Kelly Clarkson Gets Real About Candid Post-Divorce Album, ‘Chemistry’

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Who wouldn’t want to sing Kelly-oke to a brand new Kelly Clarkson album? But just be prepared to go to a few darker places, as some of the deeply confessional songs on “Chemistry” come up, many of them prompted by her 2020 divorce from Brandon Blackstock and the events that led up to it. Even if she insists that she put some of the most baldly personal songs she wrote away in a drawer, what’s left is still altogether autobiographical, having been written during some of her darkest days roughly three years ago.

Not that it’s entirely daunting stuff; Clarkson made sure to include some songs harking further back in her relationship, before the chemistry went sour, to cover the heat generated in the early stages of a relationship, too. She joined Variety via Zoom to discuss the full arc of what “Chemistry” covers.

You’ve said you wrote a lot of the material for this album on planes going back and forth, late at night. What was going on then, and why was that such a good place to get your feelings out?

Those were very emotional moments. First of all, I was exhausted emotionally, just from going through a divorce. And I was working very hard, two or three jobs at once, plus flying my kids. Every night I’d go right after work, have to fly, then fly back. I’d have my headphones on and everything would go away. It was dark and, because it was always at nighttime and 35,000 feet in the air, it’s the one place where people aren’t really bothering you and talking to you and wanting something from you, so it was a still environment. I think that’s why. I didn’t plan it. Yeah, there were a lot of tear-filled airplane rides, writing these songs.

Did you ever find when you were writing songs that you were able to use them to sort of decide what you were thinking or feeling, in a way that you couldn’t if you were just thinking it through without having that form to it?

Yeah, that’s the thing. I wasn’t writing, like, “This is gonna be a record.” I was literally writing because that’s my form of therapy. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a relationship where you just don’t know. You’re like, “Have I tried harder? Am I doing all I can?” You’re still on the fence; you just don’t know which way you’re gonna go, and you’ve felt like you’ve just been doing that, treading water, for so long. So I think — I don’t think, I know — that’s my form of figuring out: What am I feeling? It’s my way of getting through something.

Which just so happens to be a way of connecting with people, obviously, too, deciding to put some of these songs out. Because that’s the worst part, man, when you are alone and you feel like, as much as you try and describe your situation, no one knows that in their world like you do in yours. That’s true for everyone. So it could just feel very isolating, along with a global pandemic and trying to make America smile via a talk show. It felt very isolating and I just felt alone. And I think that’s one of the main reasons for releasing it for me. It’s like, man, if this helps one person relate to something or helps them through the grieving process, it’s worth it.

Not to be reductive and just call it a divorce album, but there are a lot of artists who’ve written albums in that circumstance in the last few years — Adele, Kacey Musgraves, the Chicks, Kelsea Ballerini have all written kind of post-divorce albums. And one thing those maybe have in common with yours is, when you sing in one of the lines, “It’s all over town. Why did she leave him?” It has to do with writing about being the one who decides to leave, and not getting dumped, which is more common pop songwriting. So is part of writing in any way thinking you feel like I need to explain why you made certain choices?

No, I don’t feel that pressure. I think just most times if you think of your favorite albums that stick out to you — “Jagged Little Pill,” or most of Joni Mitchell’s records — unfortunately, a lot of great, relatable, hit-you-where-it-counts music comes from tragedy. Like, “Imagine,” John Lennon… that didn’t come from a happy experience. It came from like experiencing something horrible and trying to get at it through hope. By no means am I comparing my record to any of those people or to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But I just think a lot of music in general that people relate to comes from hard times.

You know, even when I was making my Christmas record (2021’s “When Christmas Comes Around…”), that’s kind of a breakup Christmas album. Think of “Hard Candy Christmas”; that song is one of the most famous Christmas songs, and it’s one of my favorite songs of Dolly’s, and that’s a really sad song. It’s a song about hard times. With these kinds of albums, people are curious because during hard times people tend to get more raw, vulnerable and honest. And it’s relatable, instead of hearing you come out with some kind of pop-dance anthem that feels good, but it’s fleeting. But some songs and some albums last for fans for forever.

