Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal

How Kelly Clarkson’s Wildly Popular ‘Kellyoke’ Covers Get Made

When the team behind the syndicated Kelly Clarkson Show were drawing up their wish list for the format of the daily talker hosted by the beloved pop star, there was one unshakable element they had to lead with: music.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we open the show up with a different cover,’ just like she already does? Because we were trying to incorporate different pieces of Kelly into the show,” Alex Duda, the NBCUniversal-distributed series’ executive producer, tells Billboard about the process of mapping out the show that launched in 2019.

Because the overall concept of the show was “connection” — and, Duda notes, music is a common connector between us — of course a musical segment, which has racked up more than 35 million YouTube views to date, needed to be a signature part of the program. And so the wildly popular “Kellyoke” segment that kicks off every episode was born.

To date, Clarkson has aired more than 300 Kellyokes, which range from country and pop tunes solidly in her powerful vocal wheelhouse (Patty Griffin, Lady Gaga, Chris Stapleton, Demi Lovato and Ed Sheeran) to more surprising picks (Lizzo, Post Malone, Bee Gees and Bon Jovi).

Jason Halbert, the show’s daytime Emmy-nominated musical director and Clarkson’s MD for 18 years — beginning in her post-American Idol days in 2003 — says the segment grew out of a bit the singer did for years on tour in which she took a nightly fan cover request. “When the show started, we knew creatively that we wanted to incorporate it,” he says of the very first thing fans see every day to kick off and set the tone for that day’s journey.

“My career would not be what it is without Jason Halbert,” Clarkson tells Billboard in a statement about her partner in Kellyoke magic. “We are really good partners. I feel like every artist needs to have their person that complements them and helps their career come to fruition and grow. Jason is definitely that for me.”

Billboard asked Duda and Halbert to share the origin story of “Kellyoke,” and the surprisingly tight window they have to pull it off every day. (Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity).

Can you explain how Kelly became such a cover machine to begin with?

Halbert: On our first two-week run of state fairs [in 2003] we did a medley of eight cover songs, some from the show and some she was inspired by — No Doubt, Aerosmith, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey — at which point I knew my hands were full after we got emails and social media requests from fans about songs they wanted her to cover. As a musical director, I’m always an advocate for fans … so on behalf of them, I approached Kelly and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did a new song every day?” That made it fresh for her, so over a 10-year period, we did around 100 to 120 cover songs a year.

Why was it important for you to have this segment be the kickoff to every episode?

Duda: “Music is our common currency” was our basic pitch for the show, and it hasn’t changed since the pilot first aired two years ago … when she came up from the back of the audience with the crowd on their feet and started off with a message and vibe of love from the top of that show. It connects the audience and viewers and sets the vibe and makes you feel better. And we needed that more than ever over the last year and a half … for us it’s rough to be a show about connections when you can’t physically connect.

It definitely helps set her apart from other daytime talkers. Was that another idea behind the segment?

Duda: Oh yeah, exactly. I couldn’t think of a better way to do it. It wakes you up and grabs your attention. Not by shaking you, but by bringing you in and making you part of it.

How are the songs for the show picked?

Halbert: With music licensing on tour, we could send her a list of 200 requests from fans and learn the song that night because there’s no licensing needed to perform them live. But on the show, the licensing turnaround is longer, so producers gather a list from audience members or upcoming audience members and start the process of getting a batch of songs cleared.

For season one we got about 60% of artists cleared, but by season two it was closer to 90%. I get a list of songs requested by audience members, I plug them in based on episodes and themes — usually a mix of Motown, ’70s and ’80s songs, current pop to rock and one country song a week. Once the song is cleared, we contact the audience member and make sure they’re there for the show — which now that they’re on Zoom [because of COVID-19 distancing protocols] is much easier.

Sometimes, if they’re from out of town and the song is not cleared until two days before the taping, we’re scrambling to put everything into place, which makes it way more complicated than doing it on tour. They’re all audience-generated, so if they’re not available, we push the song to another time.

Is Kelly always a fan of the songs, and does she always know them before the performance?

Halbert: Some she’s never heard before. We’re probably pulling in 40% more requests than we can use, so there are songs on the list that she’s not connecting to thematically or not in the style she’d want to do. She does get final approval of songs. We do not surprise her.

Can you describe the process of preparing the Kellyoke covers?

Halbert: We get in a room with Jessi Collins, her vocal director [and backup singer] for the past seven or eight years and we know the songs we’re doing that week. We’ve gathered the songs from YouTube or alternate versions, and it comes down to 18 years of really knowing how she’s covered stuff in the past and imaging how she might sing it. There’s a lot of guesswork about how she might connect to it lyrically or if it’s nostalgic, emotionally.

