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The Anger Inside Gary Clark, Jr.

The singer-guitarist felt stuck creatively and typecast as a bluesman. To move forward, he had to free up his sound and tap into the rage he felt living in Trump’s America

gary clark jr

Andres Kudacki for Rolling Stone

It’s already past midnight, but Gary Clark Jr. wants to keep going. The guitarist is standing in the center of a darkened room at Arlyn Studios, an unmarked building hidden behind a housing development in South Austin. Clark has been hard at work all night teaching his band a new song, “This Land,” taking breaks only to smoke spliffs and sip 90-proof whiskey. Clark counts yet another take of the song — a thunderous blues stomper marked by synth-bass and a hip-hop beat — before unleashing a flurry of wah-wah notes on his Gibson SG. He howls about living on “50 acres with a Model A/Right in the middle of Trump country,” next to a neighbor who “can’t wait to call the police on me.” He closes his eyes for the -chorus: “Nigga, run, nigga, run/Go back where you come from.”

Clark wants to get “This Land” right because he considers it the most important song he’s ever written. “It’s about being black in America, in the South,” he says. Clark wrote it after a confrontation with his own neighbor near his new 50-acre ranch outside Austin, where Clark lives with his wife, model Nicole Trunfio, and their toddlers, Zion and Gia. One day, Clark drove over to tell the neighbor his donkey had wandered onto Clark’s property. “He was very disrespectful to me in front of my kids,” says Clark. “And I don’t play with that shit. He started saying, ‘You don’t live here. There’s no way you could live here. Who really owns this place?’

“It pissed me off,” says Clark. “I got a good chunk of property. I worked my ass off to be able to buy a place that my people can enjoy and run around — and to have this guy question me?”

Clark, 34, has experienced that kind of vitriol his entire life. Starting around the age of nine or 10, growing up in Austin’s middle-class Oak Hill neighborhood, “these racial slurs happen behind you, like ‘What’d you say?’ and everyone’s laughing.” Explaining what else inspired the song, he recalls “being called nigger every day, people wanting to touch my hair, throwing shit in my mailbox, rolling up to my house with Confederate flags, saying, ‘Nigger, go back to Africa,’ writing ‘nigger’ on my fence.”

It took the 2016 election and the policies of Donald Trump to make Clark write about those horrors. Clark describes feeling disbelief at how those who dared to speak up about racism were treated, namely Colin Kaepernick, whose stand against police killing African-Americans left him accusing the NFL of blackballing him. “How could this shit happening with Kaepernick get taken out of proportion?” Clark asks. “The silent protest of police not upholding their oath? The home of the brave doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody — until it does, maybe we shouldn’t acknowledge it.”

Clark gets emotional describing a recent visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. “You walk in and see a replica of the slaves underneath these ships, shackled,” he says. “When we came over here, we weren’t even supposed to survive the conditions. So if I don’t scream, ‘Fuck you, I’m here, I’m gonna make it for everyone that’s been mistreated because they were born a certain way’ . . . I think that it’s only right at this point in time.”

“This Land” came at the right time. Before it, Clark felt he’d hit a creative wall. His career-making set at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010 convinced many he was going to save the blues and maybe rock & roll, too. Barack Obama invited him to the White House twice, calling him “the future,” and Buddy Guy compared him to T-Bone Walker. But Clark’s first two albums — 2012’s Blak and Blu and 2015’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim — disappointed commercially and failed to capture the explosive energy of his live shows. For his next album, Clark’s label suggested he work with a veteran producer like Rick Rubin or Pharrell. Clark said he was open to those ideas. “But I knew he really wasn’t,” says his manager Scooter Weintraub. “He really had a vision in his head of what he wanted to do.”

Clark decided to produce the album himself. Working with a co-producer/engineer at Arlyn, he spent months layering drums, bass and keyboards all himself (before bringing in heavyweights like drummer Sheila E. to overdub). The result is This Land, due February 22nd, which ranges from Delta blues to dub reggae, Stax-style soul anthems and Prince-like epics, capturing Clark’s promise at a mind-blowing level. “I wanted every note and lyric to mean something,” he says. “With the records I’ve made before, there’s so much emphasis on guitar: We’ll just play a badass guitar solo, and no one cares about the lyrics. That’s not what I got into it for. I like Quincy Jones. I like Stevie Wonder. I like Ray Charles. I like Cab Calloway’s arrangements. I like bridges, prechoruses. That’s something I never really paid attention to.”

