Nashville Hitmaker On Breaking Up With Her Past and Recording With Brandi Carlile
By Olivia Ladd, Contributing Writer
Brandy Clark is one of the names most identified with queer country music. An openly lesbian major-label country artist who sits comfortably in the top tier of Nashville’s finest songwriters, Clark has co-penned radio hits for years, like the groundbreaking “Follow Your Arrow” for Kacey Musgraves, boldly asserting freedom of sexual preference. And Clark has famously channeled other marginalized characters in her own releases. Her influence within mainstream country music has rippled far beyond what’s suggested by mere name recognition.
Just days before the country went into pandemic lockdown, on March 6, Brandy Clark released her third studio LP, Your Life Is A Record. It’s a thoughtfully constructed album with a lighter sound than most of her previous work, crescendoed by emotion and a baroque touch of strings that underline its lyrical exploration of heartbreak. The album leans more towards Americana than mainstream country, but the production and consummate songwriting add a coat of gloss to the package.
Country Queer spoke to Clark via phone about Your Life Is A Record, creativity during quarantine (including an upcoming project with Brandi Carlile), her experience as a gay woman in Nashville, and the changes she’s seen over the years.
OL: In the past, with your writing for other people and your previous work, like 12 Stories, it feels like you’ve had a storytelling angle. When I was listening to Your Life Is A Record when it first came out, I felt that it was a little more personal and narrative. Can you talk about that shift and the writing process on some of those more personal songs?
BC: I love that you noticed that. It wasn’t an intentional shift. I’m always just writing songs, whatever’s in the room, whatever’s going on with me. This record ended up being more personal, I think, because between my last record, Big Day In a Small Town, and this record, I went through the breakup of a very long relationship. So, in that, you kind of can’t help but write about it. Those were just the songs that bubbled up. I think that’s because they were the truest.
OL: This was your second album with Jay Joyce as a producer. What was it like working with him?
BC: He’s really quite a genius. The first time I worked with him was great, but I thought, if I ever get a chance to work with him again– he’s the most creative person I’ve ever met, period– I thought it’d be really interesting to challenge him to cut all acoustic, since he is known for that heavier, more aggressive sound. So when we sat down, that’s what I did. He said, “You know, working together, we’d never make the same record twice.” And I said, “Well I was thinking it might be fun if we tried to make a record and we didn’t use any electric instruments,” and he loved that idea. That was before I realized that this was a breakup record. I was so close to it I couldn’t see that. So I was thinking, “I don’t really have an idea concept for this, but I have a sonic concept,” which would be to record it all acoustic. We stuck pretty strictly to that. There were only four of us that played everything. Then we brought The Memphis Strings and Horns in on it after we had cut the basic tracks. We liked it so much, went and did the whole album with them. That became the tone of the album.
OL: You said you had a sonic idea before you had a concept for the album. Do you think in any way those two influenced each other, even if subconsciously?
BC: One hundred percent. Jay is the one who pointed out to me that this is a breakup record. Right before we went in, he said, “This is a breakup record.” I was like, “Oh wow, I guess it is.” I think it was a breakup record not only about my own personal relationship but also about my idea of where my music lives. My last record I made a really hard push at country radio and I had some supporters and still have some supporters, but didn’t get the traction I hoped for. So I had to break up with that idea. In doing that, it really freed me to where we could go.
We wouldn’t have gone down this road with my last album because the songs didn’t lend themselves to that. With the songs being more personal and a lot of them being about the sadness of a breakup, I think that the strings and horns really fit that. I think the subject matter led the way.
OL: I love “Bigger Boat.” Where did you get the idea to bring Randy Newman into that song?
BC: I had said a couple times, “Boy, I’d love to do a duet on this album,” because I haven’t done one on one of my albums. When I was playing some of the songs for my manager, she said, “You know what would be a good duet is ‘Bigger Boat.’”
I said, “Oh yeah, you’re so right.” She mentioned a few legends and I said, “What about Randy Newman?”
She said, “That’s a great idea, it even kind of sounds like him, but how are we gonna get him?”
I said, “Lenny Waronker, who I work with at Warner, they’ve worked together forever.” It wasn’t why I said Randy’s name but when we mentioned him, that just came to me. So Lenny talked to Randy and Randy said [he’d] have to like the song first. When Randy came back and said he liked that song, that felt like a huge win. He said, “She’s just gonna have to wait until I’m done with Toy Story 4,” which was like, wow, whose life am I living here? We did it and it was amazing. Because we didn’t know it was gonna be a duet when we recorded it, we didn’t record it with that in mind so he had to make it work in my key. He really was very generous to work with me on it.
OL: You put this album out a week before everything shut down. How have you adapted to not being able to tour or do in-person shows or promotion for the album?
