On the ethereal, piano-backed ballad "I Don't Think About You" from her new album Meaning Of Life, out now, Kelly Clarkson croons, "I feel freedom where I stand now/I feel proud of who I am now/I learned a lot along the way/I love the woman that I became." It's a breakup song, but the glass-shattering soprano notes and passion behind each lyric seem to be sending the listener a very clear message. With her first record post-American Idol contract, the 35-year-old wife and mom of two is telling the world that she is, indeed, proud of the woman she's become.
During a phone conversation about her latest release, Clarkson immediately turns on that Southern charm, calling me "girl" and offering up book recommendations. She also opens up about why she's so passionate about this new album — my favorite one yet, which is saying something, because like many of you, I've gotten through plenty of breakups and girl power moments thanks to some Kelly Clarkson jams. But this album is like '90s R&B and "Since You Been Gone" had a baby, a soulful collection that radiates more confidence than we've ever heard from Clarkson before.
"It’s no secret this is the first time I’m out of my Idol contract, so this is also the first time there’s been zero compromising from me and the process has been very constructive, respectful, and happy," Clarkson says. "I was able to honestly create music about the relationships that led me here and the relationships I have now. Sometimes I wish I had an experience this freeing when I first started out, because it would have saved me a lot of heartache throughout my career. But then again, now I really appreciate where I am in life, and how 'me' this record feels."
By the end of our chat, Clarkson also touches on sexism in the entertainment industry, how she's raising children in a crazy political climate, and what it's really like being seen as a symbol for body positivity. After we hang up, I'm happy that I can confirm the singer appears to be as grown-up and free as her album sounds. It seems, ironically, that all this time, she's been waiting for a moment like this.
Meaning Of Life is your eighth studio album since we first met you as a 19-year-old on American Idol. Nearly 16 years later, you're a married mother of two. How did where you are in life now influence this latest project?
"It’s so funny, because I talk to all my mom friends about this all the time. I’ve always been a confident girl, I’ve always felt sexy and intelligent. But after becoming a mother, the amount of shit that you get done, you’re so impressed with yourself! It's the most empowering feeling, because it makes you want to worry about the pettiness and trivial things a lot less. I think that trickled down to the messages and sassiness that are on this record. Art is a reflection of your life, so this record is happy and empowering, and I love that."
You have two young children under five and two teenage stepchildren. The world is kind of a crazy place right now. How are you raising kids in all of this?
"It’s a daily challenge, because our 10-year-old or 16-year-old will often say something like, 'Why does this person say this, are they allowed to say this?' I'm not going to lie, it's hard, because every single day I’m explaining away a news headline or action of someone in politics. But I think it’s a very crucial time for anyone with kids. All of those things that are happening in our political arena, or in the entertainment industry? Well, there's bullying, there's sexual harassment, and there's a rape culture in schools. It all starts young. So right now we have a unique opportunity to use what's happening to ask our kids, 'Do you think this was right or wrong? What do you think should have happened?' It sounds obvious, but that's the only way, long term, this world is going to get any better."
Speaking of sexual harassment, after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, there's been a lot of talk about how to stop sexism and harassment in the entertainment industry. Is that something that you’ve ever dealt with, and how did you deal, if so?
"I’ve definitely dealt with sexism in the music industry, but I’ve never been sexually harassed in this industry. I definitely have been in my life, though, just at another job. And I shouldn't have to do this — no one should have to — but I think because I was a class clown growing up, my defense mechanism has always been to deal with it with humor. Like, kind of jokingly say something like 'That's not cool!' so the person gets my drift but it's not super awkward. But it's ridiculous that any one should ever feel so unsafe at work, or anywhere, that they have to figure how to get out of an uncomfortable situation without upsetting the other person. I mean, it's pretty basic to me. We should all just act like normal human beings that are looking out for each other. If you're tempted to harass or be mean to someone, why don't you pretend that's your daughter, or your mom, or your brother? Would you want that to happen to that person?"
What do you think needs to change in order for there to be a better balance of power in the the entertainment industry?
