Welcome to the HARMAN Ambassador Spotlight series in which we introduce some of the talented artists who are part of the HARMAN Professional Solutions family. In today’s edition, we’re highlighting award-winning singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Elle Varner. Charming and charismatic, with an unforgettable voice and knack for melody, Elle’s first album “Perfectly Imperfect” debuted at number four on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 chart in 2012. Since then, she has collaborated on a variety of recording, producing and writing projects including a performance with D.R.A.M on Chance the Rapper’s GRAMMY ® award-winning album, “Coloring Book.”
While R & B is at the heart of Elle’s writing and performing, her musical interests and abilities span a wide range of styles. She is currently developing an acoustic project in her home studio.
Elle grew up in a bi-coastal musical family and attended the Hamilton High School Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Los Angeles where she was part of the Vocal Jazz Group. Concurrently, she spent several years in the highly acclaimed Amazing Grace Conservatory for acting. After graduating high school, Elle was accepted into the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. These days she calls Brooklyn home, but still visits Los Angeles whenever possible. I recently spoke with Elle as she was recording in her recently upgraded home studio.
[MM] As a young person, what were your musical and cultural influences?
[Elle] Because of the unique way I was raised—spending weekends in Compton and summers in Maine—I was exposed to many different cultures and kinds of music. I had an uncle in Compton who I’d visit every weekend. He was an outstanding member of the community and founded a bank there. Unfortunately, he lost his life to gang violence and my time in Compton ended prematurely. I have always treasured the perspective I gained while being there.
I had a white grandmother and black grandfather on the East Coast and from the time I was five years old, I spent every summer with them. I was still an L.A. girl, but having a variety of perspectives kept me from becoming stuck in any one cultural group. I have always had friends from different backgrounds and love participating in their various traditions. It was a cool upbringing that has definitely impacted my music.
[MM] How do you think your music affects people?
[Elle] I really like to make people feel something through my music and, if I can, create an emotional experience for them. That’s what I strive for. Of course, everyone wants to have a hit record. That’s great, that’s the goal, but I believe making music is more than that. It’s about the impact it has on people. I like to think that what I do is create good honest music, for the love of music. I believe people can feel that when they listen.
[MM] Are you working on a follow-up album to “Perfectly Imperfect”?
[Elle] I had incredible success and critical acclaim with my first album. But let’s be honest, it’s been five years and it’s going to take a lot of work to finish a follow-up. For me though, if there’s no challenge, I can’t do it. To have a challenge and know that even though I’ve accomplished a lot, it’s about the new goals I set for myself. What new accomplishments can I put on my radar? What dreams can I make happen? For a while, that was a scary thought and there was a lot of pressure. But, when I remember why I do what I’m doing and how much I love it, I become excited about all the projects ahead of me.
Lately, I’ve been exploring more of my own production. One of the things I’m working on is an acoustic project that focuses on guitar, bass and piano bass. On the R&B side, I’m writing and producing music that is more about the microphones and vocals. I have a studio in my place and my dad [Jimmy Varner] has a studio with his 30 years of equipment that I also have access to. I’m really just starting my journey as a producer though, and in the last year, have committed to it more than ever. It’s an exciting time for me.
[MM] As a producer, are you planning to work with other artists?
[Elle] Actually, when I was about 13, I started working in my dad’s studio. I remember a young artist who could sing, but needed to be shown certain techniques. She was very shy. That was the first time I realized I had a gift for patience and for pulling something from an artist, especially a younger female artist. It’s similar to the way my dad has always been able to bring certain things out of me.
Working with that young artist sparked something in me. As much as I liked being front and center, I found I also liked being behind the scenes and exploring that side of music.
Especially as a female producer and artist, I really appreciate my relationship with HARMAN and the tools they’ve provided to support my music. It means so much to me. The gear is helping to put me on a level that I’ve always aspired to work at. With my new JBL 708P monitors, I’m able to hear what excellence sounds like in the work I’m creating. For such a small speaker, I’m just blown away. They’re so impactful.
The AKG microphones HARMAN provided have made a real difference in how I work in the studio. I’ve been using the AKG C12VR as my vocal microphone and it does an amazing job. I have a very raspy voice and not every microphone handles it well. It’s really important for me to have a microphone that captures the unique qualities of my voice and the C12 is incredible.
