Making the leap from being a member of the world's best-selling girl group to a solo artist attempting to define herself beyond the season's next pretty pop hopeful – and beyond an international superstar of a best friend – was never going to be an easy task. But Kelly Rowland is a gutsy sort. It's a quality you'd imagine was nurtured during her years of belting out impassioned feminist anthems in Destiny's Child before she became the first member of the band to release a successful solo album, Simply Deep in 2002. Later, as she dabbled in many different genres, critics would accused her of having an identity crisis. "I was in a stage with the first two records where I was searching and I was like, let me try a rock-dance approach and the label wanted me to try it, and management wanted me to try it, and I did it," Rowland admits. "And then after that came a more urban approach with Ms Kelly in 2007. So it's been a 'finding yourself' kind of moment, and my new record is my defining moment."
Rowland says the last sentence with a quiet pride, as she sinks into a plush couch at the London hotel suite where she's holding court to promote her new single, "Commander", her latest collaboration with the dance music producer David Guetta. Dressed in white figure-hugging jeans, killer heels and a gray loose-fit top, the doe-eyed 28-year-old is effortlessly stunning, with the air of a seasoned veteran who is more about the music than playing up to the celebrity gossip (the 2008 boob job, the record label woes) or pandering to the probes into her personal life.
Her big, curly hair drapes a flawlessly made-up face, which lights up when she's excitable and giggly, and still manages to look cute even when she frowns. She only ever does this at the slightest suggestion of discord with her former band mates ("We're sisters! But claims of negativity and catfights sell waaaaaaaaay more," she points out) or her beef with Mathew Knowles, the music manager rumoured to have ruthlessly guided the careers of his daughters, Beyoncé and Solange, to the detriment of all the former members of Destiny's Child. The pair parted ways two years ago. "I just needed a change – and he was very supportive, and that's it," she says with a smile that clearly communicates she won't be drawn further on the matter.
But her eyes sparkle as she talks about how she first met Guetta in the South of France at a club, where he was spinning the instrumental version of "When Love Takes Over". "It brought tears to my eyes!" she gushes. "After that I asked him if I could have the track and I brought it with me to London. The next thing I knew, I wrote a song to it and I sent it back to him and next thing, it was history."
The song topped the charts last June and marked a new dance music direction for the singer. "It started with travelling with David and getting a chance to see people's emotional reaction to the music," she smiles. "That completely made me intoxicated!"
With the resurgence of the genre re-defining the pop landscape this year, Rowland's particular offering is a delicious romper, and she says the sound will influence her forthcoming third album on Motown, her new record label. "For me, it was being kind of at a flat line with urban music and wanting something different," she explains. "I went into the studio and when I did 'When Love Takes Over', it was easy to do it – it was almost like it happened before me in spirit and I walked right into it. And then with 'Commander', it was just easy so I knew I couldn't be
afraid of this direction, and I wasn't going to let the thoughts and opinions of others make me afraid to go in this direction, in a sense that when you're urban you should just be urban. No, no!" She shakes her head. "Nobody puts me in a box!"
She doesn't take too kindly to comparisons with Beyoncé either, which is understandable when she's been teased on shows such as Glee – in one episode, the character Mercedes Jones insists that when it comes to performing, "I'm Beyoncé, I ain't no Kelly Rowland." "People can't think of anything more intelligent than to compare," she frowns. "And that's only natural, I understand. That's just the way the industry is, so you find a way to make things your own. But even though this sound sounds like nothing she's done, people are going to find something to say. " Does it bother her? "No," she says simply. "I think it's important to know who you are and if you don't, you're gonna let people dictate who you are. I think that it's not what people want it to be, and people will continue to make up stories. But I'll give people a reason not to compare us with this record. "
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Rowland decided she wanted to be a singer at the age of four and re-located to Texas when she was eight with her single mother, Doris, a live-in nanny. Her father was largely absent when she was a child and she admits the pair are not in contact. "It's not a different story from anyone else's story, no pity party," she shrugs. At school, she heard about auditions for a group called Girl's Tyme through her friend LaTavia Roberson, who introduced her to Beyoncé. The quartet was later completed by LeToya Luckett, and they would perform at local events and in Beyoncé's mum's salon before performing on Star Search (an earlier version of America's Got Talent), where they eventually lost. After their manager quit, Mathew decided to look after the group, trained them in a series of summer "boot camps" and changed their name to Destiny's Child. Rowland lived with the Knowles family during the summer holidays because it was easier for her mother, who couldn't constantly travel to take her to practices. "I had extra siblings and for me, that was great!" she giggles.
The group went on to sell 50 million records worldwide and earn countless awards before taking the "mutual decision", as Rowland puts it, to split in 2005. Beyoncé has since become a superstar, while Michelle Williams has found fans in the gospel scene and on Broadway. But Rowland is also finding her niche: she's branched out into acting and presenting but, she says, her long-term focus is music. And she believes that with dance, she has finally found her voice.
"It's not about what you have on, it's not about what you're wearing, it's just about you enjoying the music," she says. "That's what an experience with music should be about. When people want to stand on each other's shoulders and go crazy and they're sweating and they're having a good time, that's all that counts. You feel so much love in the crowd! It's such a good feeling, and that's what I want my music to do."
The single "Commander", feat David Guetta, is out now on Motown
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