By Brian Ives
It’s an exciting time for Kelly Clarkson; she was nominated for a GRAMMY for “Piece By Piece,” she just signed a new record deal with Atlantic Records, and has a new song on the Hamilton mixtape, “It’s Quiet Uptown.” She spoke to Radio.com about all of that and more.
How did you get involved in recording a song from Hamilton?
Craig Kallman [CEO of] Atlantic Records and [Hamilton director/star/producer] Lin-Manuel Miranda discussed my doing “It’s Quiet Uptown.” The song was described to me; I’d never seen the musical because I was pregnant.
But anyway, I finally get this song, and I listen to it at like one in the morning, bawling, because it’s about a son dying, and I’m pregnant with my son. Like this is the worst song ever to send to someone that’s pregnant!
I thought it was beautiful. Obviously, everybody’s taken aback by it, because he did a stunning job with the musical as a whole and just this story and the arc and everything. This is one of the songs in the musical where it’s like that moment where there’s three people singing, it’s tortured, it’s just so sad, and there’s no positive moment in this song.
So I recorded it while I was pregnant. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because I just couldn’t get through it. My producer, Jason Albert, was like “Wow.” He was tearing up. But it was exciting that we hadn’t seen the musical yet, because there was no intimidation factor going on. Because I can guarantee you, if I had seen that musical I’d have been like, “I don’t know about having to rework a song from it,” because it’s so just astonishing, it’s so great. It’s beyond magical when you sit there [and watch it]. People were telling me it’s [based on] history, and there’s rap, and I was like, “This sounds super odd.” And then you go see it and you’re like, “Wow. That’s what everybody’s talking about.”
But because I was pregnant with my son, I felt the depth of that song like no other. And it came through I think as a powerful performance because of that. I hate singing it live. Not that it’s hard to sing, it’s just hard emotionally to sing. And it was interesting to rework a song that’s sang with three people in the musical and making it a solo.
Last time we spoke with you, we discussed if you’d ever do Broadway…
Yeah, it’s not an “if,” it’s a “when.” I absolutely love it. I love it so much that I really want the right character. I’m by no means saying I’m some amazing actress, so I’d like something that I feel like was in my wheelhouse already that I could really nail. I think you should know your strengths.
Of course, that would require you moving to New York for a while.
Yeah, that’s the catch too. See, I married a cowboy, and he’s not too keen on living in New York. But I could probably convince him to do it long enough for me to do theater. There are ways that women have.
You’ve been teasing your next album a bit; what can you tell me about it?
I’ve always wanted to make more of an R&B, soulful pop record, and that’s what I’m doing now with Atlantic Records. It’s taken 15 years, but I’m doing it.
Will you have any collaborations?
Yeah, I’m excited to possibly have one or two collaborations, just things that people don’t expect. I’ve been in the business for years now, and everybody kind of knows what to expect when you get a Kelly Clarkson record. So they won’t with this one, and I like that. I like that it’s something different.
It’s very much a singer’s record, and it’s just more an R&B, soulful vibe. I think you just gotta change it up, because then it just gets stale and repetitive and monotonous, and then I’m onstage, and I’m like, “Blah, blah, blah.”
You had some well-publicized problems with your former label, RCA, and now you’re at Atlantic.
The team I ended with at RCA was spectacular. But that was the fourth or fifth team that I’d had, so it was kind of up and down. And also RCA didn’t pick me. American Idol, millions of people did [American Idol winners would automatically be signed to RCA at that time], but not the label. They got stuck with me in the beginning, and it just happened to work out well for them.
Atlantic Records was the first label I signed with where I had people wanting to work with me, and I wanted to work with them. It was like the first date I’d ever been on, musically speaking. And it was exciting, and that’s why I feel like a brand new artist.
