True to form, Kelly Clarkson minced no words in a phone call the other day from her home in Nashville.
But rather than handing it to some no-good guy – as she’s done in brutally frank hit singles like Since U Been Gone and Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) – Clarkson was describing the stability she’s found with her husband, whom she married in 2013, and their 8-month-old daughter.
“I’ve never been this happy or felt this loved in my life,” said the singer, 32, in her matter-of-fact way. “I’m in a really, really great place.”
You can hear that fulfillment on Clarkson’s new album, Piece by Piece, which came out two weeks ago and immediately shot to the top of the iTunes chart.
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“Where the hell did you come from?” she wonders in the record’s upbeat opener, Heartbeat Song, “You’re a different kind of fun / And I’m so used to feeling numb.” Later, in the stately title track, she sings about finally overcoming the fear of abandonment she received from her father.
Yet Piece by Piece, Clarkson’s seventh studio disc since she won the first season of American Idol in 2002, also has echoes of old recriminations, as in “Someone,” where she apologizes with an audible smirk for saying “things I wish I didn’t really mean.” (For a review of Piece by Piece, go here.)
And it similarly mixes musical styles, putting airy pop songs next to throbbing dance-rock jams and ballads such as Tightrope, an elegy for two out-of-synch lovers.
“No human being on this planet is ever feeling just one emotion or going through just one experience,” she said. “That’s kind of a silly idea.”
It also presumes that being happy somehow prevents you from using your memory or your imagination.
Right. Take a song from the record like Invincible. I’m not experiencing that specific emotion at this point in my life. But have I at previous points in my life? Hell, yes! I can definitely relate to that song – having to make your way by yourself without a lot of help and feeling like you have to find the power within you to accomplish that. I’ve been there before.
But to sing the song now complicates this simplistic image of the gratified wife and mom.
You can’t control that. Before this, it was Kelly Clarkson the man-hater. I’ve never been a man-hater! But people like a headline. And with me and my career, there’s never really been a ton of drama – I haven’t gone to rehab, and I haven’t gotten in fights in public – so I think people have a hard time figuring out where to put me.
That’s true musically too. Your new album closes with ‘Good Goes the Bye’ which was co-written by two of Nashville’s best songwriters, Natalie Hemby and Shane McAnally. But it’s not a country song.
We changed it. I’m a huge fan of Natalie and Shane; I have a few of both of their songs recorded for a country album I’m working on right now. And the demo we got was obviously more geared for country. But my producer, Jason Halbert, and I were like, ‘Man, this feels like it could be this ‘80s Eurythmics beat.’ The great thing about people like Shane and Natalie is that they just write classic melodies and clever lyrics. So it really can float though any genre.
Kind of like you do.
It’s just about wherever the song will shine brightest. Good Goes the Bye was a good country song, but it’s a great pop song.
It’s easy to draw that conclusion once a song is finished. Going in, though, the possibilities are so vast. How do you know what it’s supposed to be?
The emotion in the song lets you know where it should sit. But it’s funny – I mean, it’s all perception. Jason, he knows me so well musically and I know him so well – he’s been my musical director for 13 years – but we’re so opposite. I'll sing something to him and he'll be like, ‘Oh, OK, so it’s a big band thing.’ And I’m like, ‘What? That was soulful R&B.’ I remember when Since U Been Gone came out and everybody said it was this indie-rock song. But to me it was straight-up pop.
It definitely had an indie-rock guitar sound.
But I don’t think of it that way. That’s not how I perceive it. And that’s what’s cool about music. Even Because of You, it’s very much a country waltz. But it’s also this big pop ballad that people got used to from hearing it that way. But then when I recut it with Reba (McEntire), it fit very nicely. Certain songs, it doesn’t matter the genre. Think about Make You Feel My Love. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Adele to Trisha Yearwood has cut that song. Some melodies are so classic-sounding that they’re able to translate.
Part of your ability as an artist is identifying those songs. How have you honed that skill?
Gosh, I’ve been doing that since Idol, you know what I mean? That’s one of the reasons I ended up making it to the end. Even though you might like a song, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to shine or translate or be as broad as you’re wanting it to be. So on Idol I picked songs that I felt would stand out and would be big songs.
And you’re still doing that?
Here’s the thing: In our industry you have people that excel at dancing; you have people that excel at singing; you have people that excel at being musicians and songwriters. Everyone has their little area – unless you’re Beyonce, and then you excel at everything. Other than her, you find your niche, and mine is singing. So every time I do something, I need to make sure – just like every week on that show – that I do something even better to stick around. That’s kind of how I look at my career. You have to stand out, almost in a strategic way.
If the voice ever gives out, you might have a future as a record executive.
I always tell my friends I’d be really good at A&R. With other artists, I’m like, ‘I wish they would’ve cut this song!’ I can hear it in my head. I just love songs. I love storytelling. I love everything about it. I don’t know necessarily how or why I make the decisions I do. But I guess they’ve worked.