Brandy Clark on the Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic of Life

[30 June 2014]

By Kelly McCartney

Late last year, country songwriter Brandy Clark quietly released her debut album, 12 Stories, on a little indie label out of Texas. Though the collection was chock full of exquisite craftsmanship, captivating performances and ace production, Clark was an unknown quantity as an artist.

Oh sure, she scored a couple of number one hits for other artists (Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two”), but none of the major labels would touch her solo record. But, then, a funny thing happened on the way to 2014: people listened to her record and loved it. Big-time country artists like Brad Paisley, Jake Owen, and Eric Church spread her gospel whenever they could, and music critics fell all over themselves praising and proclaiming and putting the set at—or very near—the top of their “Best of 2013” lists ... and not just among country records, either.

Flash forward six or so months, and Clark has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, as well as in Rolling Stone and numerous other publications. She’s also been touring with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and has fall dates with Church already mapped out. One place you won’t find her, though, is on mainstream country radio. Of course, you won’t find Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, or Holly Williams there, either. But, that’s cool with Clark. She’s having herself a grand ole time out there.

* * *

How much was your mind blown by having 12 Stories on so many “Best of 2013” lists? Judging by your tweets, you must have worn out the exclamation key on your phone from all the enthusiasm.

Ha! My mind was so blown. And I don’t even think it’s all completely hit me yet because I’ve been so busy. Since I did Letterman on January 6, I really haven’t stopped. My mom told it would be this way and I was like, “Oh, mom. You just think that.” But it’s crazy. You know, having all those “Best of” lists, I mean the press and other artists have been what has really moved my project along, so that’s been amazing. My project was passed on by everyone. And, so, the last deal that we were working on fell apart this time last year. I was just like, “Let’s put it out on our own.” Because I felt like we had something.

But, by that point, I was beginning to question because everybody had passed on it. And, so, we started to do just that. I had paid for the “Stripes” video and we were just going to release it on my label that consisted of me, Emilie Marchbanks, and Michael Baum trying to make it work. Then Slate Creek Records and Jim Burnett came forward and said, “Hey, let me help you out.” And he did, so it came out in October. So to see all those “Best of” lists and for it to be embraced like that and have other artists say, “This is my favorite record” ... it felt like, “Oh my God. We weren’t wrong.”

When you finished playing at the recent Cross-County Lines Festival, you sat down to sign CDs for a very long line of fans—a regular occurrence these days—but, on this day, you had Patty Griffin playing just across the way. How many times a day do you pinch yourself?

Trying to think of how I can answer that question and it not be offensive to lots of people. It is a pinch myself thing ... but it’s also ... you know all those people who were like, “This will never work because it’s not positive.” (I mean the subject matter is not all positive.) I’ve always been the one—and not just me, but other people, too—who’s been like, “No. I know there’s an audience for this.” And, so, I love that people have proven me right.

Because my goal really is ... I want to write songs that people who don’t write songs would write if they could write songs. That sounds a little like, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?” But that’s my goal. And that’s been my goal for a long time because I think, as songwriters and artists, we get in this mode of writing for other songwriters and artists. And we forget that’s not who we’re writing for. We’re writing songs for that person who’s working at the bank and they’re married and have three kids and are just kind of surviving their situation and feel like they’re a little bit alone in it. Maybe they’re in a marriage that they got into when they were 17 and now they’re 37 and living with decisions that a child made. You know? That’s who I’m writing songs for. And it’s not always pretty.

Well, it’s pretty when you write it.

Ha! Yeah, they’re pretty, but it’s not like saying, “Hey, everything is just rosy and great.”

It’s not all Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Let’s all dance around the room.

Right. It’s like, “Hey, I’m fine with a joint because I need 10 minutes of escapism.” And those are the things ... I’m really drawn to flawed characters. I love a TV show where there’s a socially flawed character because I think we’re all flawed characters. Yeah, my mind does get blown. My mind is most blown by the people who buy my record and say they are the people in those songs.

You brought up struggling to get the industry on board, with all the gatekeepers saying that it wasn’t commercially viable, particularly at mainstream country radio. Without taking away from any of that, do you feel that ageism, homophobia, and/or sexism were also involved? Because, as gorgeous and talented as you are, you aren’t a 20-something pixie.