Then you do have a few of the lighter songs on the album, the kind of sexual energy songs, like “Chemistry” and…

“Chemistry” is lighter? Oh my God, I love that’s how you saw it. I find it torture, just being drawn to someone you shouldn’t be drawn to. I get what you’re saying, though: Sonically, audio-wise, that’s lighter, more ethereal, more sweet- sounding than the others. Or even “Favorite Kind of High,” that’s more of the sexually charged kind of vibe. But that’s important. That’s a great part of a relationship, when you first encounter someone and there’s that chemical reaction that you just can’t even put into words, but it’s happening.

And that’s the thing. It was very important for me to not just have a divorce album. I wanted an entire relationship to be covered. You listen to “Magic” and it’s like, man, I’m willing to do this for you. Like, we all have our own damage. I have mine too; I’ll share mine, you share yours; we can do this. It’s every stage of a relationship, and that was very important to me, rather than just having a breakup album.

Some artists might not to have an autobiographical flashback to when times were good on an album after a divorce or breakup. It would be like not wanting to give the other person that much credit, to flatter them by writing a song about when things used to be hot, as well as something more bitter.

Yeah. And it doesn’t really bother me, because that was real and, although it’s non-existent now, it did exist. (The current situation) doesn’t mean it didn’t feel beautiful and wonderful, and even though love didn’t work out for me so much, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Some people go through life and they never even have a taste of that. Right? So I just think it’s wasteful to throw everything out, and I didn’t want to do that.

There’s so much confessional writing on this, and in that, it almost kind of harks back to an early album of yours, “My December.” It feels like there are some parallels with this, even though it’s been 15 years and you’ve lived a lifetime since then. Both albums that go a little bit to a darker place or something than normally you might on an album. Is there any sense in which it reminds you of that in some way?

No, that’s a very different chapter for me. But now that I’m thinking of, like, “Sober”… I’m trying to think of all those songs. I can definitely see that. But lot of the songs on that record were metaphorical for really hard business relationships. So, yeah, I can see how you would hear that. But no, these are very different places for me. I don’t want to demean “My December” by any means, because that was where I was. But this record is coming from a person who’s really been in love and really had real loss in that lane of love, and also with children, and I’m just been doing it for 20-plus now at this point. So I think it’s just a different. A lot of this record is more like the foundation is hurt, rather than just anger.Aand even the anger in a lot of that record was metaphorical, and I maybe didn’t talk about that enough in interviews, but that was a lot about the business area going wrong at that time.

Now you don’t have to write metaphorically when you write that type of song. I remember, when you were at the Belasco and introducing “Red Flag Collector,” you said you told your co-writer, “I need to write a song or I might light this house on fire.”

Yeah. It’s very, very, very angry.

Was that the way a lot of the songs came about, or was it sometimes more methodical? Or was it always, “I’ve got this feeling and I’ve gotta get it out?”

The most thought through it ever was was just: Get it out. There was not one song that was really overthough;, it was literally just stream of consciousness, like get it out, either with Jason (Halbert) or Jesse (Shatkin), the other producer. … It all just came out. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I wanna write about this part of the relationship.” Things would happen and I literally would just write it out. And all of it was written two and a half, three years ago.

Did you ever go back and second-guess, like “Maybe this is too candid” or “I need to edit this” or “How will people perceive me?”

Oh yeah. There were songs like that. Those songs didn’t make it. I felt like with these, I wanted to be honest, and I wanted every single emotion and every part of the rollercoaster ride to be on there, once I decided I was going to release it. But I feel like I kept it (from being too personal). There’s a couple things that maybe were literal, but, like, inside-jokey for me. I feel like for the most part, it’s broad enough that a lot of people can relate to that feeling or that situation, and that’s the point, right? Connecting. So, I feel like I kept the ones… like, trust me, the ones that made the album, those are the lighter versions. I think the only one that comes close is maybe “Red Flag Collector.” That’d be the one that comes the closest.

“Down To You” is kind of an angry song, too.

Well, what’s funny is I actually wrote “Down to You” while I was still married. That was actually written before this record. And “My Mistake,” which I didn’t write, I did those two before. “Down to You,” I actually wrote about, honestly, a few different relationships going on and just figuring stuff out. I just really loved those songs. I was like, these are actually just really great songs and they fit.

