Big, Crazy Characters: A Talk with Brandy Clark (Part One)
Brandy Clark’s remarkably accessible and strikingly original first album, 12 Stories, set for release October 22, seems certain to be recalled as one of the groundbreaking country music debuts of this era. Even two years ago, before songs she co-wrote such as “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert), “Better Dig Two” (The Band Perry), “Follow Your Arrow” (Kacey Musgraves), and “Homecoming Queen” (Sheryl Crow) won acclaim and recognition, few outside of Music Row songwriting circles knew her name. The fact is, the 36-year old Washington State native has been working in the Nashville trenches as a writer and occasional performer for over fifteen years. In this two-part talk, we’ll discuss, here, her late-gained performing breakthrough and her rise as a songwriter, and in Part Two, look at her work with the gang of upstart songwriters and performers whom many are seeing as the next great hope for contemporary, adult country music.
After years of work, you’re making the leap from songwriter to recording artist. Why now—and not before?
Mostly because now is when the opportunity happened. When I moved here, I definitely wanted to be a recording artist, but I just fell more easily into songwriting; songwriting is truly my passion. It took me all of these years to land on a songwriting voice that gave me a spot as an artist, a perspective that people actually wanted to listen to. That moved the needle. I was doing gigs and demo tapes, but I just kind of forgot about that and was writing songs and trying to get cuts. Obviously, I wanted to do it enough to spend my own money and make the EP that I’d sell at writers’ night gigs—and then a lot of amazing things started to happen. Three years ago, Emilie Marchbanks, who co-manages me with Terry Elam, heard that EP and said “We love what you do, and we would pay for you to make a record.” Making a record was kind of a dream that I had quit dreaming. I said, “You know that I’m over thirty, right?” And she said “I think that’s what’s interesting about your work; it speaks to a more mature audience.
Which is what most country music traditionally wanted to do.
Yeah! I’ve always thought that the best country music is about adult themes. When I was a kid, the teenybopper stuff wasn’t on country radio. Debbie Gibson and the New Kids were pop. Now a lot of what’s in country is crossover to the teenage audience. Still, with “Stripes,” on my Twitter account I get so many high school girls tweeting about it. So hopefully they’ll love these, like I loved the music of adult artists. I’ve been working on this Hee-Haw stage show musical, so I had to go back and watch a lot of the old shows. We’re so geared towards 21-year olds that it seems odd that Merle Haggard would be in his 40s and they loved him, and Conway Twitty and Loretta; they were in the prime of their careers—and it was pre-Botox!
The leap from back rooms, writing, to performing is not often easy, given today’s industry obsession with the singer’s on-screen image—not that you don’t look great in that hilarious “Stripes” video!
Well, thanks for saying that—but that’s part of why I thought there wasn’t a legitimate shot for me as an artist. The “image” thing’s never been in the forefront for me. I’m a working songwriter; that means I can’t take time to put on fake lashes and comb my hair—and I do think that hurt me. A lot of people didn’t see me as an artist. But the general public just hears the songs—and I don’t think they care about that as much as we all think they do. I hope that what helps me is that everyday women can look at me and say “That’s me.” We’ll see.
You’re known for storytelling songs that depict lives and feelings of sharply drawn characters. It’s not production line “feel good” stuff; you show the friction in those lives. Is it because without friction, there are no stories?
It’s the characters who drive me to write those stories, and, for them, that friction is there! I listen to people telling a lot of stories—and I’ll say “Now, this might wind up in a song; I’ll change names”’ I did grow up with great storytellers, and I’ve always been a storyteller, and that’s what I’m drawn to. I love a big, crazy, broad character, because I think we’re all that.
You’re obviously a good listener and observer, but it seems to me there’s also strong imagination at work in the songs.
Oh, imagination is huge—and I’m a huge daydreamer. You know how everybody has their favorite TV shows? I always have my own plotline going on for mine! What if this happened? As they say, a great storyteller never lets the truth get in the way of a great story.
The character singing in “Pray to Jesus” has just two options for responding to the rut she’s in—Jesus and lotto. Somebody might urge ‘So, go back to school,’ or “Why don’t you get organized, politically?” Instead, you nail exactly the limits the person portrayed would feel—mini-mart and Powerball prize details included.
The great thing about great country music is you don’t really pick a side or judge anybody, you just tell the story; that [advice] would be too obvious. And we really worked on the details; they don’t come easily. I wrote that one with Shane McAnally, and I can say for me and for him, that’s the part that’s really come along since fifteen years ago—those details. I learned from great songwriters, working with them, and others I hear who raise the bar, who are writing art.
Lately, your songwriting successes have piled up in fast succession. Was there a milestone that said to you, “Now I’m getting somewhere?”
The same week that Emilie approached me about doing a record, I got two Reba cuts. [“Cry,” and “The Day She Got Divorced”] I’d had a song set for her All the Women I Am before, but it fell off the record. I was the queen of getting a song that fell off a record or on a new artist’s record they shelved. The “Queen of Almost” was me. She’s someone I’ve always listened to, and even one Reba cut felt like I was even for the one I lost, but when I got a second one with her, it was like “Holy shit! This can really happen.”
Was being out gay, as you’ve long been, something you had to consider in moving into the country music performing spotlight?
I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a thought in my head. But I didn’t really have a choice. If I had been 25 and in the closet, then I would have had a choice to make, but I started beyond that, so it was kind of a given! It was “This is me; take it or leave it.” When I started working with Emilie and Terry and brought it up, they said “The music speaks for itself, and it should transcend.” I think relationships in love are all the same, so I really do hope the music transcends race and socioeconomic class and sexual orientation, and male and female. And I hope it’s strong enough to be above all of that.
Tomorrow: Part Two.
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