Kelly Clarkson in the Red Zone With "Wrapped in Red": The Billboard Cover Story

Cradling a cherry red guitar and decked in a tartan plaid dress, poinsettia jacket and matching studded, strappy heels, Kelly Clarkson isn't exactly soft-pedaling her upcoming holiday album, "Wrapped in Red." And it hardly matters that Halloween is still weeks away. For the past year, Clarkson has had Christmas on her mind.

Conversations about Clarkson's sixth studio effort being a Christmas album started last December, and recording with Greg Kurstin -- who produced Clarkson's 1.1 million-selling Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" and the four hits on P!nk's "The Truth About Love," which has sold 1.8 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- began in May. RCA is shipping a half-million total units for pre-order on Amazon.com and Target.com.

For Clarkson, the disc represented a chance to break free of expectations. "I've been dying to make a Christmas album," she says, speaking in a high-octane pitch that telegraphs her enthusiasm about the project, which includes both originals and some twists on classics. "I always get asked what genre I'm in: 'Is this country or pop or rock? What are you?'" she says. "And what's cool about making the Christmas album was, 'Oh, there are no limitations! We can do whatever we want!'"

For RCA, the album is part of an all-out holiday assault during which the label will release not just "Wrapped in Red" but also the soundtracks to "Black Nativity," starring Jennifer Hudson, and "The Best Man Holiday," which features R. Kelly, Fantasia and Mario, and a Leona Lewis collection that puts a Motown spin on Christmas songs.

But the label has "Wrapped in Red" pegged as the one that will cross all formats and become a new holiday classic, boosted by Clarkson's NBC holiday special, "Kelly Clarkson's (Cautionary) Christmas Tale," in early December. "It's our main release this season," RCA VP of marketing Aaron Borns says. "The angle on this album is that, like all great Christmas records, it's about amazing vocal performances. That's what this is intended to be -- an album launched this year but timeless and genre-defying."

"It's all over the map," Clarkson adds. "But in a good way."

"We really experimented," Kurstin says. "It was so much fun and so liberating. And it pays off." "Wrapped in Red" is that rare disc that manages to reinvigorate some of the most familiar songs ("White Christmas," "My Favorite Things"), as well as offer five originals. Clarkson and Kurstin started with their favorite holiday collections as inspirations -- for Kurstin, it was the Vince Giraldi Trio's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector," and for Clarkson, it was the soundtrack to "White Christmas," starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney -- then started jamming, with Kurstin on piano and Kelly in the vocal booth.

"It was a lot of fun for the two of us because we got to go back to our roots," says Kurstin, who used to play in a jazz band. "When Kelly starting singing, it was clear she had the chops and had been trained to do anything."

He decided to showcase that in as many different ways as he could, experimenting with a variety of sounds and styles, which Clarkson welcomed. He called in session musicians like drummer James Gadson, who played with Charles Wright's Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, as well as Bill Withers, for a Memphis soul sound; Gabe Noel to play upright bass on "Baby, It's Cold Outside"; and the Regiment Horns, who have worked with Justin Timberlake and Jay Z, for "My Favorite Things" and "Run, Run Rudolph."

"I also called in all my toys," Kurstin says. He used vintage keyboards like a mellotron and a Chamberlin, and miked from far away to evoke Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. He even had Clarkson sing all of her own backing vocals -- a pleasure for Clarkson, who grew up singing in a chorus. "Blending is something I knew how to do from my childhood," she says. "Sometimes I'd have to do an alto instead of a soprano because they needed a bigger sound. But I've never had to do anything like this before -- doing all my own backup vocals, essentially being my own choir."

"Wrapped in Red" covers lots of ground, from the ­Spector-sounding first single "Underneath the Tree" to the closing a cappella version of "Silent Night" with Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. In between, there's a grab bag of covers. Some, like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "My Favorite Things," may seem like the hallmark of all holiday albums. But others, like Imogen Heap's "Just for Now," aren't.

"I just love that song," Clarkson says. "That was my family Christmas -- highly dysfunctional, like, 'Can we just stop for like five minutes and have like a normal Christmas setting?'" To balance the drama, Clarkson offers the kitschy "Four Carats," an original she calls a cross between Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" and Madonna's "Material Girl." And there's a love song, "Winter Dreams" -- which features a 50-piece orchestra -- written for fiance Brandon Blackstock, with whom she's eloping sometime before the holidays. But the biggest surprise is "Underneath the Tree," an optimistic tune that has Clarkson powering through Darlene Love-style vocals.

