Brandy Clark Is Telling Everyone’s Stories by Telling Her Own
Brandy Clark could probably use a little rest. In the week before she sits down with me in Nashville, she’s been in New York to appear on Today — which required a 5 a.m. glam appointment — then attended a Tony Awards luncheon before heading to Los Angeles for another event, and then back home to Nashville. Somewhere in the middle of that, she had something like 26 straight hours of being awake.
Despite a stifled yawn or two, Clark has plenty to be excited about right now. In addition to putting out a new album, the singer-songwriter just earned her first Tony nomination with longtime collaborator Shane McAnally for the hit musical Shucked, for which they composed the score. It’s the culmination of a years-long process that was filled with hurdles and detours, including having to premiere in the decidedly not-New York location of Salt Lake City.
“We went through a lot in those 10 years, a lot of ups, a lot of downs, thinking it was going to go to Broadway and it didn’t,” Clark says. “I feel like we’ve been cooking dinner for 10 years, and now we get to have dessert.”
In the midst of working on music for the stage, Clark’s own recorded output has increasingly put her talents as a singer and artist on equal footing with her formidable songwriting. Big Day in a Small Town, her 2016 LP produced by Jay Joyce, delivered on the promise of her stripped-down debut 12 Stories and its intricate character studies with bigger, bolder sounds, though it didn’t provide the country radio breakthrough they wanted. Clark went back to Joyce for 2020’s Your Life Is a Record, which was released on the eve of the pandemic and saw her incorporating more strings and less radio-friendly touches as she grappled with the end of a long relationship.
Clark’s self-titled fourth album was also made while trying to get Shucked to the finish line, but it represents a change. The project pairs her with Grammy darling Brandi Carlile, who had floated the idea of doing an album after they collaborated on the track “Same Devil” from the deluxe edition of Your Life Is a Record.
“I was really intrigued by that,” Clark says. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had made a couple records with Jay, and I love working with him, but it felt really organic right then. I just started walking down that road with her, talking about songs and how we wanted to do it.” Rather than Nashville or Carlile’s home studio in Washington state, they worked together at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, California.
This album, as its title suggests, is more personal than the ones preceding it — Clark’s character-driven narratives are still very much present, but this time she’s one of the characters. Inspired by Carlile’s vision of the album as a “return” to the Pacific Northwest, where both women had grown up, Clark and collaborator Jessie Jo Dillon took a trip to Seattle and started writing. They came up with “Northwest,” an anthem of pride for the volcanic ash of Mt. St. Helens and trees that “grow mountain tall” that puts all of the Southern hometown signifying on country radio to shame.
“I was gonna title the record Northwest, and a lot of people said, ‘You know that’s Kim [Kardashian] and Kanye [West’s] child’s name?’” Clark says with a laugh. Given the other, more revealing songs she’d written, naming the album after herself was the best way to sidestep that issue.
Clark’s stories this time around often deal with the minefield of love and relationships. Lead single “Buried” is devastating, Clark’s hushed vocal performance sounding near the edge of tears. “Come Back to Me,” previously recorded by Keith Urban on the Fuse album, is shot through with longing. “Ain’t Enough Rocks” goes full Southern gothic with a gritty tale of abuse and vengeance. And songs like “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her,” featuring the duo Lucius, and “All Over Again,” were inspired by people in Clark’s orbit.
“I love love and I love relationships,” she says. “I love a messy relationship because to me it’s real. We get screwed up by the fairytale and the Hollywood ending of relationships because it rarely goes like that.”
One particularly personal entry on Brandy Clark is “She Smoked in the House,” which she wrote about her grandmother, who “saved in Folgers cans” and “cut the mold off cantaloupe and cheese.” It’s funny, sweet, and deeply moving — I tell her it reminds me of my relationship with my own grandmother, despite the fact that she didn’t smoke.
“I thought nobody was like my grandma until that song came out. [There were] people who shocked me texting me and saying, ‘That’s my grandma!’” Clark says. The song began its life as “They Smoked in the House” but it lacked the specificity it needed to really work. I need[ed] to make it just about my grandma because that’s who I’m really thinking of. Once I did that it unlocked the song for me.”
“She Smoked in the House” also doubles as a way for Clark to trace her relationship to country music, through her grandmother’s affinity for “Owens or Jones,” “Loretta and Hag.” Those experiences had a direct impact on Clark’s journey to becoming a country singer.
“My grandma used to say, ‘There are two kinds of music: country and western,’” she says. “That was it. Some of that was where we lived — the only station that came in really clearly was the country station. So many of my memories are tied to those great country songs.”
The most intimate moment on the album comes with “Dear Insecurity,” presented as a duet between Clark and Carlile. Clark arrived at her writing appointment with Michael Pollock (Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers”) feeling upset about someone who had hurt her feelings, and they decided to personify the titular emotion and address it directly. “Maybe you could try a little kindness instead of hurtin’ me,” they sing together.
“I remembered what a really good friend of mine always says, which is, ‘Insecurity is the ugliest of human emotions, and usually when someone hurts you it’s their own insecurities,’” she says. “I started thinking about that and thinking about things in my own life, relationships that insecurity had messed up. I was thinking, wouldn’t that be something to write a letter to insecurity?” Clark and Carlile give stunning vocal performances, sounding frustrated but resolute.
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And that’s one of the great gifts of Brandy Clark: as Clark incorporates more of her own life into her songs, they somehow become more resonant, more universal. It sounds counterintuitive, but she’s discovered that there is always someone out there who has faced something similar, and they’re going to hear these songs with recognition and gratitude.
“I think I’m figuring out with every record a little more who I am artistically,” Clark says. “I was so in the world of writing for other people by the time I made 12 Stories, I really thought of myself as a songwriter and not an artist. And now I think of myself as a true singer-songwriter. That’s been a gradual shift. I think more now about, what do I want to say? My job is to tell those stories that are true to me because they’re true to someone else.”