Kelly Clarkson is used to getting backhanded compliments from her fans. "They say, 'You sound way better live than you do on your records!'" says the singer. "They mean it nicely, but it also pisses me off." But on her fifth album, Stronger – which spawned a Number One smash with the title song, "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" – Clarkson finally captured her fierce pop soprano on record. Audiences on her current U.S. tour, which runs through April, have responded by voting online to request new material like the R&B-tinged hit "Mr. Know It All." "Usually when you go to a show, you want the old stuff, right?" says Clarkson, checking in from a tour stop in Florida. "This time we're doing six or seven new songs a night because people are wanting them. That's pretty cool."
You did some amazing Otis and Marvin covers on American Idol. How did you get into soul music?
That's what I always gravitated to, for some reason, even as a child. My stepdad would wake me up at frickin' 6 a.m. playing Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and my mom was into Three Dog Night and Linda Ronstadt. But I love Aretha and Otis and Bonnie Raitt – the heartfelt stuff. I hear so many singers that sound like vanilla vodka, like they've never had their hearts broken or ripped out. It kills me.
You've sparred with your label in the past. Is that all over now?
Brother, it's been a long road. It doesn't matter how many hits you write, every record is a battle. But my new label heads [at the recently reorganized RCA Records] are far more easy to work with. The fact that we all agreed on "Mr. Know It All" and "Stronger" – I'm baffled. It's like hell has frozen over and pigs are flying. It's so weird.
How was singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl?
I never want to do that again. I don't generally get nervous, just because I know that sometimes I'm gonna fuck up. I'm human. But, man, at the Super Bowl everybody was freaking out, telling me how many people are watching. They made me so nervous! I had a teleprompter with the lyrics right in front of me, but they were always a line behind. It was not fun. That's what I got for trying to cheat.
How did that compare to singing "Ave Maria" for the pope in 2008?
I was way more nervous at the Super Bowl. I wasn't really that nervous about singing to the pope – the problem there was that I was told that it was disrespectful to turn your back on the bishops. But I was surrounded by them! I was like, "Do you want me to turn circles the entire time?"
Speaking of religion, isn't it sacrilegious that you're a mentor on this season of The Voice?
People have given me such a hard time. I came from a singing show, so I like singing shows, obviously. What was the big shocker there? I don't know why people get all bent out of shape.
Your recent comments in support of Ron Paul ruffled feathers too.
Oh, my gosh! I'm hanging out with my brother and my little niece, playing Barbies, and Ron Paul comes on TV. He doesn't BS around anything. I was like, "This dude is refreshing." All I did was tweet what I thought, and people went crazy! All of a sudden, people were like, "You hate gay people" – what? I didn't even endorse him! All I said was that I like him. I voted for Barack, so it's not even like I'm a hardcore Republican.
Are you a big Whitney Houston fan?
Are you frickin' kidding me? I know every Whitney Houston song. I wanted to cover one of her songs at our shows as a tribute, but it's hard to cover her!
Were you jealous when Adele won all her Grammys?
No way! Even when the Civil Wars beat me in my category [Best Country Duo/Group Performance], I was happy. As long as I don't get beat by someone who sucks. And I voted for Adele in all the categories where she won – I've been a fan of hers since "Chasing Pavements," and people have given her so much crap about her weight. She's beautiful, by the way. If I could roll over and look like that . . . She's freakin' hot.
This story is from the March 15th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.