The welcome mat at her front door should have been the tip-off. As you enter Kelly Clarkson's Spanish-style villa two miles into the hills above L.A.'s Hollywood Boulevard, the first thing you notice after the hot pink Ford Mustang convertible in the driveway is the dark brown, rough-fiber doormat that greets guests with one word: LEAVE.
Actually, Clarkson is a gracious host. Wearing a body-hugging Aerosmith tee and capri cargo pants, she immediately offers a bottle of Smartwater and a tour of her impressive digs (think leather sofas, red-felt pool table, PlayStation). ''This is just where I crash when I'm here,'' the Texas resident says modestly. Then, in her double-height living room, she sets up an iPod docking station to preview her forthcoming album, My December (due June 26). While unboxing a giant photo collage of herself at this year's Daytona 500 sending Styrofoam peanuts flying she provides cheery intros to the tracks. But after she sets up a hard-charging rocker called ''Hole'' (''This one's one of my favorites''), the sunniness disappears.
There's a hole inside of me/It's so damn cold, slowly killing me.
Whoa. What happened to the original American Idol whose favorite catchphrases were ''Score!'' ''Sweet!'' and ''Cool beans!''? For starters, she's had a rough go of it since releasing her last CD, 2004's massively successful Breakaway, and she's turned her experiences into songs; she wrote or co-wrote every track on My December. ''The whole album is a story of the past two years, all the highs and lows,'' Clarkson explains. (Okay...mostly the lows.) ''It deals with so many situations, whether it's family, friends, relationships, or myself.'' The first single is the glacial, Alanis-esque ''Never Again'' (opening lyric: ''I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green''). ''That situation made me feel like, What's wrong with me that I would even let someone like you in my life?'' she says. The autobiographical kiss-off to an ex rocketed to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its very first week.
It's as promising a start as any artist could want for a new project. But when the artist is Kelly Clarkson, the stakes are unbelievably high. ''She's up there now in the top five most important recording artists in the world, literally,'' says American Idol judge Simon Cowell. That's no exaggeration: Breakaway sold 10 million copies, earning Clarkson two Grammy awards and crowning her the queen of pop radio.
So when Clarkson decided not to reunite with any of the producers who helped craft that record's five ultra-catchy top 20 singles, insiders say that BMG Label Group's chairman, 40-year music veteran Clive Davis, sat on My December for four months, hoping she'd change her mind. She wouldn't.
NEXT PAGE: ''The last song on [My December], 'Irvine,' it literally was the lowest point I've had in my life.''