BC: Well, we made a really quick pivot and I’m really lucky that everybody on my team went into overdrive. I was the last person that did The Today Show in person. I was lucky I got to do that. There were people whose albums came out the next week and all that was blown away. I’ve tried to keep a strong online presence, which isn’t my strong suit, and I’ve had to learn to make it that more in this time. I do a weekly YouTube show. I’ve done several live streams. Different festivals have turned virtual. I’ve just done as much as I can via Zoom and over the phone.
It is a bummer to not be out playing this record live because I’ve never had a record that I was as excited to play live; because there’s a real challenge in it, with the strings and horns, of how do we capture as much of that live as possible? With my bandleader, we had figured that out and we were getting ready to rehearse, then, boom, this happened. Everything moved almost a year for me. I was supposed to start a tour March 28th. That moved to the fall then moved again to next March. It’ll just be a year. When I get kind of sad about it, I remind myself that everybody who put out a record is in the same spot, and there are people dealing with losing their lives or losing their loved ones, so [they’re] really kind of champagne problems.
OL: Speaking of the pandemic, I saw in another interview with The Recording Academy that you were working through The Artist’s Way, which I actually also just started. How is that serving you creatively and how are you staying creative and getting inspiration right now?
BC: That’s definitely been a big one for me. I’ve gone a couple weeks where I haven’t done it, and I can feel that difference. But just doing that– getting up and doing those morning pages really helps me because it kind of clears the runway. I’ve been fortunate to work with some people during this time on Zoom that really inspire me and have had some really good sessions that way.
I try to read as much as I can and stay away from the news as much as I can. I went in the studio last weekend– actually working on a couple things with Brandi Carlile. That was really inspiring. Even though the session had to happen over Zoom, with somebody I haven’t been with in the studio, that was exciting.
I’m doing a 60-minute show on Thursday. It’ll be taped and used later on, but those kinds of things are fun because I’m not doing them all the time, so there’s an added pressure like, “Ooh, a 60-minute show. We haven’t played together as a whole band. This is going to be nerve-wracking and exciting and fun.” Those kinds of things excite me and inspire me.
OL: I’m beyond excited to hear anything that both you and Brandi Carlile are working on. Can you talk about your experience being out in the country music industry? I know for you, there are people like Shane McAnally and other artists that welcomed you in, and you’re such a great songwriter that there hasn’t been as much of a focus on that, but, have there been opportunities or challenges that have come from having a platform of being a queer country artist?
BC: I think the struggles have been inside myself. I know for a long time I thought that since I was out, I wouldn’t have a chance to have a recording career in country. I was pleasantly surprised that I could. Nobody told me that. That was just my own feeling. Shane’s a great example because he and I came up together. We were both out and didn’t lead with that, but didn’t hide it.
I feel like, when we have real equality in life is when we won’t have to… fight for our rights, when it’s just like, “Hey, I’m gay,” and that’s it, when there’s not a big… “Should I come out? Should I not?”
I see that in younger generations. I see that with my nephews. Somebody being gay is not an uncommon thing to them. It’s not really a talking point. It’s not a big deal. I feel like when I met Shane, we had each other. I think as hard as it was at the time to be a female and be gay in country music, I think it was way harder to be a man. I saw him and the way he just lived his life out loud. That was really inspiring to me. I think that I was a source of strength for him too, in the same way. I think I was living my life out loud a lot more than I realized, just by living it.
OL: You said it’s been more of an internal struggle; do you think that’s informed your songwriting, either for yourself or in songs you’ve written for and with others?
BC: Somebody pointed it out to me one time, and it made me feel like all that struggle was meant to be. A really good friend of mine, who’s also a songwriter, said, “I think you write songs the way you do because you’ve had to struggle with your sexuality. You really understand what it’s like to be an ‘other’ in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
I think that’s true. I never had anything going against me. My mom was really accepting. I didn’t have anybody tell me I was going to hell. I was accepted by my family but for me it was hard, because it wasn’t the picture that I had envisioned for myself. So I think there was a sadness in that that helped me write songs.
OL: You’ve been in Nashville for over a couple decades at this point. Beyond the radio and trends within music, what changes have you seen over the years in who gets to have a platform or write for radio? Have you seen things change and open up over time?
BC: Definitely I’ve seen a lot change. One thing that hasn’t changed is that a great song is a great song. It will find its way. When I first came here, the idea of a track person was nowhere in sight.* Now that’s more the rule than the exception. I’ve seen that open up.
I feel like Nashville has opened up a lot. I don’t know if when I first moved here, if Shane or I…if it would’ve been okay for us to be as out as we were. Maybe, but I’ve seen that change. I would’ve never guessed when I first moved here that one of the biggest songwriters in town was gonna be a very out-of-the-closet gay man. I would’ve never guessed that I was gonna be able to have a bigger career as an artist than I ever dreamed and be an out-of-the-closet lesbian. I feel like that’s changed a lot.
*Ed. Note: We, too, did not know what a “track person” was. According to this podcast, “There are usually three kinds of people in the room for a co-write. The lyricist, a melody person, and the track person.” Somebody with a laptop, we reckon. H/t Cory Graves of the Vandoliers.