For the past 15 years, multi-Grammy nominated musicians Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly have defined the sound of pop and R&B. Both together and apart, they’ve written and produced hits for artists spanning Miley Cyrus and Rihanna to Christina Aguilera and Bruno Mars, challenging the conventions of what listeners have come to expect and guiding the direction it should take. But it wasn’t until years after they met while working on a Chrisette Michele album in 2009, and officially joined forces in 2015 as Louis York, that their vision crystallized: two ingenious musicians stepping out of the studio and into the spotlight to share stories from their own perspectives, and forge a new path of what sort of spaces contemporary music can inhabit.
“It's time for creators to decide what the next decade will sound like, what it will be,” explains Harmony. “Every decade has something new to offer musically and culturally. The excellence and the freedom and the risk-taking and the orchestration, that's what I feel like. Music has to become aspirational again.”
Since the duo began writing and recording music, Louis York—named after a combination of their respective hometowns (Harmony from East St. Louis, Kelly from New York City)—has released an EP trilogy entitled Masterpiece Theater: Act I, Act II, Act III. The projects earned praise from publications including Billboard and Los Angeles Times for their genre-bending sensibilities and creative aesthetic. In a relatively short amount of time, the pair has amassed more than one million cumulative streams on Spotify; given a talk as part of the esteemed TEDx Nashville program; and performed sold-out shows, most recently on its “Love Takeover” tour since the start of the year.
Now, after establishing their own creative studio, label and artist collective Weirdo Workshop, and settling into their headquarters in Franklin, Tenn., the pair is ready to unleash its full-length debut, American Griots, releasing October 18. “A Griot is a traditional West African storyteller and musician and historian,” explains Kelly. “It's purposely harkening back to a legacy that Chuck and I personally relate to. It's more, look at the state of the world right now, how much do we need light music, how much do we need things to inspire? Really badly. Rather than complain about it, we decided to be the solution.”
The set is an ambitious step forward for Louis York, stretching the limitations of convention by traipsing sound and style, without losing focus of the message at hand. “For us, it's not just about writing a song—our songs come from life experiences and learning and mistakes,” continues Kelly. “The songs aren't just like, look at us, we can do cool music. Louis York is more about the music, which is the end result of a lot of growth. It always feels better when we pull our music out, because it feels like it's the ending of a really long, hard race.”
Lead single “Don’t You Forget” is a rich, sprightly introduction to the project, a testament to the power of love, replete with warm harmonies, head-bobbing grooves and an instantly hooky chorus. “Our first offering from this album, we wanted to make sure that the sentiment rang loud and clear: we're the two-man Earth, Wind & Fire, get to know us,” says Harmony. The levity of the track extends to the doo-wop bounce of “Glow” and country-inflected ballad “Teach Me a Song” featuring Jimmie Allen, one of the more expansive tracks on the set. But American Griots also has heft and contemplation of the world at large, asking more from the experience of listening to it. “I Wonder,” which touts contributions from Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams, W. Crimm Singers and countertenor Patrick Dailey, is a haunting meditation on the state of the world, and what the activists before us would make of what we’ve become.
“These are the things I'm thinking about every single night,” says Kelly. “Most likely, if it's not a music concern for us, we're up because there's something happening in the world that's troubling us so much that it spurs us to turn to songs.” Adds Harmony, “We knew we wanted to make the new negro spiritual. It wouldn't just be jazz or classical or soulful. It would be all of those things put together, so that's what I did.”
With the release of American Griots, Louis York plans to continue to challenge what two black men making music in today’s musical climate are capable of achieving. Their Weirdo Workshop shingle, which is making waves in Nashville and diversifying Music City, will develop signees The Shindellas, all while bringing their vision as Louis York to the masses. “The goal here isn't to have a hot album; the goal here is to make history,” says Kelly. “To leave a legacy, but also make history and be known as one of the best bands to do it, and to do that, it has to be real. I think if people can feel that, they'll get that kind of mentality when they go to create, and music gets better, America gets better and the world gets better.”