Doing production for another artist and writing music for oneself are two completely different beasts. Sure, many of the tools and basic knowledge used are the same, but the mind frame and skillset that go into the two are different. It’s hard enough to master one of those crafts, let alone both of them. Those that do manage to excel at both of them are talented individuals, well versed in both music and in discipline, relentless workers who possess an ear for what sounds good. One of those people is R&B multi-instrumentalist Chris McClenney, a 23-year-old Baltimore native now living in L.A. Between a busy 2017 of releasing his own material and producing on some of the biggest new acts out there, McClenney is a new force in music who is set to become a household name.
Even McClenney is a little bit surprised at his success. Talking about the January 2017 release of his debut, double EP Portrait in Two, he says, “I expected it was going to do well, but it did better than I thought it would which was a really exciting feeling for me because it was really an introduction to me as an artist.” McClenney mostly worked behind the scenes prior to his EP release, but that doesn’t mean those endeavors weren’t successful, too. McClenney produced on Khalid’s album American Teen, which went platinum last October.
Moving from production to being an artist releasing his own music isn’t effortless. “There was, and quite frankly there still is, an adjustment period,” McClenney reveals. He details how over the course of a few years he gradually decided to put himself onto the music he made, and the results are clearly paying dividends. There’s no set process for him, either. McClenney says that when he first started writing songs for himself, he branched out in the process, sometimes sitting down at a piano to start or sometimes beginning with the lyrics.
The change isn’t just on the music side, either. Musicians are more accessible than ever. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, artists can offer unparalleled insight into who they are as people. As McClenney expresses, this can be a double-edged sword.
“[Supporters] need to know who you are as a person more than ever before,” he says. On the positive side, that means that there’s more connection between people (McClenney doesn’t even like to say “fan,” as to him it puts distance between artist and supporter). But, he also concedes, if they have an idea of who an artist is, it can be harder for them to adjust to an artist pivoting in new musical and creative directions.
Music isn’t the only art McClenney has an appreciation for. Growing up he was a visual artist, drawing with a dream of attending art school. He realized music was his true calling before art school came about, but the visual arts still had a big impact on him, as is evidenced by the title and cover art of Portrait in Two. McClenney says, “Whether I’m making something that’s a song, or whether I choose to draw a picture, or choose to write a script or a story or a poem, that’s art, and I’m painting a picture.”
Going into 2018, McClenney says that he’ll be spending a lot of time doing production for other artists. Those artists’ albums will most certainly be better for it, and McClenney has both the talent and the audience to return to putting out music for himself whenever he chooses to. Whether behind the scenes or up front, McClenney is one of the most talented up-and-comers in music.
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine available through our online store!