Singer Elle Varner happy to have fans in the White House

CorrespondentFebruary 11, 2013 

Elle Varner.

COURTESY OF RCA

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    What: “AT&T 28 Days,” with Rickey Smiley, Corvida Raven and Elle Varner

    When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

    Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham

    Cost: Free

    Details: 919-560-3030; www.28daysraleighdurham.eventbrite.com

It’s amazing that Elle Varner’s head hasn’t swollen to the size of a watermelon.

At 23, this LA-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist – who’ll be in Durham on Wednesday to perform as part of the “AT&T 28 Days,” speaker series/concert tour – has become a hot, new artist with an ever-growing list of fans. And some of those fans live in the White House.

It’s been widely reported that First Lady Michelle Obama is a huge fan of Varner and her 2012 debut album “Perfectly Imperfect,” after First Daughters Sasha and Malia hipped her to the artist. “It’s incredible,” says Varner, on the phone from Austin. “It reminds me to stay focused on what’s true to me, which is clearly my music, you know. I write my songs and I tell my story, and if I ever even considered changing my style or changing my sound to fit into a certain mold or a certain lane, it’s really paid off for me to stay true to who I am. And, now, I have the likes of Michelle Obama, who’s now mentioned me in five interviews. She just did it again recently.”

There was a rumor going around that Varner was so grateful to the little ladies for suggesting her music to Mama Obama, Varner invited them as her guests to the recent Grammy awards, where her single “Refill,” was nominated for Best R & B Song. (She didn’t win.) “I don’t really know where that came from,” she says. “I think it’s just kind of a story that went a little crazy. But I definitely reached out to them as far as, you know, singing for them or whatever they would want, whatever Michelle needs. Their people are working on it.”

Varner also has a major fan in Stevie Wonder. Last week, she got a surprise when the R&B/pop icon joined her onstage for a performance at a pre-Grammys show in LA. “I was the first one to go on, and I’m singing ‘Refill,’ ” she recalls. “And the next thing you know, I look back and he’s going onstage and he played harmonica. And, then, he just did a duet and just sang. It was crazy.” This is the second time the two have collaborated onstage – last October, they performed together at the 2012 United Nations Day Concert in New York. “So, he’s really a co-signer now, and it’s probably the biggest honor as a musician that one could possibly have: to have Stevie Wonder take an interest in you. So, I’m just still kind of in shock about it.”

These days, Varner (full name: Gabrielle Serene Varner) has been swimming in accolades. A couple of weeks ago, she received the Best New Artist prize at this year’s NAACP Image Awards. “The Image Awards themselves were so incredible,” she says. “I mean, from Harry Belafonte being honored – and by the NAACP and Sidney Poitier. Just being in the room that night was such a powerful experience.”

Varner says that getting an award from the organization is an honor not just for her, but for her whole family. “The fact that I’ve been recognized by the NAACP as the Best New Artist is very important for my family because my grandfather is the former president of the Bangor chapter, of greater New England, for the NAACP,” she says. “So, I know that he’s super-proud to have his granddaughter being honored with an award as such and, you know, we’re just excited.”

For Varner, being an artist is something that’s been instilled in her since childbirth. With her parents being musicians and songwriters in their own right, it seemed obvious that she would follow in their footsteps. And, yet, they didn’t pressure her to get in the business, leaving her to decide for herself if she wanted to take that route. “Well, I was lucky to have family and parents that really encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do since I was a young kid, you know,” she says. “When I wanted to play different instruments, they would support that. When I wanted to act, they supported that. When I wanted to play soccer or whatever it was – I had a very normal life. I happened to just gravitate toward music on my own. And, so, it’s something I knew as a teen – I said, ‘This is what I’m gonna do. There’s nothing else I wanna do.’ ”

Varner is definitely not resting on her laurels. She’s already working on her follow-up album, slated for a summertime release. She hopes the fans she’s accumulated – both famous and not-so-famous – will continue to support her and keep her from getting all big-headed. “I want people to understand that I’m just like them, you know, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable and express my feelings,” she says. “And I want people, through me expressing my feelings and identifying them, to connect with theirs as well.”

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