Kelly Clarkson is in a car on the way to a video shoot, speeding through New York as the summer wanes, picking out billboards and other sights. "I'm looking at a freakin' ship right now," exclaims Clarkson as her car passes the permanently docked ship that houses the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. "This scenery is crazy – fighter jets, what?"
Clarkson has a seemingly boundless energy to go with her rich, octave-leaping voice, and that combination has made her one of pop's most compelling live draws – her concerts feature hits from her wide-ranging catalog like the slinky kiss-off "Walk Away" and the resilient "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," as well as covers that show off her breadth, borrowing from Prince and Rihanna as well as Paramore and Radiohead. (There's also a lot of fun banter.) Her eighth studio album, Meaning of Life is the first in Clarkson's catalog to have the electric atmosphere of her concerts – she's singing with renewed bravura on songs like the urgent lead single "Love So Soft" and the sultry "Didn't I"; arrangements on tracks like the manifesto-with-soul "Whole Lotta Woman" swing and bounce; and stray studio asides offer glimpses at her bubbly personality.
"It was essential – at least for me – to make a record that almost sounded like [my live show]," Clarkson tells Rolling Stone. "When people come see me live, we've brought horns out, we've got strings out. People don't come for the costume changes!"
Meaning of Life is Clarkson's first LP on Atlantic Records; her last record, 2015's Piece By Piece, closed out the contract with RCA Records she won after emerging victorious from the inaugural 2002 season of the imminently returning American Idol. Even though Clarkson, who's been living in Nashville for the past decade, has been a consistent pop presence since her Idol win, touring widely and releasing pop-radio staples, her tussles with her label over the years, which included clashes with executives like former RCA bigwig Clive Davis and pressure to work with producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, took a toll on the singer.
"I really almost quit like three times," she recalls. "I was just like, 'You know, there's a lot of sacrifice going on here, and not a lot of happiness.' That doesn't make it worth it as a human – forget being an artist or anything else."
But at Atlantic, Clarkson has found a home that, she says, understands her better both as a person and as an artist. Craig Kallman, Atlantic Records' CEO, helped steer Clarkson's new record – "instrumental," she says when asked to describe his input – while also allowing her to explore the soulful side of her voice that she displayed on Idol and in concert.
"It wasn't a test by any means, but I was curious [about his answer to the question]: 'If you were going to make a record with Kelly Clarkson, what would it sound like? What's your dream scenario?'" she says of an early meeting with Kallman and Atlantic COO Julie Greenwald. Kallman reached into Atlantic's storied archives for his answer: "He, right off the bat, referenced Aretha Franklin. He said, 'I like all your music, and obviously people love you. But I feel like no one's ever heard the record that maybe you could make soulfully.' He kept referencing Aretha – 'You know, she really had her dreams take off, and I feel like that's you. I really want to create that for you.'
"I was like, either he's a really good salesman and full of shit, or honest and the most amazing human to work with," she laughs. "It's the latter."
The title track, a showy ballad where Clarkson flaunts her impressive range, had been laying in wait since the Piece By Piece sessions, and it gave Clarkson the opportunity to signal her new direction to potential collaborators. "A lot of people kept sending 'Since U Been Gone 2.0,' and [songs that resembled earlier hits] 'Stronger' and 'My Life Would Suck Without You,'" she says. "I was like, 'I really need to guide people in the direction that we're going.' [Meaning of Life] doesn't really sound like anything on the radio."
Kallman, who's credited as the album's co-executive producer alongside Clarkson, also helped the album's feel stay consistent. "You always see people on albums [credited as] 'executive producer' and you're like, 'What does that mean?' But Craig, he showed me. He has worked probably harder than any producer, engineer, vocalist, writer on this album – it's a project he really was excited to work on, and you could tell. It was just such a blessing. Craig would push these producers that are so used to working with other executives – making [their songs] sound so radio-friendly, but tearing the spirit and soul out sometimes," Clarkson raves. "He would say, 'No, no, wait. We wanted you because we knew you were capable of this, so give us this.' He got Earth, Wind and Fire to play on ['Love So Soft'],, and 'Whole Lotta Woman.' It was amazing to work with a record executive that was gung ho about having that live, organic [feel]."
