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How Michelle Obama Inspired Kelly Clarkson's Triumphant Meaning of Life

How Michelle Obama Inspired Kelly Clarkson's Triumphant Meaning of Life

Kelly Clarkson
Photography: Vincent Peters

The multi-Grammy winner breaks down her first studio album since leaving RCA Records. 

Kelly Clarkson will return to airwaves in a major way with her new album, Meaning of Life, which drops Friday, October 27th on Atlantic Records. This marks her first release since leaving RCA Records in 2016 after seven full-length projects, and a fresh chapter for the 35-year-old married mother of two.

With a new label, the American Idol star and multi-Grammy winner is trading out her previous pop-rock sound for a blend of soulful R&B and country--two genres that Clarkson says allow her to tell clearer stories. The shift is heard on Meaning of Life's boot-stomping lead single, "Love So Soft," where she sounds more sexy and liberated than ever.

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We caught up with Clarkson before she flew to Los Angeles to work on NBC's The Voice--which she'll be joining as a coach on Season 14--to talk about being raised in the south, and how Michelle Obama inspired one of the album's best songs.

This album sees you return to your R&B roots. What drew you away from pop music?

I grew up loving soulful, urban R&B pop and country music. I always say they're like cousins. I feel like with R&B and country, you get to tell a story. Any Toni Braxton, Babyface or Reba record all had stories in them. It's a little more okay to be sassy or emotional in those two genres for some reason and it's been that way since I was a kid, so I always gravitated to them the most. I grew up wanting to sing because of all these soulful R&B pop singers and I've always wanted to make a record like that. It's all I sang while I was on Idol. But you know, because of the contract that I was in [with RCA Records] and the direction they wanted me to go... it wasn't horrible, I love pop music. It isn't like I didn't have a good time making pop-rock music, but I've been waiting to make this record for a pretty long time.

Was "I Don't Think About You" written about your split from RCA?

It's about several different relationships in my life. I was talking to the writers about how I wanted a song that indicated, Hey, this hasn't been easy--nothing worth it is ever easy--but just so y'all know, you didn't break me. It's cool, we're good, but I'm coming out on the other side and I couldn't be happier. I couldn't think about that situation less. It's a song to help [people] get over something. We all have people in our lives who really just try to be so negative and get you down. It's like, You did your best trying to break me, but it didn't happen and I don't think about it any more. Hope you're having fun in your life because I'm having fun in mine.

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One of the album highlights is "Go High," which was inspired by Michelle Obama's iconic speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. What made you want to turn her speech into a song?

I'm always going to aim to take the high road. I can't control other people's decisions. I can't control them being mean. I'm just going to let go of that, stick to my life and do what I think is right. If it works out, it works out, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. I'm okay with that. That's what inspired me about Michelle's speech. That's such a logical, obvious statement: "When they go low, we go high." It's such a no-brainer, but I don't think we do that as a society. A lot of us get hurt because people are hateful, so then we react with hate. No one's going to win like that. This speech transcends politics, it speaks to everybody from whatever culture, whatever walk of life. That is a message we all can relate to. We've all had to take the high road, even though we really just wanted to punch someone in the face.

It was really a sign for me, too. Everybody always explains politics as this evil thing--every politician is evil and has their calculated way--but I can't believe that's true. There are some politicians out there who really do want the best for people and even though they might mess up and say the wrong thing--we all do, we're human--I do think there are good people in politics. We write politicians off, like a lot of people do with female singers. Oh, they're divas. It's a blanket statement and I don't think it's true. I know because I'm one of them. I would never aim to hurt someone, I would never aim to walk all over someone, I would never aim to demean someone. Have I been an asshole sometimes? Absolutely, I'm human. We learn from that. Well, the good ones do, and there are others who just keep on being an asshole.

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Meaning of Life

"Whole Lotta Woman" is a body positive feminist anthem. Was it written in response to the media's obsession with your body?

It's not only how aesthetics come into play in life and society, but also... I was single for a very long time and it was hard to date while being in the public eye. It was the root of every argument I had in a relationship. They would get so angry, it would always somehow stem from that. I was talking to the two girls I wrote it with from Atlanta and we were like, It's just such a hard thing to navigate when you are successful, especially in the south. I don't know what it's like anywhere else. I grew up in the south, but I was taught, We want you to be smart, but not too smart, to where you intimidate someone. We want you to be beautiful, but don't be sexy because then you're a slut. It was always but not too much. But my mind, my body, my spirit--I'm a whole lotta woman. I have opinions. Sometimes I'm wrong, but I'm a grown ass woman who can admit it. I would rather have a voice and possibly be wrong than not say anything at all.

When I'm writing a song I always aim to not sound angry or bitter about it, so we really strived to approach it in a fun way. Even the beginning line, "you ain't know?" is like, Oh okay, you've been confused. Let me clear it up for you. It's a fun way of addressing that. And it is body positive, as well. We're all under construction at some point. Why should you worry about someone else's construction site? Pay attention to yourself. People are happy with how they are and if they aren't, they'll change it. Don't worry about them. We live in a country where we all have the freedom to say things or be things or do what you want to do, so I'm going to take advantage of that. I'm going to be me and if you like it, that's awesome. If you don't, that's awesome too. I'm going to sleep the same either way.

Since your album is called Meaning of Life, is it fair to say you have it all figured out?

I don't think I have it figured out yet. We slowly figure shit out the older we get, but my point is it takes a lot to just let go. I tend to want to control everything because I feel like it's not going to get done how I want, or it's not going to happen how I want, but the older I get, the more I learn to be happy in each moment because you have no idea how many more moments you have. Enjoy the company you have, don't just sit on your phone. My husband always gets frustrated if I don't answer my phone and I'm like, I'm at where I'm at. If I'm having a conversation with someone, I don't want to be rude and answer my phone. I want to enjoy that moment. It's okay, I'll call you back right after. I think all of us like to be in control a whole hell of a lot, but we don't have any control over anything other than what we do. As soon as you figure that out and start living your life and leading by example instead of with words, it just gets easier.

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