In a story about “Mr. Know It All” — the first single off Kelly Clarkson’s new album Stronger — Entertainment Weekly calls the singer and songwriter “the samurai of shooting guys down.” Indeed Clarkson has earned herself millions of devoted fans thanks to her feisty, straight-talking lyrics. Gold and platinum hits like “Miss Independent,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Walk Away,” “Never Again,” and now “Mr. Know It All,” are bold empowerment anthems, which Clarkson sells to the fullest with her soulful, powerhouse voice and down-to-earth relatability.
The vibrant, musically diverse Stronger (which Clarkson says was influenced by Tina Turner, Prince, Sheryl Crow, and Radiohead) will thrill those who love Clarkson for her resilience. The album is filled with candid, emotionally raw tunes like “The War Is Over,” “Darkside,” and “Honestly,” as well as “You Love Me” (in which Clarkson witheringly tells an ex “you’re not good enough”), “Einstein” (the cad in question is dismissed with “Here’s your keys, your bags, your clothes, and now get out of my place”), and the title track, which finds Clarkson putting a fresh spin on Nietzsche’s adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and declaring “it doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone.” That fact that these gutsy sentiments are wrapped in fizzy pop melodies, bright choruses, and driving dancefloor-friendly beats (crafted by such A-list producers as Rodney Jerkins, Greg Kurstin, Josh Abraham, and Toby Gad) only makes them that much more appealing.
“The whole album is very much about strength and empowerment, so ‘Stronger’ felt like the perfect title,” Clarkson says. “Plus that song is just a gold mine — it’s a little bit pop, a little bit pop-rock, a little bit urban, a little bit dance, and it ties everything in. And everybody loves that message. ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ It’s a perfect representation of my life.”
Clarkson’s life has had its share of challenges. Her parents divorced when she was six and her mother struggled financially to raise Kelly and her older siblings. “My mom had to do everything on her own,” Clarkson says. “She put herself through school. It was really hard. I think watching that molded me into this person who wants to relay a message to women everywhere that they’re capable of doing whatever they set their mind to. It made an impact on me even though I didn’t know it at the time. Now I see it while I’m making these songs that I hope will inspire people.”
She may not have known how her early life would shape her artistry, but Clarkson did understand the emotional power of music from a young age. She was first drawn to singing at age eight after an eye-opening visit to an African-American church in Fort Worth. “I was like, ‘Wow, whatever they’re feeling, I want to feel it too,’” she recalls. When Clarkson was in junior high school, a music teacher heard her singing in the hallway and encouraged her to join the choir. “When you’re a kid and you find something you’re good at, you cling to it. People would say nice things and that gave me confidence. Everybody always asks me what I would do if I weren’t singing and I have no clue, because I have no other talents,” she says with a laugh.
As is well known by now, Clarkson first appeared on the public’s radar in 2002 during the first season of American Idol. “When I auditioned, my apartment in Los Angeles had recently burned down and I had a box of photographs to my name,” Clarkson says. “I figured I’d get to sing and make some money to pay the bills. Nobody thought that show was going to be what it is now.” Of course Clarkson won and went on to become an international pop icon, selling over 20 million albums worldwide (including 10 million in the U.S.) and notching seven singles on the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She has released four studio albums, 2003’s double-platinum No. 1 Thankful, 2004’s 6x-platinum Breakaway (which sold over 12 million copies worldwide, spawned five Top 10 hits, and stayed on the charts for two years), 2007’s platinum-selling My December, and 2009’s All I Ever Wanted, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 and produced the smash singles “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Already Gone.” Clarkson has also received two Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, two MTV Music Awards, and 11 Billboard Music Awards.
With all those accolades, it’s tempting to wonder why Clarkson is continually drawn to songs about overcoming challenges. “I think I gravitate toward songs with a defiant message because I always feel like I’m fighting just to be me,” she says. “That’s why I tend to write or choose songs about how just being you is okay. People associate me with break-up songs, but most of the time the song isn’t even about a guy. I never write about one particular thing. I always relate the topic to different situations in my life, whether it’s family, friends, or work. That’s what makes the songs connect on a broader level.”
Clarkson co-wrote five tracks on Stronger, a process she feels is therapeutic. Her favorite song on the album is “You Love Me,” which she says she wrote following an incident that she thought would break her. “It was probably the most hurt I’ve ever been in my life,” she admits. “But by writing about it, I got to work through it and get it out of my system.” The remainder of the songs were written by a host of A-list songsmiths, including Rodney Jerkins, Ester Dean, Bonnie McKee, and Toby Gad, whom Clarkson says really took the time to get to know her style. She also credits her producers, Jerkins, Kurstin, Abraham, and Gad among them, for what she says is the biggest difference between Stronger and her previous albums.
“What separates this album are the vocals,” she says. “They sound richer and fuller, and, for the first time, how I sound when I’m performing live. The producers I worked with just let me sing and be me. They didn’t strip away the personality. And it was one of those things where if the people I’m working with have confidence in me, I have more confidence in myself and that changed everything. I can’t wait to perform these songs on tour. I think that’s the best way to get to know an artist, and where you get to see actual personality, because we can’t hide much onstage.”
And how does she think her fans around going to react to Stronger? “I have an indication that they know they’re going to love it,” she says. “I ran into a fan the other day in Target. It was a mom and her daughter and they were just like, ‘Oh my God, we don’t even care what you put out if you could just put something out.’ It’s funny, they didn’t even care what it was. I love that people still get excited about new music.”