For Louis York’s new project, American Griots, principals Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony wanted to make more than just an album. They set out to create a collection of songs that encompasses the full spectrum of their artistry, both as individual songwriters and as a duo.
“For the kind of music we’ve always done and for how people see us as musicians, behind the scenes and now in front, we felt like people expected something bigger than us than just putting out one song at a time,” Kelly says, speaking from the duo’s Weirdo Workshop headquarters in Franklin. “We wanted to do something thought out and complete, almost like a musical dissertation. That’s how Chuck and I approached the whole thing.”
If you haven’t heard of Louis York, there’s a good chance you’ve still heard some of their music. Kelly and Harmony have a collective resumé that boasts songwriting and production credits for artists like Bruno Mars (“Grenade”), Rihanna (“Russian Roulette”), Britney Spears (“Circus”), and Miley Cyrus (“Party in the U.S.A.”). They’ve performed together since 2015 as Louis York, a name that nods to Harmony’s roots in St. Louis and Kelly’s in New York.
American Griots, which came out in October of 2019, is the duo’s first proper full-length release and follows a trio of EPs — Masterpiece Theater Act I, Act II, and Act III — the duo put out between 2015 and 2017. The title of the new album references West African griots, traveling poets who share knowledge and pass on history and cultural traditions through oral storytelling.
“We got the idea to do the album at the top of the year ,” Kelly says. “The first order of business when we got together in January was to put an album together. We started compiling songs — some we’d had and had been testing out live — and we wrote a bunch more.”
“Musically speaking, what I was trying to say is that basically I’ve been doing music since I was 3 years old,” Harmony adds. “My musical knowledge runs the gamut of genre. That was the first thing that I wanted to convey. We shouldn’t just box our music into a specific genre because our musical knowledge supersedes genre. With this being our first album, we wanted to give a solid example of that. So American Griots is a solid example of the fact that we can do country, we can do classical, we can do jazz, we can do R&B, we can do pop, we can do rock.”
American Griots truly does run Harmony’s “gamut of genre,” blending Miami Vice-esque rock; emotive R&B; slick, radio-ready pop; contemporary jazz; and a singularly orchestral take on country to masterful effect. Alongside guests like country artist Jimmie Allen and R&B group The Shindellas, Harmony and Kelly perform the bulk of the album’s instrumentals and vocal parts.
The album opens with “American Griots Intro,” an atmospheric overture built on tribal percussion, staccato horns, and a striking spoken word performance from local poet Caroline Randall Williams. “This an American story / a fist up story,” Williams recites. “An our power story /I’ve read / I’ll write this blues story … We survive off the sound we make / When we tell our story.” Williams appears later on the operatic “I Wonder” and the mid-album interlude “Teach Me a Song — Reprise,” which nods to “call and response” and “the words that let me fight for my life.”
Apropos of that “call and response” mention, Harmony explains that he and Kelly also wrote American Griots as tribute to the musical trailblazers who came before them. Like the sounds heard across the album, those honorees are also genre agnostic.
“Musically we wanted to pay tribute to the people that actually started those genres,” he explains. “A lot of them look like us, you know what I’m saying? As ‘American Griots,’ we felt like it was our responsibility to tell that story, too.”
Though American Griots draws inspiration from myriad kinds of music, the album is still a cohesive listening experience, begging for the kind of start-to-finish attention that isn’t always granted in today’s streaming, singles-driven musical climate. Creating an album that is listened to with the same intensity that a novel — or a dissertation — is read was a chief goal of the duo from early on in the LP’s writing process.
“Chuck and I work really well together, and we have similar tastes,” Kelly says. “But [cohesion] is also something that, even though it comes naturally, we spend a lot of time paying attention to. One of the parts of the album that we’re most proud of isn’t even just the musical part of it; it’s the A&R-ing that Chuck and I literally did of ourselves, of the music, of the timing. That makes the album special. We’re very aware that we couldn’t just throw a whole bunch of things on the album and say, ‘Look what we can do.’ It was more than that. It was about weaving songs in a way that tells a story. The whole thing is purposely designed to be like the journey of two griots, two storytellers, landing in your eardrums.”
Kelly also notes that he and Harmony are greatly inspired by musical theater. Both the narrative arc of the lyrics and the album’s structure — with its overture, interludes, reprises, and extended musical outro — lend themselves to the composition of a musical, which was also on the duo’s minds in the writing and recording processes.
