Premiere: Listen to "LEGACY" From Khalid Collaborator Chris McClenney
Fresh off of a Grammy nomination for co-writing Khalid’s R&B-inflected smash hit, “Location”, Chris McClenney is executing his vision by creating music for a new artist in the music scene—himself. Fusing an extensive background in producing with his songwriting experience, McClenney has been keeping himself busy by consciously crafting a unique sound which utilizes the musical ace that is his voice.
In preparation for the release of his new single, “LEGACY”, we had the opportunity to sit down with the up-and-coming creative and chat about his musical inspirations, how he sees his music fitting into the mainstream soundscape, and the stories behind his songs. Be sure to read on to get a glimpse into McClenney’s mind as he re-defines and solidifies his standing as an artist.
Who is Chris McClenney?
I define myself to be an artist. An artist beyond just music. I’ve always been a creative person since I was a kid. Now, I use music as a medium to express how I’m feeling. I focus on sharing messages and thoughts that I have about the world of the past, present, and about the future.
How do you see your music falling into today’s musical fields?
I see my music as something that’s a little bit left of center. I consciously strive to create something different than what people are doing. I strive to push myself as an artist to grow and evolve. In terms of genre and style, I have a deep appreciation for the music that I grew up listening to or the greats. It’s really a huge range. I grew up on Earth Wind and Fire and Michael Jackson but only recently gotten into Prince. I dug into Radiohead and Simon & Garfunkel just recently. I like to study and learn, and my music might not necessarily find itself in any one genre. I’m always looking ahead and wondering what the next thing for me is.
Does your musical style derive from those artists you’ve been listening to recently?
I think that my music really comes from my roots. As of late, I’ve been really into those artists that I mentioned, but it hasn’t shown in any music that I’ve recently released. The song, “LEGACY”, has been in the works for about a year now, so this piece doesn’t have as much influence from those artists. More so, it’s influenced by my desire to expand on my writing. I wanted to tell a story. I have some newer music that I’ve been working on that is influenced by the more recent artists that I’ve been listening to.
I know that you were previously a producer. What was the line between you stepping out of the producer box and becoming a recording artist?
Right now, I’m still producing. I self-produce all of my music and for other artists. Over the past few years, I’ve produced for DRAM, HER, and other rising artists, and Khalid’s “Location”—which I also worked as a songwriter on. I’m still very active in producing, but I now split my time between writing and producing for other people. At times, producing isn’t as rewarding, because you have to remove yourself from the creative process. I’ve recently been doing more production ever since I moved to LA.
I didn’t realize it at first, but I’ve always admired great songwriting. As a producer, I felt like I was songwriting in a medium that didn’t have vocals. I decided, a few years ago, that I wanted to write my own songs. Of course, it was a process of going from just producing a track and putting vocals on it, to really sitting down and committing to writing songs. It takes thought to say, “There’s a message in this song. These melodies are clear.” Now, when I write music, there are times where I just start with a track and write from there, but I really make an effort to write a song acoustically, with just a piano and vocals.
How have your relationships with the people that you’ve worked with changed after you made that transition?
I’ve definitely met more people ever since. I’ll walk into a studio session and sometimes other artists know my music. As I meet newer people, I can go to a session and maybe nobody knows about my music. I want people to know that I’m an artist, in the sense that I will execute my vision, but at the same time, if I’m a co-writer or producer, the final product isn’t mine. It’s not about you, it’s about facilitating the execution somebody else’s vision. I want to help other people bridge that gap between ideas and reality. Sometimes people are surprised when they realize that there’s more to me than just what I produce. I kind of like that mystery. I’m not the type of person that walks into a room and wants to be heard, but I like it when others gradually discover my work.
You mentioned in your song, Otherside Interlude, how having a creative mind brings certain challenges and dangers. How important is it to be in tune with yourself and your creative side?
When I think about it in terms of creating music, it’s one thing. When it’s in terms of creating art, it’s something broader. It’s extremely important to be in tune with yourself. It really depends on the artist. Specifically with music, because people sometimes forget that the music industry is a business. On the other hand, there are artists that create music for their own creative fulfillment, those that are really into the craft of expressing themselves. I don’t want to want to say that those that make music without a deeper motive aren’t doing something important, but that for the other group, being in tune with yourself is essential to creating music that is true to you. For me, “LEGACY” for example, if I went into that song and didn’t have a message, I don’t doubt that it would sound like a great song, but because I knew what I wanted to say, when I finished it, there was a clear message. I know what that means to me. It gives people a way to understand what I’m talking about. If somebody’s forcing something or faking it, it will never quite come off the same way as somebody that is genuinely expressing themselves or something genuine. Of course, there’s a process. It’s not all the time that somebody walks into the studio and knows exactly what they want to write about, it takes time to find what you want to write about.
It’s about letting the ideas come to you.
Exactly! It’s saying at the end of it, if you succeeded, you knew what you were trying to say. You can also leave it up for interpretation and let people take what they want from it
Chris, tell me about the inspiration for the song “LEGACY”.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s been going on in the world. The immediate inspiration was this last election and the changes that it sparked. Since then, there’s been a lot of crazy shit that’s been going on. I’ve been internalizing that and the problems that our country’s been having with gun violence and minority conflicts. It fueled me to think that at any moment in time if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, I could be a victim of any of these sorts of things. As a black man, it’s been difficult to watch everything that’s been going on. I’m speaking on my experience as a black person because that’s who I am, but this type of incident isn’t limited only to that group of people, and I wrote the song to be open ended. That really pushed me to voice my opinion. At the time, I was living in New York, and I thought about how every single day when I was headed to and from work, somebody could mistake me for somebody else and my life could be over. The notion of considering that something that tragic could happen made me think about what would live on after me. What do I have that will survive beyond myself? I could die tomorrow. Even though I still have a ton of work to do, my personal legacy is not quite what I want it to be yet. But, the idea is that if something tragic were to happen, I could have something to share with people. Art lives on beyond peoples’ physical lives.
What’s next? How do you plan on moving forward?
I’m working on my debut album here in LA and I’m putting together a live show. Two shows are coming up in August. Next year I’ll be hitting the road. Last year I had a residency at The Blue Note in East Village. It’s a jazz club. They were trying to get newer and younger artists in there, so I took my previous project and did it completely live, so we didn’t have any tracks. I played keyboards and I sang. I also had a guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer. It was dope. Moving from New York to Los Angeles entailed a transition. I’ve been building everything. I’m making sure that this live show is exactly what I want it to be. Coming this fall, we’re going to start hitting the road. Next year, we’re going to travel even more. It’s going to be great.
Images via Chris McClenney
Stay tuned to Milk for more first listens.