[INTERVIEW] Unique Talent Elle Varner Committed To Long Game In Fulfilling Her Musical Destiny
Elle Varner emerged on the scene as a young woman who packed a whole lot of talent in her tiny frame. When her music came on, whether it was the debut single, “Only Wanna Give It You” or the follow-up single, “Refill,” or all over her debut album, Perfectly Imperfect, Elle not only captivated but she gave us a sound that we didn’t even realize that we had missed ans were missing from the then crowded R&B scene.
Born, Gabrielle Serene Varner to professional songwriters and musicians Mikelyn Roderick and Jimmy Varner, Elle was literally born to do this. The guidance of a talented family, and the upbringing in Brooklyn and Los Angeles led her down a path that would lead her to the music industry. It was at a school of performing arts where she honed in on her true talents and set a plan in motion for becoming a performer in her own right. Things reached new heights for her when she was admitted to the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University.
Still, nothing would prepare her for the realities of the music industry like being signed to J Records right before the label would be dissolved and restructured into the new RCA Records in what was a merger with already established labels Sony Music, Jive Records and Arista. I could try to describe the impact that merger had on the industry just from the media perspective, but words couldn’t really do it justice. You had to be around in 2011-12 to see how it all played out. Still, for a new artist, I can’t even imagine how tumultuous a time that must have been. Elle Varner was directly impacted and is still recovering 7 years later.
Elle’s sophomore album was worked on, given a title [4 Letter Word], and there were even a couple singles released, but it was pushed back and eventually permanently shelved by the label.
Elle kept herself busy, remaining on the radar of R&B lovers by making appearances and performing as often as possible. She also released a few more singles over the last few years.
Now, Elle Varner has a new label home and official plans for a sophomore album. She’s already blessed fans with the three lead singles, promising the full length album will be available before the year is out. Elle also plans to reveal a mixtape this Summer.
Ms. Varner recently caught up with Parlé to talk about her upcoming projects, new music, the journey up until the point and everything in between. Read the full interview below:
Parlé Mag: Let’s start present day and where you are now in this point in your career. The new single is out now and it’s buzzing, “Pour Me” featuring Wale, talk to me about that track.
Elle Varner: I actually wrote the song after I submitted the album. It was a track that everyone was excited about and excited to lead with. It’s soulful, it has a very classic R&B sound, it’s a nice bridge between where I’ve been, but it also has some of the familiarity that can—not reintroduce me; and even though “Loving U Blind” was a bit different than anything I’ve ever done—just help me relate to genuine fans.
Parlé Mag: You mentioned “Loving U Blind”, which is officially the first single from this project. Like you mentioned, it is very different, why did you go with “Loving U Blind” to kick things off after that tiny bit of a hiatus?
Elle Varner: I think, especially after some of the ups and downs as an artist, I think that as an artist I’ve reached the point where I can truly make the music that I want to make. I can expand my fan base and my reach. And also, you can’t put people in a box and say what they like and what they don’t like. Whether it’s Folk or R&B or Jazz, I don’t like to limit people’s musical taste, just because it’s a predominantly urban music fan base.
Parlé Mag: For those of us who have following the journey since 2011, I think we had certain expectations for you that might not have gone as planned. Looking back, in hindsight how do you feel about those early years, months, of your professional career?
Elle Varner: When you have an artist like me, who is a singer/songwriter, who is challenging the norms—for example, one of my first songs had a fiddle in it—getting to mainstream is a challenge. It’s always going to be a challenge when you have an artist who is going against the grain.
I think that years from now when we look at my career at a whole I think that it will all make sense and that it will be a beautiful story… and it is a beautiful story. No story has just all good parts. No life has all good days. It’s real. I think what this album is going to do—it’s been a minute, and fans have been waiting for this second project to see what I’m going to do—I think it will further support the fact that I am a very unique artist and I am going to see mainstream success, just in a different way, with a different sound and a different approach.
Parlé Mag: I hear you! Now, 4 Letter Word is the album that we were originally waiting on as the sophomore album from Elle Varner, it’s been a few years since you started working on that project. How has the album that we are getting evolved from the original concept you had in mind for the 4 Letter Word album? How did you go about creating this new album?