Thank you. I don’t know. That’s a tough one for me to comment on. I would say that, right now, females overall are having a hard time getting on country radio. There are three females who are on the radio: Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert. Now, I wish I could list off six more—just solely as a songwriter—because I’d get a lot more cuts. So, yeah, I would say that—I don’t know this because I was never told this—but I would say that labels probably think it’s hard to get girls on the radio. That’s definite. I’ve been very involved in the Kacey Musgraves record. And, as great as that record is, they’ve had a hard time getting radio to embrace it. But they’re figuring out other people that are embracing it. She’s on the Katy Perry tour, so I don’t think it’s hurt her.

Now that you’ve had a little taste of being an artist, do you have any desire to go back to the simpler anonymity of just being a successful songwriter so that you can avoid the aesthetics and privacy issues that go along with the public life?

You know, I think the die has now been cast. My career has gone down a road I didn’t foresee and I’m enjoying it too much.

The tour bus has left the station?

The tour bus has left the parking lot. Yeah. Trust me, more than anything, I love writing songs. That’s the whole driver for me. But I do know now that there’s an audience for what I do artistically and, so, I’m going to want to feed that part of me.

That was part of your original vision of doing music, too, right? So you’re really just coming back around.

Yeah. I thought all those things you mentioned—that I wasn’t 20 and a pixie—I thought all those things would keep me from having an artist’s career. And, honestly, being gay—I thought that would keep me from it. Then I met somebody in Emilie Marchbanks, who manages me, that didn’t care about any of those things. All she heard was my music. So I got lucky and never looked back.

You do your part, too. You are an absolute natural on stage ... charming and sassy and so comfortable up there. Was there a bit of a learning curve or adjustment phase going from session writer to the road dog that you are now?

Thank you! It’s funny you would say that—that you would think I was a natural on stage. Who you see on stage is definitely me, naturally. But, see, I also thought that that would hold me back because I’m not the dance around, shake it sort of performer. There were so many things I thought would be a hindrance for me that I’m lucky in that my team of people are like, “Just be you. That works.” And I’ve been lucky that I’ve been on this Jennifer Nettles tour and who I am as a performer just fits that—fits the venues, fits the crowd. It’s a good marriage because Jennifer’s a very different kind of performer than me. But I feel like no less of a performer than her just being me. Just like not everybody has to be a pixie and 20, you also don’t have to be a run-around-the-stage performer. I can accomplish the same thing standing in front of a microphone with my guitar telling stories, if it’s the right venue. Some venues can swallow you up, if that’s the kind of performer you are.

There’s definitely a learning curve there. You saw me out at the Cross-County Festival and I was definitely better there than I was the first night of the Jennifer Nettles tour. But you do it so much that, for me right now, a 30- or 45-minute set of just me and my guitar feels like I’m at home.

One of the most striking aspects of your music is your ability to both draw and inhabit the characters in your songs with absolute authenticity. You don’t inject yourself at all and you never let the material slip into condescension. Even the more commercial cuts, like “Come Back to Me” and “That’s How I’ll Remember You,” are incredibly well-crafted and heartfelt, not at all cliché. If you could boil down your intention ... is there something you hold on to when you walk into a writing session?

I really do make an effort—and this just comes naturally to me—to get into whatever character I think that I’m writing from. I just mentally try to get there in my head. For example, on my record, those songs are all one woman. I can picture the kitchen that she’s in and I’ve never even been in that kitchen. But I can just picture it. So, for me, in my mind, I hang onto some real furniture-type things about that person’s life. And even “Come Back to Me,” that’s a first-person song, so I just think, “What would I want someone to say to me if they were singing this?”

You know, I saw an interview one time with Billy Joel and they asked him about “Just the Way You Are” and they said, “Yeah, it’s easy to love Christie Brinkley just the way she is.” [They were married at the time.] And he said, “I didn’t write that for Christie Brinkley. I wrote that for me. That’s how I would want someone to feel about me.” And I thought, “Wow!” So that’s something I’ve hung onto when I’m trying to write a love song which, I don’t really write many love songs. But a song like “Come Back to Me,” that’s where I go with that.

