Born and raised in the music industry, Elle Varner was made for this world. Harkening back to the sounds of ’90s R&B artists like En Vogue, Varner is a vocal powerhouse with a sound and image to match. Anticipating the early 2012 release of her debut album, Perfectly Imperfect, Life + Times caught up with the bicoastal singer/songwriter to talk about everything from how she first met J.Cole in the dorms to her impressive shoe game.
Life+Times: What was it like growing up with parents in the industry?
Elle Varner: It was great. My dad was a producer and my mom was a singer/songwriter; both in R&B. My parents let me be whatever I wanted to be. They let me explore when I wanted to play this instrument or that instrument, or when I wanted to dance. When I got really into science, they bought me a microscope and slides. They never pushed me to do any one thing, but I think we all knew that it was inevitable I’d end up making music. I was in it since the day I started talking. From watching my parents in the studio to seeing my mom go on the road with artists like Barry White, it’s just always been my life.
L+T: I read that you were only 13 when you wrote and recorded your first song. What’s the story behind that?
EV: Well sort of. I was 13 or 14 and my dad was in the studio producing a song for someone and I said something along the lines of, “Dad that sucks.” He said, “You think you can do better?” And I said, “Yeah I do!” But I really had no idea what I was doing, I was just really prideful. So he left me alone with the engineer for like an hour and when he came back I had written and recorded the entire song, background vocals and everything. It was my first time.
L+T: You attended the Amazing Grace Conservatory in LA. How has music education informed you as an artist?
EV: At Amazing Grace Conservatory, we got a lot of life lessons. For example, one of the things they would always tell us was, “You have not arrived.” Like check yourself and know that you have not arrived. Another one that stuck with me is, “To thine own self be true.” No matter what’s going on or who is around, to thine own self be true. What helped me even more than being able to take acting or singing classes was that they treated us like young artists. I wouldn’t exactly say professionals, but we weren’t treated like children. My parents never treated me like a kid either. My dad would have conversations with me about anything and everything. I was always there, I was always in it.
L+T: You write all of your music. Can you talk about what the writing process is like for you?
EV: Before writing was just something I did out of passion and a need to get my emotions and feelings out. Now that I’m a professional, quote un quote, it’s a different process. There are deadlines and demands that need to be met. Writing is the glue between yourself and your song. For me it’s all about finding how to still be creative and pure with music, while adapting to the idea that writing is a job.
L+T: What was the concept behind your single, “Only Wanna Give It To You?”
EV: That song has actually been around for a minute. It’s taken so many forms, oh my goodness. When I wrote it initially it sounded like a French folk song. Now it’s a hip-hop 90’s song with a rapper. I just can’t even believe how far this song has come. I wanted to challenge myself to be as clever as possible with the lyrics. It wasn’t necessarily about a real story or a real person.
L+T: How did the collaboration with J.Cole come about?
EV: Both of our stories are crazy—how he got signed and how I got signed. I met him in college through a friend. Really random! I didn’t know that he rapped, I just knew that he went to St. John’s University and that we had mutual friends. We had seen each other here and there a couple times, but we weren’t BFFs or anything. And then I saw him at the Sony building. I was like “Hey.” He was like “Yo whatsup? What are you doing here?” I said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “I just got signed!” and I said, “I just got signed too!” So when it came time to do the rap for the song, I hit him up and he was totally receptive. He loved the song.
L+T: What was it like to work with him?
EV: I think the dynamic between us really makes the video. Knowing myself, I would not have been able to be so comfortable if it was somebody I had never met. Honestly if it had been anybody else, I would have been in a different mindset. But to me, it was like he’s that kid I met in the dorms. Regardless of where he’s at in his career, he’s the kid I met in the dorms.