Brandy Clark: From Songwriter-For-Hire to Critics' Darling, A Nashville Fairytale (Q&A)

Brandy Clark PR 2013 L

"I never thought of myself as cool," says the country singer, who, at 38 years old, released her debut album to near universal acclaim.

If you’re looking at music critics’ year-end 10-best lists to see who got the most universal acclaim, it might be a name you didn’t expect or even hear of. Excluding polarizing albums like Kanye West’s, the record that got the most across-the-board kudos might have been the debut from country singer Brandy Clark, who’s been writing songs in Nashville for 16 years but, at 38, just released her own first project in November.  

Clark’s 12 Stories was named the best album of 2013 in any genre by New York magazine’s Jody Rosen, the New York Post’s Michaelangelo Matos, NPR’s Ann Powers, Slate, and the Boston Globe’s Sara Rodman. It was the No. 2 record for Fresh Air’s Ken Tucker and a top 10 choice for the Los Angeles TimesRandall Roberts and the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones, among many others. “A storyteller of the highest caliber,” said Powers. “Clark's the kind of talent who makes the term ‘alt-country’ unnecessary,” wrote Rolling Stone.

Is she mainstream or alt? Clark has certainly had an impact on country radio as the co-writer of major hits like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and the Band Perry’s “Better Big Two,” with album tracks she recently wrote for Keith Urban and Darius Rucker possibly waiting in the wings as singles. Her own album, though, may fall into the too-country-for-country-radio camp, although it’s been seriously championed by CMT and Sirius XM. Judge for yourself when she appears on CBS' Late Show With David Letterman on Jan. 6.

The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with Clark in Nashville to find out where she thinks she does or doesn’t fit into the shifting country landscape.

You finished this album two years ago. Was it frustrating to have to wait for it to come out while some of your contemporaries like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe were getting signed and coming out of the gate?

Well, I’m really thankful that they did have Kacey and they did have Ashley. Because I feel those records -- Kacey’s, especially -- have really opened the door for this record. If this record had come before these, and the Pistol Annies, too, I don’t know if it would be as well received. I feel like those records whetted people’s appetites.

Is it just a coincidence that the year’s best country records were mostly by women, or is there a real gender difference that goes into how women and men make records right now?

I think women are lucky in that we can paint with a few more colors. The song “Stripes,” for example. [Chorus line: “The only thing savin’ your life is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.”] A male artist pointed out to me that a guy could never, ever jokingly say, “I would shoot my wife but I don’t want to go to prison.” So I think as women we have a chance to write things that push it a little further to the left and a little further to the right, as opposed to right down the middle.

Party songs are the norm on country radio right now, thanks to the “bro-country” revolution. Is part of it maybe that women are generally less inclined to write those?

Well, we can drink less beer -- that’s probably part of it. You know, lower tolerance. And then I think just as women we’re drawn to the more vulnerable topics. I mean, most of our party songs are going to be sad. I’m trying to think if there are any female party songs that are just fun. I don’t know that there are.

People say this album sounds like classic country, but sometimes there’s disagreement about when the classic eras of country were. It’s usually assumed to mean Hank, George, and Merle. But there’s also a nostalgia among some for the country music of the ‘90s, which was a time when female artists were more viable, too.

I’ve heard people dis that era and say the ‘90s is when country music became whatever white people listen to. But I loved that era. I think, was that music great, or was it just a formative time in my life right then? I personally think it was really great, and I feel lucky that I was influenced by it. My grandparents lived next door to us, so I know a lot of older country that a lot of people my age don’t know. But when I was in junior high and high school is when Trisha Yearwood came out, [along with] Kathy Mattea, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzy Bogguss, Pam Tillis, Wynonna, and my favorite, Patty Loveless. I’m just as influenced by them as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. To me, we’re just not far enough away from the music they made to hold it in that high a regard, but to me it stands up there with that. When I made a record, I thought, I want to make a record as good as Patty Loveless’ When Fallen Angels Fly. I think the guys were making really good music then, too. We had Alan Jackson and Vince Gill and Garth [Brooks]. I think people miss that as much as they miss Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

If this were a time like 20 years ago when Trisha Yearwood were still a superstar, do you feel like some of the songs from this album would have been easily cut and been top 10 hits?

I don’t want to date this album by saying that. But I think that was a time when great songs ruled, and I think a lot of these are great songs. So, I think… yes!

Were the songs on this album ones you wrote for other artists or tunes you held back for yourself?

