Kelly Clarkson gets Stronger: the Beatweek cover story interview
October 24, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
“I wanted something soulful, raw, emotional,” she says of her fifth album, “and that is exactly what we ended up with.” Kelly Clarkson has reason to be pleased. About a year after its originally targeted release date, Stronger finally drops today. She’s genuinely enjoying delivering the new songs from it, as evidenced by her energized performance at the tiny Troubadour earlier this month. The album contains some of her strongest material to date – and it’s allowed her to get across precisely the message she wants.
That’s no more evident than with the quasi-title track What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger), which hasn’t been released as a single yet but it’ll be the most popular song from the album once it is. “I didn’t plan for the album to be all about strength and overcoming the hurdles that life can throw at you,” she says, ”But that’s what ended up coming out of me.”
Meanwhile fans have been left to feast on the unorthodox lead single Mr. Know It All, a mid tempo affair which goes long stretches in which she’s singing on top of nothing but percussion and piano. So why did she pick the song to go out the door first? “It sounds really different than all of my other singles,” she admits. “It’s led by vocals and it has this very raw feel to it that wasn’t planned, but ended up being why I liked it.”
Lest anyone get the impression that the song is yet another fabled Kelly Clarkson breakup story, the accompanying music video paints a different picture as to what the tune is about. She performs in front of a wall plastered with negative headlines about herself ranging from her weight to the fact that she’s not yet married. “The song is a message to every person out there that has come in contact with ignorant people like the Mr. Know It All in the song. Unfortunately, we have all had one or two people that have crossed our paths under the assumption they know everything, have done everything, and project this ‘smarter than everybody else’ vibe.”
A decade removed from being the twenty year old who won American Idol and then began striking pop gold with her debut album Thankful, Kelly is taking the Mr. Know It All theme to heart. “I’ve learned to never take advice from someone you wouldn’t want to switch places with,” she says of what she’s learned between then and now. ”Life is about growing, learning, and experiencing the good and bad days. Music is what gets me through all of it.”
On stage at the Troubadour, Kelly performs What Doesn’t Kill You for the very first time. Ever the crowd pleaser, she prefaces it with “Hope you like it” before jokingly adding “If not, feel free to lie to me, I’m perfectly fine with that.” The real tour doesn’t begin until January; tonight is merely a warmup, a free show for fans who were willing to willing to line up early enough. On their way in the door, attendees get to vote on which song they most wanted to hear added to the setlist that night. The fans end up choosing Sober from Kelly’s third album My December, and she’s clearly happy about it. It’s the one album her label didn’t want her to release, the darker one without the radio sheen of her first, second, or fourth.
In contrast to all of her previous efforts, this new fifth album manages to deliver the best of both worlds.There are probably four radio hits here, including Dark Side which is a far more upbeat number than its title suggests. But the material diverges from radio pop in places as well. She points to Honestly and You Love Me as being two of her favorites. “They are both tragic situations that really paint a picture sonically of heartbreak and pain. We all experience pain and heartbreak but we don’t always necessarily share it and I think that sharing it and talking about it is what helps you overcome it and move on.”
There’s also the country influence which has always been just under the surface with her music but surfaces more prominently this time around, as best evidenced by her duet Don’t You Wanna Stay with country singer Jason Aldean. “Although I am not a country singer,” the native Texan explains, “I am very much a country songwriter. I love telling stories through songs and writing about real life situations. A lot of my writing influence is from country music. Songs like Cry, Because Of You, and other songs from previous records, are written very much like a country song is. The only difference is I have a very pop style of singing. There is definitely some country influence on this record especially with Breaking Your Own Heart and The Sun Will Rise.”
She’s not interested in merely sneaking the country influence in on the album-only tracks, either. As she points out, “Even the first single Mr. Know It All has this country sass to it.” Fittingly enough, the upper balcony at her Troubadour show is occupied by country music royalty including Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton, even as Kelly launches into a live cover of a Carrie Underwood song.
Clarkson and Underwood are two of the relatively few former American Idol contestants who’ve gone on to have such big careers that they’ve almost fully escaped Idol’s shadow. And yet two of the judges from back in the day are now playing for a different team. Does Kelly plan to tune in to see Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on X Factor? “I’m gonna miss the whole show because I’m currently traveling all over the world promoting my single and record. But I will record it on my DVR and watch it when I get home,” she says. Then she adds, as if to ensure diplomacy, “I love to be entertained by all of those shows.”
Having initially found fame by performing live on television, it’s been pointed out more than once that Kelly has never released an official live album. That finally changes now, sort of, with the bundling of a live-studio acoustic EP with Stronger. “I love the intimacy that the Smoakstack Sessions brings out of me and my band,” she says of the six song affair which includes performances of four songs from Stronger and a Bonnie Raitt cover. “We love performing, and I think it’s great to be able to bring a ‘live’ element to recording and directly to your fans. Fans have been asking me to put out a live record for years so this is our tease EP until we release a live tour album.”
Late in her Troubadour show, Kelly Clarkson tells the audience “I’ve just got to get this out” before bleating out a high pitched “Whoooo!” the likes of which can’t be faked. She clearly likes Stronger. Even with album sales in the millions and too many radio hits over the years to keep track of, she defines success differently. “Music is one of the most powerful tools in the world. If I can promote empowerment and strength through song, then that is success in itself.”