Platinum Producer McClenney Details His Journey from 'Guitar Hero' to GRAMMY Certificate

"When you look at the greatest artists in history, it’s not about the perfect debut, but their careers."
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I. New Year, New Wins

Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, better known as the R&B soulstress H.E.R., was awarded two gilded gramophones for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album at the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards this past Sunday night. As she thanked her family and her record label and her fans on stage, I received a text message that read, “Just realized we didn’t talk about H.E.R., lol.” I laughed, mad that somehow I didn’t ask my latest interview subject about the one placement that won him a GRAMMY certificate. 

Last week, at the height of GRAMMY Week, I spoke with singer-songwriter and producer McClenney about his two recent placements on Everythings for Sale, the debut album from Shady Records' newest star Boogie. During our hour-long phone conversation, McClenney failed to mention “Gone Away,” the gorgeous yet aching deep-cut he co-produced with Syk Sense for H.E.R.’s eponymous GRAMMY-winning album. The multi-instrumentalist happily texted details of his contribution. 

2019 is off to an accelerated start for the Maryland-born creative, who, after years of hard work behind the scenes, is finally finding his footing in the music industry. 

Yoh: You scored two tracks on Boogie's debut. How were you able to land those placements?

McClenney: I’m signed to Warner/Chappell Music on the publishing side. Timothy Glover, one of Boogie’s A&Rs, reached out. They were looking for a piano interlude for the album. A piano interlude is very open-ended, but I been working out of a really special place for the past few months. Everything I use and need is all there. The drums are there; there’s a live kit there, a bunch of different synths that I use and own is there, it’s just a great set up for me to make stuff. So I invited them over. 

What was the process like once Boogie arrived?

He came with Keyel Walker [Boogie’s producer] and Dart [Boogie’s engineer]. I didn’t know what they were looking for, and they weren’t really specific, so I just started laying some stuff down. The “Lolsmh” interlude was just a groove I laid down. I played some piano, some mode bass, and pieced it together. They wanted something more chill, reflective, more pensive and I just jumped right into it. It was pretty different from the other music he played me, but it was cool because it was different. 

What about “Time,” the album’s outro featuring Snoh Aalegra?

I played Boogie a beat that I had. I think that perked up his ears because he said he had a track I would be good on. He sent me the song. It was an early version of “Time.” The basis was there: drums, some guitar chords, and a little bit of bass, so I took it home and built a whole bunch of stuff around it. I added more guitars, I changed the chord progression a little bit and ended up doing a whole bunch of background vocals. That’s me in the background you’re hearing besides Snoh Aalegra. I sent him that version. 

Did he ask for any changes?

He sent me a Missy Elliot song [“Take Away” featuring Ginuwine] that he referenced with a vocoder on it and asked if I could do it. I have a vocoder and a talkbox. I’m no Roger Troutman or anything, but I said: "Alright, I’ll figure it out." I layered some talkbox and vocoder, and added some more bass… He seemed to really like it. His A&R seemed to really like it. I was happy; he is a very nice guy, and obviously very talented. Snoh sounded awesome. A few months rolled by and then I got the news ["Time"] made the album.

Before working with Boogie, you co-produced a record for H.E.R. What's the origin story behind "Gone Away"? 

“Gone Away” started as an iPhone voice memo on the piano. Early in 2017, I was in grad school at NYU and would go into the practice rooms in the Steinhardt building to play. In New York, your apartment is a closet and I was a broke student, so I didn’t have a real setup. I’d just use my phone and the acoustic piano to record my ideas that way. “Gone Away” was that. I set my iPhone down on the stand and captured the audio. It also adds a cool lo-fi quality and it was a little secret I’d use to add some character when I'd produce. 

I had just met Syk-Sense at the time and he hit me up about some files. I sent like three, four ideas and “Gone Away” was one. A few days later he told me he thought we got one with H.E.R. and sent me the file, and they used that exact recording as the foundation for the song. It’s what you hear throughout. “Gone Away” ended up on [I Used to Know Her: Part 2], and then on the full album.

II. The Humble Beginnings of a Guitar Hero 

Long before earning GRAMMY certificates and major label placements, McClenney was a 14-year-old with love for music and an obsession with the Rockstar video game Guitar Hero. That love became a passionate interest after he received a copy of Jimi Hendrix’s Greatest Hits from his father. It was unlike anything McClenney ever heard. Not only did he have the desire to search for more music unlike the traditional soul and R&B that raised him, but Hendrix summoned a newfound fuel to create his own. 

Even though he dabbled with GarageBand in high school, McClenney didn’t start making a focused effort to produce music for others until college while studying jazz piano. Victor, a friend who was pursuing a career himself in music, encouraged McClenney to make beats with artists in mind. 

“I realized jazz piano was something I really loved and enjoyed, but it wasn’t the right path for me," he explains before sharing the details behind joining Soulection, and co-producing Khalid’s 5x Platinum single, “Location.” “That’s when I committed to producing and became very serious about it. I made a goal for myself to be able to take music seriously and do the music that I wanted in my own way. That was the turning point.”

When did you start releasing music on SoundCloud?

I put out an EP. It was doing rounds on SoundCloud. It was… It was very much a small thing. A few months later I started putting out more consistent original music and remixes. I got linked up with Soulection and, almost immediately, became ingrained in that culture.

How did your relationship with Soulection begin?

