It’s been over 15 years since Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural season of American Idol, and 14 since her first UK hit, Miss Independent, a song she says she still loves singing today.
You could count the number of performers from TV singing contests who’ve achieved similar levels of success on one hand: Carrie Underwood, One Direction, Little Mix, Jennifer Hudson, Will Young. At the end of October, Clarkson released her eighth album, The Meaning of Life, the first as part of a new, major label record deal. So why does she think her career has endured?
“Well, not to negate Will [Young]’s or my own talent, but I think a lot has to do with us being the originals of something. We weren’t compared to other people because we were the first ones [to win those shows]. And I do think, too, because I have met Will a couple of times, that we’re both really strong in our character and know what we want and what we do and don’t like. I think we both base our decisions on what we love musically, and not necessarily the financial end.
“A lot of people that I know in the business – and some of them have been on American Idol – they kind of do whatever it takes to get famous. I just don’t think that should be the end game. But I do think a lot of my success has been to do with the stars aligning. It’s taken hard work but a lot of it is timing, too.”
In person, Clarkson is pretty much exactly as you’d expect: honest, open, comfortable and funny. I meet her at a London hotel that’s gloomily stylish, but she lightens up her room’s dusky decor by resting her chin on a sofa arm and striking some cheesy photo shoot poses for a laugh. But when I ask a weightier question, she straightens up and takes it seriously. Back in June, Clarkson wrote a ‘Gay Pride Month Love Letter’ for US music publication Billboard, so I ask when she first noticed a connection with the LGBTQ community.
“Oh, right at the start,” she replies brightly. “I grew up in the South, and when I was a kid, kids would get their asses kicked [for being gay]. It was insane. Like, a couple of my guy friends growing up were gay and I didn’t know because they didn’t even confide in me. When I was asked to write that Gay Pride Month Love Letter, I was like, ‘I think I’m going to say I’ll be thankful for the day when people like me don’t have to be thanked for being an ally.’ Because, don’t you think it’s a weird thing for me to be thanked for? Just for being decent, for being a normal, reasonable human being?
“When I look back at those guys I grew up with, I just think, ‘Wow, how incredibly sad that they couldn’t be themselves, that they had to pretend to have girlfriends.’ I just look forward to the day when we don’t have to write love letters to any minority groups in society. Where it’s equal everywhere. It’s 2017, we should be evolved and progressive enough to be past this. But we’re not! Because half of my country thinks differently to the way I do!”
What does she do if she meets someone who says something homophobic, or transphobic, or racist? “Well, I don’t think it’s a secret that I definitely say something. Not in a rude way – but I go, ‘Umm, no, maybe you didn’t mean that.’ I take it as an opportunity to say to those people: ‘What you just said about someone – let’s put your daughter in those shoes.’ I think sometimes you have to steer people towards something that has a direct impact to them. I know you shouldn’t have to, but it can help people understand when they’re saying something offensive.”
Clarkson married husband Brandon, a talent manager, back in 2013, and they now have two children together: a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. She’s also stepmother to two children from Brandon’s previous marriage. So now she balances work commitments with a busy family life – her baby daughter actually came on 2015’s Piece by Piece Tour with her.
“She’s hilarious, because she doesn’t think there are any other singers besides me,” Clarkson says with a smile. “I was listening to the radio the other day, and some other artist was playing, and she was like, ‘Who is this?’ I was like, ‘Oh, it’s so-and-so. They’re a singer like mommy.’ She was like, ‘But why?’ She was just so bothered by it! I just think she’s fascinated by what I do. It’s awesome for me that she finds me captivating, there’s nothing more a mother could want.”
Clarkson also chats passionately about her new album, The Meaning of Life, which took shape after she and her label tried to create a modern take on Aretha Franklin’s classic style.
“What would that soulful pop sound of Think and Respect be in 2017? What would that sound like nowadays? That was our goal right off the bat,” she explains. For a taster, check out the slinky Motown inflections of lead single Love So Soft and a stomping female empowerment song called Whole Lotta Woman, on which Clarkson sings: “I ain’t no girl, I’m a boss with orders.” Vocally, she’s sounding as fantastic as ever. She’s always been a technically accomplished singer, but her greatest gift is sincerity: when Kelly Clarkson sings something, you believe it.
“I love being a songwriter as well as a singer,” she says today, “but there’s nothing better, whether I wrote the song or not, than being the vessel for something that might reach someone. I know that sounds cheesy! But hearing people’s stories of how they connected emotionally with Piece by Piece or Because of You, that’s an incredible thing for me.” Clarkson also says 15 years of navigating the music industry’s peaks and pitfalls have toughened her up.
“The thing I feel I’ve vastly improved on is letting go,” she explains. “When it came to my vocals, I always used to try and make it absolutely perfect. With my albums, 15 years of compromising – on what songs would make the albums – that’s going to wear you down. I learned to say: ‘Maybe this isn’t my favourite song in the world, but maybe it’s going to do something for somebody else and I’m going to be proud of that. So I’m going to do my best at performing it.’
“But I think this is true of everyone, whatever they do in life. At some point you get old enough to realise that things don’t have to perfect. Obviously you wanna strive to be great. But sometimes you have an awesome day, and sometimes you have a shit day. You just learn to worry less.”
Kelly Clarkson’s new album The Meaning of Life is out now.