Clark was in the room, nervous, when the executives at Warner Bros. heard the album for the first time: “There was a lot of silence, a lot of gasps.” He remembers thinking, “Great.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 13: Musician Gary Clark Jr. and wife Nicole Trunfio attend the Los Angeles Premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Justice League" at Dolby Theatre on November 13, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)

Clark with his wife, former Victoria’s Secret model Nicole Trunfio, in 2017. “She’s strong, which I like,” Clark says. “And fiery – don’t take no shit.” Photo credit: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

It’s a slow afternoon at Antone’s, the famed Austin blues club. Kingfish, a 19-year-old blues guitarist on the rise, is onstage soundchecking, but Clark is nowhere to be found. He was supposed to be here for an interview a few minutes ago; a member of his management team is trying to track him down. He’s here, she says, parking his Cadillac out back. Clark finally materializes about 30 minutes later, first chatting with his manager, and then slowly making his way over. “How you feeling?” he says, before slowly moving to the front of the club and taking a seat. He keeps his sunglasses on. Conversation with Clark can be unnerving; he stares at you for long periods after you ask a question, usually leaving you to keep talking. (But the longer he waits to answer, the more profound the answer usually is.) “There’s no presentation or people-pleasing with Gary,” says Weintraub. “People are so codependent, they’re like, ‘Is he mad at me?’ Sometimes I’ve thought that. And a couple of days later, he’s like, ‘Hey, man, what’s going on?’ ”

If there’s a place where Clark is comfortable, it’s at Antone’s. His dad, a car salesman, started taking him here at age 15, when Clark got onstage at a blues jam and nailed Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.” Owner Clifford Antone, who had mentored Vaughan, took Clark under his wing, putting him onstage with early blues greats like Lazy Lester and Pinetop Perkins. “He was a kid, and his voice was the same as his guitar,” says guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. “He was playing that same inner voice, which is the sign of a real artist, in my book.”

Antone was sent to prison in 2000 for trafficking more than five tons of marijuana, and died a few years later. When the club closed in 2014, Clark helped save it. He invested in it with a childhood friend, helping bring it back near its original location downtown. “All the opportunities I’ve seen in my life are because of this place,” Clark says. “To get an education, drive 15 minutes and have my mind blown? How could you not be a part of this thing? It’s everything.”

At the same time, Clark has a conflicted relationship with the blues. After signing with Warner Bros., he broke through with “Bright Lights,” a steamrolling nod to Jimmy Reed, and a series of explosive festival performances where he channeled Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Albert King through a 21st-century lens. But along the way, Clark came to feel typecast: the guy who would show up at the Grammys or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and break out blues licks. “If it were up to everybody else, I would do Hendrix covers all the time,” he said in 2013. Clark even says that he’s considered touring without the instrument altogether. “Prince is one of the best guitar players in the world, if not the best, but you don’t just think about Prince as a guitar player, do you?” he says. “I love being a guitar-slinger from Texas. It’s a badass thing. But I can also do other things.”

Clark tried to prove as much on his albums. Blak and Blu veered between hip-hop and neo-soul. “[I was] expecting to hear a Texas bluesman that has been compared to both Jimi and Stevie Ray,” one blogger complained. “What I heard was something that would not have been out of place as the opening dance number to an ’80s variety show.” Sonny Boy Slim embraced the guitar more, but the songs fell flat. Clark says he recently read a piece “talking about how I didn’t live up to the hype, the expectation of being the next guitar god. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ I’m not a rock god, nor was I trying to be. I was a guy that was making records and was excited more than six people were listening.”

As the years went by, people around Clark got worried. His father, Gary Clark Sr., remembers thinking his son was distracted. “He was out on the road a lot,” he says. “And we’d catch him every now and then. One time, he was like, ‘This is wearing me out.’ He had to learn how to manage it.” Weintraub, who’s managed Sheryl Crow for 26 years, knows to pick his spots when giving an artist creative advice. But after the commercial failure of Sonny Boy Slim, he told Clark his window to break through was closing. “Gary is very laid-back and Texan, where he would really like to do things gradually,” Weintraub says. “I’m like, ‘You can’t do that. I don’t want you to be 39 years old and just be revered as the great guy that followed Stevie Ray Vaughan, which is pretty easy for him to do. He wants to have his process, but culture is moving at an unhealthily rapid pace. I said, ‘I just don’t want you to make that mistake of going too slow and missing out.’ ”

Not too long ago, Clark was playing Austin City Limits’ 40th-anniversary concert when Sean McCarthy, a road manager for Jimmie Vaughan, gave him a hard drive full of music. The two had talked about making an album on which Clark and other local artists would sample old Texas regional rec-ords as a way of exposing them to a bigger audience, but the drive had a lot more than just that: 10,000 songs, everything from lost Wilson Pickett albums to the young underground funk-jam band Vulfpeck. Clark spent months going through all of it and decided that he would use the hard drive as his co-writer, sampling its beats, borrowing its melodies. After his wife had gone to bed, he would sit up late with his headphones and an MPC recording console, “making noise.” He took the sweeping melody of Pickett’s 1970 deep cut “Help the Needy” and created “The Guitar Man,” a gospel-steeped ode to life as a touring musician. He took “Home Cookin” — a swampy blues jam by Texas saxophone pioneer King Curtis — and wrote the Stones-y rocker “What About Us.” The home-recording process suited the introverted Clark. Later, he brought the songs to Jacob Sciba, his co-producer and longtime engineer at Arlyn. “[Gary said], ‘This ain’t gonna be a love rec-ord,’ ” Sciba recalls. “He said, ‘It’s time for No More Mr. Nice Guy.’ ”

