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Claye: The Million Dollar Question

Producer and songwriter, Claye is no newcomer to the music scene. Signing a publishing deal with Roc Nation early on in his career and co-writing a string of hits including Sean Paul’s Hold My Hand, the classically trained pianist is busy working on new music – and has accumulated plenty of advice to offer new artists finding their way. Headliner visits Claye’s London home studio to talk music production, the advice he’ll never forget, and the unlikely inspiration behind his latest song.

Having once been signed to Jay-Z-founded Roc Nation, producer and songwriter Claye went on to co-write Sean Paul’s Hold My Hand. Featuring Timbaland protégé Keri Hilson, the track featured on Paul’s Grammy-nominated Imperial Blaze album and has exceeded 50 million streams. So far, so cool. So naturally Headliner is surprised to learn that the inspiration for Claye’s recent song, Murda came from watching a daytime rerun of 80s drama series, Murder, She Wrote – a show built around middle-aged widow, (and damn good amateur detective, mind you) Jessica Fletcher.

“This is one of my secrets,” Claye says, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “but I tend to always get inspiration from movies. I purposefully do that because they took the time to write and construct the story and narrative, so I don’t need to figure out a story or concept – they have done the job for me. There is something you could say to me right now – a line or a song, and I would use that as the basis of a song. I am always writing down ideas for titles, concepts and lines. For Murda, I was watching Murder, She Wrote on TV, and I thought, ‘you know what, let me come into the studio’. I wanted to do something like ‘murder she wrote,’ but not based on what the other reggae guys have already done – but literally based on the episode I just watched. This is no world of a lie: I came in and I put a drum loop on, I went through the sounds and heard the sample, ‘killaaah,’ and then I went [sings] ‘murder she wrote’ – and that’s the hook I wrote the song around!”

Born in Jamaica and moving to London in 2002, Claye (real name Clayton Morrison) grew up in church as a child, and although wants to avoid the cliche of saying he inherited his talent from his parents, he has to admit that this is the truth, as they were both singers. As an adult, Claye’s music sits nicely in a gentle, reggae-infused box, however he is a classically trained pianist, although perhaps reluctantly. So what made him take the instrument more seriously? Girls, of course.

“I never liked the piano,” he admits, shaking his head at the memory. “I never hated it either – it was always there but I wasn’t that interested in it. I was in church singing and the piano was there, but I wouldn’t touch it. But then someone was playing Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino, and I loved it. I thought if I could learn to play that song, then the girls would be impressed [laughs]. Then that started it, and I wanted to learn more.”

Warmly welcoming Headliner into his cozy – and great-smelling (he’s been burning sage) – home studio at the bottom of his garden in a neat cul-de-sac in London, Claye is without ego, speaking quickly in a quiet Jamaican lilt (although being softly spoken could be down to the studio’s impressive acoustics). He is completely at ease. In fact, he’s so chilled, he makes Headliner feel chilled (despite turning up slightly frazzled due to a freak UK heatwave).

Dressed down in jeans, a simple red t-shirt and socks and sliders (no judgement here), Claye is first and foremost a family man (earlier today he was trying to fix his kids’ pool table after high winds battered most of the UK) – although he admits that he first got into the music scene as he had nothing to lose at the time.

“When I came to live in the UK I was young and semi-reckless with no commitments, so I thought I’d give music a go. It wasn’t even a planned thing. Then the family comes into the picture, so I can’t leave again [laughs]. At the time I was teaching music, so I decided to stay and pursue music-making.”

Although citing slick R&B / hip hop producers and artists Timbaland, The Neptunes and N.E.R.D as influences, Claye’s music tastes and inspirations are broad – his favourites are actually Maroon 5, Coldplay, Bon Jovi and Journey. “I love classical music too – I’m a big Hans Zimmer fan; I love soundtracks. Classical music makes you appreciate music. But my drumming influences come from Timbaland, as I’m a drummer second. I’m multi genre: I could do a rock song if I needed to, but I wouldn’t [laughs]. It wouldn’t be as good as my first music – reggae, dancehall and R&B. You can hear those influences in my music - take away the beats and vocals away and you hear R&B harmonies – I can’t get a way from it!”

