It’s a bright, sunny morning when Elle Varner strolls into Entertainment One’s (eOne) Toronto headquarters wearing a burnt orange wrap dress and strappy stiletto heels. She exudes a quiet confidence, stopping to give hugs and handshakes to everyone on the Urbanology team before sitting down and picking up her phone. It’s the same kind of confidence and poise she exhibits in the visual for her latest single “Pour Me” featuring Wale where she’s seen lying alongside a python, completely unbothered.
When it’s time for Varner to do her photoshoot, she makes her own aesthetic adjustments. At first, she poses with her glasses on, then tries taking them off. Out on the balcony, she moves from one end to the other until she finds the spot where the sun hits her skin just right. After a few shots are snapped, she walks over to review them herself, tilting her head slightly and smiling softly.
It’s been a while since the R&B songstress’s last release. Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Los Angeles, Varner grew up around music and worked diligently on her craft until getting her break in 2009. Her debut album Perfectly Imperfect (2012) was critically acclaimed with Billboard-charting hits like “Refill” and “Only Wanna Give It To You” featuring J Cole. At that time, Varner was projected to be one of the most promising new artists to come out of the 2010s with her signature boom-bap, trap, jazz and R&B sound. But then she didn’t follow up with a release for years. It was no surprise that when Varner’s sophomore EP Ellevation finally released in mid-July, her fans were thrilled to hear what she had been working on all this time.
A lot happened between her debut and sophomore projects. Her second album got shelved by her then-label RCA Records. Despite this, she continued to put out a handful of singles and also lent her vocals to a number of songs on other artists’ projects. Her vocals show up on both the late Mac Miller’s GO:OD AM album and Chance The Rapper’s Grammy-winning Coloring Book mixtape. Fast-forward to this year and it seems she’s now following in the footsteps of music moguls like Rihanna and Jay-Z by successfully acquiring her masters. She also launched her own record label 212 Entertainment and has a deal with eOne records. Varner is back in full effect, bearing a new-found knowledge of the industry and of herself.
That same confident and independent nature can be felt while listening to Ellevation which she executively produced. The EP stays true to Varner’s trap jazz sound while also saving space for the singer/songwriter to experiment with different sounds. With the current state of R&B flourishing and transforming, this feels like the perfect time for Varner’s return. Overall, Ellevation is a celebration of her growth and the title alone is an indicator of exactly what she’s doing.
So, your album is called Ellevation. What was the reason why you decided to choose that name?
Funnily enough, I was looking back through my email and in 2016 … I came up with the name Ellevation and just the idea of a play on my name. Then when I titled thisproject Ellevation, I had completely [forgotten] about the thing.
This time around it was [called Ellevation] because it represented where I’m at, what I’ve gone through, what I’ve elevated past and just … [being] a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Speaking of elevating, you started your own record label 212 Entertainment. What has that experience been like?
Wow, it’s really exciting … It’s been a dream of mine probably since college and I put it on the back burner because I signed with a major label, my career started taking off, and I was happy with that.
Now, I see [owning a label] as an opportunity to expand in a totally different way. Not just as an artist, but as a mogul and an owner. I’m really looking forward to developing new talent and sharing my expertise and my resources with the next generation.
I just want to make each situation count. Make it real.
Do you already have a few people on the label?
I’m looking at a few people and it’s got to be right just because I know what goes into this. I know it’s a commitment on both ends. It really is. There’s so many factors that can come into play and I’m very sensitive. So, I just want to make each situation count. Make it real.
Have there been any challenges that you’ve experienced with starting your own record label?
Absolutely. Perfect example, I just did “Good Morning America” on July 4 but everybody doesn’t know that for nine months prior to that, I was doing a lot of local TV and getting up at four o’clock in the morning and then doing these long press days. And there were times when I felt like … I didn’t understand why certain things were happening. Then boom, you look up and these amazing opportunities present themselves. So that’s starting to normal out the challenges of being independent, having to be on top of everything yourself. No one’s just doing things for you. You’re in charge, you’re the boss.