If it’s something like Aretha Franklin, we won’t make it our own because she’s a legend, and Kelly would try to make her proud and stick to it the way it is. But I grew up in the ’80s and I live and breathe that music, she was born a decade later, so when Kelly wanted to do Madonna’s “Borderline” and make it bluesy, we did two versions — one straight up ’80s and one the way she wanted — and I was able to twist her arm on that one [to do the original].

Sometimes she’ll push back and be like, “Let’s make it cool.” It’s about imagining what she’s connecting with. If it’s an emotional lyric that I’ve heard her mention in the past, or if it’s something she can thematically connect with, we will break it down and make it more acoustic and intimate to focus on the vocal.

Are there any ground rules for which songs do or don’t get picked?

Halbert: I  haven’t run into any requests that don’t work for daytime — we’re given a lot of leeway — but three years ago I didn’t think we’d be doing Foo Fighters (“Times Like These“) on daytime TV.  There has to be some melodic element to this, so DJ-oriented music with just a vocal hook over an instrumental won’t work with her voice.

I arrange it with Jessi, [but] editing the song down to a minute and a half is the hardest part of the job. Kelly has so much on her plate between hosting the show, The Voice and working on her album that I can’t be calling her five times a day for input. Taking an iconic songs and chopping it down … I always feel like I’m butchering someone’s art.

Can you think of a particularly hard choice?

Halbert: Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” was the hardest. There’s so much happening and you don’t want to leave out one thing.

At what point is Kelly involved?

Halbert: Jessi sings the song mimicking Kelly’s style because she knows her vocal range; we record it and then the band rehearses it and we put our touch on it. The first time she hears anything is while she’s in the makeup chair and we send her two versions — the instrumental one with background vocals, and the one with Jessi singing. We even imagine how she might riff and ad-lib.

Then she’ll often throw half of it away and make it her own based on her instincts. The place where it’s hardest to read her mind is when we’ve chopped up a song she loves and she’s like, “Oh gosh, you cut out my favorite section!” We’re usually finding this out 15 minutes before we’re on stage rehearsing it, and we only run the song twice all the way through before she performs it at 10 [a.m.] on camera. On show day, we record that and then the second song of the day.

What is the clearance budget like for Kellyoke?

Duda: We have budgets to do a song every day, and we know what money is there, but when we were putting clearances through at the beginning, I was a bit worried, like “This is a lot of songs!” We have a great clearance department and really strong relationships [with labels and rights agencies], so even stuff that was hard to clear in the beginning has gotten much easier as we’ve gone on. That makes me feel good that people are liking it.

Aretha (‘Think”), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5”), Whitney Houston (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody”), and Patsy Cline such seem like slam dunks. But others like Lizzo’s “Juice,” the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and Post Malone’s “Better Now” are more unexpected. Do you purposely mix it up to keep the audience on their toes?

Halbert: Lizzo is one of my favorites last season. I’m still a fan of Kelly’s voice and artistry … she’s probably the best of her generation and there’s no style outside of her wheelhouse. But it’s always exciting to hear something outside of her album genre.

What are some of your favorite Kellyoke moments?

Duda: Jason is much more than just the music director. He came in one time and I said we’re doing an hour on the Mr. Rogers movie [A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood] and she wanted to sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” with a Rosemary Clooney vibe, and he came up with the idea of having a Mr. Rogers dancer come out from behind a screen and have him backlit with Jason at the baby grand. It was so cool and different because he lives in story, and music is a story on top of a story.

We had [astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson on the show and Tori Kelly, so we did a slow jam of the periodic table of elements and they just sang it. I also loved the “all-skate” she did to “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from Grease, and one where the audience all got up and started dancing in a choreographed number to Bruno Mars [“Finesse”]. Kelly is is exactly who you thinks she is, which is a secret weapon for a daytime show.

Halbert: One of her favorite songs from childhood is by The Toadies [“Possum Kingdom”] so we made that as close to possible as the original. Also, the song we did at the White House [in February 2021], “Get Together” by the Youngbloods for the Bidens, was a bucket list highlight of my life and I’m really proud of how it came together. We couldn’t bring the full band, so it was just myself and I didn’t know how we’d pull it off with just piano without it sounding like an SNL skit. Kelly is usually more focused on the lyric than the music and I’m the opposite. But we thought, “What an incredible time to perform a song like this,” so we slowed it down and made it more intimate. I couldn’t arrange it until lunchtime on a day we were taping two shows, so I flew with Kelly to D.C. and she didn’t sleep on the plane because she was learning the song.

This season, one of my favorites was “Closer” by Tegan and Sara because it has that ’80s vibe and it was produced by Greg Kurstin, who produced Kelly’s last two albums; they both loved the version and Kelly’s voice in a tweet. Another favorite this season is Phil Collin’s “I Wish It Would Rain Down.” She’d never heard the song, and I presented it to her a few times on tour for her to do a bluesy thing with it that would kill. So I slid it to the top of the list when an audience member suggested it.