Part of it must also be the poise and knowing that only comes from spending enough years treading the path that is life. You couldn’t have written or sung these songs at 23. What were your songs like 15 years ago?

No. They had elements of this stuff in them. I feel like I always went for the harder subject matter. I was always drawn to the grittier subject matter. But, yeah, I hadn’t lived enough life to know how to really write that. I hadn’t lost enough. One thing—not one thing, it was a chain of events—that really affected me was, when I was 25, I lost my dad. And, then, I lost both my grandparents in the next two years. I lived next door to my grandparents and, so, there were six of us—my dad, my mom, my brother, myself, and my grandparents. So half of that family unit was gone in a really quick time. And I think, when you experience that sort of loss, it changes things for you. There’s no way that it can’t. So I think that I can go to some deep places, as a result.

Sure. What authors do you read or admire, because the creative line connecting you to someone like Raymond Carver or even J.D. Salinger wouldn’t be very long in terms of the nuance and details that you sketch out?

I try to read anything because that’s where I get a lot of ideas ... looking at language and hearing language. This is going to come as a shock, but one of my favorite authors is Stephen King and it’s because he’s so descriptive. He always pulls me right in. When people think of Stephen King, they think of The Shining and Carrie, but they forget that he also wrote The Shawshank Redemption and a short story called “Body” that became the movie Stand By Me. So I read a lot of his stuff. And then I just kind of read whatever gets put in front of me. Some of it, I read all of. Others, I’ll get halfway through and lose interest. But I’m just always trying to read something that’s going to jolt me into an idea. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” came from a book I was reading ... I don’t even remember the book now. My songs often come from books.

Does it feel like work or a chore to you? Or is it part study, part pleasure? Because, as a writer who is studying the language, it can be hard to turn your brain off and just enjoy it.

Totally. Believe it or not, when I’m just reading for pleasure, I’m usually reading a biography. Those are the easiest for me to read because I don’t have to do a lot of work to develop the characters in my head.

That makes perfect sense.

Get me a good biography on a Kennedy and I am happy! I can’t wait to get home and read it. I choose it over TV. It’s easy. One author I love, but he’s not as prolific as Stephen King—and that’s not a bad thing—is Wally Lamb. I read She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. Those are books that felt like biographies to me. I couldn’t put those down. When I say Stephen King, a lot of people roll their eyes, but that is the truth.

Do you believe that songs can be little lights to show people another way of living, another way out? As in, do you harbor some bit of hope that a song like “Hungover” or “Just Like Him” touches someone in a rough relationship in such a way that they, too, make some changes?

Totally. I believe that whole-heartedly. And I have people, especially with “Just Like Him”, they’ll tell me, “That’s me. That was my dad, growing up.” I get a lot of people telling me that.

On the flip side, you have a couple of tunes that get away with, at least, threats of violence that wouldn’t fly coming from a male perspective. Do you feel any sort of responsibility to put forward positive messages, to chase equality of standards?

That is one place where I feel really lucky as a woman. We get to paint with a few more colors. For example, “Stripes”, a male artist pointed out to me that he could never sing that. A guy could never even joke about wanting to shoot his wife. That is one place—it might be a little harder, right now, for female artists at radio—but we are able to talk about some things that guys can’t. And I think it’s our responsibility to do it.

It’s like Kacey doing “Follow Your Arrow”. When I wrote that with her, I never in a million years thought she would record that. I mean, she’s got some balls. Not to be crude, but it’s true. To just put a song like that out there. And it makes her different. It’s why she’s going on tour with Katy Perry. So what that radio didn’t play that song. People are getting tattoos of it. Somebody sent me a picture last night—their cousin got a tattoo on her collarbone that says “Follow your arrow.” So, to me, if Kacey will sing a song about same-sex marriage—which is what everyone takes that song to be about—then, hell yes, I better sing a song about having a fantasy of shooting somebody that’s cheating on me!

Somebody did get a 12 Stories tattoo, didn’t they?

Yes, they did! That killed me, too. That person doesn’t even live in this country. That’s what kills me. I think she’s from Czechoslovakia, so it’s like, “Wow. How did you even find out about this? My neighbor doesn’t know that I made that record. How come you know about it?”

