Kelly Clarkson Talks Mending a Broken Heart, Making a New Album, and the One Hit Song She Was Nervous to Cover

“American Idol” winner and daytime talk show host returns to discuss her new album, “Chemistry”

June 22, 2023

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” isn’t just a line from one of Kelly Clarkson’s most celebrated songs, it’s also a kernel of wisdom the Grammy-winning musician turned daytime TV host has been forced to live by since divorcing Brandon Blackstock, her husband of nearly seven years and the father of her two children. Though difficult to endure, the break-up served as the inspiration for “Chemistry,” the 41-year-old superstar’s first album since 2017.

The record is a reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly of their time together. “Anger is there … there’s also sexy … there’s also other vibes,” Clarkson told Howard while describing the track “favorite kind of high.” “It’s more of like … when you first meet someone and you kind of want to take their clothes off with your teeth kind of moment. It’s more of that vibe. But for the most part … it is me healing with … a lot of hurt.”

Howard was astounded by Clarkson’s ability to not only transform a failed love story into a successful work of art, but also by how she managed to continue parenting, touring, and making a time-consuming TV show while enduring a reportedly messy divorce.

Photo: The Howard Stern Show

“I’m eerily good at [compartmentalization], but then sometimes you wake up one day and that’s really unhealthy,” Kelly said. “It’s good when you have to work because going through a global pandemic, doing a TV show, and doing ‘The Voice’ [while] my life’s falling apart, and no one knows—that was really hard.”

“When I think Kelly Clarkson as a brand,” Howard began.

“You think happy and bubbly, right?” Kelly interjected. “I know. I am! But I’m also sad sometimes.”

As for the end of her marriage, Kelly was brutally honest. “It sucks and I’m angry, not just for me, but for him and our kids, and it’s just hard,” she said. “You get to a point with certain relationships to where there’s no try left. It’s like, ‘I’m out of try, like I’m exhausted from trying, this should not be this difficult for either one of us.’”

On the song “mine,” which she wrote lyrics and melody for, Clarkson confirmed her anger and pain were both present. “It was one of those things like, ‘How do you feel?’ And it’s like, ‘This is how I feel,’” she explained. “I feel like when you’re in pain and it’s so deep you’re like … ‘I just want you to feel for a moment what’s happening to me, and hey, for a moment I’ll stop and feel what’s happening with you’ … that’s where the song came from.”

Another track, “lighthouse,” came to be during a somber moment after the singer dropped her kids off with her ex-husband. “It had just gotten so brutal that I was like, ‘I don’t think there’s any light left, like I don’t think there’s any hope left,’” she revealed. “I am a person that always sees hope and potential, so that was a really, really hard day.”

As far as future connections, Kelly appears to keep an open mind, although don’t expect her to get married anytime soon. “I think that I’m smart enough to listen and wise enough with age to know that one relationship doesn’t define them all,” she told Howard. “I think marriage is beautiful, and I think that’s awesome for some people, and I think that’s incredible, but I don’t think it suits me at this point in my life.”

Single but Not Ready to Mingle With Pete Davidson and Tom Brady

While marriage may be off the table, Kelly assured Howard she does plan to dive back into the dating pool. Eventually. “It just seems exhausting,” she said, explaining her reluctance had less to do with recovering from her divorce and more with spending quality time with herself. “I think I’m over the trauma. I just really enjoy me right now.”

When Clarkson does put herself back out there, she won’t be doing it on Tinder, Raya, or any other dating app. “I’m not against them or above them. It’s just that [they scare] me,” she said.

Since she wasn’t interested in the apps, Howard figured she might go for a high-profile eligible bachelor. “How long will it be before I see you dating Pete Davidson?” he joked.

“Here’s the thing: He’s cute and he’s funny,” Kelly laughed before admitting she couldn’t picture dating him. “Pete Davidson, you are wonderful, but no I’m not looking.”

What about Tom Brady?

“I have a lot of confidence, I am a very confident woman, [but] I don’t think I’d like to follow [his ex-wife] Gisele Bündchen,” she responded with a laugh. “How do you not think about [following her] when you’re making out with him?”

Howard had one final suggestion: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I don’t work out enough. That would be an intimidating relationship,” Clarkson concluded.

The One Dolly Parton Song She Didn’t Want to Cover

Kelly belted out a show-stopping rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” at last year’s ACM Awards. Though she was happy to cover one of the country music superstar’s songs, she wasn’t necessarily thrilled by the song they chose for her. “I usually would never say yes to singing that song,” she told Howard, explaining perfect renditions had already been recorded by both Parton and Whitney Houston. “You’re already defeated before you even sing one note.”

Even so, she wasn’t turning down the chance to celebrate Dolly’s legacy. “I wanted to be a part of it,” she told Howard. “You can’t let your ego kill the moment.”

It all worked out in the end, too. Not only did country music fans love the performance, which Kelly described as a little bit Dolly and a little bit Whitney, but she received a big thumbs up from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton. “He was like … ‘That was incredible. I’m so glad I was here for this moment,’” Clarkson recalled. “He was so lovely about it.

It’s Not All About the Benjamins

Coming from humble beginnings, Clarkson has never been driven by dollar signs. “What’s the point of all the money?” she wondered to Howard. “You see all these people with all this money and they’re not happy, they’re not living their best life, they’re freaking miserable, usually.”

