While ruminating on her nearly 10-year marriage and recent divorce for her new album, Kelly Clarkson turned to a pair of 2000s-era films to illustrate the difference between idealistic young love and oft-messy adult relationships.
“I hate love, and The Notebook lied,” she sings on the cheeky “I Hate Love,” the latest release from her 10th studio album Chemistry, out June 23. “It’s Complicated is more like what happens, so you can keep Gosling and I’ll take Steve Martin.”
“I feel like both exist,” Clarkson tells Billboard of the love stories from the 2004 Nicholas Sparks-based epic, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, and the 2009 Nancy Meyers rom-com, starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin — which she calls one of her “favorite movies.” “One is the beginning, when everything is bright and shiny, and It’s Complicated is more the reality,” says Clarkson, who pointed to the tug-of-war Streep’s character goes through with Baldwin’s philandering ex-husband (“She goes back, and she’s like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ”) and Martin’s affable architect (“This is what you should be looking for and what you do deserve”).
Clarkson’s cinematic inspiration didn’t just impact the song’s lyrics: It also led to an unexpected instrumental cameo. While writing much of the new project in the early days of the pandemic, Clarkson had been watching Martin play his banjo in livestream videos to keep fans entertained during lockdown. She went to “I Hate Love” producer Jesse Shatkin with an idea: Let’s take this lyrical reference a step further and add Martin’s banjo to the anti-love song. “I was like, ‘I know that sounds crazy,’ ” Clarkson recalls. “Jesse was like, ‘I think it sounds rad.’ ”
Shatkin tells Billboard, “Within one or two connections, Kelly can get in touch with anybody” — and she had Martin locked in with one email. “I generally don’t ask because I get very nervous about bothering people,” Clarkson recalls, “but literally, within hours, I got an answer: ‘Oh my God, he’d love to, when are you recording it?’ ” Shatkin ventured to Martin’s house to record his part and encountered a very professional musician, as opposed to the frequent Saturday Night Live guest and film star he’d grown up with (“He did not do any stand-up for us,” Shatkin laughs). “We ultimately went in to do something that could have taken 15 minutes, and we spent a couple hours just kind of jamming on the song,” Shatkin recalls. “He was really, really amazing at banjo but also really, really cared about getting it right.”
The result, as Clarkson describes it, is “a pop-punk song with this really rock’n’roll banjo part.” Shatkin recalls Clarkson’s team wondering aloud during the making of the song: “Could banjo be on the radio?” That remains to be seen — but perhaps Martin could make his first return to the Billboard Hot 100 since the 1970s, when his “King Tut” (billed to Steve Martin and The Toot Uncommons) was a top 20 hit on the chart. “I just love the idea of things happening organically,” Clarkson says of the circuitous route she took to collaborating with Martin. “So many things had to happen in order for that to occur.”
For her part, Clarkson still hasn’t met Martin, but she’s hoping she can lure him to her Emmy-winning The Kelly Clarkson Show now that their song is out in the world. “My ideal moment is him coming on my show and then us performing it — but I’ll take just him coming on my show so we can talk and hang out so I can, like, meet him.”