None of these songs were written knowing I was making a record. Most of them had been pitched around. LeAnn Rimes had cut “Crazy Women” years ago. When we wrote “Stripes,” I had this dream of Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert cutting that, and how they would perform it on the CMAs; I had it all in my head. And so I definitely didn’t think of that for me, and Dave Brainard, who produced this, just insisted that we cut it. He said “We’ll make it for you.” … I moved to Nashville definitely wanting to be an artist, but after I got here, I gravitated more toward songwriting. By the time it came around for me to have the opportunity to make a record, I was 100 percent cemented that I was a songwriter and didn’t want to be an artist, until that opportunity presented itself, and then all of a sudden I was dreaming that dream that I thought I had stopped dreaming so long ago.

Why did the album take two years to come out?

When we made this record, [management company] Fitzgerald Hartley paid for it, and they were like, “Make the record you want and we’ll figure out what to do with it.” When it was finished, I think it was much more commercial than they thought it would be, and so they pitched it around to major labels. One person that had a lot of interest was Mike Dungan at Capitol. He’d asked us not to pitch it to anyone else, and then he left [to run Universal Nashville]. I remember the day I got the call that Mike said “You can pitch this to other people.” And then Warner Bros was really interested in it; that didn’t happen. Then Rounder was gonna sign it, and then their parent company was bought. Along the way, every one of those little things would break my heart all over again. Meanwhile, we had the support of CMT and Leslie Fram, who had said, “Make me a video and I’ll play it.” So we made a video for “Stripes,” and two days before that premiered on CMT, we met with Jim Burnett from Texas, who has Slate Creek Records, and he was like, “If you’ll put the brakes on just a little bit, I’ll come on board.” It was tough, because I’ve seen songs that I wrote after this record was done go up to the top of the charts and come back down, and I’ve seen people that I write with have records come out that weren’t even conceived when this record was done.

One of those songs you co-wrote since your album was finished was Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” which has the line about “smoke lots of joints.” Between that and the song on your new album called “Get High,” people might form a certain picture of you, but you don’t seem like a big pro-legalization activist.

No. I mean, a lot of my great friends and co-writers are big potheads, so I guess I’m pro-marijuana for that reason. But myself, I don’t light up. Not that I never have, but it’s not my vice of choice. As people get to know me and become my friend, they sometimes tell me, “Man, I thought you were like a major pothead.” In fact, Becky Fluke, who directed the “Stripes” video, and one we just did for “Get High,” was telling Little Big Town that they need to get me to come out on the road and spend some time with them and maybe write with them. And she said that one of the girls in the group was like, “Becky, we can’t have her on this bus. We have kids.” And Becky was like, “She’s nothing like that!”

Almost none of your songs come off as autobiographical. They’re unusually character-driven, for country. Like Lori McKenna, you have a lot of songs about unhappy housewives. And McKenna actually does make a big deal out of being a housewife, if not an unhappy one. People who read that you’re gay tend to be taken aback by it, because the songs maybe create an assumption that you’ve lived this kind of suburban and/or marital ennui.

I’m also trying to write a great script that somebody would want. When I sing these songs I kind of feel like I’m an actress, and the songs are just a great role. I take it as a huge compliment that people would think I was that character. And I think in some other life, I am. Maybe that frustration is an alter ego. And I have felt most of those things. I mean, not all of them. “Hold My Hand,” whether gay or straight or whatever, everybody’s felt that. And most of us have felt “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven.”

I don’t write very many autobiographical songs, though. I really think I’m a storyteller. I’ve always felt pretty nonjudgmental. So I can write about characters that other people would maybe judge. “Get High,” I can write that because I’m removed from it enough to sing it. I wrote that about a girl I went to high school with. The first person that really pointed out that that was not a funny song was Shane MacAnally, who just said, “I love that song because everybody thinks it’s so funny, but it’s really sad. You really talked about somebody who’s just kind of surviving their life.” I probably before that kind of thought of it as funny, but then I was “Yeah, he’s right, it’s not funny.” We laugh at it, but we laugh at things that aren’t funny a lot of times.

Where do you think your music fits in?

I think I’ve made a country record. But I’ll hear it’s alternative country or Americana. Both those things are great things. That just shows how removed I think I must be from mainstream country in a lot of ways. I think it’s always cool to be alt. I never thought of myself as cool, so if I’m lumped in with the cool category, I’ll take that.