By Dale Henry Geist
It’s been nearly two and a half years since Brandy Clark released her excellent 2020 album, Your Life Is A Record – just days before the world shut down. The pandemic put a crimp in her plans, to say the least. But now that things have opened up some, Clark has been able to tour the album stateside and is gearing up to take her live show overseas, where American country artists continue making inroads to larger audiences. And as a Grammy-nominated artist and writer of hits for the likes of Kenny Rogers, Reba McIntyre, Miranda Lambert, LeAnn Rimes, Keith Urban, The Oak Ridge Boys, and many others, Clark, 46, makes a fantastic queer country ambassador.
Having just finished a writing session when she called from Nashville, she was relaxed and enthusiastic for our chat.
So how are you?
I’m really good. I’m back in Nashville. I went and played a show for the Grammys in Chicago on Monday [August 8th]. That was a really awesome event. Really cool venue and cool, cool reason to be playing.
I saw a little clip on your Instagram of “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her Any More,” a new song that you did during the sound check for the Grammy show. It’s a little different – it’s a 6/8 [time signature. Loved it.
I love a good 6/8, or a waltz, whether it’s a 3/4 or 6/8. I love that time signature. Hopefully that’ll be on this next project.
So, what you’ve been up to? You just returned from California, right?
I did. I went out to California for a month with the intent of making myself write more by myself and figure out what I need for the next project that I don’t have. I don’t know if I’ve figured all that out, but I stumbled across some cool things. It’s always good for me to force myself to spend time by myself. ‘Cause you know, I will phone a friend if I can. And sometimes, even if I don’t finish a song by myself, so many of the things that I have recorded have started out as ideas that I had and that I let germinate before I took to other people. So it’s a pretty important part of the process for me.
I noticed all the songs on Your Life Is A Record were co-writes.
That was one thing this last album didn’t have [songs that were not co-writes] that made me a little bit like, “Oh man, I wish it had that.” Because there’s something to that. Of course, the album needs to be the best 10 or 12 songs,. But those songs you write by yourself, there’s no compromise in them. It’s one pen, and if you get it right, it’s really right. If you don’t get it right, it’s really wrong.
So when you’re able to write something all the way through, by yourself, especially a collection of songs like that, it can be more of a reflection of where you’re at?
Yeah. And even if you can’t write it all the way through… so many of those songs, I spent a lot of time on ’em before I took them in to co-writers. Even if it was just figuring out the places not to go, that’s almost more important than knowing where to go. You know, “I went down this path and it doesn’t really serve what I’m trying to do.” Sometimes there’s a lot of that for me.
That’s very illuminating.
Yeah. I think it’s really important. Somebody told me one time that songs you write by yourself, good or not, it’s good to write them, because it’s like bouncing a ball against a wall. You know how hard to throw that ball against a wall. And then when you get a co-writer in there, you don’t know how hard they’re gonna throw it back. I’ve always thought that was a really good analogy. And so there’s a surprise from the co-writer, but if you haven’t bounced the ball yourself, you really don’t know how to throw it back.
So you’re gonna be heading to Europe soon, right? Continuing “The Art of the Storyteller” tour?
Yes. These European dates are actually why I did the domestic dates. I wasn’t gonna do any shows in the US this year, but we wanted to work out the kinks a little bit. We’ll still be working ’em out over there, but we really got into a great groove with the concept of “The Art of the Storyteller” and what that is on stage. And I look forward to sharing it with people across the pond.
Right on. So what can people expect from one of these shows?
I feel like I’m already a pretty intimate performer, but it’s even more intimate than any show I’ve done in the past. Every night’s a little bit different, but I come out and I start talking about how much storytelling matters to me, and where it started for me, which was a lot of music riding around with my grandma in her car. And I play bits and pieces of songs that I remember hearing on those drives. And then I lead into my first cuts in Nashville, long before I ever made a record. And I tell the story of how it felt to get those first cuts, and then making my first record – and we just kind of take a journey.
I do a lot of this show by myself and then I bring out Cy [Winstanley] and Vanessa [McGowan] who play with me on this tour. They have a duo themselves, and there’s a portion of the show where they play a few songs without me. So it’s very different than anything I’ve ever done.
Your Life Is a Record has been out for a couple years. Do you have any reflections on that album?
That album was such an amazing record to make, and my one and only regret with that album is it came out the 6th of March and then the world shut down. So I didn’t get to properly tour it the way that we had planned on doing.
Other than that, I’m so proud of that record and I’m proud that it prevailed in spite of what it was up against with the pandemic. It was Grammy-nominated and got a lot of good press, and people seemed to love it. I’m proud of it, and it was my most personal record to date. I think my next one will probably be even more personal than that. Just because of the stuff I’ve been writing. But I guess I just have nothing but love and pride for it all the way around.
What’s harder: writing, recording or performing?
Oh, I think writing. Yeah. I think the writing is always the hardest part. Because everything builds from that, you know. It’s also, in a lot of ways, my favorite part, but it’s the hardest part. You gotta write a lot of songs to get those 10 or 12 that make the album, and finding your way to those is oftentimes tricky.
In terms of country radio, do you feel like you’ve been given a fair shot, or do you feel like there’s been some gatekeeping with regards to your gender or your orientation?
I think there’s definitely some gatekeeping in terms of gender. I think all women are up against that, but some women find a way through. For me, I had fans at country radio that played my stuff. I just didn’t have enough of them. And that was where I got most of my music [growing up], country radio, so I always wanted to be on it. But it’s also not what it was when I was a kid, you know? And people get music differently than they used to; radio’s no longer the only way in. So I’ve just tried to focus on different ways in. They say “Get in where you fit in.”
Yeah. I think of somebody like Brandi Carlile, who has had tremendous success without dealing with country radio at all. And she has from an early time described herself as Americana. I wonder if you’re feeling any affinity for that audience.
Oh, for sure. That’s where this last record was pushed, in Americana. There wasn’t any country radio push this last go round. It was all Americana. And I definitely feel at home there, I feel like a lot of what would’ve been considered country music a decade ago is now Americana. So that’s a real bonus.
In your show, you talk about the beginning of your career, when you were writing for other artists. And I know you’ve said in the past that somebody that was a key part of helping you get into that was Shane McAnally, another gay person. Can you talk a little bit about Shane, how you guys met and what that relationship is like?
I met Shane in a kitchen at a publishing company the day before we were supposed to write. He was writing with Josh Osborne, who is also a very frequent collaborator of his and mine. And Josh introduced us. And I felt an instant connection to Shane, as he did to me. And then we wrote the next day, and it wasn’t incredibly great. I mean, it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t like a great song came out of it. But he called me after the write. And he said, “I know we didn’t hit it out of the park, but I know we’re gonna write great songs together.”
And so we got back together and then the next time, we did hit it out of the park, and continued to hit it out of the park. I think Shane and I have so many similarities. We’re around the same age. We both love country music – grew up loving it. We were both very close to our grandmas. Both gay. All of those things factored in for the two of us. And so, you know, I really met a soulmate. And I feel really lucky that that happened.
You guys are still buds?
Oh yeah. We’re working on a musical together. That’s coming out next year.
Let me ask you about Kacey [Musgraves]. You were writing with her before she was recording.
Yeah. Shane hooked that up. He met Kacey, and very shortly, he brought me into the mix and, you know, we wrote a lot of great songs together. In fact, I’ve never written anything with Kacey I didn’t really, really love, honestly. Our percentage [of good songs] was really good. She’s a generation below us, and just the way she saw the world was a little freer when it came to—she wasn’t scared to come out with a song like “Follow Your Arrow.” Like her generation, that was just the norm, or maybe she normalized it. I don’t know. But I loved being involved in that.
Yeah. That song in particular seems to have taken on an iconic quality. How did you guys write that? It was you and Kacey and Shane, right?
Yeah. So what happened was, Kacey came into the write, and she had written a poem for a friend of hers who was gonna spend the summer in Europe, and the poem said, “Smoke lots of joints and kiss lots of boys, and follow your arrow.” And she wanted to turn that into a song. And we were like, okay! And that was always the cool thing, and it’s still the cool thing with Shane: he’s always willing to go anywhere in a song. That was one of the greatest examples in my working with him, where we just went for it.
It’s fair to say that a hallmark of a lot of your songs is these badass women. They’re tough, they’re smart. Maybe working class, struggling against entrenched social mores. You seem really comfortable writing a character like that. How close is that to who you are?
