"In making this record, we definitely weren't shooting for country radio because we don't have a chance of getting on it," Brandy Clark tells Rolling Stone with a smile, lounging on a couch in her manager's Nashville office. Seems her strategy worked. 12 Stories, the Washington native's debut album, due Oct. 22, is already being hailed by critics as one of the best country albums of 2013.
Over the past decade, Clark has made a name for herself as one of the brightest and boldest songwriters in the genre. Artists who've recorded her tunes include Sheryl Crow, Reba McEntire, LeAnn Rimes, Kenny Rogers and Keith Urban. She's had two hits at the top of the charts this year -- the Band Perry's "Better Dig Two" and Miranda Lambert's "Mama’s Broken Heart" – which both teeter on the edge of being lyrically defiant, with the former's suicidal undertones and the latter's tale of unladylike destruction. Provocative storytelling is Clark's forte and what ultimately led her to finally create her own album after years of being a behind-the-scenes songwriter with an angelic voice that was rarely heard.
Many of the songs on 12 Stories have been in Clark’s back pocket for years, admired but untouched by other artists because of their daring content. She tackles topics including sex, drugs and murder on the album, ultimately painting a dozen vivid portraits of deeply flawed, yet relatable characters. "A song never really takes off for me until I have it play out like a movie in my mind," Clark explains. She initially flirted with the idea of using a song called "Get High" as the catalyst for a concept album about its central character.
"[Songwriter] Shane McAnally and I were playing a writers' night together, and he called me afterwards and said, "That song about getting high -- that's your best song. Everyone thinks it's funny but it's really not. You could make a whole record from that woman's perspective,'" Clark recalls. "When I wrote 'Get High,' I was really just entertaining myself. But that conversation with Shane, someone I have such great respect for, gave me the license to feel OK writing those kinds of songs."
That license covers prescription drug abuse in "Take a Little Pill," extramarital affairs in "What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven," arson in "Crazy Women" and murderous thoughts in the album’s first single, "Stripes." Co-written with McAnally and Matt Jenkins, "Stripes" is a humorous tale of a woman who wants to kill her cheating husband but refrains, due to an even more overwhelming desire to stay fashionable.
Those mischievous tunes on 12 Stories are balanced with a few tearjerkers, and no matter what the subject matter, the entire tone of the record is more true to country music's roots than the majority of songs on today's terrestrial country radio. But Clark's edgy lyrics, coupled with the fact that she's a female in a male-dominated genre, arguably justify her lack of concern for what makes a song country radio-friendly these days. Still, no matter how low the odds are that her commercial success will match her critical success as a recording artist, Clark chooses to concentrate on her musical advantages.
"Women can paint with a few more colors in this business," she says. "A guy could never sing a song like 'Stripes.' A guy could never even joke about killing his wife! Miranda [Lambert] can sing about getting pissed off and blowing things up, but a guy could never do that."
Clark does admit hope that country radio will prove her wrong and give some of her explosive songs a shot, too. And perhaps she should prepare to be pleasantly surprised. One of the most insubordinate tunes she has ever penned has recently been released to radio as fellow country daredevil Kacey Musgraves’ latest single, “Follow Your Arrow,” co-written with Musgraves and McAnally. The song not only advocates marijuana use but also premarital sex and homosexuality.
"When we wrote that, I never thought in a million years that it would be a single," Clark reflects. "It's a huge dream come true and tells me that you never know!"
12 Stories is out October 22nd. Watch the video for "Stripes" below: