Despite a merciless and unforgiving music world, Elle Varner serves as its melodically sweet spot. While struggling to find solid confidence among uncertainty, she braves the inevitable changes and her newfound celebrity
BY NIKI MCGLOSTER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KARL FERGUSON
As a big-haired 14-year-old, Elle Varner had a crippling fear of standing in the front row of her high school dance class. “I would go to the back every time and never be able to learn the routine,” Elle recalls. Then, like Molly Ringwald in most of her ‘80s coming-of-age films, something inside her shifted. “A flame lit in me. I went to the front of the class one day and, for the first time, learned the whole thing. I went for everything instead of just shrinking and disappearing.”
These days, Elle’s hard to miss. By now you might’ve heard how the story for this jazzy soprano reads: her esteemed rise from Santos Party House coat check clerk to New York University’s celebrated Clive Davis music program graduate to smiling (and colorfully dressed) “Only Wanna Give It To You” singer-songwriter. It’s a running start most singers would kill for, allowing for early co-signs to come calling. Yet, this conversational lush owns up to the scary side of the industry’s. “I’m in such a new place. I’ve always been in control—where I was going, what I was doing, where I was gonna go to school—and with this career, there is no control.”
While constantly touring—currently with Trey Songz and Miguel—she’s managed to command a number 4 entry onto the Billboard 200 with her debut LP Perfectly Imperfect, snag a Soul Train Award for Best New Artist, an endorsement from First Lady Michelle Obama—an outstanding accomplishment in itself—and a multi-city BET Music Matters tour. Yet arguably her highest honor comes in the form of a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Song for “Refill.”
As her name floats among the top of the sonically elite, success seems certain, even if juggling it does not. Her wavering answers reveal the still hesitant teenaged Elle. When asked about her sophomore album, she starts, “I think it will definitely go into a more…” After a pause, she finishes, “I can't even give you—I can't say. I don't think it'll be shocking. I think it'll be more evolved.”
Who is Elle?
In this moment right now, Elle is a young lady becoming a young woman stepping into a more responsible role—knowing what I want and speaking out for what I want and getting it.
How did you blossom into that confident space?
By trying things all the time. Someone said to me recently, ‘Don’t walk scared. Even if you’re scared of doing something, do it. Don’t shut down.’ Through using that and just learning about myself, I’ve learned that things aren’t that deep usually. Things that are in your mind, don’t let them build up.
Moving onto a new horizon, what still scares you?
You don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. You don’t know if you’re gonna wake up one day and find out your record is blazing up the charts or your record’s not really playing or maybe someone’s saying something about you and you have to deal with that. It’s so much and it’s all new to me. Even the way people treat me is different and that’s new.
Are you getting more comfortable with the uncertainty of fame?
I’m more comfortable with my choices. The more I step into Elle Varner as an artist, I’m more comfortable with what I want or what I feel like I want because that’s really what being an artist is. Playing into what you think people want you to be, that’s not an artist. It is scary, but that’s why the greatest ones are the one that take the risk and just be whatever they want.
Fans cry at your presence these days. How does that feel?
It’s nuts [laughs]. I feel, honestly, that you have to constantly remind yourself that you are just like everyone else because everyone is treating you like you’re not. People are making you their savior, their role model, their idol. People actually love you, and it’s crazy. They’re like, ‘Don’t change’ [laughs] but you have to in a way. There’s no way not to. But you still want to keep the part of you that is pure.
How do you see yourself changing?
Being a little bit more serious. That's something I'm starting to embrace a little bit more. When I am serious, I get so much accomplished. There’s so much room for me to grow as an artist. Maybe some of my sounds are R&B, maybe some of my songs are folk, maybe they're just songs and there is no name for what it is. I embrace it because I think there is a new wave of R&B that, in a way, is not even R&B; there's just nothing else to really call it. But you have artists like Frank Ocean, Miguel, myself—it’s not mainstream R&B.
You don’t want to be boxed in, and with that said, which songs were the hardest to write for your debut album?
I probably went back and changed " Not Tonight" the most. It's one of those songs that every word had to be perfect. And I know the album is called Perfectly Imperfect [laughs] but… I'll share something with you. On the bridge I say, ‘I'm standing here terrified," and I was supposed to say "I'm standing here paralyzed/broken hearted I could die." Little things like that.
Nobody knows that's a mistake, trust me. Have you begun working on the sophomore album?
I've been recently listening to different tracks and playing different stuff on the guitar. I think I really have to wrap my head around what has happened in the past year and a half and figure out what I want to say, because I basically told my whole life story up until the point of my [first] album. And as soon as that album was done, my life took a whole different turn. Now I'm just still getting used to it. It's about more than sounds—what do I want to say?
What experiences do you definitely want to talk about?
For me, dating is like a really different thing. I have to look at everybody and say, ‘Why are you here?’ It’s kind of messed up, but it's true. I know what it's like on the other side. I'm literally meeting people that just completely overlooked me and now they think that they're just meeting me for the first time.
You’re just like ‘Are you kidding me?’
I don't want to seem like I'm complaining because I don't want to put that energy out there.
Aside from some bumps in the road, are you warming up to dating?
Yes, I'm warming up to it. My job is to travel the country, so I don't have a place every day to see whoever I meet, but I think I'm more open [to dating]. I'm starting to feel more secure just as an artist and where I'm at, and now I think, ‘You might have time for a date.’