Elle Varner stepped onto the music scene in rainbow bright pumps and a head full of voluminous curls but it’s her classy jazzy vocals that held the world’s ears hostage. After being raised by musical parents and receiving her diploma from New York University’s esteemed Clive Davis program, the Los Angeles native has enough cred to revive the R&B genre. The 22-year-old recently spoke to VIBE.com about being discovered while working the coat check at a New York club, what her male fans tweet her and how she still struggles with her appearance. She also told us exclusively about her new mixtape Conversational Lush and her perfectly imperfect debut album set for spring. 2012 is bound to be year of the Varner. –Adelle Platon
VIBE: Your parents were songwriters so you were basically born into music. How did you get your start?
Well professionally it kinda started when I was in school (college), making connections with people and being out here in New York and hanging out in studios but really, it started from working in coat checks. Someone discovered me there and brought me up to MBK. And next thing you know I was with J Records. Kind of a crazy story but as far as developing my skills, I’ve been singing my whole life. My parents taught me everything.
You were discovered in coat check? How exactly did that happen?
It was like a slow night and I was standing around, singing at coat check downstairs in a basement at club Santos and someone heard me and was like, “Hey, I want to refer you to this person.” Next thing you know I was at J. Like the following week.
What was your earliest music memory, like what do you remember singing as a young girl?
As a young girl, I remember singing CeCe Penniston’s “Don’t Walk Away.” It was like my jam.
What age did you start singing?
As soon as I could speak, I was singing. Before I could even speak full words, I would make up ones to sing and I have it on tape too.
Did you ever take formal lessons or was it just something that came naturally?
Singing, no, actually. That’s the funny thing. I took lessons for about everything you could imagine – gymnastics to karate to flute and piano. My mom always definitely kept me in some kind of class or program but for guitar, I kinda gave up on then kinda just taught myself. Same thing with piano. I’ve never been good with following lessons. *laughs*
Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?
One of my biggest musical influences is definitely Ella Fitzgerald as a vocalist. I just would always listen to her voice and say “Oh my God, how does she do it?” You know it’s like she has this enchanting, beautiful voice and I’m very enthused by her.
Is there anybody else besides her, like currently?
I would say in the last 20 years which was when I was growing up I would say definitely Lauryn Hill. I just recognized and understood that her talent was beyond comprehension at a young age and I appreciate her for that. She is definitely one. Prince is one as the full artist. He’s someone I strive to be like. Sade. Those are just a couple.
So your recent single “Only Wanna Give It To You” features J. Cole. Tell me how that collaboration came about.
We were actually friends before either one of us got signed, randomly knew each other in college and I didn’t know that he rapped, he didn’t know that I sang. We bumped into each other at the Sony building and I was like, “What are you doing here?” He was like, “What are you doing here?” Then we both got signed and so at the time, we were like, “Yo, we need a verse on there” and we were throwing out all these names. Then it was like, “J. Cole. That would be perfect!” It really was and especially for the video because it made me so comfortable in my first video, working with someone that I already knew instead of just meeting some stranger and like having to all of a sudden bond on-camera somehow. It was just kinda perfect in that way. You could see the relatableness in the video.
So now your next single is “Refill,” an interesting song. Did you write it under the influence?
No, I didn’t. Well… *laughs* I actually came up with the hook when my girlfriends and I were in Miami. We were about to go out to the club and we were pregaming at the house and I was like, “Can I get a refill?,” sang it out of nowhere and then weeks or months later, I don’t even remember, I ended up getting that track from Pop Wansell, I somehow tied the two together and the song came about so it’s really one of my favorite tracks on the album, hands down.
You have really strong songwriting skills. Where do you find inspiration – random moments or everyday situations?
I take a lot from my own life experiences and I also take a lot from watching. I’m very attentive to what’s going around, who’s doing what and I’ll pick up on little things or maybe I’ll embellish on something I saw or something I felt and I have a very vivid, wild imagination so that comes into play a lot of times where I just write a song from the most basic idea and then build this whole thing around it, like “Only Wanna Give It To You” and all the references to shoes. It just comes as this elaborate thing of imagination in my songs.
And with your song “So Fly,” you talk about self-esteem. Where did that come from?
That’s probably one of the most personal…the song’s really personal. At the time I wrote it, I was a little heavier. I was very frustrated with always being overlooked by every guy because I didn’t look a certain way and it’s funny because after I wrote the song, I kinda changed my attitude. I found that it really wasn’t as bad as I was making it in my own mind. Like when I stopped thinking, “I don’t look this way, I don’t look that way,” I was so confident and confidence is so attractive. So the song’s close to home because people would say how could you sing thyis song, because I looked different but I still go through the same insecurities, issues, the same battles regardless of my weight or my look or anything. So it’s an important song for people in general not to judge women, not to criticize women, everybody.
It’s hard to imagine that you struggle with your appearance now.
Oh let me tell you! You have no idea. I’ve seen the change and the kind of attention you get and how it’s kinda difficult to deal with for a while because it’s weird. You went from being completely overlooked, nobody’s checkin on you and now ahhh! It’s all fairly new to me so I’m taking it all in.
Do the guys who overlooked you reach out to you now, regretting it?
Yes! The actual guy that I wrote that song in response to is like you know hitting me up.
And you totally didn’t give him the time of day did you?
So what is Elle Varner’s definition of a perfect guy?
My definition of a perfect guy is someone who is really secure with himself and who he is and his manhood and all of that, and is able to really treat me, a woman like a woman, and is thoughtful, attentive, respectful. Respectful is number one. A lot of these guys out here, they don’t even try, like seriously? You gotta sweep me off my feet. I’m tough in that sense. I don’t make it easy.