Kelly Clarkson Told Us Why the Lows Are Key to Your Story
After talking to Kelly Clarkson for 20 minutes, I find myself blurting out, "Will you be my life coach?"
"That’s awesome," she says, laughing.
Whether she knows it or not, Clarkson’s already served as a life coach for me and millions of others: Her songs "Breakaway," "Miss Independent," "Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)," and "Since U Been Gone" are anthems for confidence and courage. (I know all four scored a spot on my first ever breakup playlist.)
And on her newest album, "Meaning of Life," Clarkson continues that trend, tackling topics like self-care, setting boundaries, the power in speaking up, and more. This time, it’s done in a soulful pop style that lets Clarkson’s voice shine. As one Twitter user put it perfectly in a question to @kelly_clarkson: “Who gave you permission to slay like that on ALL the songs?”
Clarkson, 35, tells Shine a combo of personal and career highs and lows led her to where she is today—which is happier than ever—and to this album, one she says she couldn’t have created at the age of 20 when she first won American Idol.
Still, she says she wouldn’t change the journey.
“It’s been a fun road but a rocky road to get here," Clarkson says. "But if I hadn’t gone through everything I’ve gone through in my life, I don’t think I’d be as great of a mom as I am or as great of a friend as I am or as great of a human as I am. You have to go through stuff in order to enjoy the positive side of life—and to be able to know the difference.”
Read on for more from our conversation—and get your sticky notes ready as she drops wisdom left and right.
Shine: Your album opens with a one-minute song called “A Minute (Intro)”—and it’s my new anthem for self-care. Some of the amazing lyrics: Sometimes I need a minute just for me/I need a minute just to be/I need a minute just to breathe/Sometimes I need a minute that's my own. The song feels like a mini meditation. What inspired it?
Kelly Clarkson: I’m a mom to four and a wife and I have a job—there’s just a lot going on all the time. I think it’s OK to be unapologetic in asking for a minute by yourself. Whether you want to read a book, take a bath, have a glass of wine, go out with your girls, just sit there—I think everybody needs that time to not be surrounded just so you can have space to think.
That’s really where the whole idea for that song came from—sometimes you just want to be still, and that’s alright. I don’t think that should be offensive to anyone. It’s just something where you say, “Hey, it’s OK to take a little time for me.”
I know people can feel selfish if they take time for themselves or time away from this 24/7 Snapchat/Instagram/Facebook/Twitter world. Did you have to learn to prioritize me-time and taking a moment to be still?
When I was younger, I definitely did think, “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.” I didn’t want to miss out on anything, so I didn’t really take the time that I needed for myself.
We’re always surrounded by something or something is always on, whether it’s the TV or your phone. If there’s one thing I could have told myself back in the day, it’s just that it’s OK to just shut off and say, “I’m going to take the afternoon just for me. I don’t even know what I’m going to do. But I just want to chill for a minute alone.” I think that’s healthy.
You’ve called this album a “grown-ass woman’s record” and something you couldn’t have written at the age of 20. It’s also your first album since leaving RCA (Clarkson won a record deal with RCA as part of winning American Idol) and choosing your own label, Atlantic Records. What made you feel ready and able to create "Meaning of Life"?
It all happened because I finally felt the freedom and the space to create what I wanted to create. And, in defense of my previous record label, they didn’t choose me and I didn’t choose them. We were successful, but it was an arranged marriage and it wasn’t fun.
You’re not going to find love unless you create the space for it. You’re not going to find happiness unless you create the space for it. You’re not going to find anything that you’re really desiring unless you create the space for it.
I think that’s what finally happened for me. Everything for this record was just amazing: My relationships with producers and writers that I’ve known for years, they blossomed just because I had the space to do so. I had the creative freedom and I had a moment to do it.
In my life, until I created that space for me to really truly be happy, it didn’t happen.
What other steps did you take to create some space for yourself?
I have that personality almost to a fault where I will try and do everything for everyone else and try and be all things. I’ll also put others maybe even before me. It’s a nice thing to do, but when you’re doing it constantly, then you end up just drowning. And then you can’t hold everything up.
I used to put it all on my shoulders, and I just realized one day that I’m just so tired of treading water. And I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was going to sink at some point, and it was just going to become too heavy. Whether it’s helping out with people, trying to make situations OK that aren’t, friendships that aren’t healthy—all of that.
I had this one point right before I turned 30 and I just went: OK, I need to create this space for myself just so I can see what I want or what I need or what makes me happy. It’s almost like I couldn’t even see any of that because there was so much other stuff in the way.
Was it hard to set up those boundaries?
Possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It wasn’t easy to say, “Hey, I got to get out of this situation, and I know it appears selfish.” But at some point, I had to be selfish. I had to quit treading water.
The ironic part is all the people in my life that love me and were around in that moment—there wasn’t one person that said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you.” All of them literally said, “You know what: It’s about time. Take your moment.”
It’s amazing how you can pick the weeds and keep the flowers at the end of that, because then you find out who really loves you and who really is supportive and who wants the best not only for themselves but for you. It took me forever to muster up the courage to make that space, but once I did everything got better.
Your album is called "Meaning of Life"—so many of us are chasing meaning and fulfillment. What advice would you have for people trying to find their meaning of life?
I think it’s super simple: What makes you happy? What doesn’t make you happy? What is a positive connection? What are the negative connections in your world? What do you love? Who do you love? Who do you want to be? Why don’t you surround yourself with those people?
And with our 16-year-old, [my husband, Brandon Blackstock, and I] always tell her, “No one’s going to know what you think or feel about something unless you tell them.” And that’s when you create happiness; when you start to voice your opinion and voice your feelings and, even if you’re wrong, at least you voiced it and you figured out that you’re wrong.
I mean, I haven’t figured out the meaning of life, but I think we’re all under construction. And I think everyone should be under construction and we should always be growing and changing for the better.
But I think it does boil down to: Does this situation make you happy? Does this person make you happy? And, if not, then maybe make a change.
One of the songs I love on your album is “Go High,” which is inspired by the famous Michelle Obama quote, “When they go low, we go high.” What does that quote and your song mean to you?
No matter what walk of life you come from—no matter what city, what family—we all run into those circumstances where we come across a very unlovely individual. That’s going to happen in your work life, in your personal life, a stranger in the store—it’s just going to happen, it’s inevitable.
I loved [Michelle Obama’s] message because you have a choice in that scenario: You’re either going to let that person have power over your emotions and you’re going to let it affect you, or you’re just going to choose to take the higher road and go, “OK, you weren’t a fan. Cool.”
I still remember when I was a kid, [at school] they had one kid stand on a chair and one of us on the floor. And they said, “Hold hands, and you try to pull him up from the floor, and you try to pull him down off the chair.” Obviously, everyone was pulled down, because it’s far easier to pull someone down off a chair than it is to pull them up.
That just really stuck with me from childhood—that idea that it’s far easier to take the low road and pull someone down and make someone feel horrible and be unlovely. But it’s harder to take the time to pull someone up and go, “Why are you doing this? Why are you being unlovely? What’s wrong? What’s the core problem here?”
One moment when you went high: When you tweeted your support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. You faced some backlash after that—but kept your cool. And you had such a great clapback.
I don’t mind if someone disagrees with me—I love a good debate. I love to learn. I love learning things that I maybe didn’t know about policies or candidates. If someone says something hurtful, I always think, “Why don’t you just tell me why you love what you love instead of telling me why you hate me?”
I’m never going to not be me or not stand up for something that I believe in just because I think it might gain or lose fans. That’s not living my life. I have to be me, and I’ve always been that way since I was on Idol. I’m unapologetic about it because I think we’re all humans and we all have our own thoughts and beliefs. Especially being a woman—a lot of women have pioneered the way for me to be able to have a vote and an opinion.
I think I have more of an obligation because I’m in the public eye to start these conversations. I don’t ever want to force my opinion on someone, but I definitely want to voice my opinion because I have a voice.
Do you have a life mantra you try to live by, or something you’re specifically trying to impart on your kids?
I heard one time this saying that I loved: “Never take advice from anyone you wouldn’t switch places with.”
It stuck with me. I just thought it was a really great piece of wisdom that someone imparted on me years ago. Go with your gut, and, if you’re on the fence, when you’re taking advice from people, don’t take advice from someone you wouldn’t want to switch places with.
If you could give advice to 20-year-old Kelly Clarkson about the journey ahead—what would you say?
Hold on—it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Your 20s are so hard; they’re fun, but you’re also finding out who you are and who you aren’t. But I probably wouldn’t tell myself much, because it’s how I learned. I’ve never been the person to focus on the future—I like to focus on the here and now. So I don’t think I would change anything. It would change who I am now—and I like who I’ve become.