NASHVILLE — At the “Music’s Leading Ladies Speak Out” presentation at the Music Biz conference on Tuesday, Atlantic Records co-chairman/COO Julie Greenwald told a story that more than lived up to the event’s name. She was speaking of the first time she heard the forthcoming new album — and Atlantic debut — from Kelly Clarkson.
“I put the record on and it was like she kicked through the door,” Greenwald said in a Q&A session with Clarkson moderated by NPR’s Ann Powers. “I say to people all the time: I run a record company, I could eat you, that’s part of my rep. And we all know Kelly has this big voice. But these songs have so much attitude. She’s not walking through the door, she’s kicking it the f— open.”
She may have been talking about an album, but Greenwald set the theme for the presentation — which also featured an introduction from Nielsen Music SVP Erin Crawford and a panel with CMT senior vice president Leslie Fram, Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern, Red Light artist manager Tracy Gershon and Cosynd CEO/Women in Music president Jessica Sobhraj — offering insights on how to bring more women into the industry as artists and professionals.
“It’s got a lot of sass — like I might beat you up with my sound,” Clarkson said of her still-untitled album, which she says is a mixture of “urban, pop, soulful R&B” and is due later in the year. “My backup singers who’ve worked with me for years said ‘It’s the first time you’ve done a record that’s, like, full-on your personality.’”
For an artist who began her career by topping a favored Justin Guarini in the first season of “American Idol,” sparred publicly with music industry titan Clive Davis and is known for empowering songs like “Stronger” and “Since U Been Gone,” that’s saying something.
“I’ve always been a confident person, I think that’s just being Texan,” Clarkson said. “But I think being a mom has brought another level of confidence, because basically the things a mom does daily — without adding a job — is pretty insane. We’re gladiators, basically.”
Finding that elusive work/life balance that also allows an artist or professional to chase her passion was a key topic during the two-hour discussion.
Greenwald explained how she rose through the ranks under the tutelage of Lyor Cohen, with whom she worked at Rush Management, Def Jam Records and Atlantic. She said she was often the only woman in the room and found ways to engineer greater acceptance for herself in the highest levels of the industry. She believes in building an environment that fosters risk-taking and free-form ideas, things that helped her and Cohen innovate on the frontlines of hip-hop in the early 1990s.
“Lyor was incredible,” she said. “He allowed me to be fearless. He encouraged me every day to take risks, and I take everything that I learned from him and share that with everybody that I mentor,” Greenwald said. “But one thing I did change is he really didn’t let me take maternity leave with either of my kids. There were just certain things like that where if I’d had a woman boss, maybe she would say, ‘You could at least take a week off.’”
She fights that syndrome now, trying to help her employees avoid the familiar traps she fell into.
“I really only see my children in the morning and then on the weekend,” Greenwald said. “So I really try to make sure the other women who work for me know, ‘Hey, listen, you have an iPhone, you have a laptop, it’s okay. Don’t miss certain events, because you’re not going to get them back. I try to teach a lot of my young ones to learn from my mistakes. That new-baby smell goes away and they become smelly!”
She said she admires Clarkson’s fierce protection of family time — the singer has a blended family of four children with husband and Nashville manager Brandon Blackstock — or at least including them in her life.
“She protects her family,” Greenwald said. “‘I’m going to work, I’m going to kick ass, but I’m going to protect my time for my family. As a woman, I respect that so much.”
The panelists stressed the importance of networking, building relationship and supporting other women to the scores of young female professionals and students in the several-hundred-strong crowd.
“Find the people that are your people,” Trahern said. “Tracy and I have been walking in the park on the weekends for many years. We may only get to do it a few times a year, but you can cut to the chase even if you don’t see each other often. We all grew up in this generation together. You find those people in your group and you’re going to grow together.”
And everyone agreed passion was the most important hallmark they look for when mentoring and placing potential employees.
“You’ve just got to roll your sleeves up and do it,” Sobrahj said. “Nothing pisses me off more than having an intern or an assistant who says, ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to draft those tweets. I’m not going to get that coffee.’ I’m the CEO of my company and I’ll go get anybody a cup of coffee. I don’t care — because if you’re not going to roll your sleeves up and dive in, then why are you doing it?”
Gershon told a story that vividly illustrated Sobrahj’s point and demonstrated the lengths to which she’ll go to help a client — in this case rockabilly singer/guitarist Rosie Flores.
“She needed $1,500 to go into the studio,” Gershon said. “I said, ‘I know — I’ll [get the money by] going on a game show.’ I dressed up in the dumbest outfit and frosted my hair and jumped up and down like a wild goose and told them I was a senior aerobics instructor — and yes, I got on that show. It was called ‘Hot Streak.’ I won $1,600 and luggage, and literally that’s how we got Rosie in the studio. And basically, [the resulting recordings] won her a deal with Warner Bros.”
(Pictured from left: Ann Powers, Julie Greenwald, Leslie Fram, Tracy Gershon, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Sobhraj, Sarah Trahern, Erin Crawford.)