Gary Clark Jr. walks into Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas, like he, if not owns the place, could navigate it blindfolded, walking backwards and playing a gnarly solo.
This is not a surprise. The 31-year-old Clark, blues guitarist, lifelong Austinite and increasingly famous recording artist, has just spent a year and change in this deceptively small studio working on and off to finish The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the follow-up to his Grammy-nominated 2012 studio album, Blak and Blu. (The killer, self-explanatory Gary Clark Live appeared in 2014.)
“I really wanted to just come back home and be in the studio, hang out and go back to my house,”said Clark, fedora pushed back on his head, wearing a V-neck white T-shirt and jeans.
Which is to say that Blak and Blu was an L.A. album, recorded in Tarzana and produced by industry heavy hitters such as “Real Slim Shady” co-writer Mike Elizondo and longtime Green Day helmer Rob Carvallo. There were stabs at rock, rap and R&B mixed in with the electric blues on which Clark made his bones.
Sonny Boy is a pure Austin product, written and recorded at Arlyn, produced by Clark with his live engineer Bharath “Cheex” Ramanath and Arlyn’s chief engineer Jacob Sciba.
From the screaming solos on “Grinder” to the stomping funk on the almost Prince-ly “Star” to the acoustic gospel (!) on “Church,” everything on the tracks we previewed sounds of a piece, the product of an artist who can play almost anything he picks up, working with a tight, trusted crew.
We head into a control room at Arlyn. “These guys,” Clark says, gesturing to Sciba and fellow engineer Joseph Holguin, who are cueing up the finished songs, “put [in] a lot of hard work to let me be in this room and let loose.”
Clark good-naturedly urges me to take a rolling chair near the board. (Apparently, I am sitting in his traditional spot on the control-room couch: “I just wanted you to move,” he says with a grin.)
Begun in March 2014 and mixed and mastered just this past May, Sonny Boy was written and recorded in between Clark touring on Blak and, oh, yeah, having a baby son named Zion with his partner, model Nicole Trunfio. (You might have seen Trunfio on the cover of the Australian edition of Elle, suede coat open, nursing Zion.)
“I found that I can’t write on the road,” Clark says. “That doesn’t work for me.” So starting last March, he headed into Arlyn with little more than ideas and grooves. “I basically came in here with the bare minimum,” Clark says. “First two weeks, I just banged around, sat on the drums, played bass.”
Clark and the engineers worked mostly at night. “I would come in in the morning,” Arlyn co-owner Lisa Fletcher says, “[and] they would still be at it.”
“I spent so much time in the booth trying to figure it all out,” Clark says, “that there are cuts and cuts of me going ‘Hmmmmmmmm,’ and then it would turn into a word, then a melody, then a verse.”
He pauses. Clark has made seven albums and few EPs, but this is only his second major-label studio full-length. “Frankly, I went in feeling very vulnerable,” Clark says. “I was very aware of the sophomore slump.”
While a title like The Story of Sonny Boy Slim implies a larger concept or something autobiographical, Clark denies that there is one. “The only real theme is, ‘Through all the bullshit, there’s always hope,'” Clark says. “That’s kinda it.”
As the songs play, he seems to slip into a trance: eyes closed, grooving and bouncing on the couch with every beat. Opening with a “yeah yeah yeah” that clearly connects the dots between blues and hip-hop, “The Healing” is pure blues-rock, a statement of purpose: “Music is our healing/When this world upsets me, this music sets me free.”
The pounding “Grinder,” sporting some of the record’s sickest, screamiest solos, looks at a financially strapped young family. “My baby’s crying,” Clark sings. “So now my baby is crying.”
“Our Love” is an old-school Seventies ballad of the first order, which mixes Clark’s falsetto with horns and organ. Add a few strings and it could be mistaken for a Jimmy Carter–era Philly soul cut. (When I mention the strings, Clark laughs and points at Sciba: “Yeah, we had some loooong conversations about strings.” Sciba, ever the polite professional, smiles and looks at his shoes.)
“Sonny Boy” seems well-timed, of a moment where Prince is playing surgical-strike shows and D’Angelo is blowing minds with dense, analog music. Clark demurs when asked about influences. “It really was just the sounds in my head,” he says. “I wasn’t really listening to anything. I just wanted to be completely open and not be stuck saying I am gonna go in this direction or that direction.”
It’s around 7 p.m., time to go, and we head outside to the Arlyn parking lot. Fletcher declares it happy hour and hands the guys large glasses of something pink (which turns out to be half locally made vodka, half fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice). Sciba grins: “You want to know how we made this album?” he says, lifting the glass. “This right here.”
Clark still has some footage to shoot for a Sonny Boy electronic press kit before getting on a bus five minutes later to go play a set at Coachella with his road band. (“I swore I would never be the guy who rehearses the set at soundcheck,” Clark says, lighting up a cigarette. “But that is exactly what is going to happen.”) It’s a long day and a long drive ahead.
“I really just wanted to put everything together and be 1,000 percent who I am,” Clark says. “This album is exactly what that is, loud.”