Kelly Clarkson: Hamilton Mixtape was 'hardest thing I've ever done'
Kelly Clarkson had no idea what she was getting into when she agreed to cover “It’s Quiet Uptown” — a wrenching, tragic song from the Broadway smash Hamilton — for The Hamilton Mixtape (out Dec. 2). Clarkson was pregnant with her second child at the time and living in Nashville, where word of the musical’s success hadn’t yet reached. So she didn’t realize she’d signed on to sing about Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza struggling with daily life after the death of their teenage son, Phillip. When it came time to record, Clarkson says it was the hardest thing she’d ever done in the studio.
Below, Clarkson opens up about her experience working on The Hamilton Mixtape and missing Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s final performance as Alexander Hamilton by just one day.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with The Hamilton Mixtape?
KELLY CLARKSON: I was in my last month of pregnancy, and I had just — literally just — signed with Atlantic Records. [Atlantic Records Chairman & CEO Craig Kallman] said, “Oh my gosh, I have this amazing idea. I know you haven’t seen this musical, but we’re doing this whole mixtape idea with all these artists…” And I was like, “Well, I love musicals, so just send it to me.”
I hadn’t seen [Hamilton], hadn’t heard anyone talk about it because where I live [in Nashville], nobody had seen it. He sent the song to me at like 1 a.m., and I sent an email back to him with a lot of expletives! I was so angry, because I was pregnant with my son, and it’s all about their son dying. And I didn’t really know the situation, so I didn’t know if it was a baby, I didn’t know what it was. I was a complete mess, but I was like, “It’s beautiful. I’ll try and do it, but I can’t promise you I can get through the dang thing.” We ended up recording it that next week, and so I recorded it before [seeing the musical].
What did you think when you first heard it?
It was so interesting, because there’s actually three characters that sing the song [Alexander Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler]. I was like, “Which one am I?” And [Kallman] was like, “Well, try it as a solo first.”
When we were recording it, we were just trying to be creative and fun, trying to make it a little more pop, because that’s what they were wanting, [to make it] different from the musical, but still keeping to its classic nature. We had no idea the gravity of [the song], which I’m glad about, because that would have been a lot of pressure.
I see how “It’s Quiet Uptown” could be confusing if you haven’t seen the show, because it doesn’t say what actually happened to Phillip, just that Hamilton and Eliza are “going through the unimaginable.”
That’s what I’m saying! So “the unimaginable” in my head, I’m like about to pop with my baby, and I’m terrified of a miscarriage at this point because I have friends that have had them — and it’s a possibility, even that far into your pregnancy. And I’m having a son [too]! It was really hardcore, emotional hell for me.
And then they were like, “Oh man, can’t wait to hear you perform this live!” And I’m like, “Oh, guys.” I mean, I think you only get one time on television a year that you can break down crying in a song, and I already did that with “Piece by Piece” on American Idol. If you know the scenario from the musical, [the song] is hard to swallow. But if you don’t, you have no idea what “the unimaginable” is! It’s horrendous, obviously. The melancholy state of the entire song is pretty intense.
Did you end up feeling like you were singing it more as Eliza or Angelica?
I think I felt like him. I didn’t really know all the characters very well, but when he was like, “I would switch places, I would do anything for you to still be alive and me not to be,” that’s what I related to. That one line hook, line, and sinkered me. Well, sinkered isn’t a word.
What aspect of the song was most difficult to “get”?
I cannot express enough how many times I had to sing this song. It was the hardest thing to sing. I was just so emotional. The “forgiveness” part was pretty dang hard. Or the switching places line: “I would trade his life for mine.” Like, what? Like I said, I was pregnant with my son, and I didn’t know what [Hamilton’s] situation was — I didn’t know it was an older son. So in my mind, obviously, you read a book and filter it how you do, you listen to a song and filter it how it affects your life, so it was so hard. It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done in the studio.
What was your experience like finally seeing Hamilton?
My husband and I just flew in and out of New York to see it. I wanted to see it because I thought, “This is a really weird thing to be a part of and not have seen it.” [My husband] Brandon got tickets from Craig and surprised me. It was so sad [though] because it was the day after Lin stopped doing it. The night before was his last night. We were like, “Oh my god, are you serious?” But honestly, the guy that replaced him, Javier [Muñoz], was also the one I saw in In the Heights, because my friend Jordin Sparks was in that one. So I was like, “Wait, I love this guy.”
Had you met Lin before at least?
No, but he sent me the loveliest email. I live in Nashville, so I don’t really meet anyone. [Laughs] But his email after he heard my version was so nice, just saying hello and he can’t wait for us to meet in person. As a writer myself, I imagine asking these artists to do their own take on it can be very difficult. That’s his baby, you know? [But] he was so excited and flattered. I was like, “Are you kidding? I can’t wait to meet you just to say I have!” He’s this revolutionary guy!
When I said yes, I had no idea what I was saying yes to. But what it’s turned into has just been this crazy fan thing. The amount I get tweeted about it is insane!
Has it been overwhelming?
Oh yeah! I’m so glad I had no idea going in, because I would have felt a lot more pressure. We were just doing it because it was fun. We thought, “Okay, they’re wanting to modernize it, take it a little out of the Broadway element because we’re not onstage.” It would have been a lot different if I had known how crazy-popular this thing is. I’m so glad I was in pregnant-world.
It’s amazing, too, what Lin did. This whole idea of his brought artists [together] that would never be on the same album, unless it was one of those NOW ones or whatever. So it’s amazing how many artists, how many different walks of life are affected by it. And we’re all from different backgrounds, different genres, everything! That’s pretty powerful for Lin.