On the ethereal, piano-backed ballad “I Don’t Think About You” from her new album Meaning Of Life, out now, Kelly Clarkson croons, “I feel freedom where I stand now/I feel proud of who I am now/I learned a lot along the way/I love the woman that I became.” It’s a breakup song, but the glass-shattering soprano notes and passion behind each lyric seem to be sending the listener a very clear message. With her first record post-American Idol contract, the 35-year-old wife and mom of two is telling the world that she is, indeed, proud of the woman she’s become.
During a phone conversation about her latest release, Clarkson immediately turns on that Southern charm, calling me “girl” and offering up book recommendations. She also opens up about why she’s so passionate about this new album — my favorite one yet, which is saying something, because like many of you, I’ve gotten through plenty of breakups and girl power moments thanks to some Kelly Clarkson jams. But this album is like ’90s R&B and “Since You Been Gone” had a baby, a soulful collection that radiates more confidence than we’ve ever heard from Clarkson before.
“It’s no secret this is the first time I’m out of my Idol contract, so this is also the first time there’s been zero compromising from me and the process has been very constructive, respectful, and happy,” Clarkson says. “I was able to honestly create music about the relationships that led me here and the relationships I have now. Sometimes I wish I had an experience this freeing when I first started out, because it would have saved me a lot of heartache throughout my career. But then again, now I really appreciate where I am in life, and how ‘me’ this record feels.”
By the end of our chat, Clarkson also touches on sexism in the entertainment industry, how she’s raising children in a crazy political climate, and what it’s really like being seen as a symbol for body positivity. After we hang up, I’m happy that I can confirm the singer appears to be as grown-up and free as her album sounds. It seems, ironically, that all this time, she’s been waiting for a moment like this.
Meaning Of Life is your eighth studio album since we first met you as a 19-year-old on American Idol. Nearly 16 years later, you’re a married mother of two. How did where you are in life now influence this latest project?
“It’s so funny, because I talk to all my mom friends about this all the time. I’ve always been a confident girl, I’ve always felt sexy and intelligent. But after becoming a mother, the amount of shit that you get done, you’re so impressed with yourself! It’s the most empowering feeling, because it makes you want to worry about the pettiness and trivial things a lot less. I think that trickled down to the messages and sassiness that are on this record. Art is a reflection of your life, so this record is happy and empowering, and I love that.”
You have two young children under five and two teenage stepchildren. The world is kind of a crazy place right now. How are you raising kids in all of this?
“It’s a daily challenge, because our 10-year-old or 16-year-old will often say something like, ‘Why does this person say this, are they allowed to say this?’ I’m not going to lie, it’s hard, because every single day I’m explaining away a news headline or action of someone in politics. But I think it’s a very crucial time for anyone with kids. All of those things that are happening in our political arena, or in the entertainment industry? Well, there’s bullying, there’s sexual harassment, and there’s a rape culture in schools. It all starts young. So right now we have a unique opportunity to use what’s happening to ask our kids, ‘Do you think this was right or wrong? What do you think should have happened?’ It sounds obvious, but that’s the only way, long term, this world is going to get any better.”
Speaking of sexual harassment, after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, there’s been a lot of talk about how to stop sexism and harassment in the entertainment industry. Is that something that you’ve ever dealt with, and how did you deal, if so?
“I’ve definitely dealt with sexism in the music industry, but I’ve never been sexually harassed in this industry. I definitely have been in my life, though, just at another job. And I shouldn’t have to do this — no one should have to — but I think because I was a class clown growing up, my defense mechanism has always been to deal with it with humor. Like, kind of jokingly say something like ‘That’s not cool!’ so the person gets my drift but it’s not super awkward. But it’s ridiculous that any one should ever feel so unsafe at work, or anywhere, that they have to figure how to get out of an uncomfortable situation without upsetting the other person. I mean, it’s pretty basic to me. We should all just act like normal human beings that are looking out for each other. If you’re tempted to harass or be mean to someone, why don’t you pretend that’s your daughter, or your mom, or your brother? Would you want that to happen to that person?”
What do you think needs to change in order for there to be a better balance of power in the the entertainment industry?
“Honestly, no matter the industry, change comes with education. You always hear these dumb answers like, ‘Oh, that’s just Hollywood, it’s been that way since old Hollywood!’ But that’s not an answer. That’s a cop out, an excuse, and a bad one. I think every single person can educate themselves on why certain things are wrong, so they’re not living in an archaic dark hole. And so they know what it looks like when something is wrong, so they can speak up. But unfortunately I think a lot of people are stuck in their ways, so a lot of it is really all about trying to do better with our kids.”
What’s your advice for young girls who are just starting out in a male-dominated industry?
