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.”
|Kelly Clarkson performs at WE Day in Toronto.
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?”
“That first single for me was a very damaging time for my psyche…It was like, wow. So people just lie.”
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.”
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Clarkson’s Power of Women L.A. cover shoot.