When duo Louis York’s Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony moved to Nashville a few years ago, chief among their aspirations was to be an integral and inclusive part of Music City’s creative community.
That is apparent from the first moments of the duo’s 13-song project, American Griots—The Album, which releases today (Oct. 18). The album’s opening strains feature a soul-sparking, spoken word intro from Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams.
“We are commissioned to do the Nashville Ballet for 2020, and she was commissioned to do it for 2019. So we met her to see what we were getting ourselves into,” Kelly says of meeting Williams. “That voice and perspective was so genuine and so real that I was like, ‘We have to do this.’ She’s all over the album because we wanted to people to step into a world, not just song to song and she sets the tone.”
American Griots –The Album marks the first full-length album from Louis York; the duo takes its name from Kelly’s New York origins, as well as Harmony’s hometown of St. Louis.
The album’s first single, “Don’t You Forget” is a glorious rocker brimming with the vibrancy and sleek horn sections reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire.
“We love so much music so the reason we moved here was to reclaim our creative freedom. We’ve been writing records and producing records for people and that doesn’t mean you’re fulfilled creatively. Our conversations were about what is missing—what sounds from artists are missing from pop culture? That leads you down a road that’s kind of against the grain on purpose. Earth, Wind & Fire and people like Hall & Oates, Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder—the instrumentation of it, was stuff we were craving as music fans ourselves first. I think it was one of the last songs we did for the album so we knew we wanted to come out of the gate with something big and bold, but not just with the drums and bass—we wanted to make sure the words and melodies were uplifting. Between what I wrote and sang and what Chuck wrote and sang through the instruments, it gives you the same feel that Earth, Wind & Fire gives,” Kelly says, noting they actually saw their first full Earth, Wind and Fire concert just over a year ago in Nashville. “It was amazing, we were just soaking it all up.”
Kelly, known for penning songs for Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears (“Circus”), Kelly Clarkson (“My Life Would Suck Without You”), One Direction (“Why Don’t We Go There”) and Miley Cyrus (the smash hit “Party in the U.S.A.”) is a four-time Grammy nominee.
Harmony has produced, written and/or played on songs recorded by John Legend, Janet Jackson, Celine Dion, Rihanna, Tori Kelly, Daughtry, and many more. He is also a three-time Grammy nominee and a 2011 NAACP Image Award winner.
They met around 2009, when they worked together on Epiphany, an album for Chrisette Michele. That collaboration led to a number of other collaborations, including Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” and Fantasia’s “Bittersweet.”
In 2015, Kelly and Harmony partnered again for their own artist debut as Louis York, putting out a trilogy of EPs, Masterpiece Theater: Act I, Act II, and Act III, an adventurous blend of R&B, jazz, soul, pop and electronic music. Soon after, Kelly and Harmony relocated their label and artist collective Weirdo Workshop to Franklin, Tennessee. The compound serves as an artistic hub for not only Louis York, but for many in Nashville’s creative community.
“We kind of reverse-engineered ourselves. For us those first three EPs were really us fine-tuning our music and our audience and relearning them as they relearned us,” Harmony says. “We couldn’t have made this album without the knowledge we earned touring for the past two or three years, and a lot of good stuff but also a lot of failures, losing some good friends and also gaining new friends, moving from New York and Los Angeles to Nashville and all of that is what makes this album so potent. We have enough information to sum it up in an 11 or 12 song album that we didn’t have when we started putting out music a couple of years ago.”
“When we moved to Nashville, we were hell-bent on being a community-based organization,” Kelly adds.
Weirdo Workshop has become home to a host of creative initiatives, including the Tiny Book Club community and the We Sound Crazy podcast. They are also developing female group The Shindellas, who are featured throughout the American Griots, including “No Regrets” and compelling, uplifting groove of “Love Takeover.” They have spent the better part of the past several months on tour with The Shindellas for the Love Takeover Tour.
The album welcomes several of their fellow Nashville artists. Williams is again featured on a reprise of “Teach Me A Song,” and on the track “I Wonder,” alongside countertenor Patrick Dailey and the W. Crimm Singers.
“Part of the album American Griots process was discovering some of the rich, voices of the Nashville area and trying to help highlight it by putting it on the album,” Kelly says.
They welcomed BBR Music Group artist and “Best Shot” hitmaker Jimmie Allen on the soft and soulful “Teach Me A Song.”
“We’ve known Jimmie for years,” Harmony says. “We watched his whole ascension into a country music star. He was a fan of our previous work so we formed a bond—he’s one of the coolest people we’ve met in the Nashville area. We brought him in to do our podcast and he’s done a lot of R&B, gospel, and country, so it’s letting people see the other sides of him–and he can really sing.”
The words must be strong on the page, the song entreats, a both bold and gentle reminder of the power and depth of healing that music can—and should—hold.
“That was an ode to our Nashville community of songwriters, producers, artists, just staying we need a song about love. There’s a lot of commercial viability in music, but there also has to be meaning,” Kelly says.
Harmony adds, “Claude is super intentional about everything he says to the world and so am I. We want to heal people—somebody’s got to be responsible for healing people through music. That’s what that song is about.”
The album ends with a cover of Des’ree’s 1994 smash “You Gotta Be.”
“That song has been in the public consciousness for 25 years,” Harmony says. “We’ve performed that song and those lyrics in sound checks and things for a while so those lyrics just ring true to us. When we were doing the album, it’s literally the last thing we did for the album. Claude was like, ‘You think we should record that?’ And was like, ‘I’m up for it.’ Another thing is that, taking myself out of the equation, for Claude personally, I think it’s a good representation of his artistic expression. Taking other lyrics and making them his own is really valuable for them to see that this isn’t just a great songwriter, but this is a premier vocalist who can take a song and make it his own and take it to another level.”
That intention for every moment of a music lover’s interaction with Louis York’s American Griots project to be filled with meaning extends to the album’s very title.
“Chuck and I are both avid readers, but we hadn’t heard of that word until two or three years ago, but we started researching what ‘griot’ means,” Kelly says. “It’s a tradition from West Africa where poets, songwriters, and actors were basically either born into it, or heavily trained, to go from village to village, telling the stories and reminding people of who they are and what their culture is about.
“That resonated with us, because in a lot of ways that’s what we feel we are as musicians, as men, and as black men especially in the climate we are in right now. The griots thing felt really close to home. It’s also renaming and reclaiming a tradition that musicians often don’t know about. It’s reminding ourselves, and our peers and those that come after us, that there has to be meaning in the music. If you are a musician, you are going from town to town—on tour—and meeting people and hopefully inspiring them and making them feel something. It had a lot depth and ancestry and meaning for why we do this.
“We wanted light and love to be the central theme of our album,” Kelly says.
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