Kelly Clarkson Is Nobody’s Puppet
There were more than 200 radio programmers milling around the back of Kelly Clarkson’s stately lakeside home on a recent Thursday evening here, sipping drinks named after songs from her forthcoming album and snapping selfies near the twin winding staircases leading to her pool. Ms. Clarkson and her husband, Brandon Blackstock, who is also her manager, were introducing the record, titled “Meaning of Life,” to the people who could either help make it a blockbuster or bury it.
After the giddy crowd filed into a tent, Ms. Clarkson made a low-key entrance in a black dress and a full face of glam, gripping a glass of red wine. She greeted the crowd warmly, then started announcing songs with an uproarious, profanity-laced monologue that covered her voluminous hair extensions, Spanx and admiration for the pop star Pink (“If I did want to like a girl, it would be her”). In a corner, members of Ms. Clarkson’s label team weren’t huddled together, cringing — they were grinning and applauding.
“Kelly doesn’t try to be anything she isn’t,” Julie Greenwald, the chairwoman and chief operating officer of Ms. Clarkson’s record label, Atlantic, said later.
There are pop stars with no filter, and then there is Ms. Clarkson, a music-industry unicorn. After winning the first season of “American Idol” in 2002 when it was just an untested reality-singing curiosity, she became one of the show’s few discoveries with staying power. She has collected three Grammy Awards, notched 11 Top 10 singles and sold nearly 18 million copies of the seven albums she released on RCA Records, her previous label, according to Nielsen Music. It is impossible to make it through a night of karaoke without hearing someone grasp for the high notes of her quintessential kiss-off anthem, “Since U Been Gone.”
But perhaps more remarkable, Ms. Clarkson, 35, has remained a major pop player for a decade and a half without checking the usual pop-star boxes. She’s not an enigmatic, larger-than-life figure like Beyoncé, or a social-media chess master like Taylor Swift; she’s not an outsize persona like Lady Gaga or a style icon like Gwen Stefani. She’s not known for dancing, splashy tabloid drama or sparring with other stars — though she’ll shut down body shamers and anyone who spews negativity at her on Twitter. Like Adele, she is known for her tremendous voice, the vulnerability and relatability of her songs and her fearlessness when it comes to speaking her mind.
“I don’t want to be trained to talk,” Ms. Clarkson said in an unsurprisingly blunt interview the day after her radio soiree. “I’m not a puppet, I have a brain.” Soon she will bring her frankness back to television, as a coach on “The Voice” in 2018.
Ms. Clarkson is hoping “Meaning of Life,” out Oct. 27, speaks loudly, too. After finishing her RCA contract, which came with her “Idol” victory and was an unhappy partnership she refers to as her “arranged marriage,” she is making what she considers her first real artistic statement. Leaving behind the pop-rock that became her signature sound in favor of the soul that has captivated her since her youth in Texas, she is asking her audience to leap with her into more mature, nuanced sonic and emotional territory. The album’s first single, “Love So Soft,” sets the tone — it’s a swaggering track packed with girl-gang backup vocals and horn blasts that climaxes with a blistering high note. It sends a clear message: The Diva Is Present. For the first time in 15 years, Ms. Clarkson feels as if she is driving her own career. If she fails — and she recognizes the risks — at least she crashes on her own terms.
While contemporary soul singers have penetrated the pop market in recent years, “It definitely is still a harder sell than ‘Since U Been Gone 2.0.’ It’s not the easiest route,” she said. “But it’s the only option.”
MS. CLARKSON’S AIRY house is filled with reminders of her family’s devotion to both music and Southern lifestyle. The living room is adorned with an upright bass and a taxidermied bear. A Doberman pinscher barked behind a baby gate in the kitchen, and the couple’s two toddlers — River, 3, and Remington, 1 — napped upstairs. (Savannah, 16, and Seth, 10, Mr. Blackstock’s children from a previous relationship, politely wove their way around party guests the night before.)
