Let’s be real: Kelly Rowland doesn’t get enough credit. She was only in her teens when Destiny’s Child released their debut self-titled album, was the first of the group to break out with a number one single (you’ll no doubt remember “Dilemma,” her playground duet with Nelly), and, unlike a handful of young wonders before and after her, she never burned out or misstepped. Rowland continued to put out solid R&B that eschewed clichés and carried on her alma matter’s message of female empowerment. On her fourth solo album, Talk a Good Game, she makes her boldest statement yet, flexing her vocals in the Dream-co-penned “Dirty Laundry” about domestic violence and the slinky subversive earworm “Kisses Down Low.”
Maybe Rowland’s secret is to stay busy, considering the self-proclaimed “workaholic” has taken on an impressive slew of projects. Just this year, Rowland reunited with Beyoncé Knowles and Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child at the Super Bowl, replaced Britney Spears as a judge on X Factor, helped put together next-gen girl group Little Mix, started working on a new fitness DVD with her personal trainer Jeanette Jenkins, and put out her best album yet. And, yeah, she’s already back in the studio—Rowland took a break from recording to talk about navigating her teen years as a role model, working again with the ladies of Destiny’s Child, and growing up on Joni Mitchell.
Noisey: How’s your week been?
Kelly Rowland: It’s been wonderful. I went to Atlanta to see some friends there and then came back yesterday to see Jay Z and Justin Timberlake in their show. They were phenomenal. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. Today, I am actually looking at all of the auditions from X-Factor to be constructive for these young people.
I’m really curious about the line “You don’t know the half of this industry” in “Dirty Laundry.” Have you experienced sexism in your career, and is that line in response to it?
Yeah, I think that when you’ve been in the music industry for as long as I have, you know that some things when you first experience them will shock you: people, business moves from people, just different things that you start to find out, the older you get and the more you start to understand business. People don’t know the half of it. You know what I’m saying?
Is that something you’re still dealing with?
It’s not something that you experience everyday but, when it’s something that kind of takes you back for a sec, it happens on occasion. But some things do shock you. I don’t want get into stories because that’s nobody’s business but I do think that it happens.
You also bravely reveal your experience with domestic violence in that song. Do you think that pop stars have a responsibility to their fans to be role models?
I think that when you get into this industry you’re immediately a role model. No one asks for it. That’s just the way it is.
You’ve been in the spotlight since your teens. Was it difficult at that age knowing you had this responsibility to be a role model?
To be honest, I don’t think we really thought about it like that. You have to remember, when we were in Destiny’s Child, we had our parents traveling with us, we were workaholics, and we wanted to be on time and have great performances. We were just so groomed. It’s not a bad thing but we just always wanted to be on point. That’s just the way we were brought up.
What else does it take to come out of that situation successful? Is there an attitude you have to have?
You have to have passion and love what you do. I’ve heard so many people say, “Well, I just didn’t love it anymore,” and I’m just thinking, “What?!” I still love it. I love what I do and being able to share my music with fans and having them be so supportive and loyal. They’re the reason I’m still here.
Destiny’s Child revived the girl group as a music form that was worthy of critical analysis. You guys made the genre get taken seriously. What do you attribute that particular success to?
We worked hella hard. I remember us having crazy hour days and not complaining. We loved what we did and were passionate, like I said. There was nothing that was really tried. We just wanted to make great music for young women and were hell-bent on it. So when we went into the studio with writers, we told them exactly what we wanted.
Was your crusade to make empowering music for young women a response to there being a lack of it on the radio, when you started out?
No, we just wanted that to be our message. I think that we just had something to say, and if we were to have a big platform to be able to say something, why not say it with meaning? Why not have something to say with purpose? Why not have something to say where you could possibly change somebody’s life?
And that’s still a really strong thread in your solo work and Beyoncé’s work. “Kisses Down Low” and “Motivation” are very sexually-empowering songs for women. It seems like there should be more songs like that on the radio. Why do you think the industry has been slow to foster these kinds of songs?
That’s a great question. I don’t know why the industry is like that. I have to think about that. Can I get back to you?
Sure, but was it intentional for you to come out with something that was sexually-empowering?
No, we just went into the studio and Rico Love—who wrote “Motivation”—is a sensual human being so when he started writing it, it just all oozed—this sensuality that was just magical, and was even more brought to life when we did the video. I remember watching females listen to it and really start to get into the sexiness of themselves. I thought that was so great because every woman should know how sexy she is. It’s not just about your body and skin and what you’re showing off. It’s mentally, it’s everything that you are as a woman.
Is there any music that you find that feeling in?
Janet Jackson to me was always that, and I love that about her. Her sexuality was empowering. Madonna is the same way. Donna Summer is the same way. When Donna Summer came out with “Love to Love You Baby” I was just like “Ahhhhh.” I mean, I wasn’t alive but when I listened to the song I absolutely loved that that was a part of who she is as a woman. Some guys or some people will be afraid of it and, going back to your other question, it’s thought of as something that you’re not supposed to talk about as a woman, and that’s not necessarily true.
Do you think the climate today is more accepting of these kinds of songs?
I think that you make the rules. You can do whatever you want. Especially now in the music industry, I think that artists make the rules. I heard Jay Z say that in his Samsung commercial and I was like, “Aah! We do make the rules.” It was so empowering.
What prompted the “Big Yellow Taxi” cover in “Gone?” Are you a big Joni Mitchell fan?
Absolutely. I remember my mom listening to Joni Mitchell on the way to school in Houston, Texas. In the studio, it actually just happened, because we spent two days trying to find the chorus after we wrote the whole song. And all of a sudden Courtney Harrell sang “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and it just worked. It was so perfect and I was like “Oh my god, Joni!” I love Joni Mitchell. Her magic just came and graced the room.
One of the immediately striking songs on the album is “Stand In Front of Me” because of how you mix together real talk and profanity with a doowop sound. It’s a really modern take on an old classic. What was your thought process when you and Pharrell were working on it?
We just had a good time in the studio. It wasn’t premeditated. Pharrell played me the song and I just fell in love and when I went into the studio to sing it, everything came out naturally. It felt good and I kept thinking of Pleasantville for some reason, and everybody there was wearing Air Jordans. I don’t know but it helped me capture the essence of it.
The thing that I love most about the new song with you, Beyoncé, and Michelle, “You Changed,” is that each of you guys are singing backup for each other. How have been able to maintain that collaborative mindset since all of your solo careers took off?
I think that it’s always going to be there because we harmonized together and worked together for so long. You pretty much know when to put it on and off. But I will say that when we finished the record, I remember getting an email from the girls and them saying, “Oh my god, we sound so good together.” We forgot because it had been so long since we sang together. I thought that was so funny.
So do you have plans to get back into the studio together?
It’s not anything that we’ve talked about recently. I just saw Bey yesterday. We just have a good time when we’re together. It’s not necessarily something that we bring up. Bey is finishing up a tour, Michelle is about to put out a new album, and I’m promoting my album, doing X-Factor, and I have plans to tour at the top of next year so we’re all busy doing our solo things, supporting each other, and still being there for each other. Not in the way that some people would like for us to be in the limelight, singing on stage. But we’re still very much involved in each other’s lives.
Marrisa G. Muller listened to Destiny's Child on repeat growing up. She's on Twitter — @marissagmuller