You wouldn’t know it by looking at her, but moments after Elle Varner‘s makeup artist touches up her blush and dabs her with gloss, the bespectacled beauty tells us that she was something of an outcast in high school.
Perched on a stool in our 22nd floor studios last week, Varner and I laughed about how her voluminous halo of curls has made her the girl crush of countless natural-hair blogs. But according to Elle, there was a stretch in her teens where it got so bad, she nearly threw in the towel on the whole recording career thing.
“I was really heavy growing up, so it was never feeling like the pretty girl, never being popular,” Varner revealed to MTV News on the same day her aptly titled debut album, Perfectly Imperfect, hit retailers.
“And I was so happy that it almost made people not like it; it was weird,” the 23-year-old explained. “It was not cool to be that fun, bubbly kid, so I would just go off on my own and sing and make up songs and that’s how I think I developed into the kind of artist and writer that I am.”
EV eventually banded together with the other misfits at school, forming a small supportive regiment of, well, perfectly imperfect kids. Now, those queen bees and wannabes are in the rear view, and Varner’s a rising R&B powerhouse with a voice so stirring we sprinted home and Googled the singer/songwriter after seeing her perform circles around a couple industry acts with at least a few years on her, at last November’s taping of “Black Girls Rock.”
Read on (and click the embedded video!) as Elle breaks down three key tracks, that, no lie, happen to be in our top 5 on Imperfect.
“Sound Proof Room”
Varner’s raspy growl on this Pop & Oak production takes the track from steamy to sizzling. And the lyrics don’t mince: One on verse, she tempts her guy with the promise of “somethin’ extra-curricular on a lunch break.” “I’ve grown so much over the past few years from when I wrote “So Fly” [at 16], feeling completely insecure and hopeless and like, ‘I’ll never get a boyfriend,’ to feeling like the girl in ‘Sound Proof Room’ … confidently expressing myself and how I feel,” she said.
The NYU grad moved from her native Los Angeles to New York for undergrad after a childhood spent tagging along with her musician parents to studio sessions with the likes of Barry White and Kool and the Gang. But though she’d seemingly seen it all, it didn’t make Varner any less shy when it came to a college crush. “It’s one of the saddest songs on the album, about not being able to say ‘hello’ to a guy that I was in a class with for four months,” she admitted. “And to this day, I never said anything to him. And it was kinda heartbreaking, like, ‘Just say it!’ but I can’t.”
“Damn Good Friends”
God bless the girl that hasn’t fallen for a guy who wanted to keep it in the friend zone. For everyone else, Varner has written this achy, low-tempo anthem. “I have so many guy friends, and if you’ve ever had a friend that you were in love with,” she said before erupting into laughter. “I think we all have. I love that about the album: It’s so relatable for guys, girls, kids, adults. It’s like the human experience. I think that’s my gift in this world is to put experience into music.”
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