What might happen if a country fiddle was used to sweeten an R&B song? "I knew people were either going to love it or hate it... but they would definitely remember it," MBK Entertainment president Jeff Robinson says of the potentially jarring combination.
People have not only remembered it, they've also clicked on it and purchased it. "Refill," the song in question, has since netted soul singer Elle Varner her first top 10 hit on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, while the accompanying video has received nearly 4 million YouTube views. The song's quirky yet contagious charm underscores the vibrant aural palette heard throughout Varner's MBK/RCA Records debut, "Perfectly Imperfect" (Aug. 7).
"I'm excited to be coming out at a time when great music is making an impact," Varner says. "It's crazy on the charts now, between artists like Adele, Frank Ocean and Gotye. Reality -- real music with heart and soul -- is cool now. People are feeling again."
Varner's heartfelt feelings about self-esteem, love and life provide the blueprint for her music. But it's her colorful wordplay and sultry rasp-coupled with a refreshing fusion of musical styles-that gives "Perfectly Imperfect" its arresting edge. The 23-year-old wrote all the songs on the album, which was produced by Pop & Oak ( Nicki Minaj, Trey Songz), as well as Varner and her father, Jimmy. The record organically integrates R&B, hip-hop, funk, pop and rock within a mosaic of ballads, uptempo numbers and midtempo tracks.
Varner's melodic new single, "I Don't Care," and the sensual, rock-vibed "Sound Proof Room" are set off by a stutter-and-beat technique, while the memorable "So Fly" recounts Varner's early struggles with weight and bullying issues: "If I had no cellulite, big breasts and pockets real wide/ Maybe I could be so fly." Leading off the charge last year was the album's debut single and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs top 20 hit, "Only Wanna Give It to You," featuring J. Cole on the album's sole cameo.
"There's a lot of quirky comedy to Elle, as well as serious, thought-provoking music," says Robinson, the former manager of Alicia Keys, and whose MBK roster also includes Jermaine Paul and Allen Stone. "She doesn't need a lot of co-signers to stand on her own or to force something that doesn't fit. This is someone who can come in and speak to a lot of people."
Varner auditioned for Robinson after his friends heard her perform at a New York club. Born Gabrielle Varner in Los Angeles to showbiz parents -- her mom sang background vocals for Barry White, while her dad played, composed and produced for the Manhattans and the Temptations -- Varner grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Burt Bacharach and other '60s-era soul and pop acts. Hanging out during her parents' recording sessions, she was inspired to play guitar, drums and piano, penning her first song at 15 while attending the Academy of Music at L.A.'s Hamilton High School. A coveted invitation to attend New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music brought Varner to the East Coast, where she really blossomed.
Tapped for various TV campaigns -- including MTV's "Buzzworthy," BET's "Music Matters" and Centric's "Centric Selects" -- helped spread early awareness of Varner. Most recently, she performed on the "106 & Park" pre-BET Awards show and co-headlined the Global Fusion Festival in Philadelphia. RCA senior VP of marketing Carolyn Williams says album pre-release efforts have focused primarily on social media, with various interviews, online contests and a Facebook push to build Varner's fan base. While conventional tours and retail tie-ins are planned once the album is released, Varner has also engaged in nontraditional promos, including teaming with Interactive One for a series of performances at various subway stations around New York.
Williams explains, "There's still life left in R&B. We're not going to let radio formatting dictate how much exposure we're going to get on Elle and her music."