The singer-songwriter dishes on her upcoming mixtape Ellevation, her new record label and more.
There’s never a straight path in the world of entertainment — and Elle Varner can attest to that. She knows what it means to be Perfectly Imperfect, which is why she named her critically-acclaimed debut album after it in 2012.
Looking back, Varner’s debut era was full of many accomplishments: her album peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, her fan-favorite single “Refill” earned her a Grammy nod for Best R&B Song, she got to tour the world — oh, and Former First Lady Michelle Obama co-signed the project.
After thoroughly promoting Perfectly Imperfect, in 2013, Varner began focusing on her next project. Despite releasing a handful of bops between 2013 and 2015 (and even coming up with an album title), the project didn’t see the light. This moment would be the beginning of Varner’s unwarranted hiatus from music.
While there are plenty of valid (and legal) reasons why Varner went missing from the spotlight, she isn’t going to dwell too much on the past. “From the beginning of time, artists have gone through different ups and downs with things we don’t know and you just have to keep going,” Varner explains to Rated R&B over the phone.
Rated R&B caught up with Varner for a candid discussion. In our interview, she talks about her next two projects, launching her own record label, overcoming hardships and much more.
After ending your debut era, you released a handful of singles between 2013 and 2015 like “Rover” featuring Wale, “Don’t Wanna Dance,” “Fuck It All,” “Cold Case,” and more. Some of these songs were going to be on your 4 Letter Word album. At what point was the decision made to cancel the album release? Fans were looking forward to it.
Yeah, including myself honestly. The politically correct answer is: it happened and being in the industry, my dad has always said it’s the Wild Wild West. The ultimate goal for an artist is to find the balance between your creativity, your passion and the business. Another thing he said to me early on was, “It’s the music business not the music, music.” It is what it is. Today is a new day and thank God I’ve been able to keep my creativity and I continue to write and record.
During that same time, you also coined the phrase “Trap Jazz.” Does that genre still live with you today?
I think that it lives. I’ve seen artists like Masego who has Trap House Jazz and I’ve seen Trap Soul. Maybe I’ll come up with Trap Jazz Soul next because as I think about it, I have a soulful and jazzy approach to music. It’s just natural. I think moving forward after I get this project out. I have a lot of exciting visions to execute. Some recording to an orchestra, doing some live recordings with jazz musicians I think all those things could be really exciting.
You have a mixtape coming before the album. Is that a result of not being able to release music over the last couple of years?
Yeah, definitely. Thank God this will never happen again and I’m lucky to be in control of moving forward. I have so much music, it’s unbelievable. Who knows, I might put out three albums this year. I don’t know. But for sure, the mixtape and the album are on their way.
How would you compare the two projects, sonically?
I would say that it’s like an appetizer and an entree. The first couple of [singles] I’m releasing, you get kind of a preview of where I’m going musically. I tend to go left most of the time in some ways. If the track is trap, then the vocals are jazzy. If the track is jazzy, the vocals are maybe more pop. It’s always like a juxtaposition of things that wouldn’t always be accepted to go together. I think also the storytelling on these next two projects is a lot more intimate. It’s a lot of real things that I’ve experienced. It’s a lot of things that people want to know about me that they might not get from [social media] but you’ll be like, “Oh okay, that’s what she was talking about on the album.”
What can we expect on the album?
One of the songs I’m most excited about sounds like it literally came out of the 1980s. Some people call it “The Sade Song.” There are no trap drums. It is analog. It is melodic. It is lyrical and I’m excited to just be like what’s good with this song.
Since your mixtape is titled Ellevation, how have you elevated yourself as an artist and in your personal life?
I think that I have definitely elevated past a lot of hardships, a lot of struggle and pain. It’s actually given me so much more in my character to deal with life. There’s a balance between being obsessed artistically and still having a life; unfortunately, some artists never experience that. Van Gogh cut his ear off. We can look at hundreds of troubled artists that never got to a point of fulfillment outside of their art and their careers. I’m just so grateful that God has allowed me to look at the bigger picture and find more appreciation and more tenderness with myself and just forgiveness toward others. Things pop up and over time you realize, “Wow! This same thing that would’ve broken me maybe a year or two ago is just like a pebble in my shoe today. It’s not that serious. It’s not the end of the world.” So, I hope to really express that and encourage others with my message.
As a singer-songwriter, do you find more fulfillment in creating the music or performing it?
That’s tough. I think that when I’m performing, it’s almost like I’m still myself but I get to be this larger-than-life being when I’m on stage. I get to command a room and give a piece of myself to whoever is in that room and that’s just one of the most special things about this. The creativity part comes and goes but what I’ve learned over time is it’s still a job at the end of the day. It’s not all creative and it’s not all work — there’s a balance. I might write a song today and it might be trash but at least I did it. And that’s how I’ve gotten through periods where I may have been more discouraged or just not really personally feeling it. I just tap into the work ethic of it and push through.
You now have your own record label. What has the process been like for you so far and is there anything you learned while being signed to a major label that you applied to your indie label?
Great question. There’s such an increase in Black women that have their own businesses and I’m not going to lie, it’s super challenging, but at the end of the day the reward of having something that you’ve seen from beginning to end is so incredible. Ultimately, what I want to do with this label is not just release my own music but develop new talent and use a lot of these resources that I’ve been blessed with. I have a rich musical background and my approach is always going to be different.
Not to compare, but it was always music first in my house. I was always being challenged, especially by my mom, to be very thoughtful about the words I choose to say — that’s part of how I became the lyricist I am. She used to ask, “Are you going to want to say that 20 years from now?” The thing is, 20 years from now, I bet you “Refill” will still sound great because I try to write songs that are bigger than what’s current. It’s about human emotion and basic human experience. It doesn’t have a timestamp. With the artists, I want to develop I want to challenge them to develop a certain kind of work ethic. It’s about the art, being humble and being appreciative of the ability to do it.
Elle Varner’s Ellevation mixtape will release on July 12.
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