Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Thankful’ Turns 10: Backtracking

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

More than a decade after being announced the inaugural winner of American Idol in September 2002, Kelly Clarkson is still very much America’s sweetheart, with a discography bursting with hits and three Grammys sitting pretty on her mantelpiece. The first decade of the new millennium would have really sucked without gems like “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Already Gone,” but, at the time, the transition from talent show winner to pop star was completely uncharted territory — and the Texan was still finding her sound when her debut album hits stores on April 15, 2003.

Thankful, executive-produced by RCA head honcho — and future book bullyClive Davis, was thrown together fairly quickly to capitalize on the popularity of Idol. There were delays to find suitable material, and the haste is reflected by the album’s lack of direction. Instead of developing a cohesive sound, they tried a bit of everything to see what stuck. This includes ballads of every conceivable variety (pop, rock and blues) and, oddly, mid-tempo R&B numbers. The former hold up considerably better than the latter.

Kelly Clarkson — “Miss Independent”

While the real Kelly Clarkson finally stood up on sophomore outing Breakaway, her debut has a handful of memorable tracks and is a testament to her obvious vocal talent. As far as starting points go, it’s pretty good. Especially when you consider that the album’s lead single was actually intended for Christina Aguilera. “Miss Independent”, co-penned by Clarkson, Matt Morris, Rhett Lawrence and the dirrty diva herself, showed the AI winner in a new light.

Fresh, current and still incredibly catchy, the song proved Kelly could be as feisty as any of the reigning pop queens. In a sign of things to come, the then 19-year-old had to beg to get “Miss Independent” on the album. It was a battle worth fighting, as the female empowerment anthem not only connected at home, but turned Clarkson into a star abroad. Ten years later, she’s still the only American Idol winner to have really broken internationally.

Kelly Clarkson — “The Trouble With Love Is”

Thankful produced two more singles that, while failing to match “Miss Independent” on the charts, were arguably more indicative of the direction Kelly would eventually take. “The Trouble With Love Is,” a bluesy ballad that doubled as the theme of 2003 holiday favorite Love Actually, is an early preview of the diva’s eventual flirtation with roots and blues. It completely stiffed in the US but performed considerably better internationally. Better yet was the surprisingly gritty “Low”, which introduced the songstress to a sound she would explore more fully on the criminally underrated My December.

The song was penned by veteran songwriter Jimmy Harry, who has written hits for Pink, Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Britney Spears. He spoke to Idolator about his contribution to Thankful, saying, “’Low’ was a really personal song for me. I wrote it and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it because it was a pretty brutal lyric and I felt it wasn’t something a lot of pop artists would want to do.”

Kelly Clarkson — “Low”

After some encouragement from friends, Jimmy asked singer-songwriter Danielle Brisebois to sing the demo (which you can listen to below) and offered it to the last pair of divas you could probably imagine singing the song: “I sent it to Britney and Kylie, but it really wasn’t a good fit for what they were doing.”

The song eventually found its way to Kelly, which initially filled Jimmy with apprehension. “I was a bit conflicted about Kelly doing the song,” Harry admits. “Mostly because it seemed like they were going for a Celine Dion/Mariah Carey sort of vibe with her and I wasn’t sure how it was going to make sense with what I had heard from the rest of the record.”

It didn’t take the songsmith long to realize “Low” had found the perfect home: “I liked the version she cut a lot. I was expecting it to be a bit more pop than the way Clif Magness produced it.

“I think it was a big leap of faith to segue from ‘Miss Independent’ to ‘Low’ because the production and lyrical content were so different,” he continues. “I was really surprised when I learned it was going to be the second single. I knew it was a great song. I’m happy it saw the light of day.”

Danielle Brisebois would eventually have greater involvement in Thankful than singing Jimmy’s “Low” demo. Kelly covers “Just Missed The Train” from the singer’s 1994 debut Arrive All Over You. The song actually sounds like a mellow take on the pop-rock sound that Kelly perfect on Breakaway. Danielle has fond memories of working on the song and shared them with us.

“The song is about [the feeling] when something is almost right but in your heart you know it will never really work out even though you want it to,” Brisebois muses. “Looking back I realize that that is the process we all go through to find what love means to us. We have a handful of things that almost work but are really just practice for the real thing. However, the practice runs are real while you are in it.”

Despite the personal nature of the song, Danielle was happy for Kelly to record it. “I am a fan of American Idol and loved watching the first season. I had a feeling she was going to hit it out of the park, which she did. I love [her version]. I actually sing background vocals on it.”

She adds, “I think it sounds fresh and current even now. It was written on acoustic instruments so I think songs like that hold up because they are not popular just because of a keyboard sound or a certain drum pattern, but because of the content of the melody and lyric.”

Further highlights on Thankful include the moving Diane Warren-penned ballad “Some Kind Of Miracle” and the perky pop/rock-lite gem “Beautiful Disaster.” Other cuts haven’t fared as well. “What’s Up Lonely” is as insipid as the title suggests. The album’s title track is one of the mid-tempo R&B tracks that Kelly thankfully never wasted her time on ever again. And “Anytime” is best known as the love theme for the crime against cinema known as From Justin To Kelly. Enough said.

Have any special memories tied to Kelly Clarkson’s debut album? Let us know below, or by hitting us up on Facebook and Twitter!