How would you like to see the next few years play out in your life?

I’ve learned that my mind can’t dream big enough. That is one thing I’ve learned because I sure as heck didn’t expect this. I mean, a year ago, I was like, “My life as a recording artist is over.”

Surprise!

Yeah. So I really can’t dream it big enough, you know? I’m going to make another record and I hope that people will love it as much as they’ve love 12 Stories. I feel like I have a really great, core base of people who bought that record, so I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to make another 12 Stories because I think it would just be a paler version of that. I want to move on and do some other things. I want to record “Big Day in a Small Town” and “You Can Come Over” and some other new songs I’m doing. And just make something as good, but different enough that it’s not like the first season, but it makes me want to keep watching and I like it better, in some ways. So I hope that’ll do well.

And I’ve been working on a musical (Hee Haw) that’s going to open in the next couple years. And just keep writing songs. I just want to stay inspired to make art. My hope would be that it just got bigger. Right now, 30,000 people have bought 12 Stories. I’d love it if three million bought it. And it might take another record. What I really hope is that, as another record comes out and people are turned onto that, they go back and buy 12 Stories, if they don’t have it. Just grow it like that and stay true to me. That’s one thing I’ve been really fortunate about and, probably, had a bigger label gotten involved sooner, I wouldn’t have had that luxury. But, now, I have no doubt in my mind who I am, artistically. And, so, let’s just move forward making the music that is me. And I know there’s an audience for it, so no one can talk me out of it now. I hope that makes sense.

It does. The satisfaction you must be getting by doing it absolutely on your own terms and having success and being able to sell 30,000 records—that’s a lot of records these days for an indie.

It is. Especially when I think that I came from a town of about 900 people. So, take my town, and multiply it by 30 and that’s who’s bought this record. And every week, it’s more. All it takes, in my opinion, is just the right exposure to blow that up.

Do you ever think about what happens to your characters after the songs end—if you had to write another verse?

You know, I don’t think about that. Maybe I should.

You should. And you should do that right now. Does she ever win the Lotto?

No. Very few people do.

Does she get in the elevator?

In my mind, she does. Other people say no.

Does he actually hold her hand?

Wow. Ummmm ... yes.

Good. He should. Does he put down his drink and call her from the corner?

Yes. That, I’m sure of.

Does she leave him hungover, once and for all?

Yes.

Do we get an illegitimate child out of that one?

Yes! See, when this record started, it was going to be a concept record about the length of a relationship. It was going to start on “Illegitimate Children” and end on “The Day She Got Divorced”.

Do her days change after the divorce?

Not really. I mean, her ex-husband has a different role in it. But she’s still going to be involved with that guy who’s not going to leave his wife. So she’s traded one set of problems for another.

As so many people do ... does she ever break the father pattern?

That is one I don’t know. I don’t know on that. I had a great father, so that’s not my issue. But I have so many friends who are that. I don’t know if you can break that. That’s a tough one. If your normal is dysfunction, that’s what you’re going to be drawn to.

True. If that’s your baseline, then ... you could break out of it. It would just take a lot of deep soul-searching and character building.

Uh huh. And it would take not running from normal when you get it. Because a lot of times, what I see happen with that, is that woman gets with a guy who is really pretty whole and loves her. And it starts to feel boring to her. That’s what I see happening.

Lastly, Don Imus did suggest that you send drugs to radio stations to get them to play your record.

God, I loved it when he said that! That was not what I thought was coming.

Seems like it might be worth a shot, sending a little package along with some of your “Get High” t-shirts ...

Hmmm ...

Writer Kelly McCartney remembers listening to Kenny Rogers, the Stylistics, and the Carpenters as a kid. Nowadays, she's more likely to be caught with Ashley Monroe, OK Go, and Matthew Perryman Jones in her ears, although the Stylistics still hold up nicely. Kelly currently contributes to No Depression, Curve, PopMatters, Shareable, GOOD, and Elmore magazine. On the side, she is collaborating with some wonderful musicians on a multi-media theatre series while also developing a couple of music-related video projects. Twitter: @theKELword


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/182784-brandy-clark-on-the-reading-writing-and-arithmetic-of-life/