When he’s not being inspired by daytime TV, Claye is open to discovering new music on Spotify. “I’m like a kid in candy shop when I hear things. It helps me to stay fresh and inspired; I don’t listen to a lot of radio. When I'm creating, it’s what I'm feeling, and what I know how to do. I’m not being fed by what’s popping.”

In the studio, Claye is using an Arturia Keylabs 49 hybrid synthesiser, a 27in iMac, a Novation Impulse MIDI controller keyboard (“l like it because I can map stuff, and I like the feel of the keys,” he says), and a combination of Eve Audio SC207 and Yamaha HS50 monitors. Emulating different hardware in plugin format is a Universal Audio Apollo MKii interface, while he also relies on a Native Instruments Maschine Platinum Edition, an Akai APC Mini and a Sontronics Orpheus Mic.

Claye is a big Waves fan: “I have a lot of waves plugins – Waves is old school, and it works,” although his particular favourites are the CLA-2A and dbx 160 compressor / limiters, the Rvox vocal compressor, RBass and MaxxBass for bass enhancement, RDeEsser to remove the harsh frequencies and sibilance in vocals, and H-Reverb.

A big moment in Claye’s career came when he signed a publishing deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, although he didn’t immediately jump at the chance. “I was procrastinating,” he admits. “I bit the bullet and went and saw their new space in London. I didn’t know what to expect, but the game-changer for me was the name [Roc Nation]. If you know how to use it, it can open doors.”

So what is Hova like in person? Claye is honest – he has no idea. “I didn’t meet Jay Z. He’s so busy, and it would be weird to bump into these level of guys. I’m weird…I probably would have seen him and not said anything. He’s probably busy and not open for a general chat [laughs]. What I’d love to get from him is his top five tips – no selfies, just knowledge. I watch all the interviews these guys do, because I like to understand what they’re thinking.”

Over the course of the interview, it is clear that Claye has learned from his experiences in the music industry – good and bad. Considering his initial blasé attitude to getting into the music scene, Claye now takes the business side of his career very seriously, preferring to oversee every aspect himself. Being part of the Roc Nation family meant there were opportunities to attend ‘writing camps,’ where he learnt about all the different aspects of the music industry.

“I spent that time doing the pitching, which I super hate now. But I didn’t realise that I was honing the whole craft. If I wasn’t working in music I would probably be in something in branding – I love business. I’m very much behind the business of what I'm doing. The deals you see with some artists are disgusting and ridiculous, so I'm glad I understand the royalties side of things to avoid that happening to me. It needs to make sense for the artist.”

Any golden nuggets of advice he’s picked up so far?

Claye pauses, thinking. “I’ve had so many tips…gosh…Where do I start? Wow, okay – there was a guy. I was at a writing camp in New York when I was with Roc Nation. I was on a table with Angela Hunte, who did Empire State Of Mind, and there was a guy called Storm that works with Usher. He said to me: ‘Do you want to sell a million, or make a million?’ He told me to take my time. It sounds like a trick question, and at the time I said: ‘sell a million records’. He said: ‘always do the maths properly. To sell a million takes a lot of work and infrastructure. You need a million people to sell a million. You only need 10 people that give you 100,000 to make a million’. If you sell a million, you don’t walk away with that because of deductions, distributors, etc – everyone tucks into the pie first. But if you’re independent and you sell direct to fans, a million could be a million. Then you can fund your career. Funnily enough I was a producer at the time, not an artist.

“The same guy said to never, ever second guess yourself, because music is spiritual – it needs to write itself. The moment you start to overthink, you aren’t writing the song. You can get writers block if you overthink. If you want to write a book but you don’t know what to say, of course you’re going to get stuck. That changed everything for me, and if I saw him now I’d shake his hand. I don’t think he knew what it meant to me. I pass it on to anyone that asks me now. A lot of artists just care about top the 40 or top 10, but that doesn’t mean longevity.”

And what about things Claye has learnt the hard way?

“You pay for experience, or you pay by experience,” he answers without hesitation. “I prefer to pay for it, because I've paid by it a lot!" he laughs.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Words by Alice Gustafson.