At Arlyn, sessions could last all night, and ideas could come from anywhere. One night, Clark wasn’t feeling inspired, so he and Sciba headed to the grungy neighborhood of East Austin to see some punk bands; they came back and recorded the punky, Chuck Berry-style anthem “Gotta Get Into Something.” Songs could echo each other: After Clark channeled Jamaican dancehall on “Feelin’ Like a Million,” he and Sciba “got their mind right” one night, and Sciba created a dub-reggae mix for fun; Clark decided to play a nearly four-minute guitar solo over it. The resulting song, “Highway 71,” sounds like “Voodoo Chile” with a trap beat. Politics and class were big themes. On “What About Us,” Clark wrote about how neighborhood camaraderie sours when someone makes it big (the song is an allegory for climate change, too, it turns out).

“This Land” was the last song Clark finished in the studio. For a long time, he told Sciba he had no lyrics for it. Then, one day, he stepped up to the mic and nailed the brutal indictment of modern racism. Sciba figured out that Clark had the lyrics the whole time — that he was just reluctant to reveal them. “I think my question was, ‘Can you say that?’ ” Sciba says. “Immediately, my response was, ‘You have to say that.’ ”

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 19: Gary Clark Jr. performs onstage with Eric Clapton & His Band at Madison Square Garden on March 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for EC)

Clark with Eric Claption at Madison Square Garden last year. Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival helped launch Clark’s career in 2010. For Clapton, Clark was a revelation: “I wrote him a letter,” Clapton said, “saying, ‘Thank you – you make me want to play again.'” Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

They were on a roll when they hit a roadblock: Clark broke his right hand. He won’t go into details (“Next” is all he says when asked about the injury), but doctors called it a boxer’s break, which usually comes from punching a wall or a hard object. The fracture was so serious that Clark worried he might not be able to properly play the instrument again. “I saw the fear in his eyes,” says Sciba. “He was so used to being able to communicate through guitar playing.” But the injury was actually a blessing. Clark wrote “Dirty Dishes Blues,” an unplugged stomper he played claw-hammer-style — his thumb and two fingers, no pick — sounding a lot like his hero, the six-fingered Chicago guitarist Hound Dog Taylor. Clark was finally embracing the blues in the studio. “I didn’t realize how much playing made me happy,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much I got from it. I guess maybe I took it for granted a little bit.”

When Clark was about 20 years old, he took his first trip to New York. A buddy brought him to a party and introduced him to a friend in a sketch-comedy group. It was Donald Glover. The two ended up on a rooftop, Clark playing guitar, Glover rapping. A video of the collaboration exists somewhere. The two reconnected in 2016 when Glover invited Clark to play on Childish Gambino’s “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.”

Clark tells the story leaning back on an armchair in an amp room at Arlyn. It’s 2 a.m. He’s red-eyed and relaxed, having finally achieved a whiskey buzz after nailing “This Land.” Clark geeks out about Glover, talking about Glover’s ability to move between making great records, music, movies and stand-up: “He’s just a true artist.” It’s the kind of creative freedom Clark craves. “I want to play jazz,” he says. He recently played a session with Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding and more for a Miles Davis project. He wishes it went better. “I was in a room with all the greats,” Clark says. “And I was lost. I was embarrassed. I got lost in all the changes. They’re subtle, transition chords, things that I hadn’t really studied. That’s a big thing for me. I want to try not to become stagnant.”

Despite the late hour, Clark has asked if we can do the interview now so he can spend tomorrow with his family, before his bus picks him up for a run of sold-out shows across Texas. Clark and Trunfio, a former Victoria’s Secret model, met through Weintraub, who officiated at their 2016 wedding in Palm Springs, California. “I cried and shit,” Clark says. Trunfio’s Instagram chronicles their family life, traveling together on private jets (Clark likes to take one these days if it makes life easier), playing outside on the ranch or at the beach. “She’s a sweet person,” Clark says. “Strong, too, which I like. She’s fiery — don’t take no shit.” Most nights at their ranch in the country, Trunfio will cook an excellent meal, and the two sit outside and “watch the sun set, drink a nice bottle of wine, soak it up.” During the day, Clark will ride around the property with Zion. “We got goats wandering around there. Beautiful deer and antelope. Beautiful hawks flying around. We hear frogs in the summer. It’s good, man.”

Clark gets up to put on his leather jacket and make the dark drive home. Before he leaves, he asks to clarify something about the darkness he sings about on “This Land”: “I’m not gonna sit here and make that overshadow all the good,” he says. “I walk the streets of any city if I’m playing a show — it’s love, it’s hugs from all races. I’m not gonna let what’s happening in the country right now overshadow that there is great in this world. There’s love here. We just can’t let people take that away.”

In This Article: Gary Clark Jr., long reads

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