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Elle Varner Moves From Coatcheck to RCA Darling

Steven Gomillion and Dennis Leupold

If Elle Varner were a color in a Crayola crayon box, the soulfully gifted chanteuse would sit well as a Screamin’ Green, Purple Pizzazz or Outrageous Orange. There’s no room for dull shades of black or grey in her world, unless they’re accompanied by some vibrant hues. Her voice, both electrifying and stirringly passionate, recalls the likes of spirited icons Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan — all women who have inspired her career and whose craft she’s studied. At 22, this NYU graduate went from a self-professed L.A. loser to a bubbling singer with a promising music career, considering she calls home to the same management team that helped Alicia Keys become a global superstar. Varner also signed a deal with the same label, J Records, that saw four of Keys’ albums receive critical acclaim.

Now under the RCA umbrella, this former coatcheck clerk is prepping her debut LP, ‘Perfectly Imperfect,’ with a tone that’s refreshingly authentic. She may share some similarities with her elder rhythm and blues counterpart but in her book, she’s coloring out of the lines and moving in her own direction. Read on as this zooty glamor girl reveals how she teamed with J. Cole on her single, ‘Only Wanna Give It to You,’ why she was tagged as a nerd on the come-up and the “pet project” she’s preparing for the masses.

What song are you thrilled about releasing that the public hasn’t had an opportunity to hear yet?

That would be ‘Refill,’ which is looking like my next single — I’m not 100 percent sure. But it is such an amazing song. It’s like this hip-hop, R&B, like crazy 808s but with a country fiddle throughout the whole song. It’s so ironic — the whole concept of the song about a refill and you think I’m talking about a drink but I’m actually talking about a guy and his time, and wanting more of him. It’s really cool. Pop and Oak produced it. They produced most of the album.


Watch Elle Varner’s ‘Only Wanna Give It to You’ Feat. J. Cole




Let’s get into this mixtape that you’re planning to release before the LP. What can people expect to hear on that?

It’s kind of my own little pet project. I think the thing about mixtapes now is there’s no rules. So I have songs like, I wrote a song to an existing instrumental but then took out the instrumental and replayed it on the piano. So it’s a ballad instead of like a mid-tempo. There’s some surprises on there. There may be a few features. I’m not sure, we’re working on that now. I haven’t even thought of [a title yet].

What’s the story behind your album title, ‘Perfectly Imperfect’?

So I had come up with millions of titles and they all kind of worked. I don’t know if you heard ‘So Fly,’ it’s a song about body image, self-esteem, confidence and it really hits home because I wrote it at a time when I was going through that, and I still do, every woman does. So that song is a highlight on my record and it speaks so much about who I am. There’s songs that show what I can do, but this song really says who I am. I didn’t want to title the album a track off of the album, so I said ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ kind of embodies my whole persona. But then ironically it also describes the album because we realized, not even knowing, there’s a lot of mistakes that were in the tracks that we actually kept because they just added flavor. You’ll hear when you hear the album but there’s things like stuff we did to keep the tempo that was just supposed to be a marker and we ended up keeping as part of the track. So it’s perfectly imperfect.

How did you make your way to RCA Records to score a deal?

I was working in coatcheck in Santos [Party House in New York City]. Somebody heard me, I was playing guitar in my downtime. I think it was like summer, the end of summer. This kid heard me, next thing you know, he’s like, “I know some people.” I was at MBK [Entertainment, former management home to Alicia [Keys]. I didn’t really know what MBK was. I go in there, play a couple songs and they’re like, “So we want to take you to J Records.” I’m like, “What?” And the following week they took me to [J Records] and I played for the heads of the entire company. And the following week after that I got a stack of paperwork. That was like a year-and-a-half ago.

Steven Gomillion and Dennis Leupold

I know you went to NYU and graduated with a music degree from the Clive Davis Program of Recorded Music. Did you always see yourself as a burgeoning artist?

Yeah, [but] I think I was afraid of it for a long time because I didn’t fully have the confidence as an artist. It’s one thing to sing and write, too, but to be an artist takes a lot of knowing who you are. As I got to that point I said, “You know what, I need to go after this full force before I try anything else.” And it worked out.

If you didn’t get signed, where did you see yourself heading in terms of a career?

I wanted to work either in a studio or at a label. Not having the confidence, I thought I’d get an internship at a label, I’ll get in there and then maybe one day I’ll give someone my CD and it’ll go the inside way. Instead of approaching it as an artist presenting themselves. And then also in the studio department, I was thinking maybe I’ll be an engineer, assist, work my way into that situation.

Who have you collaborated with in the studio recently or in the past that became a memorable experience for you?

One of the first producers I worked with was Alex da Kid, before B.o.B., before any of that. He was wonderful. We came up with some crazy stuff. And really J. Cole was the only feature, the only other artist I worked with.

Watch Elle Varner Perform ‘So Fly’

How did you end up working with J. Cole?

We randomly met at school. He went to St. John’s [University] and I went to NYU. And then we bumped into each other. We were acquaintances, not like best friends or anything. We bumped into each other here at the Sony building and I was like, “J. Cole?” and he was like “Elle?” [I said], “What are you doing here?” [He said], “I just got signed.” [I said], “I just got signed.” And so the first thing that came to mind was him when we wanted to put a rapper on ‘Only Wanna to Give It to You.’

Let’s talk about style. You always seem to dress super colorfully, which is a reflection of your personality. Who inspires you as a style icon?

Style icons, I don’t really have any specific style icon but I do look at women that have their own flavor and own style such as Rihanna. Even if I don’t take from their style I appreciate their being courageous and trying different things. I’m very much inspired by “regular” fashion but taking it up a little step. Like I’m not a big high-fashion person, I’m not a big name person. I just like to find cute stuff that works.

Was there any one artist that you did want to work with on the album and it didn’t come to fruition?

I think at one point I wanted to work with Kanye [West] on something. It didn’t work out but it’s all good because what I got to do on this album by not working with a lot of people is kind of solidify my sound instead of having someone else come in and put their stamp on it. I’m definitely looking forward to working with him.

Outside of music, what would people be surprised to know about you?

I think people would be surprised to know that I was such a loser growing up [laughs]. It blows my mind on a daily basis when I see people on Twitter like, “Man, she’s got swag.” And I just crack up. I’m always looking at my dad like, “Can you believe this?” I spent so much time with my dad and he didn’t really know how to dress a girl. He would buy me these sweatsuits, these baggy sweatsuits. He was very strict on what I wore to school. I think my fashion sense at the time no one understood. I didn’t care, I was just like, “I’m gonna wear what I want to wear.” I used to come home crying to my mom like, “Everybody hates me. They’re so mean.” They always told me, “You can’t dress,” “You’re a nerd.” I think over time I internalized that and it gave me such a drive to prove people wrong and here I am now.

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