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Backstage at the ASCAP awards with Kelly Clarkson

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Jason Merritt/FilmMagic.com

”I think a lot of people are gonna be able to relate to it,” says Kelly Clarkson of her new single. ”That’s not good!”

It’s nice of her to take some pity on the millions of souls who’ll be singing along with ”Never Again” this summer. Released to radio earlier this month (on Friday the 13th), this anthem for the unlucky-in-love has choice lines like, ”I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green… Bet it sucks to see my face everywhere… If she really knows the truth, she deserves you… When your day comes… you’ll die together but alone.” Somewhere, Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love are sitting around thinking, why can’t this girl just lighten up?

Any expectations of meeting a potentially all-new, all-snarly, man-eatingly vituperative Kelly Clarkson are thwarted, however, upon becoming reacquainted with her long-established bubbly effervescence. (Which is not to be confused with Evanescence — more on that later.) EW.com caught up with Clarkson backstage at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, where she was about to be presented with an award for Song of the Year for ”Because of You,” a decidedly gentler tune off her last smash album.

The Breakaway chick has broken away from relative seclusion to re-enter the limelight in advance of a forthcoming album, My December (release date to be determined), and tour. We found her to be all smiles, even when she was discussing her struggles to get to do the new record her way. ”Right on!” the original American Idol would cheerfully exclaim every time a handler or visitor said something that met with her approval. With that sunny disposition to share with the world, it may not even ”suck to see [her] face everywhere” this summer.

EW.COM: You’re getting three ASCAP awards tonight for being a songwriter. Is being recognized as a writer important to you, or is that just gravy for you?
KELLY CLARKSON: No, it’s awesome. Obviously, usually I get recognized for vocal performance. This is my first thing to actually be able to come to and be recognized as a writer. I’m pretty excited about it — just as excited as [for] anything else.

How many of the songs on your upcoming album did you write or cowrite?
I didn’t mean to, but I ended up [writing on] actually the whole album. I’m not the person who thinks you have to write everything you sing. There are a lot of fabulous, talented writers whose songs I love to sing. But I had a lot to say with this album, so I kind of ended up writing the whole thing.

You definitely have some things to say in the first single. I heard you use the word ”bitter” in describing the tone of the song.
[The album is] a story, though. None of the other songs on the album are just like that. Everything on the album is pretty different. There’s ”Sober,” which is one of my favorites, and it’s a more inspirational kind of thing — sad but inspiring. And then there are other songs, like ”Yeah,” which are more like Chaka Khan/Prince — kind of a fun party atmosphere.

I heard you tell someone here a little bit earlier that your record company might have preferred another single going out first, something that was a little bit safer.
Oh, no. They just didn’t prefer the album, really, at all. They don’t like me writing a whole lot, just to be honest with you. Not even after I’ve written No. 1 [songs]. So, yeah, they’re not big into that. But they’re coming around, and they like it now, and obviously it’s doing well on radio right now, so they’re liking it even more. And taking credit!

So you had people trying to force songs or songwriters on you on this album.
Yeah, and I understand what they’re saying, because everything — sometimes — with labels is a formula. And they’re trying to make money, so they want to come out with Breakaway II. And I don’t want to come out with Breakaway II, because I already have that record. It’s a little hard for them sometimes to come around, just because taking a different artistic path is a chance. And I get it — they’re obviously a record label trying to make money. But now people at the label are really starting to dig it, and it just kind of took a while for them. They didn’t like Breakaway either, and they didn’t like Thankful either. So it’s the same for every record. But it’s turning around; they like it now.

I understand that the song that’s being honored as ASCAP’s song of the year tonight, ”Because of You,” was a tough sell.
That’s what I’m saying. It happens every time. It’s not like, ”Whoo, [that’s] different!” Every time it’s a task to get something of mine on the record. But yeah, that song, they didn’t like it for the first [album], and I totally got shut down. Second album, I just kept pressing the issue, and finally I just went and found the people I wanted to do it with. I actually went through my lawyer, and ended up writing with Ben Moody and David Hodges from Evanescence. And we did a pretty good job on it, I think. They like it now; obviously, it’s successful, so…

This new song of yours, ”Never Again,” almost has a little bit of Evanescence quality to it.
What, this song? I don’t think this song has anything like that. I would say more of a Pat Benatar feel.

Well, the Benatar thing is coming up even more.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I would agree with that comparison. It’s a chick song. You know, you get mad. I wrote it over two years ago — which [makes it] kind of weird singing it now — and it was just about a bad, sour relationship where I was just like, bwahhhh. I wrote it out and sent the melody and lyrics to Jimmy Messer, who I wrote it with. And so he ended up building a track around it. At first I was hesitating about even putting it on the album, because I wrote it so long ago. But it’s just such a fun song — such an anthem for any chick who’s been done wrong. Or any guy, for that matter; you just change the lyrics up a little bit. It’s just one of those songs I think everybody will kind of dig.

So it was inspired by true events, as they say in the world of TV movies?
Yes. All of my songs are, actually.

The album is called My December — is there a title song?
It was a poem I wrote, but I wrote it a couple years ago as well. It kind of wraps up the rough time I was having. It was like, ack. You know the feeling of wanting January to come so you can start over, fresh? It’s just like, Okay, cool, I’m ready. I’ve had a lot of great things happen and I’ve had a lot of crappy things happen. I’m ready to start over, and whatever your resolutions are, I’m ready to do this better and do this better. This album is kind of getting it all out there, like, ”Okay, now I’m ready to kind of start over.”

Speaking of starting over, with climate of record sales being what it is, everybody’s expectations are diminished at least slightly. Are people warning you, ”Listen, Kelly, you may only sell 3 or 4 million this time…”
Oh, yeah, I could do a lot worse than that.

But you’re the great hope of this year, at retail.
Well, yeah. They do keep pressing on that issue, and obviously that’s why they’re trying to get their formula people [as collaborators] on the project. But at the end of the day, I’ve sold a lot of records, I’m very blessed, I’m lucky. I don’t want to ever be that artist that’s always in it just to make money. I have enough money. I’m not greedy. I want to make records that I enjoy singing. I want to make records that people like and can relate to. So that’s really all that’s in my mind. A lot of people don’t like to hear that, who I work with. [Laughs] It kind of scares ’em. But I’m not really making the record for them. I just tend to do kind of what I want.

Since these awards you’re getting tonight are about songwriting, what is it you look for in a song? Is there any quality your favorites have in common?
Literally, it doesn’t even have to be the best vocal. I want to believe the person. If you write or don’t write it, I want to know that you’ve experienced it and you know what you’re talking about. Because I think that’s the most upsetting thing — I call it vanilla music. It’s like wallpaper. It’s like, anybody could sing it and you’re not special because you haven’t even experienced it and you’re not selling it. I cannot stand that. It actually makes me sick. That’s why I like people like Melissa Etheridge [receiving an ASCAP career award that night], I like people like Bono, I like people that can tell a story. Reba — she’s one of the best storytellers ever, vocally. It has to be believable. I think that’s my thing. Like, I almost want to pat ’em on the back or hug ’em or cry with ’em.

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