"I just want to be able to look back at this album and be proud, and to think, 'Man, that was awesome!'"
With her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, Clarkson demonstrates her eagerness to continue branching out, and to push her music in new and unexpected directions. Though she has sold over twenty million records around the world; landed eight singles in the Top Ten; and won Grammys, MTV Video Music Awards, American Music Awards, and even been nominated for a CMA Award, she maintains that she's far more interested in challenging herself than in repeating herself.
Clarkson's enthusiasm is instantly apparent, even infectious, as she races to talk about each of the new songs. "A lot of it has a soulful, '70s rock vibe," she says, "and then some is more club/dance stuff—'If I Can't Have You' is like the Killers-meets-the Eurythmics." But she also shows her softer, more emotional side with "If No One Will Listen" and her own composition, "Cry," which she says is "basically a country song with pop production, incredibly sad but still strong."
Clarkson points to the album's first single, the unforgettably titled "My Life Would Suck Without You" (produced by pop wizards Dr. Luke and Max Martin and written by the two with Claude Kelly) as an example of her need to personalize and connect with all of her material. "They write great catchy, sassy songs," she says. "But it became a very different song from how it started. We changed the point of view, and other things throughout, because we had to make it more Kelly Clarkson. And Luke and Max love that, because it's a challenge for them to make a song really work for me."
The album's defiant track "I Do Not Hook Up" comes courtesy of Katy Perry. "I've been a fan of hers since before 'I Kissed a Girl,'" says Clarkson. "And when I heard that song, it really felt like something I could have written myself."
She laughs as she describes "I Want You" and its surprising theme. "First, it's not a boy-bashing song, so that's already different for me," she says. "Plus, I wrote it, so that makes it even weirder!"
The range of All I Ever Wanted shouldn't come as a shock, though, considering the wild ride that Texas-born Kelly Clarkson has lived. She was, of course, catapulted into the spotlight in 2002 as the very first American Idol winner. ("Our show was so different from how it is now," she says. "Now there's all this pressure, all these comparisons, but we were just a bunch of kids that wanted to make music—it was almost like performing in bars for ten people, like I used to.") Her superstardom was secured with Breakaway in 2005. That album sold over ten million copies, spun off five Top Ten hits, and stayed on the charts for two full years.
But the platinum-selling follow-up, 2007's My December, arrived surrounded by widespread rumors and speculation. Clarkson, for one, still doesn't know what the fuss was all about. "Really, it was a very positive experience," she says. "Mostly I learned about how people can twist things—I've never met one artist that agreed with their label about every single thing, but people made such a big deal out of it. The label saw that I wanted to push the envelope, they let me make the record I wanted to make, and now I can make another one."
So when it came time to choose songs for All I Ever Wanted, Clarkson knew what she was looking for. "Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I'm a lyrics girl," she says. "I like the more melodic, formula stuff because I grew up loving pop music, but most of the time I'm totally about the lyrics and the message of the song.
"I could always sing all of these styles," she continues, "but I think only now am I getting more comfortable with the people I work with, and people are getting more comfortable with me, getting to know me and what I like."
She says that working with producers Sam Watters and Louis Biancaniello on "Whyyouwannabringmedown," which she describes as having "kind of a punk-British Invasion sound," was the album's turning point. "I sang that song through I don't know how many times, just because I was having so much fun," she says. "It was new and it was fresh and it didn't sound like anything on the radio. And after that, I went to my manager and said that I wanted to make a really fun, feisty album, and just wanted to go all the way with every song."
Clarkson penned about half of the album, but it's hard to pin down her work as representing any single style. "My writing is all over the place," she says. "I do love writing sad, depressing songs—that's definitely fun for me. But I'm very much a writer of whatever I'm going through, what I see in my life. And I'm 26, so I change every day!"
Mostly, she's excited to get back on the road and take the songs of All I Ever Wanted onto the stage. "Even when I'm recording, I'm always thinking about how I'm going to do a song live, what I'll be able to bring to it. I make records for touring—it's my favorite part of what I do."
Through the highs and lows, the triumphs and controversies, Kelly Clarkson has retained, even strengthened, her love for all styles of music. With All I Ever Wanted, she's able to fully reveal how far that love extends. "This time, I wanted to show the extremes of what I can do," she says. "That's what keeps me interested, and keeps the audience interested.
"I never want to make just one sound," says Kelly Clarkson. "The worst thing to me is when all the songs on an album sound the same. If you have that choice, why wouldn't you want to bring out all the different sides and colors of your personality?"