It’s late March, and Elle Varner is on the tail end of her headlining Lucky Tour. The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter has performed a wave of intimate shows at City Winery locations in the U.S. Varner was forced to reschedule our interview after losing her voice the night before.
Experiencing vocal loss isn’t uncommon to Varner, who says she dealt with it often in the infancy of her career. “Part of the process was learning technique,” Varner softly tells Rated R&B, as she is conscious of not speaking hard.
She credits her healthy vocal technique to regimens learned from a master vocal coach. “I had to do vocal rest for ten days straight, three times. So no speaking whatsoever,” Varner recalls.
“I would’ve liked to be on vocal rest this week, but the schedule’s not permitting.”
Varner isn’t complaining, at the least. “There were many years where I didn’t really have that much going on, to be honest, so for me to now be in a season where it’s like, ‘Okay, tour, clothing line, this, that,’ it’s a blessing.”
Part of why Varner is busy is she just unveiled her first collaboration with Swingman 24, a heritage brand created in partnership with Nike, for which MLB Hall of Famer Ken” Junior” Griffey, Jr. founded.
Griffey expanded his recognizable S24 logo with Queenship Collective, a woman-focused outerwear line launched amid Women’s History Month.
It also highlights women’s equality and stands in solidarity behind Title IX, a civil rights law established in 1972 to protect against discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.
As part of the S24 and Queenship Collective launch, Varner is the face of its limited-edition capsule collection: I Belong to Myself. The collection features athletic wear essentials like a t-shirt, hoodie, sweatshirt, joggers and a backpack.
In our interview with Varner, the self-proclaimed folk singer talks more about her new clothing collection, fashion inspirations, new music and more.
Talk about choosing to be the face of this debut collection I Belong to Myself.
Ken Griffey Jr., is such an icon and legend. He played more than one sport, but in baseball alone, what he did in that sport, and then what he did for the culture, the hat backward, he’s so significant for our people especially. For him to want to work with me is such an honor. Queenship is a really powerful message that we’re not just to be seen; we’re to be heard. And I want girls and women and men to represent this brand. Swingman  is one of the top brands of Nike, and now I get to be a part of that — part of his legacy.
How involved were you in the creative process of this collection?
I got to be so involved. I got to draft up some designs that were incorporated, but the fact that I Belong to Myself is one of my song lyrics, it’s crazy to me. One of the first purchases I ever made as a teenager was some Nike clothes. I was 15-16 and thought I was the cutest thing ever. Then I was part of the Nike Women. I did a half marathon with them in 2014; shout out to Dawn Baxter, who brought me into the Nike family. Here I am 10 years later with my own collection. So it’s very powerful as a woman, as a Black woman, as an artist who’s branching out into other things. I get to get my message across, not just through music but also through clothing. I’m really proud of that.
What does queenship mean to you?
Queenship means our crowns. We wear these invisible crowns; sometimes, someone wants to steal our crown, and sometimes we may hit a bump and [it] gets a little crooked. It’s just a reminder to fix your crown, hold your crown [and] to take up space that you are a queen no matter where you come from, your background [or] what you look like. We’re all queens and we all deserve to be treated like them.
When was the last time that you felt that your crown shifted and then you had to readjust it?
Even without knowing my full story, anyone could reduce from the time that I was more visible and then not so much in the forefront. I had some tough things happen. I lost a lot of my confidence. I lost a lot of belief in myself and what I could do because I was looking outward to the industry, to my peers [and] to everyone else, to reflect back to me who I thought I was. Without that struggle and that journey that I now know I had to go through, I wouldn’t have the unshakeable confidence I have now. I know who I am because I said so. That’s it. I’m the only one who has to make that decision. And it’s not about arrogance. It’s about taking up space.
We don’t even know how much time we have here, and every day is an opportunity to go after our dreams. You have to protect your space. You have to protect your heart and your soul because people see that light in you and go: “Ooh, I want some of that, or I don’t like that. Who does he think he is? Who does she think she is?” Exactly who I said I am. And it don’t take nothing away from nobody else. If somebody tells you that, it’s not true because there’s enough light for all of us to go around. I’m excited to come back. I’m still Elle Varner, but like Elle Varner times a million. I get to lift others and motivate, touch, move, and inspire, not just through the music but through my actions, words, and everything I’m doing.
Who are some women in music and entertainment that you consider your fashion inspirations?
