Q&A: With Kelly Clarkson and Miranda Lambert in Her Corner, Songwriter Audra Mae Is Having a Moment

by Sophie Schillaci 9:12 AM PST, January 13, 2015
Photo: Piper Ferguson

"This is the happiest time of my life so far," singer-songwriter Audra Mae gushes on this sunny January afternoon in Los Angeles. "I could not be any more grateful. If I could, I would try!"

Mae has reason to celebrate. She is one of four co-writers credited on Kelly Clarkson's buzzed-about new single "Heartbeat Song," released on Monday, and Miranda Lambert's cover of her track "Little Red Wagon" hits country radio on Tuesday.

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Later this spring, she'll step out from the shadows to promote her own album -- cheekily titled Queendom Come -- in an effort to make her own dreams of pop stardom a reality.

The Oklahoma native -- and great-great-niece of Judy Garland -- has long been turning heads in the industry, but now it's time for the rest of us to meet Audra Mae.

The 30-year-old chats with ETonline about the story behind Clarkson's "Heartbeat Song," how Blake Shelton tracked her down with an unusual request on behalf of his wife, and what you can expect from her own full-length album.

ETonline: Congratulations on "Heartbeat Song," can you tell me how it came together in the studio?

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Audra Mae: It was wonderful. I wrote the song with Mitch Allan, Kara DioGuardi and Jason Evigan, and they are totally seasoned wonderful writers, I was done a big favor by being put in the room with them. The process was really fun, it was a two-day session and Kara, she gets inspiration like being struck by lighting. She literally jumped off the couch in the studio and she stood right up and just started singing the hook: "This is my heartbeat song and I'm gonna play it!" And I went "Oh my god, that's so great!" It was really cool. It can be a challenge when no one's inspired, so it's always great when someone gets a great idea.

How does that work, once you zero in on an idea? Are you all jumping in and giving your own takes?

You just jump in. It's like brainstorming, but I always say writing the song is like kissing someone. You remember the moment right before you kiss them, and then you remember later on in to the kiss, but you never really -- if it's a good kiss -- you never really remember it. You're so in the moment, you go "I don't even know how it happened! One minute we were talking and then we were kissing." If you're too conscious about it, it's not gonna be that great of a song. Ideas come from the ether, outside of your head, it's an unconscious thing you have to hook into it and go with it. It's like brainstorming with a blindfold on, rearranging furniture with a blindfold, but it feels like a kiss. It's satisfying like that. When it's done and you love it and you can't stop listening to it, it's like you're reliving that kiss.

Did you write the song with Kelly in mind?

I don't remember if we did or not. I try not to pigeonhole myself too much, I can't speak for the other writers 'cause everyone's process is different.

When did you find out Kelly was going to use the song?

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We really didn't know about it until it was a single. I officially found out over Christmas break. I was standing in line at Walmart with my little brother, and my publisher texted me and said she had big news. I called her and she told me, and I was dancing all the way out! I stopped in the middle of the lot and my brother literally took the cart from me. I just stopped walking, like "Oh my god!"

Do you have any other songs that will be on Kelly's album?

The funny thing is when it's a really big artist, you never know until it comes out. Even if they say it's a sure thing, you never know until the CD comes out. Any writer will tell you that. There are stories all over the place of, "It was a sure thing, and then your song wasn't on it." I've been lucky enough to have really caring mentors as writers that have always told me get excited, it's really cool, but it's never a sure thing until that piece of plastic comes out with your name on it. You try not to get your hopes up too high.

Did you submit other songs to Kelly that could be on the album?

I've been writing professionally for nine years and I've probably had a million songs submitted to her. You write the best song that you can that day and your publisher goes out for you. Like I said, I try to stay out of it just so I stay excited about the writing. Especially when you're first starting, you're lucky if you get one cut out of 100. You have to just do it for the high you get that day of driving around listening to the song you wrote. Otherwise, you'll live your whole life in anticipation.

Have you heard "Heartbeat Song" on the radio yet?

I have not. I just heard it on iTunes. I woke up this morning and literally slid into the kitchen, my roommates were in there having coffee. I was like, "What is up! It's out!" I've been crying happy tears all day.

Have you spoken to Kelly at all?

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No, I've never met her. I've always been a fan. I've always thought she's one of the best voices that America is proud to have. She's from Texas and I'm from Oklahoma, and when you're back home there's that rivalry but when you're away from home you feel connected. I love that a Texas girl is singing stuff, that makes me really happy.

Did you know that Kelly used her baby's heartbeat as the actual beat of the track?

Oh my god, really? That's so beautiful. You're making me cry, that is such an honor.

Miranda Lambert covered your song "Little Red Wagon" on her Platinum album. How did that come about?

Apparently somebody she was on the road with had heard my record and suggested the song to her. They started listening to it and she really liked it. She is one of the most grounded, humble people you'll ever meet, also a Texas girl... She was apparently nervous about contacting me, so her husband [Blake Shelton] cornered my publisher at a country awards show in Vegas and said, "Can you please get me her number because my wife has listened to this record all the time and she's too shy to do anything about it." She hit me up and invited me to a party they were having for the finale of The Voice, and so that was the first time I met her.
A few months later she was back in town, and she invited me over to play around with some ideas and maybe write something. She asked me if she could sing "Little Red Wagon" and I thought it was so funny because that's not common at all. It's really not necessary, especially if you're a huge artist -- you can do whatever you want! But she's old school cool. She asked my permission and I was like, "Are you f-king crazy? Of course you can." It was really cool. Blake was making us pizza and chicken fingers and pouring us coffee, being such a good host. I can't say enough good things about the both of them. They're real, they're not just playing the game. It's not an act, it's really important that people know that about them.

Any plans to work with them on anything else?

Anytime they want! We have not talked about it, but I will work with them anytime they want.

Did you write anything that day you hung out?

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We played around with stuff but I honestly think she just wanted to get me there to ask me that, and she didn't know how to do it. We played around and we saw a friend of mine's show and had a great time. It was right around Halloween a few years ago in L.A. That was cool, I felt like I was driving the queen of Nashville around.

Tell us what to expect from your own album.

It should be coming out spring or summer. I'm not on a label, which has been wonderful because I don't have anyone else's timeline to go by, so I can let it be what it needs to be when it needs to be it. The album will be called Queendom Come.

How did you come up with that title?

It's a lyric in the first song, "Blues Shoes," that I wrote with Mike Del Rio [Selena Gomez, Kylie Minogue, Christina Aguilera]. It's a very autobiographical song about where I came from. The lyric is, "Came out singin', from here to queendom come, no doubt, I was born with my blues shoes on."

What else do we need to know about the album?

It's different than anything I've ever put out before. I've always done things very -- I was a real snob, I'll put it that way. I only wanted organic instruments, blah, blah, blah. I sort of did a mellow, sad record like that, then I did a happy party record like that, and then I was like, "Well I don't want to do the same record over and over again."

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I'd been writing these pop songs and seeing pop stars on TV and thought, "I want to be on top of the mountain singing my music, too. Being a snob about shit is no fun at all, so I just thought, "What better way to rebel than to just make a f-king pop record?" The lyrics are still meaty, the melodies are still Audra Mae melodies, but the tracks and production are booming. Because why the f--k not?

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