Using the AKG C414XLS on the guitar for the acoustic project, we’ve been able to experiment with different micing techniques. I’ve never been able to do that outside of school and certainly not as a producer in my own studio. It’s exciting to be able to apply everything I’ve learned through the years.
[MM] Is guitar your primary instrument?
[Elle] I’ve always played guitar and recently, I’ve been on the piano more than I have in a long time. I’ve been writing a lot of melodies on it, where I used to just sing them. I’ve been exploring different approaches to songwriting and it’s been really interesting.
[MM] Tell me about your songwriting process. How do you find your way into the heart of a song?
[Elle] There are two distinctive ways I go about it. If a producer gives me a track or if I hear a chord progression or piece of music, I almost always interpret it into words. I’ll think, how does this feel? Does it make me sad? Does it make me excited? That starts to bring the words I’m going to say. Other times, I’ll hear a track and visualize an actual place or situation. Then I start to paint that scene with words.
The other approach is when I need to get something off my chest. It may be an experience I’m going through. Maybe it’s something that is happening to a friend or something I hear about that sparks my interest. In that case, I try to break the scenario down mathematically. I think about the different ways I can say what I’m saying to get from here to there. Then, I’ll choose a concept and move forward.
[MM] You started playing music when you were quite young. Did you start writing songs at the same time?
[Elle] I did. As a child, I started making music because I loved it so much. Then, as I got older, I knew I wanted to commit to it as a career and went for it. My earliest memory of songwriting was when I was seven years old and, off the top of my head, made up a 40-minute song that I recorded. When I listen to that tape now and hear what I was singing about, I realize that I already had a very strong sense of self. In it, I sing, “I’m a beautiful black queen, but I’m a generous queen. I may not be the most beautiful, but that’s okay because everyone is beautiful in their own way.” Kudos to my mom [singer-songwriter Mikelyn Roderick] for having the patience to just sit there and let me go on and on.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my elders and remember my grandmother playing the song “Street Life” by the Crusaders. I was probably 10 years old and played that song over and over and made up a whole dramatic piece, like a stage play. I had a crazy imagination and the support of my family to let me feel that it was special. I still carry that with me—the knowledge that what I have to say is important has really been a driving force.
[MM] You have a very theatrical element to your style. Have you acted?
[Elle] Yes. One very important aspect of my upbringing was attending the Amazing Grace Conservatory. It’s a school for inner-city children in Los Angeles that was founded by the actress, Wendy Raquel Robinson and the late Tracy Lamar Coley. At Amazing Grace, we were given an incredible opportunity to receive a professional level of discipline as actors, singers and dancers and an amazing level of excellence from our teachers. The program is run like a real theater. We’d rehearse all semester and put on a play once a year. Acting is still a passion of mine, and something I would love to explore. But there is quite a bit musically I want to accomplish first.
[MM] You’ve been collaborating with other artists these last few years and won a GRAMMY for your work on Chance the Rapper’s album. Can you tell me how that came about?
[Elle] I’ve been blessed to work with Chance for a few years now, since he was just making mix tapes. We’ve actually collaborated on a lot of records and I really appreciate him allowing me to do my thing. This one in particular, was an amazing flash from the heavens. I was with some producer friends in Los Angeles and they said, “Hey, we’re going to Rick Rubin’s studio, want to come?”
When we got there, I met D.R.A.M and he blew me away. As a singer, his choices are like no one else. We were recording vocals together and it freaked me out. There were moments when I couldn’t tell if what I was hearing was his voice or mine. It was an amazing experience and I was blessed to be a part of the song. I had no idea what would come of it. At the time, we were just creating music. One day I got a call saying the track was going to be on Chance’s new album. Then, another day I got a call saying the album had won a GRAMMY!
[MM] In some ways, even with your popularity and the great success you’ve had, it sounds like you’re just starting out.
[Elle] It’s funny that you say that, in certain ways I kind of am. Thinking about all the projects ahead of me and everything I’m excited to do, takes me back to being 10 years old singing “Street Life.” I do what I do because I love it and know I have a lot to give. It’s what I’m here for.
I want to work with the top labels and artists. I want them to come to me because they need a ballad or a song about something in particular. I’ve already worked with so many remarkable writers and producers. I know what my process would be and how I would go about it.
Many thanks to Elle Varner for sharing her insights into her music and songwriting, and for being part of the HARMAN Ambassador family. Are you a musician who produces other artists? Share your story in the comments.