It's been almost four years since Kelly Clarkson released her last album of original material, but the first American Idol champ now has two ready to go: Piece by Piece, which comes out today, and an untitled country LP, which she says is all but finished. She began working on these while making 2013's Wrapped in Red – a surprisingly ambitious Christmas record that jumped from surf rock to Phil Spector – and enjoyed that experience so much that she kept working with producer Greg Kurstin even after the holiday season ended. "We're very different creatively," she says. "I like singing and songwriting, and he's like Rain Man."
Clarkson discussed the result of their work, her love for dancing and the surprising demo that became "Since U Been Gone."
Some of the highlights on Piece by Piece are dance tracks – "War Paint," "Take You High." Do you ever go out dancing anymore?
When we're on tour, we'll go out once or twice. If we're in Vegas or something, we'll rent out a little area in a club. But, no I don't really go out dancing much, mainly because I have an eight-month-old, so there's bedtime and I know I have to be up in the morning to feed her. But I love dance music.
What's some of your favorite dance music right now?
I love Tove Lo, Queen of the Clouds. Actually, that's kind of all I've been listening to, other than mixes of my own record because we just now mastered it and released it. I've been listening to that and then honestly I have been listening to some country. I like Brandy Clark a lot, but I kind of listen to everything.
That obviously includes country music. And it seems like Nashville has really embraced you, as well, over the past few years.
Yes, sir. Everybody in Nashville has been super welcoming, but I don't think that was a real shocker for everyone. I'm from Texas – that's, like, the land of country music. I've lived in Nashville for eight years now, and honestly it's not just a country world here. We have everybody from Kings of Leon to Meghan Trainor to Jack White to Sheryl Crow. It's kind of like a new Austin: It's just a plethora of music, and there's a plethora of genres here.
Does it affect the way you approach music, knowing that your fans probably also listen to all sorts of different music?
Yeah, and especially how I came into the industry, people are used to me singing different genres, just from American Idol 13 years ago. That's enabled me to be able to sing something with Jason Aldean and then do something like "Run Run Run" on the new album, that's a little more R&B/pop, but then it goes into this really rockin' place at the end. But I think my fan base is really cool in the sense that they follow me and let me do that. I guess the same thing for people like P!nk who just came out something with Dallas [Green, for folk side-project You+Me]. Even Gaga doing the Sound of Music thing she just did on the Oscars.
Do you watch any of the singing competitions that are on TV right now?
Well, my husband manages Blake Shelton, so we do watch The Voice at our house. But yeah, I like them. I like to be entertained. We have a 13-year-old and 8-year-old as well, so if they're watching Idol or The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance, I'll totally sit down and watch.
From what you've seen, how do you think singing competitions have evolved since your day?
I think there's a plethora of winners now, so I think it might be a little harder. Everybody is always asking me, "Why do you think nobody's made it in a while?" and I'm like, it's not a testament of their talent. I just think there's a lot of people coming out right now from these shows. When I won, there was just the one, so I wasn't really competing with anyone else from a show like that – not to discredit my hard work.
What kind of music does your 13-year-old like?
She's pretty cool. She likes everything from Lana Del Rey to Justin Bieber to Imagine Dragons. She likes a lot of different things and is always shocked when I know it, because obviously she's 13 years old and thinks that her dad and I are old [laughs].
Have you learned anything by watching her listen to pop music and experience that?
You know, I think I'm too busy trying to introduce her to stuff. I'm always like, "Wait, if you like this then you have to listen to this person." I always try and introduce her to, like, Lauryn Hill or Jagged Little Pill. I always try to introduce her to stuff that was a staple in my musical experience growing up as a child. Sometimes she loves it, and sometimes she's like, "That's old." That's always what she says.
How is working with Piece by Piece producer Greg Kurstin different from working with Dr. Luke or Max Martin?
I think that's a bit unfair just because I already had a career when Greg knew me. When we got introduced to each other he already had four albums to kind of look at and gauge "what kind of artist is she?" Dr. Luke or Max, I just had the one record out and it was my first record and we came out with so many different singles. We came out with a big R&B ballad like "The Trouble With Love Is" and a pop rock song like "Miss Independent" and then more of a pop rock song like "Low," which was my single.
I think people still didn't realize what I wanted to do with my career. I like all those avenues, but I think in the beginning people heard the demo for "Since U Been Gone" and it wasn't as it is now. I love guitars. I love a big sound and I love a little bit of angst in the production and, you know, we had to figure that out while we were working together, to where Greg already kind of knew that about me. He'd seen me perform live before and he'd heard me on these records and he kind of had a grasp of who I was already.
What was the demo for "Since U Been Gone" like?
It was real bare and there were hardly any words. [Laughs] It was just, like, mumbling. It was one guitar and really funny. I remember my label was like, "This song is so amazing!" And my manager and I were like, "It sounds cool, but they're not really saying anything." And they were like, "Listen to the melody," and I was like, "The melody doesn't really sound like it's solidified yet!" They were like, "I know, I know, but it's the production," and I was like, "There's really only a guitar and a snare!"
It was a lot of trust in the label because I didn't know Dr. Luke or Max. And it worked out. We ended up getting together in Sweden and they got to know me as an artist and we amped up the track and made it a little more rockin'. But they didn't know I was going to go an octave above on the chorus.