Fifteen years after her American Idol win, and free from the contract it tied her to, KELLY CLARKSON is finally making the music she always wanted to – and has herself become a TV pop Svengali
Up on the 65th floor of New York’s Rockefeller Centre, in the hallowed surroundings of the historic Rainbow Room, everything is dazzling.
The view – a straight shot ten blocks south to the Empire State Building – is so picture-perfect as to look almost unreal; the décor, all mirrors, chandeliers, and oversized candelabras, speaks to an infinitely more glamorous age (the room opened in 1934 and was the spot for society functions), and the well-heeled crowd of models and music-industry sorts is merrily enjoying free-flowing martinis.
The most dazzling element in the room, however, is erupting from the woman on stage, clad in a gold sequined column dress: Kelly Clarkson’s astonishingly powerful, soulful voice, reminiscent of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and, more latterly, Beyoncé.
Back in 2002, aged 20, Kelly was the inaugural winner of American Idol, the US iteration of Pop Idol, forerunner to The X Factor. Her first single ‘Before Your Love’ went to the top of the charts. Now 35, she has sold more than 25 million albums and 36 million singles worldwide, and won three Grammys and three MTV Video Music Awards, among myriad other prizes. She also performed at Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in 2013, singing ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’.
And for a truly contemporary symbol of the American Dream – that ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’, as defined by the writer James Truslow Adams three years before the Rainbow Room opened – there could be few better examples than Kelly Clarkson.
Two days later we meet in the only slightly less impressive offices of Atlantic Records in Midtown Manhattan. Thanks to an appearance earlier this morning on the US breakfast television programme Today, Kelly has been up since 3.30am. ‘If I were a dude, I’d just stroll in with my hat, somebody would powder me and then I’d go on stage. Being a girl, it’s two hours in wardrobe and make-up,’ she observes in her rich, roiling Texan twang. ‘It takes Harry Potter magic to make this happen,’ she adds, motioning to her mane of blow-dried hair and the dramatic make-up she has not yet removed.
She might have the voice of a diva, but her personality – open, chatty and delightfully self-deprecating – is anything but. Having spent her career thus far at RCA Records (as part of a deal with American Idol), the past 15 years have seen Kelly pump out pop-rock hits such as ‘Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)’ and ‘Since U Been Gone’, as well as ballads such as ‘Because of You’.
‘I love pop rock and I love pop ballads, so it wasn’t completely miserable, but I just filled that lane for the powers that be,’ she says, with no hint of bitterness. ‘It was like an arranged marriage. I was on American Idol and RCA had the contracts for whoever won the show, so it’s not as though they handpicked me either. And because I was on the first series, I didn’t know any different, so my expectations were nothing.’
Does she think, I ask, that there’s more pressure on female artists to be moulded into a neatly commercial package? ‘Aesthetically, yes, much more for women,’ she says. ‘But musically, it’s the same for both men and women. I have a lot of male friends whose labels wanted them to sound like whatever they felt was going to make them money.’
Kelly’s new album Meaning of Life, which will be released later this month, however, is in a very different vein to her previous output. ‘I wanted to make an album that sounded like my influences, the women who inspired me to be who I am now: Aretha, Whitney, Bonnie Raitt, Mariah Carey, Reba McEntire, Rosemary Clooney, Bette Midler,’ she enthuses. ‘That’s what I grew up on and I think it bleeds out of me naturally.’
This month she will be returning to where it all began, the television talent contest – though this time on the other side of the fence – as she begins filming for the 14th series of the US edition of The Voice, where she will be one of the coaches alongside country music star Blake Shelton and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. It’s an opportunity she has been offered several times, but had to pass up because of pregnancies. (She and her husband of four years Brandon Blackstock, who is also her manager, have two children, River Rose, three, and Remington Alexander, one. ‘That’s it, no more,’ she assures me firmly.)
In an era of YouTube, in which would-be stars can upload demos to their channel and reach an audience without the middleman, is there still a place for the television talent show? Kelly believes so. ‘It’s a platform that reaches millions of homes every week,’ she says. ‘And there’s an investment on the part of the public. They feel as though they are involved in the journey; they got to choose an artist, help make an album. They have a sense of ownership in a positive way.’