You know, probably closer than I realize <laughs>. I often say that my characters are who I would be had I chosen different lives. When I was a kid those “choose your own adventure” books were huge <laughs> and I think life is a choose your own adventure book. I really do. And I think a few different turns, then I would’ve been the woman in “Get High,” and a few different turns and I would’ve been any of these people. And some of them are me. I’ve definitely felt “Hold My Hand,” and I have definitely felt “Who You Thought I Was.” I have lived that.
This last record came at the heels of a breakup of a very long relationship. So that record really was a lot of me. But the character songs…in this last record, “Pawn Shop” was a character song. And I could have been either of those people, going into a pawn shop to pawn a wedding ring or a guitar,. There’s days when I wanna pawn my guitars. I’m like, “Yeah, let me do something different!” Even though I feel very fortunate that I get to do this career, there are days that are harder than others.
But I relate to those characters because there’s a piece of them in me, or maybe it’s something that I saw in my mom or my grandma. I’ve had a lot of strong women around me my whole life. So I really like to shine a light on strong women.
That is the beauty of being a writer, isn’t it? You get to inhabit different characters. But hopefully you can bring a core of who you are into that, and make it feel authentic.
I think you have to, I think that’s why they feel authentic. Anytime I read great, great characters, I feel like it’s because – I’m actually reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” right now. And I was thinking about Ken Kesey, the guy who wrote it. Those characters are so vivid to me, and I’m like, okay, these are all parts of him that were a little bit…a little bit headed for the insane asylum, you know?
Different subject. What is the mainstreaming of weed gonna do to your songwriting? [Both laugh.] It’s always been this transgressive thing in your songs, and now you can get it legally almost anywhere.
Yeah! I do feel like “Get High” used to be so much more taboo than it is now. And I’ll even say sometimes, “I wrote this before it was legal!”
You know, I’ve tried to write high a little bit because during the pandemic, when we were all locked up, sometimes we’d be like, let me get a little stoned and write. ‘Cuz I do love an edible. I’ve been staying away from them lately cuz I’ve been trying to watch my weight and those edibles, man, you’ll eat the kitchen when you eat those. But I don’t ever do really well writing high. I know some people do, some people really tap into something.
When you’re writing, do you save aside songs for your own album?
Yeah. For example, last summer I wrote a song with Jessie Jo Dillon and Jimmy Robbins; we did a writing retreat and we wrote several songs, but one song in particular we wrote, called “Up Above the Clouds” – I knew right away, that’s the centerpiece of whatever I do next. And when I know that, I hold it, and I always have a handful of songs like that, that I feel like are the foundation for a project. And then I go back through my catalog and I find songs that I’ve written along the way that fit whatever the theme is. But yeah, I hold songs back for sure.
Would you disqualify something if it had been covered by somebody?
No, I wouldn’t. Not at all. In fact, there was a time when one artist would have a hit on the song and then another artist would record it and have a hit on it. And I remember Melanie Howard, who’s Harlan Howard’s [legendary Nashville songwriter] widow. I was in the same building as that publishing company. And she talked to me about that time. And I thought, man, that was such a cool time. Why don’t people do that? So that never sways me if somebody else has recorded it.
So knowing that our readers are queer fans of country music, is there anything that you would like to say to them?
I would say it’s your country as much as it is anybody else’s. There was a time for me when I thought being openly gay would keep me from a career as an artist, and it didn’t. And so anybody listening to my music or anybody in the queer community, your queerness is beautiful about you, but it’s not the only thing about you. You can be whatever you wanna be and be queer.
So that would be what I would hope people would take away from me is that– you talked about Shane earlier, Shane was a really big champion for me and he still is. And I remember saying to him, “Do you think that people will try to keep us out because we’re gay?” And he said, “It won’t matter. We’re too good.” And I think that’s really true. It makes me cry thinking about it. Like, whatever it is you are, be great at it. Whether it’s a songwriter or a singer or a truck driver, you know. I really believe that people don’t care so much about sexuality. I really believe most people just care about the heartbeats inside of people. And I might be wrong about that, but that’s the world I wanna live in. And so that’s the world I choose to see and try to make a reality.
That’s beautiful. Brandy, thank you so much for giving your time to us. Have a great time in Europe.
Oh, thank you!