Elle Varner: Well, the thing about 4 Letter Word, I think it was great and the songs were great. If you listen to “Little Do You Know”, “See Me Tonight” and even “F*** It All”, you probably can’t find a song and say, “oh yeah, this sounds like that”. But, there was a lot of pain and sadness in those songs. To be honest I am glad it didn’t come out because I never want my music to be so specific to one emotion. And I am also glad that I am in a much more positive place and that’s important to me, that’s what people fell in love with, right? Bubbly Elle. “Only Wanna Give It To You”. Fun! I’m not saying I don’t have ballads and sad songs, but for the most part it is positive, uplifting music.
Parlé Mag: When you first came out, you came out with the Conversational Lush mixtape. Have you considered dropping a mixtape with some of the music we didn’t get from the scrapped album?
Elle Varner: Oh yeah, what I’m dropping next is actually a mixtape. I’m dropping a mixtape before the album.
Parlé Mag: Oh, NICE!!! Tell me about the mixtape.
Elle Varner: The mixtape is called Ellevation. It gives you more insight as to some of the things I’ve experienced. It’s definitely more personal. The production is some of my favorite production. Some of it reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest with a jazzy, boom bap, those kind of drums, dirty, grungy drums. It’s about storytelling, it’s about everyday life and my journey.
Parlé Mag: When does that drop?
Elle Varner: Summer!
Parlé Mag: What can fans expect from the album?
Elle Varner: Oh man, the album is so colorful, it’s so diverse, sonically, lyrically. I’m really stretching myself. I’ve grown so much as an artist. When you put yourself out there the first time around, it’s the first time people are getting to see you so there’s a lot of nerves. Now that I’ve done it and people know who I am, and now that I get to go into the next chapter and see what I have to bring. It’s a different level of energy around my artistry and my confidence in what I have to say and who I am.
Parlé Mag: Production wise, first project was a lot of Oak and Pop, have you collaborated with them again on this album?
Elle Varner: Not yet, I actually have been talking a lot with Oak… and Pop. We might get to do something on this new album, but if not, I have taken more of a stance on my music and started my own label. Technically, I am the A&R on this project. A lot of people don’t know this, but production is something that I have always done and wanted to do more. I mean, I engineer. When I first started I think I was just happy to be in the room, but now I’ve bossed up in a lot of ways and I am doing a lot of things that I can do… because I can. (Laughs) And because I love it and again, just being more confident in my musical approach. I’m co-producing some of the tracks. I put together a great team of producers, I really got to try a lot of new things and I’m looking forward to putting it out.
Parlé Mag: Is there a release date for the album yet?
Elle Varner: No, not yet, but it will be out this year.
Parlé Mag: You mentioned that you are the A&R on the album, did you executive produce it as well?
Elle Varner: Yes!
Parlé Mag: That said, are there any anticipated features on your album?
Elle Varner: Right now I have Juicy J, I been working with Rapsody lately. I am trying to get in with Miguel soon. That would be an amazing collab and we should have done that already. Right now, I’m just open! I’m open for the right collaborations that serve good music ultimately. I can’t get into the strategy part of the art. I can’t go that far with it.
Parlé Mag: So a lot of boss moves for real on this one!
You were with J Records for the debut album, then, you signed with RCA for a while after the merger. You’ve since moved on, signing with eOne Records. Talk to me about going independent, was that an important transition for you at this point in your career?
Elle Varner: Yeah, like I said in the beginning, I am a very unique artist with a wide range of musical ability. Especially since I went to school and studied music at the Clyde Davis School of Music Education, it’s a disservice to me and my education for me not to step up and take on a more business role in my career. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I am grateful for the time that I was with RCA and the people that I worked with, but it became clear to me that this was an opportunity for me to expand as a business woman and as an artist, and go after that ultimate goal of being a mogul and an entrepreneur.
Parlé Mag: Speaking of boss moves, from the debut album, and even on the mixtape, we’ve seen your ability to be an amazing writer and lyricist, but we haven’t seen too much of Elle as a featured artist or even as a writer for other artists. Has that been an active choice up until this point of your career? Is that something you are looking to change?
