On a rainy night this past September, Kelly Clarkson took the stage at New York’s elegant Rainbow Room to perform a set from her new album, Meaning of Life. Wearing a sparkly gold gown, her smile Texas-wide, Clarkson positively glowed, for good reason: Having completed her seven-album deal with RCA (a contract she has called an “arranged marriage”), she had signed with Atlantic Records and finally made “the album I’ve always wanted to make,” says Clarkson. “You can hear the difference in how I sing.”
The three-time Grammy winner, 35, has never shied away from speaking her mind, whether in her propulsive pop anthems or on her filter-free Twitter feed, and she’ll bring that spirit to The Voice as a coach next season. But Meaning of Life, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, becoming Clarkson’s eighth in that chart’s top 10, is her most personal statement yet. With big horns and brassy vocals that call to mind golden-era Aretha Franklin, Clarkson tackles heartache (“I Don’t Think About You”), sexual intimacy (“Heat”) and trolls (“Go High” — named for the key line in Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic National Convention speech — which attracted a fan letter from the former FLOTUS herself).
And while Clarkson, who lives in Tennessee with her husband, manager Brandon Blackstock, and their four kids, knows she has become a role model, she insists it’s not her endgame. “I don’t wake up every day and think, ‘How can I inspire people?’” says Clarkson. “I’m just living my life. That’s the best example you can be.”
HOME ON THE RANGE
“We have an orchard, honeybees, chickens. It’s nice to hang out and cook and ride four-wheelers and not be on our iPads. I don’t want to raise terrible children. People are always sending them stuff! That’s not normal. My daughter’s passport — I don’t even know how many stamps she has. I grew up in a small, country bubble in Texas. I never had sushi until I was 20.”
FIRE IN THE STUDIO
“Earth, Wind & Fire played on ‘Love So Soft.’ I got to hang with Verdine [White] in the studio for a minute. He sounded like he’d just started in the industry, he was so excited. I love that.”
PLANNING VOICE VICTORY
“It’s not just about finding someone incredibly talented. I’d love to stick around in their life. There have been dark moments in my career where I felt alone. I would have loved to have someone be the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“A powerhouse is captivating. They walk into a room and you just want to know what they’re about to say. The first time I met Annie Lennox — I’m a very talkative human and I didn’t talk at all. She quieted me, which is a very hard thing to do.”
“I’m myself — unapologetically. But I can carry more than one flag, people! I grew up in a small town. Worry about your own damn front porch, and I’ll worry about mine.”
When Kelly Clarkson was competing on the first season of “American Idol” in 2002, contestants were made to log into a website that featured commentary from fans. Not all of the criticism was constructive, and Clarkson, scarcely 20 years old, from a small town in Texas, was uniquely unequipped to process it.
“It was not a great feeling, right off the bat,” remembers Clarkson, who vowed to never read another word written about her. She’ll do interviews — she’s happy to, she’s a people person — but she won’t read them once they’re published, or reviews, either.
Clarkson went on to be the first winner of the “Idol” era. She sold millions of albums, and had a string of empowering hits (“Miss Independent,” “Stronger,” “Since U Been Gone”), even as she publicly fought her former record label, RCA, for control of her career.
Clarkson’s RCA deal was an arranged marriage, necessitated by the terms of her “Idol” win. She left for Atlantic Records the first day she could, and that label released her new, classic-soul-inspired album, “Meaning of Life,” in October. For the first time since she started, Clarkson, who plays the Rosemont Theatre Tuesday, is charting her own course. “It’s exciting,” she says in a phone call a few days before her performance with Pink at the American Music Awards. “You feel like a kid again. I feel like I just won ‘Idol.’ It’s a brand-new, fresh start.”
The singer, who is earthy and warm and basically the Kelly Clarkson you always imagined, talked about winning “Idol,” her upcoming gig on “The Voice,” and her career-long struggle to be heard. The following is an edited transcript:
Q: Do you get nervous in the days before an album comes out? You’ve sold millions of albums, but you never really know.
A: No, that’s why I don’t ever get nervous. I’ve never, ever been that girl. You don’t know, you don’t have any control over it. A lot of times, it’s the aligning of the stars, what’s out at that time, what isn’t out at that time. There’s so much that’s not in your hands. Especially with this album, I’ve focused on making a great musical footprint that I’m super proud of, and it’s my first chance to do that with something that’s wholeheartedly me. I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel like I won, having fulfilled this dream that I had for a while.
