Austin-native Gary Clark Jr. is no stranger to SXSW, having been attending and playing the massive Texas festival since he was a teenager. This year, Clark headlined a raucous Friday evening set at the Levi’s Outpost as part of a party hosted by Rolling Stone and the legendary denim brand. After his performance, Clark sat down with us to discuss Austin, blues’ enduring influence on modern music and his favorite collaborators.
Reflecting on his early years performing in Austin’s music circuit, Clark remains thankful of his friend Eve Monsees who would take him to the city’s famed Sixth Street to attend and play in blues jams. “We were just kind of the young kids playing blues,” he recalls. “We’d go back to school and say ‘We sat in with Jimmie Vaughan last night’ or Hubert Sumlin, and these kids would be like ‘Who?'”
While his school peers didn’t quite understand, Clark ended up getting his own education from the artists he would perform with in his spare time. “It’s a great place to grow up.”
Growing up in the Nineties, the guitarist was a huge fan of grunge, but he found that blues was the only real outlet for him. His blues education came from digging deeper into the artist he loved, whether it was learning that Jimi Hendrix’s influence was Albert King or exploring the samples on his favorite hip-hop records, which always brought him back to the blues. “It became my quest to understand where all this music came from,” he explains.
Being that the blues is “the roots of American music,” as Clark describes, he sees the genre everywhere still, even though he is one of the few young artists to play the most authentic rendering of what the genre had been in the outset. “I can hear Robert Johnson in Big K.R.I.T.,” he offers as an example.
Currently, Clark’s biggest inspiration is Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) and the rapper’s recent album “Awaken, My Love!” which has Clark featured on the track “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.” Clark praises Gambino as “the most forward-thinking artist of our time.”
Finally, even though Clark has shared the stage with many blues and rock icons ranging from B.B. King to the Rolling Stones, it’s his contemporaries he has savored performing with the most. A Stevie Wonder tribute in 2015 had him playing a medley of Wonder’s hits alongside Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran, two artists he respects and admires immensely.
Though he cites that performance as one of his standout career moments, Clark is thankful for all musicians he has gotten to work alongside and the success he’s achieved in his own career. “I knew I wanted to play music, but I didn’t know it would be like this, so it’s pretty amazing.”
Watch Gary Clark Jr. perform “Cold Blooded” at SXSW in Austin, Texas.