On the album, in “Me,” you sing, “I shut out some parts of me. I’m always pleasing someone.” And also, in “High Road,” “I live my life in disguise and when I’m hurting, it’s incognito, so everyone thinks I’m a hero.” Obviously you are on TV every day, or a lot of days, and you have this personality people are in love with, and that seems like the real you, too. So is that what were you sort of exploring there? When you’re expected to be bubbly, how much of that is disguise and how much is real?

Well, interestingly enough, you just picked the Gayle song. That’s actually a line she wrote. The second verse and the bridge are me, and the other parts are hers. So, I just didn’t want to take credit for that. But yeah, I do relate to that. I think all of us are… I don’t wanna say “guilty of that,” but all of us can fall into that temptation of like, “OK, I just have to do what I gotta do. I’m gonna put myself on the back burner, do the job…” Whether you work in a cubicle from 9 to 5, everybody has that, where you’re not having a great day and you have to go to work and it’s not the fault of anybody there. I’m very good at compartmentalizing, to a fault, and so I’m able to do that. There was one time I was not in the past three years. I never really canceled anything, but I had to cancel something, just because physically you could tell I was destroyed. There was no hiding it.

But I think for the most part, we’re all capable of showing up at work, clocking in and going, OK, I’m gonna focus on this, and then I’m gonna clock out — and then it’s me again. When you’re clocking in, you’re still you; it’s just the version of you that, honestly, you hope to like feel one day again. You’re showing up and you’re smiling and you’re focusing on other people. Especially with my show: I get to focus on these incredible people that are doing insanely cool things, that are honestly a healthy distraction during that time, and that honestly puts things in perspective, for you and your world. But I think it’s all me. It’s just sometimes, we do put our best foot forward for people, not because you’re really afraid to show people the pain. Because I definitely show people that. It’s just more so because this moment is not about me. These people have been waiting to have this moment, about their organization, their scene, their movie, talking about whatever — this is about them.

So that’s about just not being selfless in that moment. But I think I’ve been a healthy amount of honest about the gist of everything, because I feel like it’s transparent. People eventually see through that.

We wrote about the taping you did recently at the Belasco in L.A. where you performed the “Chemistry” album in its entirety. Is there a plan to put that show up for public view in its entirety?

I’m gonna be real with you. Plans changed, because you have the writers’ strike, so a lot of our promo that we had in place, obviously, we couldn’t do — a lot of our big things. So, we’re pivoting. We’re releasing things from the Belasco, because of the lack of availability to promote how we normally would. It’s a blessing in disguise, because we did it for a completely different reason. I wanted people to be able to have a visual, but now it’s being released in a different way. I wanted people to have a visual and I had this whole plan for it, and I’d never done anything like that and it was important to me, because obviously this record is very personal. But it has been really cool to release different parts of that to let people have a peek at it, because it was obviously a very intimate environment. I don’t know if I’ve played a show like that since the first tour I ever did, where everybody didn’t know the majority of the songs.

When you perform this material now, to the extent that you have at things like that Belasco show, does it feel like something you already exorcised, or are you kind of re-exorcising it as you sing things that you wrote several years ago?

That’s a great question. And here’s the real answer. I would love to be the girl that would tell you right now that I won’t fall prey to the same unhealthy habits or things that have got me where I was in the first place, but I think we’re always working on it, right? So, even when I’m singing it, it’s a nice reminder of, like, “Look, you know, red flag.” That’s a nice reminder to just keep reminding you of surrounding yourself with those who you want to be like, or that make you a better version of you, or make you happy.

But I would be lying if I said I weren’t singing some of these songs and still feeling a tinge of that pull. I mean, it’s basically like how addicts like addiction. You’re used to habitual patterns, you’re used to these things and I think you’re an idiot to go, “Oh, I’m immune to doing that, since I’ve gotten through it.” I think you’re constantly reminding yourself not to do something, or, “Hey, have more self-worth than that.” I think we’re constantly, if you’re being honest, always having to remind yourself of those habits you maybe have had since childhood. I think it’s constant, and that’s OK.

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