“I never expected to be approached for an ad campaign,” rock, soul and blues artist Gary Clark Jr. tells Rolling Stone about his turn at modeling for clothing designer John Varvatos. “I had just gone into his Soho store last year. I bought some boots and a jacket and hung out. After that, my friend and fellow musician J.J. Johnson and I just started hanging out there all day.” He laughs. “I went in to get some clothes and ended up being in the window at the store. It’s kind of weird.”
His inclusion in the campaign, which features him posing alongside none other than Led Zeppelin‘s Jimmy Page, is just the latest gust in the whirlwind that’s been the past few months for the 28-year-old musician. Since the October release of his eclectic debut LP, Blak and Blu – which ranked among Rolling Stone‘s 50 Best Albums of 2012 – Clark has performed at the Kennedy Center Honors (which recognized Led Zeppelin), appeared as a special guest at two of the Rolling Stones‘ New York-area dates and sat in with Stevie Wonder in New Orleans. The year ahead finds him paying tribute to bluesman Albert King at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and appearing at several festivals, including Eric Clapton‘s Crossroads Guitar Festival in New York City, the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia and the Maverick Music Festival, which some of his friends put together in his home state of Texas.
Rolling Stone spoke to Clark about his busy schedule and his fashion sense yesterday after soundchecking for his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he wore a beige jacket, a pale, ornamented scarf, dark slacks and his calling-card boots, all of which neatly complemented his cherry red Epiphone guitar. His song of choice for the show was “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” an upbeat blues number that features the line, “Don’t wanna be your exhibition, no, I don’t want nobody hanging around.” Judging from the exultant way he talked about posing with Page, though, it’s clear why he made an exception.
What was it like taking photos with Jimmy Page?
It was a bit awkward at first, to be honest. I had never met him before, and I showed up late. He’s kind of a shy, keep-to-himself kind of a guy. I didn’t really know what to say to him. Then we decided to throw some blues tunes on, and he asked me who my guitar heroes were. I mentioned Elmore James. Then he looked at me and gave me the biggest smile. He was like, “Right on, man.” From there, we just started talking. It was really cool. Surreal.
What did you discuss after you both opened up?
We just talked about Elmore James and Muddy Waters, the guys that influenced him. I pulled out my Gibson 330, and he kind of checked it out. I was hoping he would play it a little bit, but he didn’t. You could tell, everyone was like, “Oh, Jimmy’s got a guitar. Is he gonna play?” But it was like, “Nah, not for you guys.” [Laughs]
This was your first time modeling. What is it about John Varvatos’ clothes that made you want to do it?
His stuff is just classic, classy, very tasteful but edgy. You can tell Varvatos’ garments just by looking at them. I can’t really explain or put my finger on it.
Where did you get your sense of style from?
This old girlfriend of mine went through my closet and threw out everything that she thought wasn’t cool. And then she brought me some cool stuff. I never paid much attention before. I was a T-shirt, jeans and Chuck Taylor kind of a guy. Then I started wearing boots. And I started wearing hats, because I don’t know what I’m doing with my hair. I don’t know if I should grow it or just cut it all off, so I just cover it up. [Laughs]
Those hats have become a big part of your look. What attracts you to the wide-brimmed hats you often wear?
My dad got me this hat years ago, and I never wore it. It was always a little bit too formal for me. I waited a few years, grew a little bit and the hat was too small, so I just popped the top off and shoved it on my head, and had this weird-looking new deal. It might also just be that I’m growing into my Texan roots, with my boots and hat.
You don’t look like the Marlboro Man.
Right. I couldn’t pull that off if I tried. [Laughs]
In addition to Jimmy Page, you’ve been getting some praise from some other rock legends. What was it like performing with the Rolling Stones in December?
It was great to be able to play with those guys. I was talking to Keith Richards, and he said, “We come from the same school of music, mate.” I was like, “Yeah, I guess so.” We ended up playing “Going Down,” by Freddie King, who was an influence on me and them as well. Not much conversation went into the song choice. When I was standing up there onstage, looking around, I was like, Wow, I’m hanging with these guys. Not a bad gig.
Speaking of bluesmen named King, you’ll be honoring Albert King at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. What’s your go-to Albert King album?
Born Under a Bad Sign. That’s just killer. I’ll probably play “Oh, Pretty Woman” at the ceremony. But there’s this song he wrote about his guitar I’ve been listening to that’s pretty sweet. He called his guitar Lucy, so it’s called “I Love Lucy.” If I’m ever feeling like I need to be inspired or have a little fire under my ass, I’ll just listen to the song’s intro over and over and over. Dude, it’s so bad.
You’ve played with so many icons. When is the last time you’ve felt nervous playing with someone?
I had the opportunity to sit in with Stevie Wonder in New Orleans a few days ago, and that dude had me nervous. Talk about a musician’s musician. When we were in rehearsal, going over “Superstition,” I played a few wrong chords, and he stopped the whole thing. He was like, “Something’s wrong with this.” All of the blood left my body. [Laughs] I was like, “Crap, I’m being called out by the dude.” Then during the show, my guitar cable wasn’t working, and he called a couple of other songs that we didn’t rehearse, so I was getting nervous. I was like a deer in headlights. It was the most uncomfortable few minutes of my life.
But you made it through.
Yeah, I made it through. Still smiling. I can laugh about it.
So, other than appearing in fashion ads and playing with music legends, what’s next?
Doing some laundry and moving on to the next gig. I do the laundry so people don’t look at me funny when I’m on an airplane, and they’re like, “You smell like a musician who’s been on the road forever.” Like, “Yep, pretty much.”