Everybody is excited, because in the beginning, people weren’t. Nobody knew what Idol was; it was the first one. They weren’t super stoked to work with me, because they thought it’d be like, oh, we might get one single and make some money. Nobody knew, so in their defense, they didn’t pick me, and I didn’t get to pick them.
It was a very successful arranged marriage. But it was battle after battle. And by the time I got to this last team at RCA, who I actually loved, I was just worn out. I was like, I just wanna start fresh with a team that I picked that is excited about me and wants to make this specific record with me and doesn’t mind if I wanna do something country either; they’re into it.
I remember you actually argued with Clive Davis in the press.
Oh, he hates me. It’s no secret. And he told me, “You’re the next Whitney Houston.” I was like, “Hmm… no, I’m not.”
I love Whitney Houston. I’m not even gonna aim for that. I’m just saying, I’m just not her. There’s so many more elements to me, I just don’t think he knew me very well. I know he didn’t. He saw me like five times total when we worked together. That’s not a lot of investment.
So tell me about the next album.
We’re making my best record, according to my friends and mother. My mother was literally like, “finally” after she heard some of the songs, because she likes the bluesy, soulful side of me, because that’s what I grew up singing, whether that was pop, soul, or gospel or whatever. So my mother said, after I played her six songs from this new album, she was like, “finally.”
I was like, “Okay, well. I mean the last 15 years wasn’t too shabby.” But she was like, “No, no, no, it’s good, it’s just not you. This is really you, like from childhood.” I used to sing this in the shower.
Millions of albums and tickets sold, and finally you’ve managed to impress your mom!
Yeah. It takes a lot to impress my mother. But I think that’s honestly, it’s why I’m so successful, because she did raise me to be super independent. She was pretty hard, but I think she’s like every teacher, or the good ones. She’s a teacher, so I think all my favorite teachers were the ones that pushed me and never let me settle for less than they knew I could do. And she’s wears an apple vest, with numbers on it, like a lot of teachers.
Who are you working with on the new album?
Some are the same collaborators from before, but also some new ones. Monarch is new, Audra Mae is a great writer I’ve been writing with. Nick Ruth, Greg Kurstin, Jesse Shatkin, Jason Albert again.
But the hardest thing has been when you have a career of hits, so people are like “This is what’s successful with her.” They all wanna write those kind of songs. So it was hard in the beginning to switch gears with everyone and go, “This is amazing, but that’s not what we’re doing this time.”
And also for me as a writer as well, I’ve kinda had to prioritize my time, because I have four kids, and then I had a book release and a new deal learning all the new people at Atlantic and all this kind of stuff, and now the Hamilton thing.
Have you written songs for the album?
I’ve only written a bit on the album. Atlantic was like, “Let’s get you writing things.” I’m like, “Honestly, I just wanna make sure I have a record that I wanna sing the crap out of, a record that not everybody could sing, a record that they’re like, ‘Damn, she sang on that record.’”
I don’t care who writes it; I don’t care if I write it. I’ve written some that aren’t on the album, but I don’t have to write them all. I just want something that I can really emote, and when I get offstage I’m exhausted because it was so amazing and fun and different. I think it’s time for something creatively different. So once we geared everybody that way, it’s shaping this amazing album.
So this is like a classic R&B album, with horns and stuff?
Yeah, there’s horns… it’s like a fresh, urban take on ’90s R&B pop. I’m not doing an Amy Winehouse record, by any means. It’s not gonna sound like Etta James or anything, though I love her. It’s gonna be definitely fresh and more contemporary, but it’s got these influences and elements from my love of Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston and En Vogue and TLC and Prince. There’s one that’s kind of a little Tina Turner.
You referenced Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and En Vogue in your tweets recently, referring to the new album…
Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) November 27, 2016
....meets #envogue 😜🎉🎉🎉—
Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) November 27, 2016
I did. It’s like all these elements, it’s all those people. And that’s the thing, I’ve worked with people that have wanted me to make Whitney records or Celine records or whatever. “Oh, you’re like a new Pat Benatar.”