Elle Varner: It’s funny you say that. (heavy sigh) A lot of the things that I’ve been featured on for whatever reason, my name wasn’t on it. I worked with Mac Miller, I worked with Chance The Rapper and D.R.O.M. and Jesse J, those are some of the people I’ve written for. In the beginning, I definitely was more focused on my artistry. I think now, I’m much, much, more open to having placements and just writing songs and saying let me just give this to whoever, because I don’t have to have every song for myself. In the beginning I used to be like, “No, these are my babies!” Now I’m just like, let it fly and expand your reach and if you can write this one, you can write another one.
Parlé Mag: So true! Switching gears a bit. We see a lot of artists, who go through what you went through, particularly R&B artists, in terms of bouncing from label to label, or dealing with label mergers, but how influential were your parents, since they have both been in the industry and they have no doubt gone through many of the similar struggles that you have faced?
Elle Varner: Oh man, if it weren’t for my dad, specifically, because he went through exactly what I went through, he allowed me to see things from a different perspective. If you’re a young person in this industry and you’re just looking at streams and these things as a gauge of where you’re at, it can take you out in 2 seconds! Having that old school approach, if you will to say, “nah sis, you keep doing these shows, keep working this fan base and watch what happens in a couple years and a couple of months, because it’s bigger than this one record.” It’s a true blessing to have that OG perspective to know that you almost never see an artist live their whole career at one label. It almost never happens! It’s not about when the thing doesn’t work out, it’s about what you do after. If you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, unfortunately a lot of artists don’t recover because they don’t see what the possibilities are beyond that one situation.
Parlé Mag: For you however, I’ve seen, you have 3-4 shows in NYC a year! So, yeah, it’s definitely important to keep working that fan base. You’re still grinding and people still see the music coming out. In that same conversation, when you first came out in 2012, streaming didn’t even really exist…
Elle Varner: NOPE!
Parlé Mag: How big of a transition has that been for you to market this music and to get it to the audience when you’re dealing with a totally different approach, a totally different goal in terms of consumption and monetization?
Elle Varner: In a situation like that when there are so many options, like they say, don’t go into a store on an empty stomach because you’ll buy everything in the store. You really have to know who you are as an artist, and what your values are, to not be swayed or daunted. I didn’t get signed because I had a huge YouTube following or a bunch of friends on Myspace. I got signed because when I went in the room I sang, they felt that there was a special girl and a special talent that I had that they wanted to expand on. For me, that will always be number one. If I didn’t have that belief than I would probably be doing a million different things and I probably would be scared and not know what to do. So for me to have these songs out–I don’t publicize this all the time, but “Pour Me” is getting added to radio every week. Every week I am getting reports that 15 stations have been added, it’s incredible! So, I don’t want a hot smash and for it all to be about a hype. I want it to build slow, I want to grow organically. For me to have no tours, no projects released and still have shows and have interviews, and still have fans is just incredible. And it shows that I did the right thing by the music and now it’s time for me to do the right thing by me. There’s only upward to go from here.
Parlé Mag: I have to ask about the current state of R&B. Are you an artist that listens to the radio and stays current on what’s out right now and what’s winning?
Elle Varner: I do. Well, I do sometimes. I have somewhat of a playlist, but I have probably listened to Marvin Gaye’s same album probably once a week for the longest. And if I’m not listening to classic artists, I am probably in the studio creating. But I keep an ear out. Listen, when I came out there was very little R&B activity. So, for it to be such a big conversation right now is incredible. It has really helped the whole genre and anybody trying to come into it. There’s so many more eyes on it right now.
Parlé Mag: I’m constantly in debates on my end about you. I don’t want to bring you down my rabbit hole with me, but do you ever hear a track and think, ‘damn, that would sound so much better if I was on it’, or ‘I wonder if I had put that same track out, whether it would get the same love?’
Elle Varner: (laughs) I think that’s a dangerous mindset. You know, there is no shortage of money, opportunity and one person’s success doesn’t mean your failure. I wish more artists felt that way because we would have more collaboration. That is one thing that I would like to see. In the late 90s, early 2000s when you saw all the women on Rolling Stone, it seemed more fun. It seemed like everyone was working and collabing and it wasn’t competitive, it wasn’t petty. I would like to see more of the comradery in the business. Its about the people at the end of the day, its not about us. The artist that are most generous last the longest and have the biggest success over time.
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