The artist joked that to the dismay of her business managers, she’s selective when it comes to things like private gigs, which can be substantially lucrative. “I like to pay my bills, but when you come from nothing, you realize you don’t need that to survive … you realize you’ll be fine, so I don’t put a lot of weight in that,” she said. “I think a lot of kids that grow up like me, they go one way or the other … you either don’t give it power or you give it all the power.”

When it came to her contract with RCA Records, 19 Recordings, and manager Simon Fuller — all made possible by winning “Idol” — the singer admitted she had felt powerless. “I was so unhappy because he wasn’t really the one that was there, it was people working under him and it just was not a good fit,” Clarkson said, recalling a struggle with at least one executive over her image.

Confronting Fuller over her unhappiness, Kelly was surprised at how accommodating he was. “He literally in that moment said, ‘Oh my gosh Kelly, I had no idea. I’m so sorry …. I will not only let you out, I will help you find management if you need to,’” she remembered. “He let me out and that never happens … Simon Fuller is an incredible man.”

Her relationship with legendary A&R man Clive Davis, who was head of RCA Music Group at the time and executive produced her first two albums, was a bit trickier. “It was like a dream come true working with this person who had worked with so many people that I love,” Clarkson said of Davis, who had been credited with helping the careers of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Whitney Houston. “The problem with he and I [was] he literally was like, ‘You just need to shut up and sing.’ He wanted me to be a Whitney Houston. I love Whitney Houston … but I don’t want to be her … it was just a really hard relationship.”

To this day, Clarkson has mixed feelings about the executive. “Here’s the thing, I don’t prefer him and will never barbecue with him,” she said matter-of-factly. “But do I think he’s had massive success with other artists and has done really well? Like, obviously.”

Performing Live Can Be a Dangerous Game

As an entertainer, Kelly was appalled at the news of a concertgoer throwing his cell phone at singer Bebe Rexha at a New York show recently, reportedly because he thought it would be funny. “He should let her throw a telephone at his face, then he can experience that fun,” Clarkson suggested.

The potential of danger while performing live has crossed her mind in the past, especially after the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas “I was like, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to go back out?’” Clarkson recalled thinking at the time. “Because then you start thinking like, ‘I’m going to risk that and like not see my kids again ‘cause I was singing onstage? … It becomes very silly.”

Even when well-intentioned, like the time a fan rushed on stage and gave her an unwelcome hug, that kind of interaction can be a scary thing. “At that moment, I realized how vulnerable I was, and I had never thought like that before,” the singer admitted. “At shows people are very angry, and you don’t want to get caught in that crossfire of anger.”

Not Every Musician Was Nice to Her After ‘Idol’

Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini on the Season 1 finale of "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini on the Season 1 finale of “American Idol” Photo: Getty Images

After selling millions of albums, selling out countless concerts, and finding tremendous success on daytime TV, Kelly has become one of the most respected entertainers on the planet. As she told Howard, however, that wasn’t always the case. After winning “American Idol” in 2002, she recalled several musicians looking down on her reality TV background.

“It’s a tone, it’s a passive aggressive thing,” she told Howard, declining to name names. “There have been a few times where they are just flat-out rude.”

“The irony is that a few of those artists have worked on shows that are exactly like the show I came from,” Kelly continued. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re cashing in now, but I wasn’t cool enough then? Okay, cool.’”

To a certain extent, Kelly understood the sentiment — she and the other “Idol” winners hadn’t exactly spent decades gigging in clubs before catching their big breaks — but that was hardly an excuse for rude behavior. “What’s wrong with you that you have to yuck someone’s yum?” she wondered. “This is how they got here. Why shit on their rainbow?”

Regardless, Kelly did her best to stay above the fray. “I’m gonna let this go like [‘Frozen’s’] Elsa and move on,” she recalled thinking.

‘The Kelly Clarkson Show’ Was A Surprise Hit

If you had said in 2019 that “The Kelly Clarkson Show” was destined to fail, Kelly might’ve been the first to agree with you. “I honestly did not think the TV show was going to do anything,” she told Howard, adding, “No one was more a naysayer than me.”

Over four years, 700 episodes, and a handful of Emmys later, however, Kelly has proven herself wrong. “We’ve done so well. It’s so odd,” she laughed.

There were still a few dream guests she hoped to one day book, of course, including Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox and film icon Meryl Streep. But Kelly felt grateful to have already met and interviewed a dazzling array of exceptional artists, like actress Julie Andrews and musician Bonnie Raitt, two of her longtime idols.

“[Raitt’s] one of my favorite females ever to exist on the planet,” Kelly said.

How ‘Breakaway’ Almost Got Away

Whether it’s covering Guns N’ Roses in concert or kicking off her show with a rousing round of “Kellyoke,” Clarkson rarely shies away from putting her own spin on another artist’s great song. However, when it came to recording “Breakaway” — a song written by pop-punk rocker Avril Lavigne — for her sophomore studio album, Kelly recalled feeling skeptical.

“I liked the song, I’m going to lead with that, but I’m going to be honest with you … it doesn’t sound [like the rest of the album] … I just didn’t think it fit in,” Clarkson told Howard. Thankfully, Kelly’s record label disagreed. “They were pushing for it, and I was like, ‘Man, if y’all really believe in it, then alright.’”

“And then we ended up naming [the album] ‘Breakaway,’” Kelly laughed.

The Lavigne-penned single became a big hit for Kelly and in subsequent years she’d go on to record songs written or co-written by everyone from P!nk and Katy Perry to Christina Aguilera. “A great song is a great song, and I love supporting other females,” Clarkson concluded.

Kelly Clarkson’s new album “Chemistry” is available Friday, June 23.

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