Listening in ... With R.J. Helton & Kelly Clarkson
- CCM Magazine
- 2004 5 May
Remember the excitement when the first season of “American Idol” winnowed down to the top 10? Admit it: Most of you were on pins and needles as you waited to see who won. That may have been almost two years ago, but that doesn’t mean friends aren’t friends forever. And when CCM discovered that our own R.J. Helton, whose "Real Life" (B-Rite) CD released March 23, still stays in contact with first season winner Kelly Clarkson, we knew we had the perfect fit for a great conversation.
R.J.: What “Idols” do you keep in touch with?
Kelly: I keep in touch with you and EJay [Day]. I don’t get to talk to Jim [Verraros]; but I talk to him through everybody because he always sends messages, and I send them back. And Tamyra [Gray], actually, is the one I keep in contact with the most.
R.J.: Of course. I think I keep in touch with Tamyra the most as well.
Kelly: She’s just one of those people; she’s nice to talk to all the time. She’s just such a cool girl.
R.J.: Well, what about Clay [Aiken]? Have you gotten to know him very well?
Kelly: I never really got to talk to Clay until I really met him when we decided to tour together. I just called him up and said, “Why don’t we just tour together since we’re touring at the same time?” He’s such a cool guy. He’s very, very Southern, so I get along with him.
R.J.: That’s always a plus. I enjoy my Southern people as well.
Kelly: And actually, a lot of people that do well on “Idol” are Southern.
R.J.: OK, here’s a more personal question: How has dating changed for you since you were crowned?
Kelly: Wow, it’s so hard.
R.J.: Do you even have time for that?
Kelly: No, to be honest with you. Like the other day, I met this really cool guy at Sea World, who trains killer whales; and he was so cool. I was like, “Wow, I could so date you. But I can’t because, wow, I’m never going to see you.” I don’t have the time. And it’s kind of a selfish point in both of our lives just because we’re so busy.
R.J.: On another note, how would you describe yourself spiritually?
Kelly: I always grew up in church. I was the leader of our youth group. I’ve always grown up pretty close to church and with God. But I think I’ve just gotten a lot closer just because He’s the only One I can lean on.
R.J.: Do your spiritual beliefs influence your decisions on how you present yourself as an artist or onstage? You’ve stayed extremely humble, which is an amazing characteristic of Christianity. You’re still the same person from what I can tell.
Kelly: Right. I think that’s why I’ve stayed humble. Because, to be honest with you, R.J., you and I both know tons of people who can sing far better than both of us. And it’s a blessing that I’m even here. I think it’s just cool because we both want to be positive role models for kids, and I think the best way I’ve done that is not trying to be “little Miss Perfect” – just being myself. And just letting God speak through me and do His work.
R.J.: Being a role model is very scary because everyone watches you 10 times more, and me being in the Christian or gospel market is even worse. I can’t go anywhere; I can’t do anything without people holding me under a microscope. How do you feel about being a role model?
Kelly: Same. It’s kind of scary sometimes just because you look at yourself, and you’re like, “Wow. I mean, I’m not a role model.” You don’t want to slip up because you’re trying to set a good example for, especially, the young ones who are our fans.
R.J.: Besides me, who are your personal heroes? (Just kidding.)
Kelly: You are so cute. I’d definitely say my mom. I grew up pretty much the hard way and went through a couple of divorces with my family.
R.J.: I’ve been there, done that.
Kelly: I raised myself really quickly. But the thing is she let me out on my own because she was so busy as a single mom. But, at the same time, I learned so much from her – like being independent and being the person I am today. I can be put anywhere, and I’m comfortable.
R.J.: That’s the same with me. My mom went through a couple of divorces; I didn’t meet some of my family until I was actually on tour. And so my mom is probably my biggest hero. So tell me, are you at all familiar with the Christian music scene?
Kelly: Yeah, I like Jaci Velasquez; I like Avalon …
R.J.: I love Avalon!
Kelly: And Steven Curtis Chapman. I like a lot of the older artists.
R.J.: The people who have actually made a huge impact.
Kelly: I think the reason why they have, though, is because it sends a positive message; but it sends it in a way that I’m going to listen to it. Like sometimes a lot of Christian music – not to be mean – it sounds the same. It sounds redundant and stuff. And I like the fact that, for your album, you’ve put in the R&B, the urban soul.
R.J.: Everything sounds exactly the same. And I think that’s exactly how it was. For me, I wanted to put every type of music I love – with the exception of country. I didn’t add that, but everything I love I wanted to add into the CD – like pop, a little bit of rock, a little bit of R&B, urban, gospel.
Kelly: Listening to your songs and listening to your writing – I never had seen you write before – and it’s just cool because it’s something people can relate to. It’s something people really want to listen to.
R.J.: Yeah, I think “churchy” language turns people off. Even if you are a Christian, “churchy” language turns people off; and I tried to steer clear. There are, obviously, some more Christian songs on the record; but, for me, I wanted to kind of stay away from the really, really “churchy” language. That way it could be more universal.
Kelly: That’s stepping outside of the Christian bubble and trying to reach others. That’s what you should be doing. I think with your record, what’s good about it is the fact that whenever I play it – like on tour right now – all the band would be like, “Oh wow. That’s so awesome.” Nobody said right away, “Oh, that’s Christian music,” and then walked away. They listened to it because it’s really great music. And it touches people.
R.J.: Well, you know what? Even listening to your record – because I’ve pretty much memorized it – there are some I would call inspirational songs …
Kelly: Like “Thankful.”
R.J.: Definitely. I would consider that more of a Christian …
Kelly: That’s one of the ones I wrote.
R.J.: In getting to know you and watching your live show, you have completely evolved as an artist. And your voice has never sounded better. But you’re using live instruments on your tour; you’re playing, which is really cool. I respect that a lot about you. How is it onstage? Do you get even more nervous than you normally would?
Kelly: To be honest with you, I don’t get nervous with guitar. I’m fine with it. It’s a stringed instrument, and I’ve grown up with it because I used to play violin. But I got really nervous with the piano. I wasn’t singing as well as I should be. I was worrying so much about the piano that I wasn’t relaying the message of the song. If I’m not comfortable with something, I don’t do it. First off, I’m a singer; and I always will be. But with the guitar, I love it – I feel like I’m Jimi Hendrix. And I’m not. (Laughs.) But I love playing it, and it’s just fun for me.
R.J.: People who write their music, who play their music, are respected so much more. And so my goal, I think, for the future is to learn. I’m going to start taking guitar lessons in the next couple of months because I really would love to do it.
Kelly: It’s just fun because when you start writing your own stuff and doing it with the instruments as well, it becomes more you. It becomes more of your soul, more of your heart.
R.J.: Now, obviously, people know that you are a very, very soulful white girl. But a lot of people don’t know that you love rock music.
Kelly: I love rock music.
R.J.: Who are some of your musical influences?
Kelly: OK, these are across the board – are you ready? (Laughs.) Reba McEntire, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Bette Midler, Rosemary Clooney. They’re all so different. I grew up in a household with so many different, eclectic styles of music that now I can incorporate them in my show. As you saw on tour, I do big band, jazz, with all sorts of rock. I just love everything. Basically, I love any music with soul in it. Be it country, be it big band, be it rock, anything. … I don’t think there’s any music other than soul music. If it doesn’t have soul in it, I don’t even want to hear it.
R.J.: Is there any last message you want to send out to the fans?
Kelly: Keep praying for me, and I hope you enjoy the music. And thanks for supporting me. This tour has been awesome. I never really realized how many people like my stuff, and it’s cool how loyal people are.
© 2004 CCM Magazine. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Click here to subscribe.