There is, however, a less positive sense of ownership, too. Throughout Kelly’s career she has endured endless commentary about her appearance, every weight fluctuation scrutinised and criticised. She is finally answering the trolls with a track on the new album: the upbeat, enormously catchy ‘Whole Lotta Woman’.
Though it’s the first time Kelly has tackled the subject of body image, she has always explored personal topics in her songs. She wrote her 2005 single ‘Because of You’ when she was 16 as a way to channel her distress at her parents’ divorce a decade earlier and her lack of relationship with her father since. ‘Piece by Piece’, released in 2015, is its sequel, the ‘happy ending’ in which she pays homage to Brandon, who restored her faith in love and family.
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.”
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.
Kelly officially announces the 4th judge for season 14 of The Voice. Drum roll please…
I’ve added 175 high quality photos of Kelly from the Variety’s Women of Power which was last night. She was honored at the event and was presented by Blake Shelton. Huge thanks to my friend Mouza from Team Shevine (a Blake Shelton and Adam Levine fansite) for a bunch of these photos. Kelly looked so beautiful, like always! Enjoy!
Kelly’s Acceptance Speech:
Kelly Backstage Discussing Harvey Weinstein Scandal:
Kelly Clarkson on Her New Album, ‘The Voice’ and How Michelle Obama Inspired a Song
Throughout her career, Kelly Clarkson has paid homage to great divas, from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston. But on her new album, “Meaning of Life,” she borrows from another rock star: Michelle Obama. On the last track, “Go High,” Clarkson belts out: “When you go low I go high / I go high, I go high / When you go low I go high.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? “Yes, obviously,” Clarkson says. It’s from “the speech heard around the world.”
Clarkson, who co-wrote the song, says she was inspired by Obama’s address in July 2016 at the Democratic National Convention. “I remember seeing it on TV and just being floored,” she says. “You don’t have to be a politician to have experienced taking the high road. I think that’s a lot of us in whatever you do in life.”
Clarkson has never had any problems going high — just listen to her notes. But she’s also experienced her share of lows in the music industry. After winning the first season of “American Idol” in 2002, she was locked into a lengthy contract with RCA Records. She frequently clashed with executives there about the direction of her career. “I think a lot of artists have this story where you feel like you’re put in this box,” says Clarkson, who has sold more than 25 million albums. “I presented a certain path that they needed to fulfill some profit. Whatever. It’s just not every artist that had an arranged marriage right off the bat.”
“Meaning of Life,” which arrives on Oct. 27, is the album Clarkson always wanted to make. She says her new label, Atlantic Records, gave her the creative freedom she’s been craving. While her previous efforts veered more toward pop or pop rock, “Meaning of Life” offers a soulful vibe, in line with the artists she listened to growing up as the daughter of a single mom in Texas. “It’s just the first record I’ve made that I didn’t call my mother, wanting to quit,” Clarkson says. “And I’m not a baby, y’all. I’m strong. There are songs about it! I’m a very powerful, confident woman, but at the same time, you just feel beaten down.”
The music business could use a boost from Clarkson. Other than Taylor Swift, there’s been a lack of female talent on the pop charts this year, which Clarkson has noticed. “That was just insane to me,” she says. “There’s a ton of female artists that are so badass right now.” She remembers how women dominated the charts — in all genres — in the ’90s, as she lists off some of her favorite current performers: Pink, Adele, Alicia Keys. (She also loves the new album from One Direction’s most notorious heartbreaker: “I’m blown away by Harry Styles. And I feel like an asshole sounding so shocked.”)
Clarkson’s songs have always been synonymous with girl power, from “Miss Independent” to “Stronger,” which is quoted in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, “What Happened.” “It was pretty exciting,” Clarkson says. “I found out my name was in Hillary Clinton’s book on Twitter.” One of her new songs, “Whole Lotta Woman,” sounds like a bookend to Franklin’s “Respect.” “I grew up loving those songs, just to remind yourself how badass we are individually,” Clarkson says. “I think I imitate what I love, and I’ve always loved an empowering message.”
