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Kelly Clarkson's latest album, 'Chemistry,' is more than just a divorce album


Kelly Clarkson is ready to talk about it...


KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) You know I'm pretty much the worst with timing.

SUMMERS: ...It being her marriage and divorce, which was finalized last year. Now, it may seem strange to say that Clarkson, of all people, is ready to talk. She's an Emmy-winning daytime TV host and a multi-genre music superstar known for powerful vocals and lyrics.


CLARKSON: (Singing) You know chemistry can sneak up on you.

SUMMERS: But in 2020, after nearly seven years of marriage, she filed for divorce from husband Brandon Blackstock. She turned to music, started writing songs about the experience, but the pain felt too fresh to share.

CLARKSON: It wasn't until - and I could - we had the songs for a while, and I just was like, I can't put it out yet. Like, I can't talk about it yet. Now I can talk about it because I'm through it.

SUMMERS: Three years later, those songs make up her 10th studio album, "Chemistry," which is out today. Clarkson takes us through the highs and lows of love.

CLARKSON: The person is magical. You're in love. There's sadness when it doesn't work out. There's that kind of chemistry of holding onto something that you shouldn't. There's just all these different types of chemistry that you can feel in a positive or negative way.

SUMMERS: When I talked with Kelly Clarkson about "Chemistry," I pointed out the fact that a lot of people are already defining it as a post-divorce album. And Clarkson - she doesn't exactly see it that way.

CLARKSON: I mean, I get why they're saying that, but I was very adamant about making it more than just that - like, the negative of, like, what can happen from our relationships because "Favorite Kind Of High" is not a breakup anthem. Like, that's like a - you know, it's almost like that lust that you feel for someone right off the bat - that chemical reaction that you have with, you know, very few people.


CLARKSON: (Singing) You're my favorite kind of high, rushing through me like a fire, and I need you to know.

There's other parts to the relationship. It's not just the sadness or the hurt from it.

SUMMERS: How did you know that you were ready to let the rest of the world in on what has been a deeply personal situation that you're exploring through your music on this album?

CLARKSON: Well, I kind of - that's a great question. I kind of gauged which songs were going to make the album with what was kind of already out there without me having any control - whether it be court documents or whether people knew, like, certain things or what they thought they knew. Like, you know, there's just a lot already out there. And so I kind of gauged...

SUMMERS: About your divorce and your relationship, you mean?

CLARKSON: Absolutely. So there was just - so much was public. So I kind of gauged on, like, what I would allow people to get, you know, involved in in, like, the lyrics. And, like - and then I kind of picked songs, too, that I felt like weren't so exact for me. Like, it could be relatable to many people, like "Lighthouse."


CLARKSON: (Singing) I didn't choose sober, but my eyes can't look away. I see our true colors. Lately, we've been looking gray.

I mean, even though I hate love, like, there's things that people relate to that aren't so pointed at just my life. So I was particular about which ones I chose for the record.


CLARKSON: (Singing) Like a wave, you're always crashing into me, crashing into me. And these days are harder than they used to be, and they used to be. No shooting stars can't fix what we aren't, and what good's a lighthouse when the light is burning out?

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about another song on your album that I keep listening to, trying to figure out. It's the song "Rock Hudson."


CLARKSON: (Singing) You were my Rock Hudson. It was real, but it wasn't. No one never saw it coming. I was never what you wanted.

SUMMERS: Kelly, tell us about this song.

CLARKSON: So Rock Hudson was, like, my favorite when I was, like, a kid - even now. He was just, like, the perfect movie guy - right? - for me. And, you know, whenever I got in this relationship, it was literally - like, I even remember on my first date. Like, it was just literally like everything was like a movie - that kind of love that's just so beautiful and intoxicating and exciting and safe, you know? That song - it just poses that thing of, like - it says, I won't dance anymore.


CLARKSON: (Singing) No, I won't dance anymore. No, I won't put on a show. And you can blame it on me.

I can't do this in front of the camera anymore. I can't, like, try anymore. I can't - I'm like, it's exhausting. And it's exhausting to play the part. And who wants to play a part, right? Like, I want it to be real. I don't really want a movie. Like, I want it to be real life - like, you know? So what you see on camera is not always what is really happening. But I just thought people might relate to the idea that, even if you work in a cubicle, you know, you're coming to work, and you're smiling. And not everybody knows what's going on in your everyday life.


CLARKSON: (Singing) No, I won't let you control. No, I won't be what you want.

SUMMERS: People might be surprised to learn that the actor Steve Martin appears on this album in two different ways, in the lyrics on the song "I Hate Love" and playing the banjo on that song.


CLARKSON: (Singing) I hate love. It's a [expletive] sometimes. Mama, I'm sorry for using that word, but I only use it when it applies.

SUMMERS: How did that happen?

CLARKSON: I literally wrote this song, and I had the lyric in there 'cause I love "It's Complicated," and I do feel like that movie is more real life than "The Notebook." And I was like, I'm going to make a joke of this.


CLARKSON: (Singing) And "The Notebook" lied. "It's Complicated" is more like what happened, so you can keep Gosling and I'll take Steve Martin.

I was very sarcastic. I think it's the second verse of "I Hate Love." And when I did it, I showed my producer. He was like, oh, that's quirky. That's funny - like, how you tied in the two movies. And I was like, yeah. I was like, OK, so I actually have an idea to maybe ask him to play banjo on it. I know it's, like, a pop punk kind of song, but I just really feel like it would be cool to hear banjo on this. And it'd be cool if Steve Martin actually played on it, since I'm referencing him, and he's an incredible musician. I asked. I literally - like, I didn't know him. I still have never met him because, when he was able to record it, I was actually shooting the talk show. So it was very cool of him to say yes.


CLARKSON: (Singing) Counting your blessings on my back, living your best life, living fast.

SUMMERS: I am sure that there are people who are going to be listening to this album after going through a divorce or a breakup themselves. What do you hope that your music says and does for them?

CLARKSON: I think anyone going through something like that, the tough part about it is - 'cause I've had plenty of people since my divorce, like, come up to me and - like, so many people - to talk about it. And everybody's situation is so different. The heartbreak might be similar, but there's no one that can really know exactly your situation, right? So that's so isolating, and you feel so alone. I remember even after I wrote my whole record - like, I remember Lucius ended up coming out with this album called "Second Nature." And oh, my God - like, I relate so much to so many of those songs. And to find a connection like that is so healing. And, like, to find - I don't know - that you're not alone and, like, just - I hope that my album does that for someone - what Lucius' album did for me.


CLARKSON: (Singing) I put together my broken, let go of the pain I've been holding. Don't need to need somebody when I got me.

SUMMERS: Kelly Clarkson - her new album is "Chemistry." Kelly, thank you so much for being with us.

CLARKSON: Oh, absolutely.


CLARKSON: (Singing) But now, on the other side, I remembered I could fly. I told you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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