"Whole Lotta Woman" is one of the album's standout tracks, a fiery ode to being "too much" that features Earth, Wind & Fire's Verdine White on bass as well as the storied funk band's horn section. The music recalls classic soul anthems like "Respect" while also having the pop of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation-era output like "Black Cat." "I met ['Lotta' writers and producers Novawav, made up of Denisia 'Blu June' Andrews and Brittany 'Chi' Coney] in LA, and we had talked for, I don't know, an hour, or more, because I talk a lot," she laughs. "It was really fun to talk to them about how it took me awhile to fall in love because I am a whole lot of woman – I have a big personality, I'm a grown-ass woman that can pay her bills, and I make a lot of money. That's intimidating."
The conversation also encompassed the way women's looks get picked over by people in the industry. "One of my favorite singers on the planet, Aretha Franklin, isn't tiny. But she's boss, and when she walks onto the stage everyone stops breathing. We're marveling at her talent, [but] maybe some artists that we loved growing up would never make it today because of that dumb reason. Why we are afraid of it? People come in different packages, and they may not all be what you like, but man, don't they sound good?"
As a female pop star, Clarkson's appearance has been a topic of discussion among observers for years. "I never wanted to draw attention, "she says. "But for 15 years of my life, no matter if I'm really thin or really not, [weight was] always a talk of discussion. Even when I was on Idol, it was a discussion. I never really wanted to attract attention, because then you talk about it all the time, instead of [your] music. So it was fun to write a song that said, 'Yeah, you're right, I am a whole lot of woman, and it's ok. I came with a brain, and I came with drive and passion and sensuality, and these things that are awesome. If you can't handle it, that's totally cool, but you're not tall enough to ride this ride, then move along. It's fine.' We put a fun twist on it."
While producers and writers who have worked with Clarkson in the past, like Jesse Shatkin (Sia, Fitz and the Tantrums) and Greg Kurstin (Beck, Tegan and Sara), appear on the album, new collaborators, like the R&B singer-songwriter Harlœ (Britney Spears, MKTO), producer Nick Ruth (Nick Jonas, Carly Rae Jepsen) and producer Mick Schultz (Jeremih), invigorated the process. "Mick Schultz has this super-fresh take on Nineties music that I love," says Clarkson. "I was floored by him. He and [Harlœ, real name Jessica Karpov] worked a lot together. She's ridiculous. I was like, 'Thank you for giving me Jessica," because her vocals are insane, and she's a really rad human, as well."
"Medicine," which Harlœ and Schultz co-wrote, is a jittery R&B-pop song with a slinky bassline that Clarkson uses as a springboard for her barnburning vocal; "Heat," another collaboration involving the pair, spins out of frantic handclapping, with Clarkson and her background vocalists engaging in a feisty back-and-forth. It recalls the upbeat soul-tinged hits of the Nineties while possessing a decidedly 21st-century energy. "[Mick] had this amazing way to reference Nineties music, in a way that it wasn't all Mariah Carey and Whitney, or Duran Duran – it was just an amazing way of putting it all together in a song," Clarkson says.
Even though it represents a large swath of what's made her so appealing to so many listeners for the past decade and a half, Meaning of Life signals the beginning of a new chapter for Clarkson, one where the inaugural American Idol enters a new period of making music on her own terms – and being aware that she's now in a position to do so in an even better way. "In fairness to everybody who I've worked with in the past, if you would have given me these same songs at the age of 19 or 20, it wouldn't have sounded like this," says Clarkson. "You have to live and have experiences in order to have what comes with a lot of these songs – you can't just not have had circumstances where you've had to be bold and confident. You have to have that in life in order to sing it."
And now she's ready to raise her voice and revel in a collaborative relationship with her new label. "It was really just an incredible experience," she says. "Everyone just wanted to make great music, and I know that sounds super cheesy, but I really feel like I deserve that at this point, and it was really just a blessing all the way around."