And I’m like, I don’t have to be one of those. I like all of them. I love rock elements in things; I love R&B. I think even when you merge country and blues, we have a song on the record that’s like that, and it’s beautiful and sexy. And then we have some stuff that’s more like dance, hip hop, kind of R&B. I’m trying to think of different songs and what their elements are.
But it’s just kind of all over the place, but yet cohesive, because I think what I naturally gravitate towards will all end up being cohesive, because that’s what I’m into. But it’s so good. I’m just excited for everybody to hear it, but I just have to wait until May at least.
How far along are you?
We’re not done, but we have a pretty solid three-fourths of it done. Yeah, we have a good portion of it done.
Are you doing any covers on the album?
No. You know what, people want me to do a cover, because I’m known for covering songs. But I think there’s so much pressure on that. So it would have to be the perfect song to do that with. I cover songs the last Friday of every month right now on Facebook Live, so it’s like it’s not that special. So I would definitely want it to be something spectacular if we were gonna do it [on the album].
Will you do another country album, or is that off the table for now?
I never wanna take anything off the table. Especially when people are like, “Oh, I thought you’d make a country album by now.” Well, it’s not that I don’t wanna make a country album, but if I’m gonna make one, it’s gotta be at the right time. And you know what? I was thinking of doing that one for this first release, and then I just naturally started gravitating towards all the R&B, bluesy stuff, the vibe that was what I was feeling.
And if you do a country project, you really have to do it; you definitely have to do a lot of things that the country industry wants you to do for it to get any traction.
I married into the country music industry with my husband. They’re welcoming, but they definitely want you to play their shows. Like when I did the duet with Jason [Aldean], or even with Reba [McEntire], or I had a single out, and they want you to come to their stuff. But what’s great about me is, I love coming to play. So I don’t ever mind doing interviews. I love talking; obviously, I never shut up, and I love singing. So I don’t really mind it.
And the fun thing for me too is whenever I go and do something in country music, it’s fun because it’s fresh. It’s new people. It’s nice; it’s a change of pace.
Culturally, do you feel more comfortable in country or pop?
I will say my personality is way more a country artist, like I get along way more with country artists than I do pop. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived in Nashville for a decade, and I’m from Texas, and I’m just kind of low key. But I also think it’s, just because I’m not — and I think everyone would agree — I’m not like your normal pop star. I’ve never been, which a lot of people have not liked, and a lot of others have.
I think that’s why I like to float to different worlds and do different things. I had John Legend, we did a song on my last album. It was awesome; I love his soulful voice. It was nice to have that on a record and then sing with Jason Aldean on something before, and even this Hamilton project. I like being in different places, because I think things get stale and boring if you don’t. It’s like an actor. You don’t wanna do the same role over and over.
I wanted to ask you about Maren Morris, because she co-wrote “Second Wind,” a Piece By Piece bonus track, and she later released it on her album Hero.
I don’t know Maren that well. She is friends with, and writes a lot with Shane McAnally, who I do know very well, So, he sent me that song, and I was like, “Who’d you write that with? Who’s singing on the demo? Who is this?” And I was like, “This song is dope! I’ll do this song.”
And she hadn’t cut it at that point. Which I’m glad she cut it; it’s a great song. She can sing her butt off, and being a woman in country music it’s hard to get played, comparatively speaking with men. I don’t exactly know why that is, because I’m not in country music hardcore like all those girls are.
I feel like that’s changing a bit; it seems like there’s a lot of great female country singers getting traction these days.
There’s Carrie [Underwood} and Miranda [Lambert] and Maren and Kelsea Ballerini and Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves. There’s a lot of girls out there. I just don’t think they get as much radio play as a lot of the guys. But honestly, that’s just what I’ve heard. I don’t experience that, obviously, because I’m not a country artist on the regular. I’m just the girl who shows up and like, “I’ll sing with you. I love singing.”