Q: In the early days, there were stories about you fighting with your label, or your label fighting with you. Did things settle down in the last few years?
A: Um, yes, if you’re comparing it to the previous (period). Physically, emotionally, it was just a lot, like being in a relationship for years, and just one day going, “It shouldn’t be this hard. It should be fun.” I just felt like there was more. I was already out the door, and counting down the records to being out of my record deal.
Q: If this happened now, would you be treated differently? Back then it was, “You’re a girl. Let the men talk.”
A: Specifically for me it had a lot to do with, I won a singing competition. It was hard to fight to be a writer, it was hard to fight for anything creatively. A lot of people, especially in the beginning, they just saw me as a voice, nothing more: “Just shut up and sing whatever we give you, whatever gifts we bestow upon you.” That’s not a healthy environment. I was the first one from all these shows, there was no blueprint, it was all brand-new. I think that had a lot to do with it.
Q: At what point does the public stop thinking of you as Kelly Clarkson, “American Idol” winner? Or do they?
A: I think they think about it as much as they think “Mickey Mouse Club” when they think of Justin (Timberlake) and Christina (Aguilera). They always think of Destiny’s Child and Beyonce, Demi Lovato and Barney. This is how I was introduced to people, I’ve never run from that. It doesn’t bother me at all. It was just my way of getting into the industry. We all had a way of getting in. Everybody has their door of opportunity, take it or not.
Q: Your new album is a deeper dive into stuff you’ve talked about before: being a strong person, accepting yourself. Do you think people are more receptive now?
A: I don’t know. I am who I am, and I’ve always been that way. Even on “Idol,” I never wore makeup, even when everybody wanted me to wear makeup. I was like, I’ll wear it onstage, but if you’re getting footage of us sitting around the house, I’m not going to waste my time. I’ve kind of always been myself right off the bat. I think that really did help me out in my career. That’s why people think, “Oh, she’s so down-to-earth.” I don’t think I’m down-to-earth as much as a normal person with logical thinking. I do things that make me happy, and don’t do things that make me unhappy. I’m not trying to create any kind of mystery, I’m really just being me, living my life.
Q: If you go to the market in no makeup, with your kids, people are going to approach you more than they would, say, Beyonce. You feel more reachable in a way.
A: I had one (bad) day, I think it was 2005. I was just exhausted, and we’d been touring nonstop, and I had a moment that hit me: You can’t take (celebrity) back, you know? It was one moment in 15 years when I had a hard time with it. I thought, “You’re from a small town, that’s how you grew up, where everybody knows you and you can’t keep anything secret.” I think (that) helped me wrap my head around it. I honestly do love that I’m more of an attainable-type figure in the public eye than someone people feel they can’t go up to, because they’re afraid they’ll be mean. I don’t want to be that one either.
Q: Have you thought about what kind of judge you want to be on “The Voice”?
A: What’s great about “The Voice” is I’m not really judging anyone, I’m coaching. I don’t think I would enjoy judging. We’ve taped some of my season, and I love it, because I was one of them. I can really relate, and I can help navigate through a competition. I find a lot of joy in it. I really love people.
Q: Are you going to tell them to get a great lawyer?
A: I think I’ll be honest with them in the sense that it’s not easy. There will be hurdles, and your hurdles may be different than mine. It all comes down to choices, and you want to make the healthiest ones for you. I’m just going to be really honest with them. I don’t think I could be like, “Oh, it’s all going to be great.”
Q: Do you think the next album will go in a similar direction (to this one)?
A: Girl, I don’t know. I mean, I love soulful music, so I definitely know it’s going to be soulful. I would love to make the next level of this album, but honestly, I’m not even thinking about that now. In two years, who knows what the hell I’ll make?
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont
Tickets: $33.00-$73.00; 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Kelly attended 2 events yesterday. One was an exclusive Q&A with Entertainment Weekly and the other was an appearance at Music Choice. Check out photos and videos below. Enjoy!
Today Kelly was at YouTube’s Meaning of Life release event and she did an interview with them and live performed. Definitely worth a watch. Enjoy.
Kelly was on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. I’ve added photos from her appearance. Check out videos from her appearance:
Singing Backwards Game: