What's it like being the new girl on the block but already raking up critical acclaim, a chart hit, and the chance to perform with soul legends like Stevie Wonder? For Elle Varner, the experience has been just as rewarding and exciting as it sounds. Now touring with Trey Songz as the opening act on his Chapter V tour, the first stop on the map was none other than Atlanta where I had the chance to catch up with Elle - who was just announced as a GRAMMY nominee at last night's ceremony - and discuss her robust and rapid music career.
Let's start with "Refill." It exploded pretty fast this summer, I mean every time you turned on the radio it was being played. What was the experience like having that flash right before your eyes?
It was a wake up plan. "I Only Wanna Give It To You" got me some traction. People were kinda like "Oh yeah, I've heard that song." But with "Refill," it was a totally different story. It's so crazy how a song - whether its no. 20 or no. 10, or I can only imagine no. 1 - it changes so much. Whatever number it is reflects the amount of people that really get access to the song. It was awesome.
Did you expect that song to get that much hype? "Wanna Give It," was the lead single, but "Refill" got all the more attention. Did that surprise you?
I thought if "Refill" would've came out first, it would've been too confusing. With the fiddle, it would've been too different. But I feel like having a song to set me up to where people got to have an introduction before I hit them with a fiddle, it was perfect. It allowed people to digest it.
Your new album, Perfectly Imperfect, has received raving reviews. How did it feel to have so much reassurance?
It's the best feeling. Coming out of college, it's like getting the grade you wanted but on a massive level. It's the same feeling of accomplishment - like a pat on the back.
Did you have that in mind during the recording process?
In some ways yes. In some ways no. I wanted to package my songs in a way that people would receive them. I didn't want to just go off and record a bunch of songs for myself and say 'Well whoever likes it likes it.' I definitely had certain genres in mind. For example, I included a lot of hip-hop. That's mostly because I love hip-hop, but also because I knew it'd be a great way to increase male listeners and have something they could appreciate too. I didn't want to just have songs for women to appreciate.
Speaking more on your inspirations for recording the album, what things did you listen to to prime that hip-hop side and set the pace for that tone to be communicated effectively?
When I took "Refill" to Pop, he questioned my wanting it because it was a rap track. It was supposed to be for a rapper, but I pitched it and made a song on it. I've always been attracted to beats, I'm very beat-driven. I love '90s hip-hop, a lot of early rap. It's little ways to incorporate it in.
You mentioned your love for hip-hop, but let's talk about your adoration for early soul music. Your mother sang back up for Barry White. She also sang back up on "Sound Proof Room" for your record. What was it like having your mother sing back-up on a song about sex? That had to be somewhat of an awkward experience?
No, it wasn't. My parents would talk to me about everything. We definitely have friendships as well as a child-parent relationship. They know what's up. My parents are rock stars. They get it. [laugh]
So this show kicks off the Chapter V tour with Trey Songz and Miguel for which you'll be opening.
It's probably one of the most exciting things to happen all year. This is a major tour. I still can't really believe it.
You know this is the best city to open in right?
How do you plan to captivate your audiences?
All things have been well thought out from wardrobe to the way I present the song to just being relatable. I'm so ready to do this. I've gotten so much practice from the Music Matters tour and the Perfectly Imperfect tour. I'm ready to take this on and go out there and rock.
Now you did say this was one of the biggest moments you've had this year, but you've had a lot of big moments. One in particular is winning Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards.
You're already getting awards and it hasn't even been a full year. You were up against artists like J. Cole, and Emeli Sandé. These are all great artists, and you got the award. What was that like?
Oh my god it was crazy! Both of those artists, along with Luke James, who was also nominated, are my friends. That was a little tough, but other than that I think we all deserved that award. It just happened to be me. But I think we are all the best new artists.
You all have played an intricate role in bringing music back to its roots. You and Luke James with soul music, J. Cole with hip-hop. How do you take that as an artist to see the path you're carving making it's comeback?
I think the issue to tackle is not what's going on with R&B, but what's going on with mainstream and where R&B fits in. We have to allow for them to welcome it back. Before you had Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey, all these great vocalists and great R&B singers selling millions and millions of records. They were just as big as Shania Twain and anybody else. And now it's like R&B is so small. We've got to make it mainstream again. R&B is pop music. Like Alicia Keys' "Fallin'," that's a pop song. Millions of people have enjoyed it. That's something I'm trying to do and I know my comrades would love the same thing.
Next on the list of accomplishments, you performed with Stevie Wonder at the UN Awards.
[gasp] Yes! Oh my god. Wow.
I hear the excitement coming back.
Yeah. You just lit me up. I will never forget that night. It was just magical.
Did he give you any advice?
Basically he's so chill. And of course I'm nervous as all heck. I'm thinking to myself "What if I mess this up?" What if I sing over him?' Really, he has like no plan; he just vibes it out. It's so relaxing and such a communal thing. I felt it on stage and was so comfortable. That's the energy that he provides. That's his shtick.
What did you learn from that?
That shtick is the most important thing. If you can not forget that, you get the point of enjoying it all. But if you focus on where you're supposed to step and this and that, you're taking away from the greatest part which is the song. That's what I got from the experience.
Our next moment, Michelle Obama actually said she enjoys your music.
Yes! I could not believe it! A bunch of people were texting me and I was saying to myself "These people have got to be trippin'. This did not just happen." And then I saw it online and I was just like, "Wow." It made me feel that I'd stuck to my task of just making the kind of music that I want to make and be the type of artist I am. Even if it's not the coolest thing, what's hot, or what's gonna sell the most records, I feel that if I do what's right as much as I can then it'll pay off.
We definitely have some pretty hip people in the White House. You know, Barack Obama listens to Nicki Minaj. But back to the soul music and early hop-hop influences. Who's someone you could see yourself working with, dead or alive?
Oh my god. Dead: Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Tupac. Alive: Kendrick Lamar, Adele, Frank Ocean.
So given everything that's happened in the past year, what's the biggest takeaway for you?
The biggest thing I've taken away is that it's one thing to want something and another thing to be willing to work for it. I really had no idea how much work it was. But it's living proof that the more work you put in the more you get out of it. The artists that are most successful are the ones that are relentless and keep working tirelessly. It's not a science to it. It's not easy to do. I really respect those who can keep cranking it out.
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