A career in music seems like a dream come true. The parties, the events, the attention, everything seems very glamorous. However, many don’t know how difficult it is to be in the entertainment business, especially as an entertainer. R&B singer Elle Varner knows firsthand that all that glitters isn’t gold and has learned to weather the ups and downs of this beautiful storm called the music industry.
Coming from a musical family, Varner studied at New York University’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. His mother was a singer, songwriter and his father was a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist. At the age of six, she started playing instruments. First the flute then the piano and the guitar. Varner was born into the music industry and even she has had some ups and downs in her career.
In October 2009, a year after graduating from NYU, she signed a deal with MBK Entertainment/RCA Records as well as a co-publishing deal with Sony Music. Eventually, she left that major label. “I realized at some point that I spent so much time looking at everything through the lens of the majors, the majors. And the music industry, where do I fit in now? And then c was like, girl, you just have to work,” Varner says.
Over 10 years later, Varner now has her own record label, 212 Enterprises, and embarked on her self-booked tour, “An Intimate Experience with Elle Varner.”
Elle Varner officially burst onto the music scene in 2011 with her song “Only Want To Give It To You” featuring rapper J. Cole. The song peaked at number 20 on the US Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It was produced by Philadelphia production duo Pop & Oak, Andrew “Pop” Wansel and Warren “Oak” Felder.
Her debut album “Perfectly Imperfect” was released in 2012 when streaming platforms weren’t even popular yet. Pop & Oak produced six songs on the album, including its second single from the album “Refill”. Artists T-Pain and Wale were featured on the remix. This song is where Varner’s unique musical palette would surface. “The violin almost got taken out,” Varner says of the song which incorporated a violin throughout. “The violin was almost removed before the song was released. It scared everyone. It scared the people at the record company. Even the radio was like how are we going to work with this. I was pretty much like no, we can’t pull it off. It’s not typical to hear a fiddle in an R&B song, but Varner fought for her craft.
Throughout his career, Varner recorded much of his music in Philadelphia. In 2014, Varner released “I Don’t Wanna Dance” with rapper ASAP Ferg, another collaboration with Pop & Oak. She also collaborated with Pop’s father, Philadelphia International Records soul musician Dexter Wansel. Varner regularly records at Sigma Sound Studio and loves a good cheesesteak from Ishkabibbles.
Speaking of Philly R&B’s sound, Varner says, “I feel like Philly R&B has a slowness to it. It’s like a sauce. It’s like a roux. It’s not rushed. You’re going to hear a real story. You’re gonna get substance. It’s gonna take its time and really pay attention to detail. That’s how I feel about Philly Soul and R&B.
Varner navigated the ins and outs of being an R&B artist. From being signed to a label, to being unsigned and not allowed to release music, to all the changes in the music industry and technology over the past 10 years, to changes in R&B music, Varner now operates his own label and has a distribution deal with Entertainment One (E One). She is her own boss.
As she cruises with her own label and books her own tours, Varner is enjoying this newfound independence and hands-on approach. “I am a road warrior. I actually drove one of the cars on the last tour. I drove the vehicle myself. It was my first time handling anything business related. I liked it! I loved paying everyone. It’s like you got it, you pay for it. Everybody is happy. All is well. It feels good to run a business. Why didn’t I do it 10 years ago? I do not know. But it’s part of my journey. It’s part of my story.
Varner’s current 8-city tour, “An Intimate Experience with Elle Varner”, is underway with Varner performing primarily at City Winery all over the United States. She has performed in Boston, Massachusetts and Washington DC. She stopped by Hampton, Va., on March 26 and the City Winery in Philadelphia, with DJ Aktive from Philly opening his show on Sunday, March 27. On March 29, Varner arrives in New York, followed by Chicago on April 15, Atlanta on April 16, the tour will conclude in Music City, Nashville, Tennessee on April 17. She is also working on her third album titled “Self” and will be performing some of her new music at these shows.
“For me to have such [strange career], right now I can’t think of another word besides weird. It’s not necessarily unique, but I would say that I had a rather strange career. As if things didn’t quite match up, but for me, 10 years later, still being so well received. I know my time will come,” says Elle Varner.