New al­bum, sound suits Kelly Clark­son’s soul

Mean­ing of Life a de­par­ture for Amer­i­can Idol win­ner — one she’s been wait­ing for

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - NICK KREWEN SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

“Char­ac­ter, sass and at­ti­tude.”

Pow­er­house singer, Amer­i­can Idol alum and cur­rent The Voice judge Kelly Clark­son nails a de­scrip­tion of her new Mean­ing of Life al­bum, just re­leased, in just four words as she sits across her from her in­ter­viewer, re­splen­dent in a black dress.

While she might be suc­cinct with her sum­mary of her eighth al­bum, the 35-year-old Texas na­tive has been long in pa­tience, telling the Star dur­ing a re­cent Toronto visit that this 13-song ef­fort is the one she al­ways wanted to make.

But shouldn’t a su­per­star who has topped the charts with such hits as “Since U Been Gone,” “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” “My Life Would Suck With­out You” and “A Mo­ment Like This” — sell­ing more than 24 mil­lion al­bums and 36 mil­lion sin­gles in the wake of three Grammy Awards — be enough of a proven com­mod­ity that she’d be able to dic­tate the terms of her out­put?

“Well, I just got out of my Idol con­tract,” Clark­son ad­mits, cit­ing a 15year re­la­tion­ship with RCA Records due to win­ning the re­al­ity TV mu­sic show’s very first sea­son.

“It was an ar­ranged mar­riage — and a very suc­cess­ful one — but I ful­filled a par­tic­u­lar lane for that la­bel. Luck­ily, it wasn’t that I hated my life. I like pop/rock and I like a lot of gen­res, but I sang soul­ful pop on Idol the en­tire time, so I don’t think ( Mean­ing) is go­ing to be a shock for my fans.”

That par­tic­u­lar RCA lane didn’t in­clude what At­lantic Records saw in her when she started the search for a new la­bel home.

“When­ever I went to meet­ings with At­lantic and asked them what they wanted to do with me, they were like, ‘Man, we’d love to make an al­bum like if Aretha (Franklin) were com­ing out now in 2017, what would that sound like?’ “And I asked, ‘Where do I sign?’ ” Clark­son then played them the song “Mean­ing of Life,” a gospeltinged, rafter-boom­ing soul an­them co-writ­ten by Jesse Shatkin (Sia’s “Chan­de­lier”) and U.K. artist James Morrison that she had been hold­ing for con­sid­er­a­tion since her fi­nal RCA al­bum, 2015’s Piece by Piece — and was buoyed by At­lantic’s re­sponse.

‘They flipped out on it and said, ‘This is per­fect, be­cause it’s hard to switch gears with peo­ple that have heard you for 15 years singing ‘Be­cause of You,’ ‘Al­ready Gone’ and ‘Stronger,’ etc.’ It was a nice song to be able to set the bar for the al­bum.”

In terms of Kelly Clark­son al­bums, Mean­ing of Life is a bit more brazen, with barn-burn­ing soul­ful blasts like “Love So Soft,” “Whole Lotta Woman,” “Didn’t I” and “I Don’t Think About You” pro­vid­ing plenty of grit and sweat.

Which brings us to the over­all rea­son Clark­son — who per­forms at the Air Canada Cen­tre on Dec. 9 as part of the iHeartRa­dio Jin­gle Ball — was ea­ger to pro­duce an al­bum like Mean­ing of Life, re­leased last Fri­day.

“Re­ally, my goal was to show­case my vo­cals so peo­ple will stop telling me, ‘My God! I didn’t know you could sing!’ ” she laughs.

“That’s the en­tire rea­son I made this al­bum. Be­cause a lot of times I’d get mildly of­fended be­cause I’d per­form and peo­ple would be like, ‘Oh my God, you can sing!’ And I’d be like, ‘What?!’

