Here's how Kelly Clarkson can make a hit record. Producers who've worked with Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion, and Brandy tell EW.com how they would turn the ''American Idol'' winner into a singing star

By Brian Hiatt
Updated September 13, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Kelly Clarkson: David Atlas / Retna Ltd.

American Idol

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Kelly Clarkson may have bested Justin, Nikki, and some 10,000 others, but she’ll soon face a challenge even more Darwinian than ”American Idol.” When the stripe-haired, sweet-smiling Texan releases her debut album on RCA Records early next year, she’ll find herself competing not with fellow amateurs, but with some of the music biz’s heaviest hitters. Two of her role models, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, are even releasing albums this fall.

So what should Kelly do as she prepares to play with the big boys and girls? Industry vet David Foster (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston) and two younger producer/songwriters — Peter Zizzo (Avril Lavigne, M2M) and Warryn Campbell (Sisqo, Brandy) — offer EW.com some detailed, if occasionally conflicting, advice for her album.

THINK YOUNG

Foster may be the king of the adult-contemporary ballad, but even he thinks that the material Kelly sang on ”American Idol” was stodgy. ”Most of it was too adult,” he says. ”Now that we’re all older we tend to forget who we’re selling records to.” To appeal to kids and fit in on the radio, Kelly should embrace a modern R&B edge (if she’s comfortable with it), while also sticking with the big, early-Mariah style ballads that seem to be her strength (i.e., ”A Moment Like This”), says Foster. ”You’ve got to think that kind of big ballad slot is slightly available. There really isn’t anyone in their early 20s that’s doing that right now.”

But Campbell says that Kelly should keep her slow songs to a minimum. ”[‘A Moment Like This’] was a little TOO ‘Mariah-’94’ for me,” he says. ”I would give her one or two ballads, but I wouldn’t go all the way to the ‘Titanic’ song like Celine.” Instead, Campbell recommends that Kelly either go for pop with a strong hip-hop base (think Britney’s ”Slave 4 U”) or the newly popular pop with a rock edge (think Pink and Avril Lavigne). She could even combine those approaches. ”I’m thinking something like the beat from [Nelly’s] ‘Hot in Herre’ with the vocal from [No Doubt’s] ‘Hey Baby,”’ he says. ”Don’t make an album for 2003 — make it for 2005.”

OR THINK CLASSIC

Kelly should ignore trends and put that huge voice to work on what’s closest to her heart, according to Zizzo, who was the first producer to work with Avril Lavigne. ”I don’t think Kelly should pay any attention to what’s current. Kelly leaning towards rock is not her being herself,” he says. ”Kelly is a soulful pop singer and she needs soulful pop songs. She has a bit of a Gladys Knight-type of sound to her.”

Zizzo points to the surprise success of jazzy traditionalist Norah Jones as a sign that audiences are ready for a more retro, soulful feel to their pop. ”The challenge is that being a manufactured pop star is not the thing of the moment. Being a real young artist is more popular right now than it’s ever been,” he says. ”But Kelly IS a really talented young artist in more of the classic vocalist way.”

THINK LONG-TERM

All three experts agree that Kelly deserved to triumph on ”American Idol” (”I would’ve jumped out the window if that other guy [Justin] had won,” notes Campbell). But they worry that her novel status as a contest winner could prevent the girl-next-door diva from reaching the career heights she deserves. ”There’s so many pitfalls — instant fame can be hard to handle,” says Foster. ”She has to stay true to herself musically.”

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Zizzo worries that RCA may rush Kelly’s album into stores (just this week the original Nov. 26 street date was pushed back to early next year). ”She’s going to have to be creatively developed and groomed as if they’re starting from nothing,” he says. ”So they need to take some time and not just quickly capitalize on [her sudden fame]. But Campbell says he’s unconcerned: ”I’ve done whole albums in two and a half weeks that ended up selling two million copies.” RCA, are you listening?

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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