Kelly Clarkson Debuts Deeply Personal ‘Chemistry’ Album in Its Entirety in Concert at L.A.’s Belasco

Kelly Clarkson celebrated her 41st birthday Monday night with a ceremonial purge, performing for fans all 14 songs from “Chemistry,” a project she’s been working on for three years that has been described — quite accurately, as it turns out — as putting her feelings about her divorce on the record, in every way.

“I was really nervous about releasing the record,” Clarkson said at an early point in the emotionally powerful but good-humored two-hour concert at downtown L.A.’s Belasco, which was being filmed for future use. The singer said she felt emboldened when one of her crew members of three years told her, “I was listening to your record and, boy, did you nail that — loss and grief. And even the part where you remember the good; that’s what keeps you going back.”

Those “remember the good” songs, in which Clarkson revisits the early stages of her relationship with former husband Brandon Blackstock, will no doubt help the album’s commercial appeal, with some sex appeal amid the sadness and even the possibility for a dance-floor hit or two, in the form of the upbeat “Favorite Kind of High” and “Magic.” But the singer/TV host was eager to point out, rather than downplay, the parts of the album that are most harrowing for her.

Introducing the ballad “Lighthouse” for the packed and adoring crowd, Clarkson said, “This is possibly the saddest song I’ve ever written. I know — you’re like, (sadder than) ‘Piece by Piece’? Really? ‘Because of You?’… I needed to get this song out. I wrote most of these songs at 35,000 feet in the air when it was dark on a plane, taking my kids back and forth, and it was exhausting — emotionally, mentally, physically, all the things — while working, and while processing what’s going on and what I’m gonna do. I wrote this song and I was like, ‘I don’t think I should release this. People are gonna be like, is she OK?’ And I wasn’t — then. But I’m good now.”

The album was performed out of sequence, in order to group the four songs that called for a string quartet — “Skip This Part,” “Me,” “My Mistake” and “Lighthouse” — right at the top of the show. Those also happened to be four of the most emotional song, and Clarkson was not shy about revisiting her thoughts about them now, to the point that, even at the end of the show, she quipped, “I’m still gonna regret all night how emotional I was the first four songs.”

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Clarkson talked about sharing the writing of “Me” — one of two cuts that have already been released — with Gayle, of “Abcdefu” fame, although the two did not work together. She talked about sharing her love for Gayle’s smash with Atlantic Records chairperson Craig Kallman, who informed her that the breakout artist was a labelmate. “She’s Texan, too — of course,” she added. After Gayle sent a verse and a chorus of the song she’d started, “I literally got the song and completed it that night. We never met, by the way. She did it on her own and I did my part on my own. She’s probably going through something totally different in verse 1” than Clarkson was in her own second verse and bridge, she noted. “This is kind of that empowering song I think people expect from me as well – and that sometimes I have a hard time writing, just to nail really what I’m feeling.”

The show’s first song, “Skip This Part,” which begins a cappella, was the most bravura diva performance of the evening (and required a second attempt after an abortive first start to… nail this part).

She gave thanks to Kallman for urging her to record, or re-record, “My Mistake.” She first took a stab at cutting it three and a half years ago, “pre-divorce, and it was a really rad song,” but she wasn’t reconsidering it for “Chemistry,” originally. “Craig, that was for you,” she said, addressing the label chief. “Craig fought like hell for that one. The whole time I was like, ‘…I just don’t know. I played it for my whole family — I only have, like, four family members — but I played it for all of them. All of them were like, ‘Oh, that’s one of my favorites right there.’” She described it as being about “promising you’re gonna be there… And then it just changes,” which she noted was “the crazy thing to me about being a human. … I’m so thankful that (Kallman) fought for it, because it fits perfectly on the record.”

The feistiest songs might be a tie between “Red Flag Collector” and “Down to You,” the latter of which includes the chorus lines, “I tried to be your friend / I won’t make that mistake again.” “I was just really angry,” she admitted. “Because I feel people are out there trying to be independent, until they have to be. So that’s what this song is about.” “Red Flag Collector,” meanwhile, was the most hard-rocking medium-tempo number of the night, with a Spaghetti Western-influenced opening giving way to heavy guitars, and to Clarkson singing, “Drag my name round the town, I don’t mind, I changed it anyway.”

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Clarkson brought friskiness as well as tears to the full-album run-through. Describing the title song, “Chemistry,” she said the tune was about “when you connect with someone and it’s almost animalistic… (where) you might possibly pull all your clothes off with your teeth.”

And she ramped up the pheremones on “Magic.” “This is actually my favorite song on the record,” she claimed — to laughter, given what she’d said about earlier songs. “I know, bitch. I’ve said it all night… I will say this is my favorite, I promise you.” She explained the theme as “even when people are telling you ‘Don’t do it,’ there’s something in you that you’re like, ‘No, you don’t understand…’” The song, she said, was for anyone who “ever felt like, ‘My relationship didn’t work out right, but if I die tomorrow, I have felt magic.’”

“I Hate Love” featured a banjo part that is performed on the album by Steve Martin. She noted the conflicts romantics feel between the fairy-tale aspects of “The Notebook” and the realism of one of her favorite movies, “It’s Complicated,” which is referenced in the lyrics — and happens to star Martin. “I’m a huge Steve Martin fan because I’m alive and breathing,” she said. Clarkson told her producer that even though it’s “kind of a punk-pop-rock song, I thought it’d be cool with a banjo in it,” and brought up the idea of approaching the actor/bluegrass picker. “He said yes!” she exulted. “For some reason. He had enough alcohol that night, and he said yes.” As for the songs theme: “I’m just really angry, so enjoy!”

Star percussionist Sheila E. also makes an appearance on the album, on the track “That’s Right,” and she repeated that in concert, along with guesting on the two non-“Chemistry” encore numbers, “Miss Independent” and “Since U Been Gone.” (The latter rocker had Sheila jubilantly marching around the stage just bashing on a portable cymbal.)

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Clarkson gave a speech extolling the realness of Sheila E. as a person, and then the latter musician stopped the musicians as they were about to launch into “That’s Right” to give an even more complimentary speech of her own.

“I just want to say that it is an honor and privilege to stand next to this amazing woman,” said Sheila. “That takes a lot to be that transparent and naked, like really naked, to share with you with what she has gone through. Not everyone can do this. She is the most amazing artist I’ve ever worked with,” she concluded.

Responded Clarkson, “I’m, like, forever 15, so when she was like, ‘She was naked,’ I was like, ‘I do like being naked.’ That’s really what my brain said.”

Clarkson said she’d never done a performance like this, playing an album in full. “It’s the coolest thing ever, to play the whole record — we never do that.” Usually, she noted, “you don’t play every song” even over the course of a tour. Then, wanting to make sure news of this exception didn’t set up any false expectations for her upcoming residency at Planet Hollywood in July and August: “Don’t worry, Vegas, I’m singing the hits!”

Atlantic has not announced any plans for how the filmed performance will be seen by the general public. Cell phone videos are not proliferating as they otherwise might, due to phones being collected and put in locked pouches at the door.

The performance had a time-out as concertgoers drew Clarkson’s attention to a patron who had passed out on the packed floor area. She remained on stage, showing concern, as a medic emerged from backstage and attended to the man, finally leading him away. “Oh my God, I was just up here talking,” she said, sounding apologetic for not noticing the waving and calling-out in the crowd any sooner. “I thought I was the only one here just sweating like a whore in church.”

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