When Kelly Clarkson held a for-fans-only show at L.A.'s famed Troubadour (capacity: 500) on Oct. 19, a moment stood out. It wasn't during the chorus of "Since U Been Gone," which was, as always, met with a room full of frenetically bobbing heads, nor was it in the outro to "Mr. Know It All," her latest addictive single that had the crowd echoing every line. Rather, it preceded the fan's choice song of the night: "Sober" off of "My December."
Surveying the sweat-soaked scene while facing the very devotees who have been with her from the start, Clarkson took it all in, smiled, and practically yelped with joy and self-satisfaction, in spite of the song's somber tone (and, as she admitted later on, sobriety was not in the cards).
"It's so funny, anytime you give them a choice, my die-hard fans always pick something from 'My December,'" Clarkson says the following morning, still nursing a mild hangover. "But that song, it means a lot to me."
As it should. It was that song from that album which pitted Clarkson against then RCA Music Group head Clive Davis and the entire major label system, a, er, sobering experience no doubt. At issue: the singer's desire, perhaps even intrinsic need, to write her own material and not to feel like a pawn in the pop game. A ballsy move for any artist but especially so for an "American Idol" winner.
She's put it all behind her now, as Clarkson's new album "Stronger" (out October 25) drives home with uber-confident declarations such as "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" and "I Forgive You." The video for "Mr. Know It all" also spells it out: showing a no-BS Clarkson standing if front of her "Wall of Doubt" -- real headlines from articles printed throughout her career -- and declaring, "You don't know a thing about me."
"Everybody has that wall, not just famous people," she says. "It's about putting all that crap in the back and being, like, 'Yep, we're done with that.' And the symbolism is, this is all just silly. It's music, that's it. We're not curing cancer, I'm not changing the world, it's fun."
You could say Clarkson is having the time of her professional life these days. Some nine years after winning the very first Idol crown, she's come to a place of peace, both with her label, the people around her and with herself. It made the recording of her fifth full-length Stronger, as she describes it, "smooth and easy -- my label loves the album. The stars kind of aligned on this one. I'm on cloud nine at the moment."
In contrast, she says all four of her previous albums were "a struggle." So what was the difference this time around? "I think it's because everybody knows each other better," she reasons. "Everyone's on the same team, no one's fighting with anybody… Also as you get more experience under your belt, now when I walk into a studio, I don't have to describe what I want to do. Greg [Kurstin] didn't have to guess, he's seen me live, he's heard my previous records. When you have something to go off of, it gets easier."
Indeed, back when Clarkson lacked experience, like when she began working on her debut album back in 2002, it took some convincing to sell her on the song that would be her breakout hit, "Since U Been Gone."
"It didn't sound like how it sounds now," she recounts. "It didn't have any lyrics and the melody really wasn't finalized. The track was done on a computer, there was no band on it. My record label was freaking out about it and I was, like, why? But they were right… Once that song was recorded, it was like, 'Oh, this is a no-brainer. This is a great song.' It's one of those songs that doesn't come along too often."
Clarkson will have a chance to showcase many of her biggest hits when she tapes an episode of VH1 Unplugged this week. To prepare for the performance, which will double as her intimate New York show, she and her band have been practicing at every opportunity. "We have literally been rehearsing in hotel lobbies and ballrooms, because our schedule is so packed, we're trying to fit it in anywhere we can," she says. "But we love breaking it down, and I haven't seen an Unplugged since Nirvana did it years ago, so I'm very excited to be asked to be on it."
One song that's sure to make the set list? Carrie Underwood's "I Know You Won't," which was a highlight of the Troubadour concert, a sort of practice run for the VH1 version, Clarkson reveals.
So now that she's covered an "Idol," is it time to duet with a fellow alum? Maybe… Adam Lambert? "I'd love to do something with him," says Clarkson excitedly. "He's like a male Pink, I love his voice."
The two certainly have vocals prowess in common, they're on the same label and both are among Idol's most successful graduates. But where Lambert's commercial launch took freedom of expression to the extreme (who can forget his tongue-wagging performance at the 2009 American Music Awards?), it's been a tougher climb for Clarkson, despite album sales of 9 million in the U.S. alone. "From the beginning, it's been really hard just to be me," she says.
Even today, while still on cloud nine, says Clarkson, "Everything's going so well both personally and work-wise, I'm just waiting for that big kick in the butt."