"Honestly, no matter the industry, change comes with education. You always hear these dumb answers like, 'Oh, that's just Hollywood, it's been that way since old Hollywood!' But that's not an answer. That's a cop out, an excuse, and a bad one. I think every single person can educate themselves on why certain things are wrong, so they're not living in an archaic dark hole. And so they know what it looks like when something is wrong, so they can speak up. But unfortunately I think a lot of people are stuck in their ways, so a lot of it is really all about trying to do better with our kids."
What's your advice for young girls who are just starting out in a male-dominated industry?
"I have two pieces of advice: First, surround yourself with people who truly love and support you and want you to be a better human. Not just a better singer, or a better writer, or whatever your occupation is, but a better human — the kind of people who are not just going to encourage you and empower you, but also open your mind. Second, don’t take advice from anyone you wouldn’t want to switch places with. That cuts out a lot of people!"
You have so much going on between The Voice, a new album, and four kids. How do you and your husband maintain a strong relationship?
"Giiiirl, we have a village. No one can do it alone. The kids have grandparents who are awesome, and we both have great assistants, because Brandon manages me and Blake Shelton, so that’s two pretty busy careers. And then we have two nannies who help us tremendously, they’re the greatest gifts ever. We have our little village that helps us keep everyone’s head above water and also aren't afraid to say Hey, you guys are taking on too much."
Watching your journey since age 19, I think a lot of us feel like we know you. What do you think people would be surprised to know about Kelly Clarkson?
"I’m really low key. People are always like what celebrities are in your phone? Who do you hang out with, what parties do you go to? And I’m like oh my gosh, I live in Nashville, I live on the river with 4 kids, we don’t hang out with anyone but our family. We have a farm and we love our orchard and our chickens and our honeybees. I think maybe people would be shocked that my life is remarkably chill? Or maybe not. Maybe that’s what’s always made me odd in this industry, because I’ve never really led a pop star life."
Is there any celebrity that would make you starstruck?
"Oh my gosh! Recently — I am a huge Meryl Streep fan, okay? I mean, who isn’t? But she’s one of my favorite humans on the planet. I came up with this idea to release my album and have people I like in the limelight do a little something for it. So I sent her this request, but I don’t know her at all, so I sent it like through her people...channels...I don’t even know how it got to her, but magically it did! And she totally emailed me back! It was the greatest rejection I’ve ever had. She couldn’t do it because she’s filming a movie somewhere, but she wrote back the kindest, nicest note, and I was floored because a lot of times people just say, 'We asked her people and they said she can’t because she’s busy.' But she literally sent, it said "From Meryl." You would’ve thought I was opening a letter from Harvard to see if I got accepted! I was freaking out!"
What would you say is the lesson that’s taken you the longest to learn?
"I literally just had this conversation with another artist last night at a dinner. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is to take care of myself first, because, at 19 and all of a sudden having all of these people working for and under you...that's a lot of pressure. You are their livelihood and how they support their families. So you always feel like you have to keep going, even if you need a break, because you want to make sure everyone’s taken care of. It took me years to figure out that wasn’t working, after the second round of walking pneumonia and the fourth time of getting bronchitis. There comes a point where you have to take care of yourself first, or you’re gonna be useless to everyone. And when I did finally start being honest about it, everyone was so nice. They were like 'Obviously, we want you to be great!'"
Over the years, you've become a spokesperson for body positivity. Does that also feel like a lot of pressure? And does it ever get old constantly being asked about it?
"I don’t mind it at all. My only thing is that I don’t want my body to be the topic all the time. Because it's like man, you work so hard on something, you don’t want people to just focus on your body. I mean honestly, this conversation we're having has been perfect; we talked about a ton of stuff, and you’re touching on this because it’s an obvious theme in my life, but the whole interview wasn't about it. The reason I do talk about it is because I want people to know that we all are different, and it's about what makes you happy. If you're unhappy, then change it, but don't let anyone project any unhappiness onto you. So I don't mind carrying the body positivity flag, but I do want people to remember that I'm carrying another flag, too: my music!"
Before I let you go, I have to ask, thanks to your album title: What does Kelly Clarkson think is the meaning of life?
"The logo for the album is a circle, because life is about connection. I think life is about loving yourself enough so that you can love others. We need to connect, we need to have conversations. Like, why not ask someone 'Hey, I didn't grow up like you did, let's talk about it!' Sharing those moments is what makes us human. If you're always limiting yourself to your own front porch, you'll never truly get to see the rest of the world around you."