In the 15 hours since the event, Ms. Clarkson had undergone a drastic de-glammification process. Gone were the cascades of blond extensions; her hair was messily tucked into a Gucci baseball cap with a bee on the front. She wore blue patterned workout leggings, white New Balance sneakers and a maroon V-neck tee that she tugged at as she talked. When she apologized for her makeup-free face — she said she’s allergic to cosmetics and wears them only when she has to — she waved her hand, showing her party manicure was already gone.
Chatting in a library just off the front parlor, Ms. Clarkson said she appreciated the hard work that went into her career at RCA (“We were successful and you’ve got to give credit to where it’s due”). But she knew almost immediately that it wasn’t a good fit.
“I did call my mom at some point, and I was just like, you know what, this is just not fun,” she said. “I had fun waitressing. I had fun being a promo girl for Red Bull. I had fun working at Papa John’s. And this is my dream, and this is not fun.” This was in 2003.
She felt like nobody listened to her or respected her creative input, and she had a well-publicized disagreement with Clive Davis, then the head of the RCA Music Group, over the direction of her 2007 album, “My December,” which flared up again upon the release of his memoir in 2013. She compromised repeatedly, she said, but pushed back when she needed to and stands behind her work. “I gave it my best on every record that I had to put out because I’m singing these songs for the rest of my life,” she said. RCA declined to comment.
While on vacation in Ireland years before her contract was up, Ms. Clarkson made a connection with John Esposito, the head of Warner Music Nashville, and was struck by his passion when he sang Bruce Springsteen songs at a group dinner. (“I was like, oh my God, a record executive loves music! I had never experienced that,” she said dryly.) When she was ready to make a move, Mr. Esposito, who works with Blake Shelton — one of her husband’s management clients — suggested she meet with Ms. Greenwald and , Craig Kallman, who run Atlantic, the home of Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars. Ms. Clarkson was smitten after just one meeting.
“I’m not that person that feels you need to date a lot — if you find someone you love, go with it,” she said. The feeling is mutual.
“She is arguably one of the best female vocalists out there, period,” Ms. Greenwald said in a phone interview. “And if you look at the charts right now and the stuff that’s on radio, there aren’t that many women out there with big voices. You can count on one hand.”
Showcasing that voice in its full glory was one of Ms. Clarkson’s primary objectives for “Meaning of Life.” “I wanted to make a record that I could really sing the [expletive] out of,” she said. Writing songs wasn’t as big of a priority; she wanted to spend time with her children, and “I don’t write well when I’m happy.”
Her starting point was her favorite artist: Aretha Franklin. She and Mr. Kallman, who was an executive producer of “Meaning of Life” with Ms. Clarkson, asked, “What if Aretha was born now and made a record today?”
They didn’t want the album to sound old. “So it’s just not nostalgic, it’s not a retro experience,” Mr. Kallman said in a phone interview, “but it’s really a modern experience infused with the best of those records we call standards.”
Ms. Clarkson teamed with familiar faces including Greg Kurstin (Adele) and Maureen “Mozella” McDonald (Miley Cyrus), as well as newcomers Jessica Ashley Karpov (Britney Spears) and the duo Nova Wav (Kehlani), in search of songs that capture her current state of mind: dealing with the rewards and complications that come with connecting with someone “emotionally, mentally, physically” in a marriage; and as a mature woman feeling completely comfortable in her own skin after years of withering, sexist criticism about her appearance. The results are sassy up-tempo numbers like “Heat” and “Didn’t I,” and slinky slow-jams like “Move You.”
“Obviously when you’re writing in your 20s — I’m not demeaning it, in any way — but it’s a different, juvenile kind of approach,” Ms. Clarkson said. Referring to an intimate ballad about foreplay, she added, “If I had sung ‘Slow Dance’ at 20, what the hell do I know about that?”
Jesse Shatkin, a producer and songwriter who worked with Sia on “Chandelier,” collaborated on half of the songs on “Meaning of Life,” including “Love So Soft.” He said Ms. Clarkson delighted in having her backup singers in the studio, filling the room with a gleeful feminine energy. “There was this really fun women-singing-all-over-the-studio, laughing-so-much, joking-all-the-time vibe,” he said.