“I have two pieces of advice: First, surround yourself with people who truly love and support you and want you to be a better human. Not just a better singer, or a better writer, or whatever your occupation is, but a better human — the kind of people who are not just going to encourage you and empower you, but also open your mind. Second, don’t take advice from anyone you wouldn’t want to switch places with. That cuts out a lot of people!”
You have so much going on between The Voice, a new album, and four kids. How do you and your husband maintain a strong relationship?
“Giiiirl, we have a village. No one can do it alone. The kids have grandparents who are awesome, and we both have great assistants, because Brandon manages me and Blake Shelton, so that’s two pretty busy careers. And then we have two nannies who help us tremendously, they’re the greatest gifts ever. We have our little village that helps us keep everyone’s head above water and also aren’t afraid to say Hey, you guys are taking on too much.”
Watching your journey since age 19, I think a lot of us feel like we know you. What do you think people would be surprised to know about Kelly Clarkson?
“I’m really low key. People are always like what celebrities are in your phone? Who do you hang out with, what parties do you go to? And I’m like oh my gosh, I live in Nashville, I live on the river with 4 kids, we don’t hang out with anyone but our family. We have a farm and we love our orchard and our chickens and our honeybees. I think maybe people would be shocked that my life is remarkably chill? Or maybe not. Maybe that’s what’s always made me odd in this industry, because I’ve never really led a pop star life.”
Is there any celebrity that would make you starstruck?
“Oh my gosh! Recently — I am a huge Meryl Streep fan, okay? I mean, who isn’t? But she’s one of my favorite humans on the planet. I came up with this idea to release my album and have people I like in the limelight do a little something for it. So I sent her this request, but I don’t know her at all, so I sent it like through her people…channels…I don’t even know how it got to her, but magically it did! And she totally emailed me back! It was the greatest rejection I’ve ever had. She couldn’t do it because she’s filming a movie somewhere, but she wrote back the kindest, nicest note, and I was floored because a lot of times people just say, ‘We asked her people and they said she can’t because she’s busy.’ But she literally sent, it said “From Meryl.” You would’ve thought I was opening a letter from Harvard to see if I got accepted! I was freaking out!”
What would you say is the lesson that’s taken you the longest to learn?
“I literally just had this conversation with another artist last night at a dinner. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is to take care of myself first, because, at 19 and all of a sudden having all of these people working for and under you…that’s a lot of pressure. You are their livelihood and how they support their families. So you always feel like you have to keep going, even if you need a break, because you want to make sure everyone’s taken care of. It took me years to figure out that wasn’t working, after the second round of walking pneumonia and the fourth time of getting bronchitis. There comes a point where you have to take care of yourself first, or you’re gonna be useless to everyone. And when I did finally start being honest about it, everyone was so nice. They were like ‘Obviously, we want you to be great!'”
Over the years, you’ve become a spokesperson for body positivity. Does that also feel like a lot of pressure? And does it ever get old constantly being asked about it?
“I don’t mind it at all. My only thing is that I don’t want my body to be the topic all the time. Because it’s like man, you work so hard on something, you don’t want people to just focus on your body. I mean honestly, this conversation we’re having has been perfect; we talked about a ton of stuff, and you’re touching on this because it’s an obvious theme in my life, but the whole interview wasn’t about it. The reason I do talk about it is because I want people to know that we all are different, and it’s about what makes you happy. If you’re unhappy, then change it, but don’t let anyone project any unhappiness onto you. So I don’t mind carrying the body positivity flag, but I do want people to remember that I’m carrying another flag, too: my music!”
Before I let you go, I have to ask, thanks to your album title: What does Kelly Clarkson think is the meaning of life?
“The logo for the album is a circle, because life is about connection. I think life is about loving yourself enough so that you can love others. We need to connect, we need to have conversations. Like, why not ask someone ‘Hey, I didn’t grow up like you did, let’s talk about it!’ Sharing those moments is what makes us human. If you’re always limiting yourself to your own front porch, you’ll never truly get to see the rest of the world around you.”
Singer Kelly Clarkson joins TODAY to talk about her new children’s book, “River Rose and the Magical Christmas,” and her brand new album, “Meaning of Life.” Live in the studio, she performs the album’s lead single, “Love So Soft.”
Kelly Clarkson: ‘I Am a Whole Lot of Woman, and That’s OK’
“I have a big personality, I’m a grown-ass woman that can pay her bills, I make a lot of money. That’s intimidating,” says “Meaning of Life” singer.
Kelly Clarkson is in a car on the way to a video shoot, speeding through New York as the summer wanes, picking out billboards and other sights. “I’m looking at a freakin’ ship right now,” exclaims Clarkson as her car passes the permanently docked ship that houses the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. “This scenery is crazy – fighter jets, what?”