It's that multitude of styles, Clarkson says, that add up to the real her.

"My best friend from childhood heard it and said, 'This is what you really sound like, before everything else.' And I agree. It's my core sound," she says. "Back in the day, when [artists] came out with things like 'Fall to Pieces' or 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' those songs transcended genres. It wasn't, 'Where is it going to fit?' You catered to whatever the song called for. And that's exactly what I did-without having to have an umbrella for everything."

The only theme is in the title -- red. "There's just something about it that represents so many deep emotions, whether it's love or lust or envy or pain or beauty," she says. One could say the same for her personality -- which also will be on full display when her NBC special airs. The show is the album's main marketing tool. And for Clarkson, whose career was launched on the first season of "American Idol" in 2002, the medium no doubt will help sell the songs -- just as it has for artists like Michael Buble and Blake Shelton.

Buble's 2011 holiday disc, "Christmas," jumped to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in its fifth week after his TV special aired, and went on to sell 3.1 million. Similarly, Shelton's 2012 "Not So Family Christmas" special, which also aired on NBC and featured Clarkson, prompted his album "Cheers, It's Christmas" to peak at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Holiday Albums chart, No. 2 on Top Country Albums and No. 8 on the Billboard 200 last year. The album has sold 430,000.

"Kelly Clarkson's (Cautionary) Christmas Tale" will be part comedy, part musical performances, the latter of which is taping in front of a live audience on Oct. 30 at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Tickets went on sale Oct. 15 through Venetian.com, and fans can also win tickets through radio station contests.

"I love [the Will Ferrell movie] 'Elf,'" Clarkson says. "I wanted to tell a real story, make a new classic, not just do some skits that aren't really related." It also will highlight performances with some of the album's guests, like McEntire -- her future mother-in-law -- Yearwood and Ronnie Dunn.

"This will feature a full narrative with a beginning, middle and end," says Ian Stewart, co-founder of Dun and Dusted, the production company producing "Kelly Clarkson's (Cautionary) Christmas Tale." "And the spine is her singing. We'll have a young girl, narrating the story, sitting in an overstuffed chair in front of an amazing fire, reading the story from a book. And yes, it starts with 'once upon a time' and ends with 'happily ever after.'"

For Stewart, who's produced major TV events like the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies and Victoria's Secret fashion shows, creating a Christmas special presents similar challenges.

"You have to go from A to Z -- otherwise, you're just treading water," he says. "You also have to break it up. Supermodels in lingerie is a very lovely thing, but if that's all you give, like chocolate, it makes you sick, so you keep refreshing, to keep people excited. And that's what makes you go back to the core-in this case, to see Kelly sing," he says. "The story is a way to refresh the palate, so viewers go, 'Oh, my God, she sounds beautiful! Let's hear her sing.' You want to remind them why they're there." Although he says there will be "a lot of people onstage," including a choir at the end and 29 musicians, "all that lady needs to do is pick up a mike, and that's it."

RCA is shooting a video for the first single, "Underneath the Tree," and the label also plans to take some of the show's performances and turn them into videos. "Songs, like 'Holy Night' with Reba and Trisha, which might come from the special, will go to country stations, and CMT will do some things with us, too," Borns says.

In terms of radio, "Underneath the Tree" will go to pop stations, "Please Come Home for Christmas" will be worked to AC and adult top 40, and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" will go to adult top 40 as well, Borns says. Clarkson will also embark on a short promotional tour in Europe, and the album's even being promoted in the Far East.

To the Texan native who'll be celebrating her second Christmas at her Nashville home with Blackstock, the album represents a sort of second phase for her career. The new year will bring pop and country releases, as well as a potential Broadway album. In a way, her Christmas CD represents a break from her past and a sampler of what's to come -- like the holiday itself.

"The thing about Christmas is that it almost doesn't matter what mood you're in or what kind of a year you've had -- it's a fresh start," says Clarkson, who adds that she's looking forward to her second decade in music. "I'm going to clear the air and take stock of the good that's happened."

And what if she hadn't met Blackstock -- would the album have been quite so rosy? "I might have called it 'Wrapped in Green,'" she says with a laugh.