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, it was all women. It was like Martina [McBride], Trisha [Yearwood], Faith [Hill], Reba, Patty Loveless, Jo Dee [Messina], there were so many women in country music when I was a kid. It is kind of odd to me. My children are growing up with just a generation of a ton of men. But there’s some good, good men in there.
One big difference between you and most country singers is that you seem comfortable talking about politics; you’ve said positive things about Ron Paul and Barack Obama; you’ve also had things to say about Trump.
I think it’s funny when you’re in the industry or you’re in the public eye. For instance, I went to go vote this year. And they have these signs, you’re not supposed to ask people who they’re voting for; you’re not supposed to talk or whatever.
But this girl in front of me, we’d had such a lovely conversation about kids, the whole time; we had to wait like two hours. Finally, right before I go in to vote, she’s like, “I have a question. I just have to ask. What do you think about celebrities being able to say who they’re gonna vote for?”
I said, “So, that’s a real question?” Then, I was like, “I am an American citizen, so when people ask me, and they always do, I will say who I’m voting for.”
I’m not trying to push my idea on someone, but if you don’t like my opinion, OK, cool, I’m curious why. Why are you not for this person? Maybe I don’t know something. Maybe you can teach me something, or maybe I could teach you something of why this person might be a good candidate for you.
I think it’s just become this angry thing, like, “How dare you!” And I’ll be like, “I don’t say negative things about people, I just say who I’m for, and I say it because I’m asked [in interviews].”
And she says, “I just think when artists come out and say ‘I’m for this person,’ it’s an unfair advantage.” Well, obviously not, because Hillary didn’t win. Obviously, there’s no advantage!
But I guess my point is I just find it silly that someone thinks just because I’m famous or in the public eye, my opinion doesn’t matter. I said, “You basically just turned around and asked me if my voice mattered.” Everyone’s voice matters; that’s the sound of freedom.
I think Mike Pence said that at Hamilton [when he was called out from the stage by the cast], and I was like, “That’s a perfect response.’ I’m not a supporter of him, but I thought it was a very well-put statement of “Hey, we’re all not gonna agree, but that’s where we live, and we’re lucky.”
I think a lot of these people that get so carried away on the internet, they’ve never even traveled to other countries. And it’s like okay, well, there are other opinions; there are other things out there. I can only vote based on my experience in life, and you vote on yours.
And everyone’s voice matters. No matter what your walk of life is, poor, rich, black, white, Mexican, whatever you are, it matters. We’re lucky that it matters.
The situation just killed me because it was like I thought we had so much in common, this girl and I in this line, and then right there at the end I was like, “Did you just ask me if my voice mattered?” And then she was like, “Well, I just think it’s unfair,” and I’m like, “Well then don’t follow people. I didn’t sign you up to follow me on Twitter. It was your choice.”
I don’t get irate about how other people vote. Most elections my husband and I are a house divided — this time we weren’t — so I’m used to having different opinions.
But I think that’s what’s great about a democracy is you get to talk about that. Why are you for this person? What are the policies that interest you with this person? Why don’t you like this person’s policies? I’d rather have an open discussion, open the floor for everybody to have a conversation about it than just be like juvenile teenagers stomping your feet like, “Well, I don’t like them because blah, blah, blah,” and it’s like a dumb reason. Or “I don’t like this person because this famous person likes him.”
And then this girl was like, “Oh, this one celebrity” —I won’t say the name, but she told me about a celebrity that went to a college and knocked on doors trying to get people to vote for Hillary Clinton. I was like, “Well I guess that’s just her right to do that.” And she was like, “Yeah, but then you’re getting all these college kids that don’t know any better.”
And I said, “Whoa. I’m gonna stop you right there. If they don’t know any better, that’s their own fault.” If you’re gonna vote for someone because your favorite singer votes for them, don’t vote. Because that’s a dumb reason to vote.”