“What people don’t know about us is that obviously our idols are in pop but we love Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Kelly says. “And we love Andrew Lloyd Webber. For us the whole thing is like presenting a production, a play, a story. Our EPs before this were called Masterpiece Theater. The whole time we’ve been projecting that people should open their minds to a bigger adventure than just what singles can be. Singles can be so linear. It’s like, ‘Here’s a song. It’s three minutes and 30 seconds. Dance your ass off.’ We’re suggesting, while you’re dancing, let’s take you on a ride. Let’s make you think. Let’s make you feel. Let’s make you cry. And at the end of the song, you’ll be glad you danced but also glad you learned a lot.”
Both Kelly and Harmony are quick to sing the praises of the featured guests on American Griots, all of whom the duo chose not for their musical similarities but because in them they found kindred creative spirits. They met Williams, for example, through the Nashville Ballet and bonded over a shared love of storytelling before inviting her down to the Weirdo Workshop to record for American Griots.
“We were blown away by [Williams’ Lucy Negro Redux],” Kelly says. “And not just by the performance but that she was in it and delivering her poetry with so much class and excellence and sophistication. It was so dramatic and well done. Afterwards I reached out to her online about doing some work and we hit it off right away. We’re very similar-minded and we like the same things out of art and the same things out of life. When we started to do the album, we wanted to incorporate Nashville, which is a big part of why the album sounds the way it does. We moved here to do this album and to find ourselves and find our people. … There was no one else to open the album but Caroline, to be honest.”
Elsewhere on American Griots, Louis York taps emerging country star Jimmie Allen, known for hits like “Best Shot” and “Make Me Want To,” to join them on the rootsy, affecting ballad “Teach Me a Song.” As Harmony explains it, they met Allen by chance at the gym.
“We became cool,” Harmony says. “It’s not many times you run into a black guy in Franklin [laughs] who does music. We started a bond that lasted through his whole meteoric rise over the last couple of years. We invited him to the Workshop to record our podcast and in that podcast we learned how much music he actually knows. You listen to his music and you think he only knows country, but he knew all the same music we knew and could spit it back and tell us who wrote it and what year. So we’re like, ‘This is a true music head. We need to do something with him for Griots.’”
A true high point of American Griots is “No Regrets,” a flashy, infectious rocker that recalls both the glossy noir-pop of the late 1980s and the contemporary Top 40 sheen of artists like Bruno Mars in equal measure. Built on the refrain “Have fun with no regrets,” the song is a danceable reminder to take everything in stride.
“‘No Regrets’ is a song we’ve been chasing for a while,” Harmony says. “Me and Claude have these feelings we’re always chasing, whether it’s a Billy Joel feeling or a Sade feeling or a Ray Charles feeling. For this particular one, we were chasing that ’80s, Miami Vice sexiness. I came up with the groove in rehearsal and Claude started singing what is now the hook, ‘Have fun with no regrets.’ We carefully fleshed it out because we wanted to capture that exact feeling. Listening back, I’m damn proud of it because we nailed it.”
“No Regrets” features local group The Shindellas, who are also signed to the duo’s Weirdo Workshop record label. The trio makes modern-day girl group R&B with the same level of craft and passion that Louis York approaches their own music. Though having just released a six-song EP, Genesis, in late December, Harmony and Kelly reveal that they will be at work on a full-length debut album by The Shindellas in 2020.
“The Shindellas are our girl band equivalent,” Kelly says. “We decided we wanted to have an all-female formidable trio that could say the things we couldn’t say. They have harmony and attitude and intelligence and sophistication, but with really catchy songs, too. … These girls are just the modern-day Pointer Sisters on steroids.”
In addition to releasing The Shindellas album, Harmony and Kelly already have a stacked 2020 planned. In February, they’ll make their official Louis York debut at the Grand Ole Opry. They first played the Opry in late 2019 alongside Allen, impressing both the audience and Opry staff so much that they got the official invitation to come back and do their own set.
“Since we moved to Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry has been on our vision board,” Kelly says. “We didn’t know how the hell we were going to get there. But after we recorded ‘Teach Me a Song,’ Jimmie invited us to do it. … It’s insane. We’re honored and excited. Vision boards work!”
They also have a collaboration with the Nashville Ballet’s Attitude series in the works, but can’t share too much just yet about what that collaboration will entail. However, Kelly does say the production will be unlike anything the Nashville Ballet has done before and will exist outside of the musical and narrative confines traditionally associated with ballet.
American Griots closes with a cover of Des’ree’s 1994 hit “You Gotta Be.” The duo refracts the R&B song through their kaleidoscopic, Weirdo Workshop lens and gives the song a hefty new groove, stretching it out with an extended musical outro, tying a sonic bow around a complex, ambitious album. And lyrically, the song is a fitting embodiment of the Louis York ethos, particularly the chorus’ assertion that “you gotta be bold.” Louis York and American Griots are nothing if not bold and Nashville’s music community is all the better for it.