Not Always Alone: A Talk with Brandy Clark (Part Two)

Barry Mazor | October 22nd, 2013

brandyclarkphotobybeckyfluke(Yesterday: Part One)

Before the public knew Brandy Clark, well before the new release of her first album 12 Songs, she had become an important part of a tight circle of friends and collaborators that includes, among others, singing songwriters Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Trevor Rosen. The impact of this group’s interactions and support for each other has already been large—in Brandy’s music, and in the challenging, unpredictable songs they’re been bringing to all of us, extending country’s subject matter. This gang has produced two of this year’s CMA nominated songs of the year — “Mama’s Broken Heart,” co-written by Brandy, Shane and Kacey (as is “Follow Your Arrow’), and “Merry Go Round,” co-written by Kacey, Shane and Josh. They’ve given a lot of serious country music fans a lot of hope.

At the recent Bluebird Cafe guitar pull show you did with Shane, Trevor and Josh, there was a lot of banter about how people have your gang pegged as leaders of a new wave in country music.  Joking aside—do you hope to be a new torchbearer?

Oh, I hope so! When I say I love this music all the way back, I really do. Some people say “Oh, I love Merle Haggard,” or “I love Patsy Cline” because that’s cool to wear on a t-shirt; I really love them. That music has meant so much in my life—adult music, music that, when you’re low, means you don’t have to feel low by yourself.  If I could be involved with one song that did that, like “Crazy” or “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?” I would feel like I had really done something. And Shane, and Trevor and John, everybody in the crew, feels that way; that’s why we bonded and came together, because we have that love of the foundation this music is built on.

Now, we all love some things more than others; that’s why we work well together. Of our crew, my tastes are most traditional.  I love the really stone country stuff.  We joked about it that night, but I would like to be a part of whatever lifts this format up, whether as an artist or as a songwriter.

Like leaders will, you take chances— in your case, in your subjects and themes.

I want to always do things that push the envelope. When I first met with the record’s backers I said, “You know; a lot of what’s out there is ABC and CBS; this is HBO and Showtime.” They loved that analogy—and, you know, a lot of people love HBO and Showtime! Whether it’s for terrestrial radio, I don’t know, but I feel proud of talking about the subject matter I do.

 Maybe it’s just a cycle, but there are so very few women on the country charts at all now. Do you have any thoughts on how to fix that?

Well, I hope it’s a cycle, and maybe that pendulum starts to swing back again. There’s getting to be more of a buzz about female artists. Kacey has been in such a great spot; I’ve read a lot about the Ashley Monroe record, which I’m a huge fan of, and Miranda always seems to hang in here. I hope, for selfish reasons, females are the next wave! As women, I think we really have to lift each other up; Kacey has been just the best publicist for me, and Ashley has too. I do think there’s still that thought that ‘Well, we have a girl singer on our roster.” Even at the publishing company I’m at, which is a great company to be with, there are maybe twelve or fifteen male writers and there’s two girls. Maybe there are fewer women that write, even though there are a lot of girl singers, but this is something that I’d like to see change, and help to change.

That sense of community among your songwriting-performing gang:  how did you find out what you shared, or even meet each other to get that far?

Josh Osborne and I worked at the same publishing company for awhile, so we found each other there. And then Shane and I were set up to write, and I got to know him—and they played me songs they were writing with Trevor Rosen, and I just loved those, as a fan does; it was consistent. “Neon” (for Chris Young) is my favorite of them.

There are these different writers groups in Nashville, just like-minded people who get together, informally, and Shane, who didn’t have any big hits at that point, was wishing he was in this group or that group, and I said “Well, make your own group!” And Shane’s a real leader who takes initiative, so next thing I know he’s organized this writer’s retreat, and I think I got invited just because I said “make your own group.” We went to Center Hill Lake, and on the very first retreat, two songs that I was involved in co-writing were “Stripes” and “Better Dig Two.” I also went on a retreat to Texas specifically for Kacey, since she’s from there. If I’m writing with Kacey, I’m going to work on a Kacey song. I just feel lucky that I got brought into that group, because there’s so much talent in it that it’s crazy.

With that whole circle of regular collaborators, do you tend to fall into specific roles, working with the different combinations?

The great thing about the group of people we’re talking about is that everyone can fill different roles, though we have different strengths. Josh and Trevor are very musical, but they’re also very lyrical, depending on who they’re writing with. And I think of myself as more lyrical, but then there are times when I’m writing with people that I carry that music load. I never thought of myself as a strong melody writer, but I’ve been encouraged by people like Shane. I needed the second guess; I’m not as certain about that as I am about the lyrics, probably because our melodies sound so plain to us.  And as for Shane, Kacey and I—well, from the first time we wrote, we really locked into a great and equal collaboration. Those songs wouldn’t be written if you took any one person out of that mix.  Even though the more somebody’s singing one, the more they assume that person’s the central one!

Does having your own recordings as an outlet now—or live show playlists to build — change the way you look at your songs, in terms of what you make available for others to sing, what you might hold for yourself? How do you choose?

On this record, I recorded a lot of them because no one else would do them. People love songs like “Take a Little Pill,” but nobody would record them. “Hold My Hand” is another one. I thought, “There’s an audience for this; I want people to hear it.” When I perform them, I can tell which are me, what I can really sink my teeth into—and what can be believable. I would love it if this record took off in a way that I could write specifically for myself, but in all honesty, I don’t know that that works for me, because I think I write best when I’m writing for everybody.

 

  1. nm
    October 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I find what Clark has to say about collaborating, and songwriters “lifting each other up,” really fascinating. Because of course writers help each other out, either in a very hands-on collaborative way or by example. I hope there’s a bit of a competitive element there, too — not over sales or number of cuts, exactly, but to strive to be better songwriters than each other. That, when it’s friendly, tends to elevate everyone’s work.

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