner: Okay. Reading, cigars, and basketball. Great. This one we will take one at a time. We’ll just give this one to you, Chuck. What’s been on your mind lately?
Chuck Harmony: Death.
John Gardner: Hello.
Claude Kelly: Golly, man.
John Gardner: See, if this wasn’t the lightning round, I could get deeper into that. Wow. Heavy. I’m just gonna let it hang there, we’ll let it hang there. Last one- we’re gonna talk after this (Laughs)- Last one, this one’s for you, Claude. Now let me know if it’s not clear, it;’s kind of a complicated question. I don’t know why I’m obsessed with this question. If you could ask the universe just one question and know the full answer and be able to act in that answer, what would be your one question?
Chuck Harmony: That’s a good question
Claude Kelly: Oh, if I could ask the universe one question and get one answer… Give me a second… I know!
Chuck Harmony: It’s the lightning round for a reason (Laughs)
John Gardner: You get some time on that one. In the meantime, so what’s up with death?
Chuck Harmony: Well, both me and Claude, we lost a couple good friends. One tragically in a car accident. Lashawn Daniels . Awesome songwriter.
Claude Kelly: Amazing songwriter.
Chuck Harmony: And Busbee, another songwriter, and so it just- mortality has been on my mind. As dream chasers, we live in the future. All our hope is in what’s next. And all our hope is built on that spectrum and when those things happen, it just reminds you that every day is a gift.
John Gardner: Yeah. Thank you for sharing. Wow.
Claude Kelly: Okay, okay, so. What am I asking the universe? One answer.
John Gardner: Yeah.
Claude Kelly: This is so, so hard, but I would ask the universe if human beings are making it better or making it worse?
John Gardner: Hm. Wow.
Chuck Harmony: Smart man.
John Gardner: Yeah, a lot can be done with that information. Claude, Chuck. I’ve had a blast. It’s really been great speaking to you all.
Claude Kelly: Yeah, this has been awesome. I- we would love to talk to you after the album comes out and go deep- because you ask the deep questions about some of the songs, ‘cause there’s lots of conversations about how these songs came about.
John Gardner: Hope we’ll be crossing paths again-
Claude Kelly. Love to.
John Gardner: Let’s do it. Thank you all so much, take care.
(Outro Music Plays)
John Gardner: See what I’m talking about? Fantastic talking with those guys. I mean real wisdom, real insight at this point in their career. Just crazy excited about what’s coming up with them. The album is “American Griots”, you can find it anywhere, of course. Check out Weirdo Workshop, see all the amazing stuff they’re up to. For all things Louis York, conveniently, you just go to LouisYork.com (spells out the website afterwards). To find bucket loads of links and more information about Louis York and this episode and interview in particular, you can go to WMFPodcast.org/15.
Now, wherever you’re listening to this podcast, including if you’re on our website right now, you can click subscribe. You’re going to want to do that cause I promise you don’t want to miss next week’s episode. It was a fantastic conversation with the wonderful Wu Fei, Guzheng player from Beijing, China. Here’s just a one minute clip of how awesome that conversation was.
Clip begins to play
John Gardner: Being from Texas and growing up when I did, we’re a similar age, I can picture hearing Jimi Hendrix the first time. I can remember hearing a lot of that music for the first time but I can’t picture what that’s like to have a whole repertoire of music that you’ve studied and then to hear Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Or to hear Michael Jackson, Madonna, what- what was different about this music you were hearing?
Wu Fei: From Michael Jackson, Madonna and Jimi Hendrix-
John Gardner: And then Jimi Hendrix, yea!
Wu Fei: I think the word is “freedom”. Yea – I had been craving for freedom. That’s what uhm in Chinese culture is kind of the opposite. You know, you got to obey the old philosophies, you got to obey the elderlies. So when I heard especially artists from America, I thought “Wow! They’re just-” I didn’t know it was freedom that I was looking for but they were just outrageously out there.
John Gardner: Yes! Tune in for that next week but until then remember to listen widely. Open ears equals open minds. We’ll catch you next time.