In person, Clarkson comes across like an instant BFF. She likes to hug everybody, including a Variety reporter who tells her to stay away because he has a cold. She arrives at our photo shoot with her husband, music manager Brandon Blackstock. They own a farm in Tennessee with chickens and honeybees where they plan to live with their four kids. At one point, she cracks a joke about watching “Wonder Woman” with her family. “It’s very hard sometimes when you’re the mom of little girls and all you have are these damsels,” Clarkson says. “These princesses are great. I love Belle. But it’s a little weird. She was trapped in a dungeon, and all of a sudden, they fell in love.”
Clarkson was only 20 when she won “American Idol,” the show that changed TV and the idea of fame for the YouTube generation. When she roamed inside the “Idol” house on the show, Clarkson refused to wear makeup, even when the cameras were rolling. “I’m not dolled up to hang out in my house ever,” she says. Her roommates would get up at dawn to do yoga. “I was such a night owl,” she says. “I ended up sleeping by the pool table and couch in another room. It was such a cool camp. Nobody knew what the show would be or any of us would amount to more than that.”
After she won, there were questions about her commercial prospects. Clarkson recalls that RCA executives were originally cold toward “Miss Independent,” the song that kicked off her post-“Idol” career. “I had to cry to get that song not only on my record but as the first single,” she says. “The only reason I got it as the first single was because it tested well. Everybody was like, ‘That can’t be. There are too many guitars. That’s not really your sound. You’re the next Whitney Houston.’” That’s not how she saw herself: “I love Whitney Houston, but I don’t want to make those records.”
After the song became a hit, she was shocked that the naysayers acted like they had supported her all along. “That first single for me was a very damaging time for my psyche,” Clarkson says. “It was like, wow. So people just lie.”
In 2004, Clive Davis took over RCA, and Clarkson thought maybe things would get better. Her feuds with the mogul have been documented in connection with the release of her 2007 album “My December,” which Davis tried to bury. But Clarkson reveals that the conflict started before that. When she played “Because of You” for him to consider for her second album, 2004’s “Breakaway,” Davis wasn’t impressed. “I was told that was a shitty song because it didn’t rhyme,” Clarkson says, adding that he delivered the nasty verdict to her face in a meeting. “A group of men thought it was OK to sit around a young woman and bully her. I was told I should shut up and sing. And then, this is the best part. He [Davis] played me the song that should be on the album, which was ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes,’ which I wrote. Am I a shitty writer?”
Clarkson says Davis got confused and didn’t realize that she had written that too. “Here’s the thing,” she says. “It always sounds like I’m going against Clive Davis. You have no idea how excited I was when I found out he was taking over. It’s like meeting someone you’ve idolized since you were a kid and being let down. The only victory I see from the last 15 years is honestly just the fact that, even in such an incredibly not-healthy environment, we were very successful.” (Davis, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.)
After her contract expired, Clarkson knew that she needed a fresh start. She signed with Atlantic even though it was the first and only label she met with because of a closeness she felt to co-heads Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald. “Superstars don’t go on the market that often,” says Greenwald. The streaming data from Clarkson’s first single, “Love So Soft,” surprised her. “It was down the middle, men and women. By the way, I would have bet the house that it was going to be all women.” That’s a testament to Clarkson’s appeal. And the three-time Grammy winner looks forward to stepping out of her box even more. She’s writing a musical for children and contemplating a country album with other Nashville artists.
Clarkson’s other gig will be joining NBC’s “The Voice” in the spring. Her addition to the show raised eyebrows, given that her name was also in the mix for the rebooted “American Idol” on ABC. Clarkson says “The Voice” had been trying to get her for years, and she was waiting for an opening in her schedule. Even though she was about to sign with NBC, she still considered “Idol’s” eleventh-hour offer. “We let them come to the table, because it’s my beginnings,” Clarkson says. “At the end of the day, I don’t like being separate from my husband. Blake [Shelton] is his artist. We’re all there. For ‘American Idol,’ you have to travel. And it excites me to do something different. I’m not going to lie: I’m stoked about pushing the red button.”
She was also drawn to “The Voice” because the mentors get to spend more time with the contestants. “On ‘Idol,’ you can’t really have a relationship,” Clarkson says. “And I, as you can tell, love talking and having relationships.” What kind of mentor will she be? “I hope I’m a little bit like Simon Cowell,” she says, pushing back against the notion the “Idol” judge was too mean. “For the most part, I love his honesty. This is not a nice industry. People think I am going to be super nice all the time. I am nice. But I also want to keep it real.”