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Q&A: Kelly Clarkson Talks ‘Piece By Piece,’ Identity Politics, and Recording While Pregnant

The former 'American Idol' winner also talked about how Sia helped with the LP

On March 3, pop superstar Kelly Clarkson will release her seventh studio album, Piece By Piece. It’s a largely anthem-driven project that’s been in the making for four years, and is partially helmed by such big-name collaborators as Sia, Greg Kurstin, Justin Tranter, Bonnie McKee, and more. In the middle of her press tour, the former American Idol winner got on the phone with SPIN to talk about recording while pregnant, teaming up with some of pop’s biggest stars, and not realizing that one of her new songs was actually a cover.

When did you start actually working on this album?
A couple of songs were recorded during my Maroon 5 tour a couple years ago. That was just because they came in and I was like, “Ooh, I wanna put these on hold.” I thought, “Man, if I put my vocal on them…” They were songs that I didn’t write, so I wanted to make sure the writers knew I was serious about them. So I did that, and then most of the record was recorded when I was pregnant, so it was… interesting, and challenging, but also very fun at the same time. It’s hard to explain, but when you’re pregnant, everything is enhanced. You just feel everything 100 percent more than normal, and so a lot of the vocals came off super passionate and intense. It was different to make a record like that — I liked it.

When you started recording again, was there a moment when you thought to yourself, “Here’s what I’d like to do differently on this album?”
I’ve always been an artist that’s been attracted to empowering messages and production. I did know with this record — I was talking to Greg [Kurstin] and Jesse [Shatkin] and Jason [Halbert], the other producers. I was like, “I want each song to sound like its own soundtrack.” I love soundtracks and I love how you can tell, “Oh, this should be in a soundtrack!” You can picture the movie. I definitely wanted the orchestral elements going on and I definitely wanted the intense factor going on. I’ve always been that way — nothing really changed. I love empowering songs and anthems and I think that’s pretty clear. [Laughs.] I’m still the same chick.

Are there any soundtracks in particular that stand out?
Yes, I love Cruel Intentions, that’s my favorite soundtrack. I love Love Actually. It’s got everything, it’s great. They’ve got Eva Cassidy, Maroon 5… a random plethora of music that’s just awesome. I just love that, when you listen to a song and feel that. John Legend and I, our song on this record, “Run Run Run,” it just sounds like it should be in a movie. It sounds so epic and I love that.

How did working with John on this song come about, and how’d you both decide to cover a Tokio Hotel track?
Well that’s funny actually… I just found out today that it was a Tokio Hotel song. I didn’t actually know that. [Laughs.] I was just talking to my assistant about it, like, “Man, I gotta reach out to them about it!” I didn’t cover them, because the only time I’d ever heard that song was from my publisher, who sent it to me and said, “Hey, I have this demo with a piano and a vocal from David Jost,” one of the writers. That’s the only way I knew it was the song. I didn’t know it was already out there, so that was really fun finding out. It’s a great song so I could see why another band would wanna sing it. It’s so good and intense, but I guess we have the duet version.

[With John], we had sang together before on Duets, the show we did together, and we kind of just blended well. We sang together on that show and then he came and sang on a tour at the Hollywood Bowl I was doing. We already had a relationship so I felt like it was very natural to ask him. He is so sweet. He got back to me within ten minutes of sending the email. “Oh my god, I’d love to do it. Send me the file!” He was on tour so we weren’t able to actually be in the studio at the same time, but he’s perfect for the song and how I wanted to take it — very dark and very soulful. I already knew we blended well.

In terms of collaborators, you worked with Greg Kurstin and Sia on several Piece By Piece tracks. With the fame those two have gotten this year, what was that partnership like?
Well, I’ve always worked with Greg, and he and Sia have always been close. Anytime I leave Greg’s studio, he’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m about to do a session with Sia!” That relationship happened organically because Jessie Shatkin — who’s also part of that camp, who Sia wrote “Chandelier” with — I’m friends with him and he’s also one of my producers. It just kind of came about. Jessie sent me “Invincible” and it was like, “Oh my gosh, Sia and I just wrote this song and you’ve gotta hear it. I know you’re finished with the record but you’ve gotta hear it.” I fell in love with it obviously. I’m just a big fan of… I love songwriters and singers, like Sia, that are so passionate and you can tell have lived the song. I love that, because there’s nothing worse than listening to a song sung by someone who obviously has never had a broken heart or has never been treated unfairly or been so in love that you can’t contain it. There’s nothing worse than hearing a singer who doesn’t translate that. Sia’s the epitome of that. She’s so passionate and intense and writes these big songs, and I love big songs, so it kind of worked magically.

Sia’s been incredibly vocal about gender and identity politics, especially themes about self-worth and struggling with finding oneself. Were those themes you knew you wanted to bring to Piece By Piece?
I just think all of us experience that, especially by the age of 32 — which I am — I’ve gone through the gauntlet of emotions, especially being in an industry and under a spotlight for thirteen years. You’ve gone through all of those emotions and can relate to them. Those messgaes are easily conveyable. It’s natural for me to sing about that, and it’s also what I love to sing, because I think that’s the powerful thing about music — it connects all of us. We all goes through what might be different situations but they’re rooted in the same raw emotions and feelings. I’ve always been attracted to those intense songs, and I probably always will be.

You point out how you’ve been in the game for a while, and you got into a bit of media hot water last week when you joked that nobody would work with you on this album, which is obviously untrue with just one glance at the credits. Do you get frustrated when your words get warped?
The frustrating part is just… I’m very much “what you see is what you get,” and I’ve always been very honest. As a person in the public eye, I’ve never been one to shy away from saying how I feel, and I’ve never been one to shy away from a joke! So I guess the frustrating thing is — well it’s not frustrating anymore, honestly, because I’ve been doing it for 13 years, but now what’s awesome about social media is I can get on Twitter and say “Ok guys, that was a joke, new story, come on!” I also don’t have the Black Plague. I was saying in the same interview, “I must have the Black Plague.” I was obviously being facetious, it’s cool. Here’s the thing — true fans of my music aren’t even caring about those stories that come out, so I don’t really mind. The media storm will be what it’s gonna be, regardless of how I feel about it. I think I’ve just been doing it so long that I’m not just super phased by it. I don’t let it ruin or make my day.

On one of the album’s first few tracks, “I Have a Dream,” you outline this dichotomy that exists between expectations and reality and how our generation seems to be disappointing to you. What about today’s cultural landscape made you write about that?
When I was writing this song — well first of all, I was very hormonal — I was sitting around and talking with some of my friends, and we were all talking about how I just expected more of our generation. I just expected us, first of all, to be past “Gay, straight, black, and white.” Like, who cares? Are we still talking about this? We should just have equal rights across the board for every person no matter what you look like, no matter who you like. I don’t understand why we’re still struggling with these basic, asinine issues. It bothers me. So I ended up writing this whole song about it and I had a dream that we were more. That’s where the chorus came from. I thought as a kid, I just remember being that ten-year-old girl going, “I can’t wait to change the world.” You dream big when you’re little. I guess I look at our generation and we’re still talking about the same stuff. That’s sad.