But so far, “Love So Soft” has yet to rise past No. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100 after five weeks. Ms. Greenwald said that the first-week streaming numbers for the single indicated the listenership was over 50 percent male. “I would have bet you a million dollars it was going to be 85 percent women,” she said. “I was blown away.”
Sharon Dastur, a senior vice president at the radio company iHeartMedia, said Ms. Clarkson’s music has always been playable on multiple formats. “Is it still pop music? Absolutely,” she said in a phone interview, noting that the song is performing on both pop and Hot AC (adult contemporary) stations. Ms. Dastur, who attended Ms. Clarkson’s premiere event, said she’s been following her career from its start.
“I’ve never seen her so fully happy with herself, personally, professionally, her music,” she said. “I think people have always not only just loved her voice, her music, but her. I think that goes a long way with fans, that she’s been the same genuine, super-talented person she’s been from the beginning.”
MS. CLARKSON IS so disarming that when she returned from a bathroom break proclaiming, “Wow, I really had to pee! That was a lot!,” I nearly high-fived her. She calls herself “a tool” and “a nerd.” She loves “Game of Thrones,” but has never watched a reality show (and yes, she gets the irony). When she wants to be sure you catch her disdain, she quickly says “sarcasm, sarcasm.” On Twitter, she alternates between posting goofy GIFs, relentlessly positive shout-outs to artists she loves and rebukes to people who scold her for speaking out about issues like the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and N.F.L. players protesting. (She announced her support for Hillary Clinton in January 2016, and tweeted “Yaaaasssss!” upon learning that Mrs. Clinton cited her — and Nietzsche — in her book “What Happened.”)
She understands why fans feel an extra sense of ownership over her. We witnessed her “Idol” journey in real time. We heard the personal stories she shared in songs like “Because of You” and “Piece by Piece,” which describe feeling abandoned by her father following her parents’ divorce. We’ve seen her transparency and graciousness in an ecosystem that encourages the opposite.
“I actually don’t mind that,” she said, “because I feel a certain level of pride that people even feel like my journey is that important in their life. That’s cool, for someone from Nowhereville. I just mind when people all of a sudden feel like I’m one thing.”
Over the summer, Ms. Clarkson shined a light on the routine harassment women endure online by responding to a “You’re fat” tweet with “…and still [expletive] awesome.” (She added a winking-tongue-out emoji, perhaps because, as a therapist told her during one of the two sessions she’s ever had, “You don’t want to wreck someone’s day.”) And she has no patience for being instructed to “shut up and sing.”
“It’s weird, but I actually came with a brain, not just vocal cords, and it would be silly to not have an opinion,” she said, growing heated. “It would be a disgrace if I didn’t have an opinion. It would be a cruel irony to all these people who live in different countries who don’t have an opinion, and don’t count, for me not to take full advantage of all the opportunities that are laid before us here in this nation.”
The centerpiece of “Meaning of Life” is a feisty throwdown called “Whole Lotta Woman,” which alludes to the size of her waistline, her attitude, her self-worth and her mouth using references to Southern cooking. Ms. Clarkson said its inspiration came from the challenges of being a financially secure woman looking for a man after internalizing the paradoxes of growing up in the South, where women are told, “We want to educate you and we want you to be intelligent, but not too intelligent to where you’re intimidating; we want you to be beautiful, but not too sexy to where you’re a slut; we want you to be successful but not so successful that you make someone feel uncomfortable.”
Debuting the track for the radio promoters at her home, Ms. Clarkson couldn’t hold back. She sung along and bounced to its outro’s bass-heavy groove.
“I don’t want to hide the fact that I am a successful, strong-minded, opinionated —” she said the next day, cutting herself off to make another point. “Sometimes I get it wrong, but I learn — but I have a voice.”
Note: A version of this article appears in print on October 22, 2017. I will add scans then.