Kelly Clarkson is her own woman

Kelly Clarkson
Kelly ClarksonPHOTO: NYTIMES

HENDERSONVILLE (Tennessee) • 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.

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, 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 pop star Pink ("If I did want to like a girl, it would be her").

In a corner, members of Clarkson's label team were not cringing - they were grinning and applauding.

"Kelly doesn't try to be anything she isn't," Ms Julie Greenwald, chairman of Clarkson's record label, Atlantic, said later.

There are pop stars with no filter, and then there is Clarkson.

I'm not that person that feels you need to date a lot - if you find someone you love, go with it.

KELLY CLARKSON on deciding to work with her record label boss Julie Greenwald after only one meeting

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.

But perhaps more remarkable, Clarkson, 35, has remained a major pop player without checking the usual pop-star boxes.

She is not an enigmatic, larger-than-life figure like Beyonce, or a social-media chess master like Taylor Swift. Like Adele, she is known for her tremendous voice and her fearlessness when it comes to speaking her mind.

"I don't want to be trained to talk," Clarkson said in an 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 next year.

She is hoping Meaning Of Life, out on Oct 27, speaks loudly too.

After finishing her RCA Records 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 favour of the soul that has captivated her since her youth in Texas, she is asking her audience to leap with her into more mature and nuanced sonic territory.

The album's first single, Love So Soft, sets the tone - it is 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 dive is present.

The centrepiece of Meaning Of Life is a feisty throwdown called Whole Lotta Woman, which alludes to the size of Clarkson's waistline, her attitude, her self-worth and her mouth using references to Southern cooking.

She said its inspiration came from the challenges of being a financially secure woman looking for a man after internalising the paradoxes of growing up in the South, where women are told: "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."

She said she appreciated the hard work that went into her career at RCA. But she knew almost immediately that it was not 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-publicised disagreement with Clive Davis, then the head of the RCA Music Group, over the direction of her 2007 album, My December.

She compromised repeatedly, she said, but pushed back when she needed to and stands behind her work.

While on vacation in Ireland years before her contract was up, she made a connection with John Esposito, head of Warner Music Nashville, and was struck by his passion when he sang Bruce Springsteen songs at a group dinner.

When she was ready to make a move, Esposito, who works with musician Blake Shelton - one of her husband's management clients - suggested she meet Greenwald and Craig Kallman, who run Atlantic, home of singers Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars.

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," 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 (them) on one hand."

Showcasing that voice in its full glory was one of Clarkson's primary objectives for Meaning Of Life.

She said: "I wanted to make a record that I could really sing the (expletive) out of."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Kelly Clarkson is her own woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe