“There’s no drama to talk about with me,” Kelly Clarkson admits to Billboard during a chat about her new album, Piece By Piece. Clarkson is talking about the recent kerfuffle surrounding an errant comment she made last month during a BBC Radio 1 interview, about how no major artists want to collaborate with her on a song. Days after the story blew up online, Clarkson — who worked with Sia and John Legend on Piece By Piece, due out Tuesday (Mar. 3) through RCA Records — later clarified that she was joking, putting to bed the only bit of dissension surrounding the follow-up to 2011’s Stronger.
“Oh my God, it was the shot heard ’round the world! It was like I had the Black Plague,” Clarkson says about the misunderstanding. “I made a joke about how people don’t want to sing with me, and I guess I’ve just been out of the game for a minute, and I didn’t think that people were going to take it at face value. … My assistant was more mad than anyone about it — she was like, ‘I hate how people are spinning this!’ I think people around me get more bothered about this stuff than I do.”
Clarkson is a rarity in modern pop: the superstar who still makes compelling music (and collects hits) without a whiff of controversy. Following Stronger, which spawned another No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 with “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” Clarkson released Greatest Hits: Chapter One in 2012, which included a new Top 20 hit in “Catch My Breath”; issued her first Christmas album, Wrapped in Red, in 2013, and scored a No. 3 peak on the Billboard 200 chart; married Brandon Blackstock in October 2013, becoming a stepmother to Blackstock’s two young children; and became a mother in June 2014 when she gave birth to her daughter, River Rose. Earlier this year, Clarkson returned with “Heartbeat Song,” an uplifting pop single that has peaked at No. 34 on the Hot 100 chart, and promises to return to the road later this year in support of Piece By Piece.
Thirteen years removed from her American Idol win, Clarkson says that she “couldn’t be happier in my life right now” — although Piece By Piece, which reunited the singer with pop production whiz Greg Kurstin, is not a wholly joyful album, taking time to focus on heartbreak and personal struggle as well as peace and empowerment. Late last week, Clarkson spoke to Billboard about promoting music while being pregnant, adjusting to family life and performing around the world this year with a crib on her tour bus.
Billboard: This album is living up to its name — these songs have been trickling out one day at a time ahead of the Mar. 3 release. How has that process been for you?
Clarkson: I love it! Everybody keeps asking, ‘Who came up with the idea to release one per day before the album?’ And I can’t remember who came up with it, but it’s the most genius idea. The album as a whole, it’s such a singles world, it’s nice to have some way of building anticipation around the full album. People heard “Invincible,” and then “Piece By Piece,” “Run Run Run,” “Take You High” and “Someone.” It’s just nice that they’re getting to hear a little bit of the whole record, and then they can make an assessment of the album not based on just one single.
That always seems to be the hard part for artists — choosing one song to sell a full body of work.
I always think of a first single on an album as a bridge from the last album to the new one. I always pick a song that maybe could have fit on the last record but was a little bit more progressive, so [‘Heartbeat Song’] is kind of the bridge to this album. And other than my Christmas record and greatest hits album, I haven’t had an album out since 2011, so it’s been a bit, and it’s nice to remind people before you start de-layering the whole album.
You’ve obviously been very busy, both professionally and personally, since Stronger came out in 2011. Does it feel like a long time between proper albums?
It’s funny, to everyone else it seems that way, but we worked that greatest hits album like normal promotion. And making the Christmas record, I was really involved and wrote five new songs for it, and it was a big deal. I was working really hard, also while being pregnant, so I didn’t see [the break] as long as everybody else saw it.
What was that process like — promoting a musical project while pregnant for the first time?
Well, at the time, no one knew I was pregnant. We weren’t telling anyone while I was still in my first trimester. I would be up at 4:00 AM for a morning show in New York, and then I did press all day, then Fallon, then I went to Rockefeller Center. It was a really hard schedule, and I had to keep this secret to make sure I was past my first trimester, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was lazy! I’m trying to work, but it was really hard, especially since I had such a rough pregnancy. But then I took six months off after she was born, and we started back up right after that.
How much have your personal highlights of the past four years influenced this album?
Having River, and becoming a mother to my step kids, my life 180’ed. Instead of being in a gypsy mentality and being able to pick up and do whatever I want when I want, it became about a family. It’s been awesome, and it’s made my life and career more peaceful. I have more than one thing to focus on now. I love the fact that it’s been turned back into when I first started singing as a kid, when I had so much fun with it and it was just this thing I did on the side that I loved to do. It’s turned into that again!
For me, making this record — for one, I was super hormonal and pregnant while making it, so it’s very intense and with passionate vocals. Any time I’d listen to a song, even if I didn’t write it, I would listen to the demo and try to take it to an even bigger place. I just had a lot of fun with it, and… I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. When you’re pregnant, everything just feels like it’s enhanced. You can feel everything, in a good way and in a bad way. If you’re sick, it’s bad, but if you’re in that creative space, it’s awesome. You feel like your mind has expanded.
What’s a song on the album that you can tie to that experience?
“Invincible” was one of the songs that came towards the end, and I just loved the vocal. I’m a huge fan of Sia in general, and my producer Jesse Shatkin and her had just written it, and he sent it to me and I got so excited. We got in the studio — he came to Nashville because I couldn’t travel at that point — and we got to do these vocals, and what was great was that they let me do what I want. The vocal on the demo was already amazing, but they let me breathe with it for a minute. I sat in the studio and said, “I’m gonna try some things, they might sound horrible but I’m gonna try and go for some stuff.” I was just more of a vulnerable singer, and more willing to constantly try things. That’s what I mean by that creativity and that passion. Towards the end of “Invincible,” it was like I went to church. I was having a good time singing that song. And I love that song — that message is so empowering, and that message is so raw.
Has motherhood made you more at peace with a song or album’s commercial success, or do you feel as competitive as ever?
I’ve always had the same relationship [with the industry], so that hasn’t really changed. I remember on Idol, people would be like, “I don’t know if you want to say that on camera,” and I’ve always been that girl who has said, this is who I am, and this is what I love to do. I’ve never really felt pressure musically or personally to do anything else, because I’m fine with me. I think I’m awesome! And I’m doing my best as a human to put some creative stuff out there. Even when I was a kid, I was always really secure and confident. That just came with me. And I’ve never really felt pressure to rise above or do something different or anything like that. You gotta do where you’re at, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
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The mood of this album is a little surprising — it’s not dark, but it’s definitely very reflective, with a lot of change and even some heartache.
It doesn’t really matter what head space I’m in necessarily when it comes to lyrics. I’m 32 years old, I have pretty much run the gauntlet of pretty much every emotion you could possibly go through — especially being 19 and being thrust into the industry, and growing up really quickly. I couldn’t be happier in my life right now — I have the most amazing husband, I have the most magical baby, I won the lottery with step kids, and everything is great. But at the same time, when someone sends me a lyric like “Run Run Run,” or if Sia sends me “Invincible,” I can definitely pull on those past experiences. I have had hurdles in my life, and there’s always those life experiences you can pull from, even if that’s not your emotion at the time. “Tightrope” was written maybe three years ago, a while back, during a different experience than where I am now. “Good Goes The Bye,” I chose that because I’m a huge Shane McAnally fan, and I really wanted a song of theirs. We took it to this 80’s, Eurhythmics place.
How will being a mom affect the rollout of this album, including the touring plans?
I’m just as busy as ever. I just got my schedule for New York, and that is as insane as it always is. The cool thing is that I have the most amazing nanny named Allie, and she makes it possible for me to be a working mom that gets to stay involved in my child’s life. River is everywhere with me — she’ll go to Fallon and Good Morning America with me. Well, maybe not GMA, since that’s really frickin’ early for her. But she’ll go to all the stuff that I’m going to do, and I’ll get to be there with her while working.
I already designed my bus — my bus is already ready, and we have a whole crib on there, a whole kids section for our other two kids. So we’re ready for the tour, which is starting this summer, and then we go to the rest of the world after America. I don’t think being a mom needs to slow you down. If anything, it just makes you more productive.