Clarkson has a seemingly boundless energy to go with her rich, octave-leaping voice, and that combination has made her one of pop’s most compelling live draws – her concerts feature hits from her wide-ranging catalog like the slinky kiss-off “Walk Away” and the resilient “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” as well as covers that show off her breadth, borrowing from Prince and Rihanna as well as Paramore and Radiohead. (There’s also a lot of fun banter.) Her eighth studio album, Meaning of Life is the first in Clarkson’s catalog to have the electric atmosphere of her concerts – she’s singing with renewed bravura on songs like the urgent lead single “Love So Soft” and the sultry “Didn’t I”; arrangements on tracks like the manifesto-with-soul “Whole Lotta Woman” swing and bounce; and stray studio asides offer glimpses at her bubbly personality.
“It was essential – at least for me – to make a record that almost sounded like [my live show],” Clarkson tells Rolling Stone. “When people come see me live, we’ve brought horns out, we’ve got strings out. People don’t come for the costume changes!”
Meaning of Life is Clarkson’s first LP on Atlantic Records; her last record, 2015’s Piece By Piece, closed out the contract with RCA Records she won after emerging victorious from the inaugural 2002 season of the imminently returning American Idol. Even though Clarkson, who’s been living in Nashville for the past decade, has been a consistent pop presence since her Idol win, touring widely and releasing pop-radio staples, her tussles with her label over the years, which included clashes with executives like former RCA bigwig Clive Davis and pressure to work with producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, took a toll on the singer.
“I really almost quit like three times,” she recalls. “I was just like, ‘You know, there’s a lot of sacrifice going on here, and not a lot of happiness.’ That doesn’t make it worth it as a human – forget being an artist or anything else.”
But at Atlantic, Clarkson has found a home that, she says, understands her better both as a person and as an artist. Craig Kallman, Atlantic Records’ CEO, helped steer Clarkson’s new record – “instrumental,” she says when asked to describe his input – while also allowing her to explore the soulful side of her voice that she displayed on Idol and in concert.
“It wasn’t a test by any means, but I was curious [about his answer to the question]: ‘If you were going to make a record with Kelly Clarkson, what would it sound like? What’s your dream scenario?'” she says of an early meeting with Kallman and Atlantic COO Julie Greenwald. Kallman reached into Atlantic’s storied archives for his answer: “He, right off the bat, referenced Aretha Franklin. He said, ‘I like all your music, and obviously people love you. But I feel like no one’s ever heard the record that maybe you could make soulfully.’ He kept referencing Aretha – ‘You know, she really had her dreams take off, and I feel like that’s you. I really want to create that for you.’
“I was like, either he’s a really good salesman and full of shit, or honest and the most amazing human to work with,” she laughs. “It’s the latter.”
The title track, a showy ballad where Clarkson flaunts her impressive range, had been laying in wait since the Piece By Piece sessions, and it gave Clarkson the opportunity to signal her new direction to potential collaborators. “A lot of people kept sending ‘Since U Been Gone 2.0,’ and [songs that resembled earlier hits] ‘Stronger’ and ‘My Life Would Suck Without You,'” she says. “I was like, ‘I really need to guide people in the direction that we’re going.’ [Meaning of Life] doesn’t really sound like anything on the radio.”
Kallman, who’s credited as the album’s co-executive producer alongside Clarkson, also helped the album’s feel stay consistent. “You always see people on albums [credited as] ‘executive producer’ and you’re like, ‘What does that mean?’ But Craig, he showed me. He has worked probably harder than any producer, engineer, vocalist, writer on this album – it’s a project he really was excited to work on, and you could tell. It was just such a blessing. Craig would push these producers that are so used to working with other executives – making [their songs] sound so radio-friendly, but tearing the spirit and soul out sometimes,” Clarkson raves. “He would say, ‘No, no, wait. We wanted you because we knew you were capable of this, so give us this.’ He got Earth, Wind and Fire to play on [‘Love So Soft’],, and ‘Whole Lotta Woman.’ It was amazing to work with a record executive that was gung ho about having that live, organic [feel].”
“Whole Lotta Woman” is one of the album’s standout tracks, a fiery ode to being “too much” that features Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White on bass as well as the storied funk band’s horn section. The music recalls classic soul anthems like “Respect” while also having the pop of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation-era output like “Black Cat.” “I met [‘Lotta’ writers and producers Novawav, made up of Denisia ‘Blu June’ Andrews and Brittany ‘Chi’ Coney] in LA, and we had talked for, I don’t know, an hour, or more, because I talk a lot,” she laughs. “It was really fun to talk to them about how it took me awhile to fall in love because I am a whole lot of woman – I have a big personality, I’m a grown-ass woman that can pay her bills, and I make a lot of money. That’s intimidating.”
The conversation also encompassed the way women’s looks get picked over by people in the industry. “One of my favorite singers on the planet, Aretha Franklin, isn’t tiny. But she’s boss, and when she walks onto the stage everyone stops breathing. We’re marveling at her talent, [but] maybe some artists that we loved growing up would never make it today because of that dumb reason. Why we are afraid of it? People come in different packages, and they may not all be what you like, but man, don’t they sound good?”