You also come from a musical background and you had been in the studio from a young age. How do you feel like that’s prepared you for owning your own record label and navigating the industry by yourself?
I’m very blessed … and it’s interesting. Like I don’t have the most famous parents on the planet, and I didn’t grow up with a lot of money or a lot of things. It was just that I had a lot of love, a lot of experience, and a lot of access. My parents were the ones behind the scenes doing a lot of the heavy lifting and writing for people, producing. The ones that don’t always get the recognition. So, for me to see that and experience the musicians and the people behind the scenes, made it a very special part of my journey.
I’m here to do music beyond genre, beyond colour, beyond anything…
With the R&B music industry now, there’s been a lot of new people coming in and now you’re back. How are you going to elevate the R&B music industry? Or how do you want to?
I really just want to finish what I started. When I came in the game, I was doing a modern take on traditional R&B. You know, I had the boom-bap on “Only Wanna Give It To You” or even with “Refill” and the Yeehaw agenda, it wasn’t intentional, it was just a natural thing. But then if you listen to the album Perfectly Imperfect, I’m playing the guitar on half of the album and now on Ellevation playing guitar [for] half of the album. It’s just an extension of what I’ve already done. As a Black woman, I think it’s always been important for me to have a voice not just in the typical ways … So, I’m just continuing on that path … I’m here to do music beyond genre, beyond colour, beyond anything and I’m here to bring people together through music.
I noticed that your songs on your new album, compared to Perfectly Imperfect, have matured in a way. In what ways have you grown personally from that album to now?
Perfectly Imperfect was at the very early stages of my love life if I even had one. I used to watch romantic comedies and then I would cry, or I would feel something, and I would make-up these songs like “Welcome Home.” It wasn’t from personal experience per se. It was really from being a watcher and a voyeur. And now I’ve been through some things. I’ve had my heart broken a few times and even found the courage to love again. So that’s like Loving U Blind. I’m taking my time because I’ve been here, and I am not in a rush to just crash and burn.
Speaking of “Loving U Blind,” I feel like that’s a really great song for young women to listen to and I love that message of taking your time and really learning someone. Was that something that you were conscious of when you were making it or a lesson that you learned personally?
That was a personal one. That was a relationship … [where] the feelings were just explosive and in a very short time and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do things a little differently.’ Not just to protect myself, but to make sure because it all feels good in the beginning.
Yeah sure does and then things change.
Yes exactly, which I will touch on even more on the next album. I can’t tell you the title yet but woo! Yeah.
You can choose happiness. You can choose joy. You have more control than you think.
One of my favourite songs is “Pour Me” and one of the things that stuck out to me was I felt like it was almost like it had a connection to “Refill.” How, if at all, do you feel the two songs build on each other?
With “Refill”, it’s like first meeting the guy at the bar and wanting to talk to him. “Pour Me” is like, OK I’ve already been talking to you. We got a little thing going on, but I kind of dropped the ball. So now I’m back at the bar crying to the bartenders. Basically. It’s one way to deal with things of course.
I know that most people save a special track for last and the last track on your album is called “Be Encouraged.” What was your inspiration to write that song?
What always comes to mind is … I went to Amazing Grace Conservatory back in L.A. during middle school, high school and we had to watch The Wiz every year. And [in it] there’s this scene … [with] Dorothy. She’s lost and she doesn’t believe in herself and then there’s this really emotional uplifting moment with one of the Good Witches … I think [the song] might be called “Home.” I remember the impact that scene and that song had on me as a child. And for some reason when I heard this track, I just felt that energy and I felt like I wanted to just give myself a hug and give the listener a hug and let them know that it’s going to be OK because it really is. A lot of the things that we worry about and stress about are never even going to happen and even if they do what is worrying and stressing going to change? It’s not. There’s very little that you can actually control, but what you can control is powerful. You can choose happiness. You can choose joy. You have more control than you think.
Photos © Isa Miguel Ransome & Urbanology Magazine