There's a producer named Tek.lun who was (and still is) making very forward-thinking music. He's from Maryland just like I am, and my boy Victor went to elementary [school] with him. So it was like 2012, and we used to listen to his music on YouTube because there was nobody from our area making that. He was a part of Soulection at the time, and while we listened to commercial music, we prided ourselves on our taste and listened to Soulection because it was ahead of the curve.

Low-key watching what Tek was doing was an influence on me because it was forward-thinking music and that's what I wanted to make. In early 2014, when I started to take music seriously, it was only natural for me to make the forward-thinking shit I loved and take pride in being from Maryland because there weren't too many of us out there doing it; at least not publicly. Soulection offered me a chance to do that.

Initially, how did you get connected?

I got in contact with them through Kronika, who's one of the DJs with Soulection. She showed early support and put some of my work on Joe Kay's radar. I used to go by "MisterMack" and put out a remix of ASAP Ferg's "Work" with Fortune, who was a part of Flow-Fi another collective I was a part of at the time, and a remix of Disclosure's "Latch" a week or so apart and Joe reached out via email.

What was that period of time like for you as a budding producer?

It was a super dope time because this all stemmed from the internet and a genuine passion for music. It brought me in contact with people from LA, and other parts of the world. After those two songs, things took off from there. I was a part of Soulection for a few years, and while we don't work together anymore, I look back fondly on those early years and recognize it was an important part of my development as an artist and producer. 

That period of SoundCloud is an important part of history that made a lot of careers that I'm not sure is documented well enough. A lot of that music on SoundCloud set the foundation for a lot of what we hearing on the radio today as far as pop and rap.

Speaking of the radio… What did you contribute to Khalid’s “Location?”

My contribution is the chords that are in the beginning and throughout the song. I was in my dorm room and played them back in 2015. I found out a little bit later that it was a really important part of the writing and Khalid figuring out his melodies for the song. I’m really happy to be a part of it.

Did the success of “Location” change how you create music?

It was a life-changing moment, obviously, because that proved to me, on a commercial level, I could really create something that could reach a lot of people. I was proud of it because, stylistically, it fits how I express myself musically. The chords in the song are very indicative of my style as a songwriter, a producer, and artist. 

I always wanted to work with artists who are on the cutting edge. Be a part of something that’s really about changing music. I’ve always looked at my career as an individual artist and as a producer-songwriter separate. My job as a producer is bringing that to people. Develop the sound that’s forward. That’s something you can do with new artists, an artist who isn’t as big. Like the Sminos. Like the J.I.Ds.

III. Portrait in Two 

In January 2017, McClenney released Portrait in Two under his government name Chris McClenney. The 11-track, debut project is an exhibition of soothing, fluid funk, heartwarming soul, and inventive R&B. The music of his making not only showcased another layer to his production palette but his strength as a singer and songwriter. There’s a sense of introduction to the project, an awareness to showcase why he’s an artist worth your time. Coming across the romantic, piano-driven “What You Mean to Me” was my entry point, a song strong enough to inspire the desire to hear the entire project. I was not disappointed. 

On February 19, McClenny will be releasing “SOS,” the first single from his forthcoming EP and the first official release under his new pseudonym. After two years of preparation, he’s prepared to prove to the world why he’s worth every second of your time. 

What inspired you to recently cover Radiohead’s “Karma Police”?

I heard “Karma Police” many years ago for the first time in high school. I heard it again, recently, and I’ll never forget how I was in the car with my girlfriend. She is a big part of my creative process and inspiration for my music. She knew I had just gotten into Radiohead and suggested we listen to Radiohead’s Ok Computer together. We listened to the album all the way through, and I liked it, but we get to the outro and I recognized it. It really got me. 

I wanted to express myself through singing that song. I’m just really fascinated by Thom Yorke, his voice and his songwriting… Because I feel like my tone isn’t drastically different from his. It felt natural. I think when I sat down with the group to do it I think I surprised them; I surprised myself.

You're gearing up to release your sophomore album, right?

Portrait in Two, the one I put out before, I call it a double EP. It was a body of work but really a Side A/Side B collection of like… Two different kinds of styles in a way. You can really classify it as an album, looking back on it in five years maybe I’ll call that my debut album, I’m not sure. But I think the resources I had at the time… for me, the way that I look at it, are you able to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish in the sense of having the tools that you needed?

I've never heard anyone use the term "double EP."

There’s this whole big question mark, smoke, and mirrors to an extent, at how people look at albums. People really think, "If this is just a mixtape this can be cool. But the album needs to be like X." For me, that’s how I looked at it. Retrospectively, it’s a work that I’m proud of. It was important that it happened; that it meant something to people, and it’s part of my story. This next [project] is very clearly an EP. It’s five songs. A much stronger body of work even though it’s half the length. It’s a very concise statement leading into a full-length album, I consider my debut LP which I’m working on for this year.

Are you worried about making the perfect debut album? 

Look at Prince, his very first album wasn’t a huge commercial success. Not his self-titled album, but the For You album. Of course, people remember the classics, but no one is looking back and saying that album isn’t awesome because it didn’t sell millions of copies, it’s still Prince. 

There’s an obsession today with perfection. Perfect roll out, perfect management, perfect whatever. People want to literally come out of nowhere and have it all together. The reality is if you have the right people it’s easier that way. If you been around for a little bit, and you’re not getting some traction, because of people’s attention spans somebody might think you’re washed up or suddenly not as interesting. The reality is that’s not a basis of the music. 

To me, seeing progress and growth is more fascinating. I want to continue getting better and having fans who are around for the journey. When you look at the greatest artists in history, it’s not about the perfect debut, but their careers. I’m here to stay. 

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