WASHINGTON — Elle Varner may be R&B's rising star, but she already has fans in the White House.
While at the Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama said she's become a fan of Varner, thanks to her eldest daughter Malia's heavy rotation of her music at the executive mansion.
The singer-songwriter called the presidential praise the utmost honor.
"I just couldn't believe it," Varner said in an interview last week from Richmond, Va. "I was so proud of the fact that, like, I made this album that not only a 14-year-old girl can appreciate, but her mother as well."
Varner's album, "Perfectly Imperfect," debuted at No. 4 and No. 2 last month on Billboard's 200 and R&B/Hip-Hop albums charts respectively. She's on a U.S. tour, her single "Refill" is a Top 10 R&B hit, and she's nominated for best new artist at the Soul Train Awards.
"I didn't really see myself as being on that radar yet," she said of the nomination, which pits her against J. Cole, Robert Glasper and Emeli Sande. "It was really just showing me that, 'OK, so you have reached that next step in your career where you're now being considered in these categories, like this is really real.'"
The twentysomething's foray into music was almost inevitable as the daughter of a background singer for Barry White and a songwriter for Diana Ross and The Temptations. As a child tagging along with her parents, Varner met legends from Chaka Khan to Ray Charles to Bill Withers at recording studios and on tours.
But the singer didn't realize how much those experiences were shaping her.
"I was growing up with all these great people around me and not really understanding ... not thinking, 'Oh my god, that's a big deal,'" recalled Varner, who graduated from The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University in 2008. "So, I think ... it gave me the confidence that I could easily be in this business."
Varner is putting her family's musical skills to use on her debut album: Her father, Jimmy Varner, produced and wrote for the project, and her mother, Mikelyn Roderick, backs Varner on several songs. And the music video for her latest single, the R&B jam "I Don't Care," was inspired by Varner's white grandmother from Sweden, who was expelled from the University of Maine in the 1960s for dating her grandfather, a black man from Alabama (they were married for 52 years).
"It's a really beautiful representation of what it looks like when people really love each other and they don't care what outside people might think," she said of the video, which features same sex and interracial couples.