Kelly Clarkson has a clear memory of standing outside
an American Idol audition room in Dallas, 16 years ago, and seeing
ominous portents. “Everybody was walking out crying,” she recalls. “And
they were like, ‘There’s this British man, and he’s awful!’ ” One
popular-vote victory and eight hit albums later, Clarkson is now a not-quite-so-scary
singing judge (and coach) in her own right, wielding one of those giant red
buttons on The Voice.
Clarkson, who released the R&B-laced album Meaning
of Life last year, says everyone keeps asking what she’d tell a young Kelly
if she got to coach her. “As a joke, I’m like, ‘Run!’ ” says
Clarkson, who often clashed with her old label, RCA – her new album is her
first on Atlantic. “Obviously every joke has some seriousness to it.”
(Clarkson’s entire interview is featured in a new episode of our podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now. To hear it, press play above or download and subscribe to Rolling Stone Music Now on iTunes or Spotify.)
You’ve talked about being the only woman in a boardroom full of guys early in your career. How did the gender aspects of that play out?
I was shoved magazines of girls naked with guitars, and they were telling me that’s what I’m competing with, and I was like, “I’m not competing with that.” And they always wanted, like, the sexier songs – not even good sexy songs – because that sells. And I’d go, “Did you even watch me on TV? I’m the girl that didn’t wear makeup.” So all that stuff was shoved in my face nonstop, and I would just laugh, honestly, which probably pissed them off.
Where did you find the strength to hold your ground in all those conflicts?
I never record a song I don’t feel I can relate to in some sense, that I can’t make work in my world. And that’s why I’ve really pissed people off [laughs], because there have been some real doozies sent my way that I was like, “No,” and then my project gets sat on. But you have to put your foot down at some point and go, “I have one life and I don’t want to live it like this, and it’s cool if you feel like my ship is sinking, but I just want to make sure I’m at the helm, that if I’m going to go down, it’s because of myself.” Compromising is OK, but compromising who you are as a human is not.
I rewatched your initial Idol audition, and you seemed justifiably confident. Were you, though?
Honestly, my place had just burned down in L.A., I had lived in my car for three days [laughs], and I literally had made that outfit I was wearing. I think the only reason I was probably confident is I had nothing to lose [laughs]. The artists that you love and adored, if you hear their stories, they probably did not have easy upbringings. A lot of those people had to work for everything they got, and that was definitely me.
You’ve always named Aretha Franklin as a key influence. On the deepest level, what is it about her for you?
People like her, you hear them sing and it’s almost as if they don’t need words. It’s the sound, the tone, the ache in their voice. Maybe it’s because I went through a few things growing up, but I really fed on that. “Ain’t No Way,” all those songs, her tone and her voice were almost their own story. There’s very few singers like that – Bonnie Raitt, Annie Lennox. Aretha is a flawless vocalist, and they didn’t have Auto-Tune then. It was all feeling. And when it was slightly off-key, it was perfect. It was heartfelt.
Are we ever going to get to hear the country album you’ve been working on for a while?
I am very particular about it. I’ve started, but I keep changing my idea of what I want it to sound like because I have so many different influences, even in the country world. I like singer-songwriters like Patty Griffin and Alison Krauss, and the Raising Sand album she did with Robert Plant. I have all these ideas, and I really haven’t nailed down exactly what I want to do. I just really want to do right by it!
Have you thought about what you want the next five or 10 years of your career to look like?
My husband and I talk about that a lot, because I love touring and I’ve loved being part of The Voice this season. Really, our decisions are based upon our family. It’s not that my career is on the back burner, it’s just that it’s, you know, on the side burner [laughs]. I want to make sure I’m a present mom. I have abandonment issues, so I don’t want to pass those on. I want to make sure we’re looking out for our kids, and others. The first 10 years of my career, I was in survival mode. Like, “What will get me through the next day?” Now I’ve opened up my eyes to form relationships with other artists to make sure we’re looking out for each other.
Have your kids learned about From Justin to Kelly yet?
Oh, God, no! It’s one of my nanny’s favorite movies – and I’m like, “I swear to God, I’ll fire you.” I was contractually obligated [to make it]. I didn’t want to. I show them cool stuff like, you know, Jurassic Park and Harry Potter.