For hitmakers Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly, songwriting can be a “lifesaving tool” during times of distress.
Now, with the music industry facing an unsteady future due to the pandemic, and with no sign that concerts and touring will return to full capacity any time soon, both Harmony and Kelly wonder if there’ll be enough support for the arts, and songwriting in particular, to creatively document such a crucial moment in global history.
“We’ve had many conversations during this pandemic about the role music plays in a time like this, and we’re all disappointed a bit by how behind unprepared the music business and artists are to be healers,” Kelly told the PBS NewsHour.
Before they began performing as Louis York, both artists wrote hits for some of the biggest names in pop, including Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Bruno Mars. Among Kelly’s credits is co-writing “Party in the U.S.A.” for Miley Cyrus, while Harmony co-wrote “Russian Roulette” for Rihanna. They’ve seen how big-name acts can bring life to their words and how music can provide some relief, especially now, as the pandemic disrupts our daily lives.
But both argue that songwriting continues to be an underappreciated craft — especially in the U.S. Songwriting can be entertainment, but “Its main purpose is to tell the story of what’s happening in the world,” Harmony said. “It should be a reflection of a time.”
Five years ago, Kelly and Harmony formed Louis York — a name they chose because Harmony is from St. Louis and Kelly is from New York — because they saw an opportunity to be more than just hired talent. They founded their own independent label, called Weirdo Workshop, that releases their own songs as Louis York and supports emerging artists. The duo’s desire to champion songwriters stems from their worry that the music industry prioritizes singers and sweeps other collaborators aside.
The PBS NewsHour spoke with Louis York, who are based in Nashville, on how both songwriters got into the music industry, why songwriters deserve more credit, and why cuts to arts funding are detrimental to society.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into songwriting?
KELLY: Well, we both started songwriting kind of by accident as kids.
HARMONY: I started writing at church when I was 9, just feeling my way through, expressing myself. I was always an introvert, so trying to find an outlet to really express myself. I found it in poetry first, and that converted into songwriting once I fell in love with the musical aspect of life.
KELLY: You started way before me. I mean, I was studying songs and lyrics and reading the lyrics and album jackets and stuff. But I actually didn’t try to sing right until I was in college. So I was obsessive about songs being good. I’m a late bloomer, but songwriting actually has saved my life because I didn’t know what I was going to do in the music business until songwriting became my thing. And it’s kind of how I found myself and found my way and found Louis York.
What is it about songwriting that you enjoy?
KELLY: Well, songwriting is the way we get all the thoughts that are going on in our heads — all of our opinions, all of our frustrations about the world, about ourselves, about life — out. It’s the way that Chuck and I communicate. I think we say our most profound statements in a song. It’s our poetry. We respect great songwriters like Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley, Billy Joel, Elton John, Babyface, many, many songwriters. We make sure there are songs that are of the same quality because the properly written song gets to the heart. That’s all we want to do. So, songwriting is key.
HARMONY: It’s also freedom. In this time, I’ve started to realize what music actually means. Outside of a career. Outside of work. Outside of a paycheck. Outside of a Billboard chart. And it’s really the freedom to express yourself. That’s the healing power of [being a] songwriter for the actual artists. We are healers for the world, we tell the stories for the world. But the actual healing part for us is having that freedom, especially in times like these.
KELLY: Like Chuck always says, we’re musicians and there’s a big part of being a musician, that’s fun, and you’re performing and doing cool stuff. But we are actually essential workers. So the songwriting is the medicine. The words and the melody goes with those words is hopefully helping people in a different way — not a medical way, but in a spiritual way. So with that in mind, we take it extremely seriously, because it is healing.
Why do you think that songwriting is underappreciated?
KELLY: Songwriting as an art, I think is grossly underappreciated and celebrated for its value in the world, but especially in American culture. And we’ve had several unique styles of music that are never born out of struggle and pain and celebration and love and victory and loss on stuff that make American music specifically very special.
Someone once said to me that you can take the temperature of a country by how well the arts are treated and how well they’re doing. We’ve had many conversations during this pandemic time about the role music plays in a time like this. And we’re all disappointed a bit by how behind or unprepared the music business and artists are and were to be healers. To be true entertainers, be leaders, be poets, be leaders — and I think that a lot is about what was happening before this happened.
The cutting of arts education, the defunding of arts programs, the lack of support from every governmental level, to be honest, of creativity in public schools and society, has been detrimental to what I think is one of the most important healing agents that we have as a culture, which is songwriting and music and performing — the community of it all. So there needs to be more talk about songwriters and musicians in the creative community, not just because it’s cool and we look good and it makes money, but because it’s actually a lifesaving tool for us right now. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
HARMONY: Yeah, and personally, I think that more so than songwriting and music being about entertainment, it should be a reflection of a time. I think its main purpose is to tell the story of what’s happening in the world, to kind of paint the picture, historically, about what times like these — what it’s about, what it feels like, what the imagery is. And I feel like, if we don’t appreciate it as an art form, a lot of perspective of this important time in history will be lost.
KELLY: And that would be a tragedy.
Are there any experiences that you think you didn’t get credit for?
KELLY: Credit is an interesting subject when it comes to songwriting because I think that — in [legal terms] — if you look at the songs, if you hear songs, you look them up, songs we worked on, our names are on them. And to the best of our ability, we fought for credit. Do I feel like we got the respect for our innovation, our creativity, for being different, for being musical, for being excellent? Not always. I think it’s a constant fight for anyone who considers himself a real musician … trying to create music that pushes the culture forward. It just depends on how you handle that. So for us, there’s certain days when it’s frustrating because you feel like you’re working hard, and you’re doing your homework, and you’re creating new things and you want that immediate, like, “You did a good job.”
But that’s not really the reason why we do music. We do music to get to people. The reason we moved to Nashville was to not just be in the “Music City,” but build our community, our tribe of people in a place where we knew that they love music. So sometimes it comes immediately, sometimes it comes days later, weeks later, years later. Sometimes that respect and that credit comes after you’re gone. But we just got to trust that we’re doing music from the heart that speaks to people and that hopefully somehow, someway we’ll get a “thank you” for pouring our hearts out all these years.
HARMONY: And to some degree, the song and the artist get combined. And so most people feel like the artist is responsible for the song, and a lot of times the songwriter — the person that actually had the vision for the whole thing — is left behind in that scenario.
KELLY: And the music, too. I mean, there’s a lot of pretending that people play instruments, there’s a lot of pretending in videos, with the guitar or the piano, and it’s a lot of pretending that it was all one person’s idea. That definitely goes into the fantasy of some artists. But I think that the music business would be better off if we celebrated everyone that was involved in making art magical. And I fight for that.
“Beyond the CANVAS” showcases some of the nation’s leading cultural creators — musicians, playwrights, comedians, among many others — who show us how they turn their visions of the world into art. Watch the new series, starting Sunday, July 26 at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on PBS or streaming on artscanvas.org.