As a female pop star, Clarkson’s appearance has been a topic of discussion among observers for years. “I never wanted to draw attention, “she says. “But for 15 years of my life, no matter if I’m really thin or really not, [weight was] always a talk of discussion. Even when I was on Idol, it was a discussion. I never really wanted to attract attention, because then you talk about it all the time, instead of [your] music. So it was fun to write a song that said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I am a whole lot of woman, and it’s ok. I came with a brain, and I came with drive and passion and sensuality, and these things that are awesome. If you can’t handle it, that’s totally cool, but you’re not tall enough to ride this ride, then move along. It’s fine.’ We put a fun twist on it.”
While producers and writers who have worked with Clarkson in the past, like Jesse Shatkin (Sia, Fitz and the Tantrums) and Greg Kurstin (Beck, Tegan and Sara), appear on the album, new collaborators, like the R&B singer-songwriter Harlœ (Britney Spears, MKTO), producer Nick Ruth (Nick Jonas, Carly Rae Jepsen) and producer Mick Schultz (Jeremih), invigorated the process. “Mick Schultz has this super-fresh take on Nineties music that I love,” says Clarkson. “I was floored by him. He and [Harlœ, real name Jessica Karpov] worked a lot together. She’s ridiculous. I was like, ‘Thank you for giving me Jessica,” because her vocals are insane, and she’s a really rad human, as well.”
“Medicine,” which Harlœ and Schultz co-wrote, is a jittery R&B-pop song with a slinky bassline that Clarkson uses as a springboard for her barnburning vocal; “Heat,” another collaboration involving the pair, spins out of frantic handclapping, with Clarkson and her background vocalists engaging in a feisty back-and-forth. It recalls the upbeat soul-tinged hits of the Nineties while possessing a decidedly 21st-century energy. “[Mick] had this amazing way to reference Nineties music, in a way that it wasn’t all Mariah Carey and Whitney, or Duran Duran – it was just an amazing way of putting it all together in a song,” Clarkson says.
Even though it represents a large swath of what’s made her so appealing to so many listeners for the past decade and a half, Meaning of Life signals the beginning of a new chapter for Clarkson, one where the inaugural American Idol enters a new period of making music on her own terms – and being aware that she’s now in a position to do so in an even better way. “In fairness to everybody who I’ve worked with in the past, if you would have given me these same songs at the age of 19 or 20, it wouldn’t have sounded like this,” says Clarkson. “You have to live and have experiences in order to have what comes with a lot of these songs – you can’t just not have had circumstances where you’ve had to be bold and confident. You have to have that in life in order to sing it.”
And now she’s ready to raise her voice and revel in a collaborative relationship with her new label. “It was really just an incredible experience,” she says. “Everyone just wanted to make great music, and I know that sounds super cheesy, but I really feel like I deserve that at this point, and it was really just a blessing all the way around.”
Kelly Clarkson tells us what it’s like to work with a new label, her inspirations behind ‘Meaning of Life’, and what else is coming from her this year!
I am so excited to share Meaning of Life with y’all. This has been the most challenging record to make but also the most enjoyable. The musicians, singers, producers, and everyone that worked on this album have been such a blessing in my life and have helped me create the best album of my career that represents me the most not only as a singer but as a person. This album is 100% me. From start to finish I hope y’all love the sass and confidence that this album represents! Every album of mine has been a mini representation of my life at that point and this album is definitely an indication of how blessed, strong, and happy I am in my life right now. I could not be more grateful for all of you because I wouldn’t have been able to make this album had y’all not been supporting me for the last 15 years so THANK YOU 🙂 and I hope you dig Meaning of Life. See y’all on tour!
Be sure to get your copy of her album at KellyClarkson.com today!
The official audio track for The Meaning Of Life is now online. It’s AMAZING!!!
Kelly Clarkson’s soulful, booming vocals take center stage on her newest song, “Meaning of Life,” the title track to her eighth studio album, which drops later this month. The tune is the perfect preview to to upcoming project, which channels “smart and sensual soul-inspired pop.”
This marks the third single from her upcoming record, following “Love So Soft” and “Move You,” which debuted last month. As she did with the previous two releases, Clarkson performed and recorded “Meaning of Life” live at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville. The result is a simply moving performance sans bells and whistles—just her, the band, and the music.
“‘Meaning of Life’ is the song that started this entire project,” Clarkson said of the track. “The vibe, soul, and message of this song was very critical to show other writers and producers of the new direction we were taking.”
With that in mind, we can’t wait to hear how the rest of the record sounds. Meaning of Life releases on October 27 via Atlantic Records. Pre-Order
Watch Clarkson’s Nashville Sessions performance of the title track below.