“Who the fuck is Brandy Clark?!” Those words, voiced perhaps a little too loudly, greeted Clark’s fellow passengers when the singer-songwriter’s flight to Albuquerque arrived at a Dallas layover one morning last December. News had just started filtering through Team Clark that the critically acclaimed artist and her equally praised debut album, 12 Stories, were nominated at this year’s Grammy Awards. The traveling party, including Clark’s tour manager, producer and band, was already aware of 12 Stories‘ nomination for Best Country Album, but while in flight, Clark herself was nominated in the all-genre Best New Artist category.
“I landed and opened my phone, but my tour manager, who was behind me, opened his phone sooner and yelled out,” Clark tells Rolling Stone Country, a little embarrassed while recalling the R-rated public outburst. “I thought it was the album nomination and he was feeling excited. But I had 90 text messages and I noticed one was in all caps: ‘YOU’VE BEEN NOMINATED FOR BEST NEW ARTIST.'”
Indeed, the Morton, Washington, native was nominated alongside such already ordained pop stars as Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith, Bastille and Haim. She immediately phoned her manager, and then her mother. “I called my mom and she was over the moon,” Clark says. “She doesn’t really know a lot outside of country, and she’s like, ‘Your brother told me that those other people in the Best New Artist category are really big deals.'”
As a contender in one of the Grammys’ most watched races, the same can now be said of Clark, looking like the songwriter next door in a baseball hat and fleece on a bone-chilling day in Middle Tennessee. Seated in a coffee shop not far from Nashville’s mecca of music-biz higher learning, Belmont University, Clark, an alumnus, is still glowing over her two nominations. And you can’t blame her. After shopping 12 Stories to every label in town only to be politely told that it didn’t fit with today’s format, Clark is having the last laugh. “My reality has exceeded my dreams,” she says.
“Validated” is how Clark describes her feelings these days. She’s thrilled that listeners are responding to 12 Stories since its release in 2013 on the indie label Slate Creek Records, and is happy that even more will have the opportunity to hear it thanks to its recent re-release via Warner Bros. Records. In November, Clark signed a deal with Warner Bros. in Los Angeles — ironically, not Warner Music Nashville, although she says the label was at one time interested.
Clark’s manager Emilie Marchbanks is more matter-of-fact. “We didn’t have a choice in Nashville,” she says of cementing a long-term agreement with Warner Bros., home to artists from Stevie Nicks to Jason Derulo. Marchbanks believes Clark’s music transcends the country tag and is a natural fit at the iconic label. “They heard it and freaked out. It’s like the Dixie Chicks — people would say, ‘I don’t like country music, but I like the Dixie Chicks.’ Their albums crossed over, because they were so good. And that’s what Brandy is like.”
“It really is a testament to not giving up on something,” Clark says of the long road she traveled to bring 12 Stories, elegantly produced by Dave Brainard, to fruition. “When those Grammy nominations came in, and I got to my hotel in Albuquerque, I sat down and started thinking about it and got really emotional. I almost had another deal [prior to the one with Slate Creek] and it fell through. I was in my kitchen and I had a little breakdown. I was like, ‘Damn, what do we need to do?’ That was the time I most wanted to give up.”
Instead, she now finds herself in a Best Country Album race, competing against another independently released LP in Lee Ann Womack‘s The Way I’m Livin’, and three huge sellers: Dierks Bentley’s Riser; Miranda Lambert’s Platinum; and Eric Church’s The Outsiders. While the Best New Artist prize may be out of her grasp — that’ll likely be a two-way fight between Iggy Azalea and Sam Smith — Clark’s 12 Stories could be a Grammy dark horse. Aside from Lambert’s Platinum, all the other contenders are somewhat niche — at least when it comes to Recording Academy voters.
“We didn’t sell anywhere close to the amount of records we’re up against, but those who hear it, and get a taste of Brandy, it becomes their mission for others to hear it,” says Marchbanks. “Her music resonates because it is so honest and so different than anything else.”
Of the two Grammy nods, Clark is most honored by the one for Country Album. “That means the most to me because I really am proud of 12 Stories and what Dave and I accomplished,” she says. “To me, it’s where it should be. It should be in the same breath as Eric Church and Miranda Lambert and Dierks and Lee Ann Womack. I feel like it’s getting the light shone on it that I always dreamed it would.”
Part of the album’s allure comes from Clark’s ability to fully inhabit a character, be it the pot-smoking housewife in “Get High” or the woman with murder-on-her-mind in “Stripes,” says Brainard, who has produced albums for Jerrod Niemann, Ray Scott and Jamey Johnson. “She is nothing like she is in the songs. But you feel like it’s first person, because it’s so compelling. She’s so believable in that character,” he says. “And you can’t help but fall in love with her. Her friends call it the ‘Brandy Spell.'”
With songs like “Crazy Women,” which Clark recently performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers, the weeper “Hold My Hand” and “The Day She Got Divorced,” 12 Stories could be mistakenly dismissed as a record for chicks. “The obvious demographic was going to be females who have lived life,” admits Brainard. “But I related to it and my brother, who is a pilot in the Marine Corps, played it for his fellow pilots on an aircraft carrier out in the Mediterranean — all officers and jocks — and they were big fans. That was an indicator of just how special Brandy’s music was.”
As were the hardcore, sometimes backwoods dudes who talked up 12 Stories to Clark in the meet-and-greet line following her opening slot for Church on his Outsiders Tour.
“A lot of rednecks love it,” she says with a smile.
Clark, the daughter of parents who both worked at the local mill, is quick to defend hard-working small-town folks. As an openly gay artist — she co-wrote Kacey Musgraves’ do-your-own-thing anthem “Follow Your Arrow,” this year’s CMA Song of the Year — she says she’s never experienced any sort of prejudice.
“I think people underestimate rednecks. People stereotype rednecks and small-town people the same way they might stereotype gays and lesbians, and it’s not really fair,” she says. “Some of the smartest and most open-minded people I have known in my life, people would look at them and say, ‘That’s redneck.’ I’ve never felt any hatred from rednecks towards me for my sexuality.”
Regardless of how she fares at the February 8th Grammys in L.A. — yes, she’s attending — Clark swears she is already a winner just for being recognized. Such national awareness will help immensely when she releases 12 Stories‘ follow-up. She already has a wealth of songs written and is taking meetings with producers who have been suggested to her by the label.
“It’ll be my biggest challenge of 2015, to make a record that stands up to 12 Stories. What I really had to wrap my head around is to let go of things being exactly the same. It’s going to be a new record, a new experience, and there are going to be things that are different than the first time,” she says. “But what needs to stay the same are me and my songs. It’s finding the right producer and group of musicians who believe in it, wholeheartedly. That was the secret to the first one.”
In the end, Grammy win or not, Clark’s 12 Stories will stand as a watershed record, an important release in a format that — as we have all been quick to point out —is obsessed with party songs and disposable hooks. Most notably, however, it’s also an album written and recorded by a woman.
“It seems like females haven’t been able to get somewhere in so long, and now the most out-of-the-box female is having some success,” says Marchbanks.
“I’ve said this is the most important project I’ll ever be a part of — and it was weird to say that to other artists I was working with,” offers Brainard. “But I couldn’t help it, because that is what I felt then.”
For Clark, she’s hopeful that 12 Stories‘ legacy may be in rewriting the story of today’s country — as well as preserving the songwriting tradition of the genre. “If I could have even a small part of keeping country music alive and well,” she says, “I would feel like I had done something.”