"STRONGER": The title of Kelly Clarkson's latest album. (Matt Sayles / Associated…)
Kelly Clarkson was three songs into a stripped-down set at West Hollywood's Troubadour last week before she offered a declaration. .
"This is my new CD. I just got it today," said Clarkson, barefoot and giggly after a pre-show shot (she prefers vodka), clutching a copy of "Stronger," released on Monday. "I'm in love with [it]."
Nearly a decade has passed since the 29-year-old was crowned the first "American Idol." Though she's since become a force on the charts with her sassy pop-rock anthems (her biggest record, "Breakaway," has sold more than 6.1 million copies), she admits the disc is a first of sorts for her. It's the first she's released without having to battle label brass. And the record is already garnering acclaim from critics praising its catchy pop hooks and dance-floor punch on songs like the second single, "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)," "You Love Me" and the deceptively titled "Dark Side."
"Literally every album, except this album, I've had to really push for songs or say no on certain stuff," Clarkson said. "It's very easy, obviously, for people when their main goal is to make money. But I don't want to do the same formula as someone else. I want to do my own thing. This album has been a piece of cake. There's no way to describe it. I'm just waiting for the kick in the butt."
Clarkson has never been shy about fighting for her music. There was that infamous clash with legendary music mogul Clive Davis — the only blip of controversy in her career — over her darker, rock-driven 2007 album, "My December," which she spent most of the promo cycle defending. The spat was quickly forgotten when she released 2009's "All I Ever Wanted," which featured the massive hit "My Life Would Suck Without You."
The new album sees her in a better place professionally, and she assures that the empowering title doesn't allude to any specific event from the past year. She simply comes off as more confident now and able to make choices based on experience. Though she worked with hit makers such as Max Martin/Dr. Luke and Ryan Tedder on her last album, this time she tapped a more eclectic team of talent, including Greg Kurstin, Ester Dean, Toby Gad and Bonnie McKee for the disc.
"I've just been doing this for 10 years, and looking back, the past four albums were kind of … everybody going against the grain on each other," she said. "This album, I'm getting along with everyone, everyone is loving the same stuff and the stars are aligning. I think it's because people know me better as an artist now. Producers and writers know me more. I'm not walking into a room and they don't know a thing about me."
Clarkson's relationship with the label might be at its best, but the release of "Stronger" still came with some hurdles. The disc is out nearly a year after it was originally slated, and the lead single, "Mr. Know It All," a mid-tempo R&B-driven pop tune, hasn't caught fire despite falling nicely in the vein of brazen kiss-offs she's known for. Plus, more than an album's worth of songs leaked onto the Internet earlier this year.
Still, most of those songs were not intended for Clarkson's new album. "I write a lot of music for other people, so it made it really confusing because a lot of the songs thatleaked were not the direction I was going for my album," she said. "I make money touring, and with my albums and writing. But a lot of the writers I work with, their only form of income is writing, so when somebody leaks the song, they don't get that they are basically stealing that song. Nobody is going to want to sing it after I'm all over it on the Internet. It's upsetting to me because it's the writer's main source of income. Now they are screwed."
Regardless of a bump or two here and there, Clarkson has still come out ahead of the majority of the "Idol" winners and has proved to have the most promise for career longevity. At the Troubadour, she got raucous applause when she covered another winner, Carrie Underwood, as Blake Shelton and Reba McEntire looked on from balcony seats.
Just don't ask her how she's managed to be one of the few success stories from the show.
"Sometimes I wake up and go, 'How the hell do I have a fan base?' I was with my mom the other day in Texas, and [there was a TV recap] on the best of "Idol," and it was showing me winning," Clarkson says with a laugh. "My mom is like, 'Isn't that weird, youwon that?' We're both having this freak-out moment 10 years later. Like, what happened? It's really weird sometimes to look back." "