I would say Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kerry Washington, and Mary J. Blige. I feel like I’ve been channeling [Mary] with my boots and feeling free and connected on stage. I love her for that. She’s been a part of my whole everything, all of those women. But there’s also Tina Turner and Grace Jones.
Jennifer Lopez performed “Church, a song in which you wrote, for the 2022 film Marry Me. How did that soundtrack placement happen?
I take the word organic to the 1000th degree. It was my session. I heard the beat, and just felt the church vibes. I just started singing. I worked with Jenna Andrews on it, an amazing businesswoman in terms of the publishing side; I’m more creative. She’s also very creative, but business-wise, she went and got it placed. So we’ve had no misses yet. Anything we’ve done just happened.
Is writing music for movies and television something you want to explore more?
Yes, and not just on the music side, but on the film side. I will be in two movies this year. I’m coming for everything. Like I said, I had to go through what I had to go through, but I feel fully restored and recharged and I know who I am and what I’m here to do. I’ve been an entertainer since I was a child, whether it was [in] musical theater led by Wendy Raquel Robinson and the late Denise Dowse or being a part of the arts in some way. And looking up to Missy Elliott as not just the most incredible writer and rapper but producer. Now I get to produce as well because I had that example and felt like I had permission. But the acting. I’m in two Christmas movies, so this is my official debut. We’ll circle back on another interview for that, but it’s just a wonderful time for me to be doing all these things.
Before 2022 ended, you said you were dropping singles this year. What’s the latest update on those?
“Lucky” was supposed to have already come out. There’s some things around it. These things happen in the music business, so we’re working things out to get it all cleared and ready to release. I would’ve, of course, loved to have the record out already before going on tour. However, the tour ended up being more about me connecting with people.
Folks were crying a lot and I got messages and all this at the meet and greets. It was a very powerful exchange. So it was more than just promoting a record. That being said, “Lucky” is an amazing song. It [has] an amazing R&B-pop feel to it. It’s for everybody, not just about my story, but anyone’s story that has struggled and overcome something. I can’t wait for you to hear it.
What’s the significance behind the name of your label?
Two 12; it is my birthday. It’s also 212 NYC, where I became an adult. I’m from Los Angeles, but people always think I’m from New York because I’m so New York. But I’m both. I’ve actually lived in three of the toughest cities in the world: Los Angeles, New York, and London. So I’m tough as nails.
Ellevation was one of my favorite projects in 2019, especially the songs “1 to 10” and “Casanova.” What’s the inspiration behind your next project that you said would be out this fall?
I feel like this project is truly the culmination of ownership. I’ve always been me, but there were a lot of influences from being in the major label system or even when I did Ellevation. I felt a lot of pressure to match what I had done before. “Oh, I need this kind of record and I need that. Oh, ‘Pour Me.’ That connects to ‘Refill’ or this or that.” Still, great music, don’t get me wrong. But this space is just so much more. This album is called S.E.L.F., and it stands for Some Energy Lasts Forever. This was my way of saying, “I am who I am. I said what I said. And you’re going to know me whether I’m here or not. I’ve made my claim.” It’s just very powerful. I feel like it’s going to inspire and uplift a lot of people who need to speak up and speak out.
You do well with R&B/hip-hop collaborations, dating back to songs with J. Cole, 50 Cent and Wale. Since it’s the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, if you could collaborate with any hip-hop artists for a best-of-both-worlds album, who would it be?
Off the top, I have to say Rapsody. She’s my heart. She has so much integrity. It never matters what the numbers are, what it’s looking like; it’s about the work. I would’ve absolutely done that [type of album] with my dear friend, Mac Miller. I got a chance to work on an entire album with him. So that was a blessing.
What’s something you want to do next?
I just did my third or fourth independent tour. I think there’s something to be said about that as a woman. I’m really the boss — it’s crazy. I want to be able to provide that for other women as well. This is such a male-dominated industry. So I would like to have a vision eventually of bringing women together on tour. Of course, the big ones: Jazmine [Sullivan], H.E.R., and Ari [Lennox]. But also bringing out some of the new up-and-coming [artists like] Baby Rose and Mariah the Scientist, and just creating a platform for them on stage and producing it the way I produce shows. I’m excited for that.
Get more information on Elle Varner’s I Belong to Myself collection via Swingman 24 and Queenship Collective at werunthegame.com.