Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony have the kind of resumes most songwriters and producers envy. Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna and Mary J. Blige are among their collaborators, and their singles, combined, have sold more than 25 million copies.
Yet, the rigors of multi-platinum hitmaking left them burned out. No longer content as songwriters for hire, the duo are stepping out from behind the boards and into their own act, dubbed Louis York (an amalgam of their native cities: East St. Louis for Harmony, New York for Kelly).
"We got tired of being the last-minute call to write a first single," said Kelly, 34, who performs vocals in the duo. "Getting up to go [to work] was confining and disturbing my peace. Those days are over."
Recently Kelly and Harmony were in a Westside recording studio previewing tracks from an inspired debut EP, "Louis York Masterpiece Theater Act I." What began as a way to blow off steam coalesced into something more as the two were driven by a desire to make music with substance, which they say today's radio playlists lack. "We got really stagnant for a while," Harmony said.
Recording began late last summer, with secret sessions squeezed between other projects. After 15 days of recording over a four-month period, they had produced 15 tracks.
An eclectic mix steeped in hook-driven pop and throwback R&B along with rock and African tribal rhythms, Louis York's music is impossible to peg -- and that's the point. Songs skip between different tempos as well, and the mix is held together by the 35-year-old Harmony's musicianship, which includes keyboards, guitars, drums and the vocoder.
"This was a necessary step for us," Kelly said. "Once you know freedom, to walk into the room and only use half of yourself? We didn't want to do that anymore. There's a way to match commercial music with substance. It's hasty and silly to throw that away."
First single, "Clair Huxtable," introduces their message-driven, left-field sound.
An ode to the mom on "The Cosby Show" played by Phylicia Rashad, the song was born out of a frustration with how black women have been portrayed, and exploited, in music and beyond (it was written long before the controversy surrounding the sitcom's star and creator, Bill Cosby).
“It’s not the way she styles her hair, or the designer clothes she wears / Her silhouette’s one of a kind, but most of all she’s got a beautiful mind,” Kelly sings over a simple guitar riff before Harmony twists the track into a mash-up of '90s New Jack Swing and futuristic R&B.
“It’s really about bringing a message,” Kelly said of the music. The six-track EP muses on everything from personal regret (“Things I Should’ve Said”) to setting aside black heroes (“Nerds”).
Harmony and Kelly originally met while working on R&B singer Chrisette Michele’s 2009 album “Epiphany” and grew close contributing to projects by Jessie J, Faith Evans, Ledisi and Fantasia. Separately they have also amassed a formidable list of credits. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Kelly has written for Cyrus, Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston and One Direction while Harmony has produced or written for Ne-Yo, Toni Braxton, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Rowland, Janet Jackson and Keri Hilson.
The collaboration, however, extends beyond a group. Louis York is the first act of their newly launched imprint, Weirdo Workshop. Kelly and Harmony describe the imprint as a “movement, community and collective” with acts developed by the duo. Weirdo Workshop releases will be distributed by Sony-owned RED Music.
“That’s the other perspective,” Harmony said. “We want to inspire other artists.”
“Louis York Masterpiece Theater Act I” is scheduled for a spring release, with “Act II” arriving in the fall.
First single "Clair Huxtable" is officially out Tuesday, but Pop & Hiss has the exclusive premiere. Listen to the track below.