“It was per­plex­ing me, but then I get it, be­cause when you sing a lot of pop/rock stuff it comes off al­most like jin­gles. A lot of artists can do that. So with this al­bum, I fo­cused on mak­ing an al­bum that maybe not ev­ery­one could sing, just the strength of my per­for­mance. Be­cause that’s my part in my art: I don’t re­ally fly or dance in con­cert . . . I love writ­ing, I love singing and I re­ally wanted this al­bum to sound solid.”

Ei­ther way, the mother of four (two by hus­band/man­ager Bran­don Black­stock and two from his pre­vi­ous mar­riage) views this new work as a fresh start.

“I know it’s funny but, 15 years later, I feel like a first-time artist,” she ad­mits. “It’s my first time to pick my la­bel; the first time to pick my en­tire team and like re­ally go for it. And it’s awe­some to be at that point in your ca­reer where if it does well, awe­some, and if it doesn’t, still awe­some. I’ve been dy­ing to make this for so long that I don’t care ei­ther way. I’m just very happy.”

On the hori­zon for Clark­son, be­side a world tour to sup­port the new al­bum, is a spring 2018 ap­pear­ance as a coach on The Voice, one of the myr­iad re­al­ity TV mu­sic com­pe­ti­tion shows that seem to be in vogue at the mo­ment.

Clark­son, of course, is the orig­i­nal win­ner of Amer­i­can Idol, which ended its Fox Net­work run in 2016 only to be res­ur­rected by ABC for 2018. The Nashville res­i­dent says she was ap­proached to be a judge for the new show, but had al­ready com­mit­ted to The Voice.

“I’m like, well, if I have to choose be­tween my hus­band, who man­ages Blake Shel­ton and has to leave us, and our fam­ily can all be in the same place, I’m ob­vi­ously go­ing to choose that,” Clark­son ex­plains. “Hon­estly, I’ve given 15 years of my life to Idol; I’ve gone back every sea­son pretty much and I’m so proud of my start, but I’m also pretty ex­cited about sit­ting in a chair and not see­ing or wor­ry­ing about the es­thetic ap­peal of some­one and just lis­ten­ing.

“Be­cause I love mu­sic. I grew up with­out MTV. I loved artists be­cause I lis­tened to them, which is what I feel like mu­sic should be.”

With the re­al­ity TV mu­sic scene seem­ingly heat­ing up again — be­sides Voice and Idol, CTV is pre­par­ing its own pro­gram The Launch and NBC has green-lighted another one called The Stream — is there a chance all th­ese pro­grams may suf­fer from au­di­ence fa­tigue?

“Well, when are y’all go­ing to stop watch­ing them?” she re­torts. “And the other ques­tion is, why aren’t peo­ple more fa­mous from them? And that’s be­cause there’s a frickin’ plethora of them now.”

Clark­son agrees that mu­sic is of­ten the last con­cern with view­ers.

“I’m go­ing to be hon­est with you right now: I am 99 per cent of the time told that it wasn’t even my singing that drew them to me. Peo­ple are like, ‘Oh, I loved your per­son­al­ity.’ It wasn’t al­ways about the singing, it’s about the sell­ing. But if you think about it, that’s also what hap­pens in the in­dus­try. That’s why some peo­ple make it and some peo­ple don’t, be­cause peo­ple grav­i­tate to­ward them as a per­son as well. Like coun­try mu­sic, for in­stance, the whole genre is based on life­style.

“I will say you’re lucky when you get to do it the way I did, be­cause you have all this lever­age. You have all th­ese mil­lions of peo­ple that al­ready like you, though it’s like, what are you go­ing to put out? They’re ex­cited, they want some­thing. A new artist doesn’t have that. They don’t even know you. You have to work for ev­ery­thing.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be a dif­fer­ent door and it’s which­ever door comes in front of you.”

“I know it’s funny but, 15 years later, I feel like a first-time artist.” KELLY CLARK­SON ON PICK­ING HER OWN LA­BEL AF­TER BE­ING WITH RCA RECORDS

KYLE DEAN REINFORD/NEW YORK TIMES

For the first time in 15 years, singer Kelly Clark­son feels as if she is driv­ing her own ca­reer, and has made an al­bum rooted in her favourite sound: soul.

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