As sometimes happens with good songwriters breaking through, I was a Brandy Clark fan before I even realized it.
“The Day She Got Divorced” by Reba McEntire. “Crazy Women” by LeAnn Rimes. More recently, I’ve singled out Joanna Smith’s “We Can’t Be Friends,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” as worthwhile songs on mainstream country radio.
When the name Brandy Clark finally crossed my desk and I glanced through her credits to find that she had been responsible for so many things I already liked, curiosity got the best of me. Luckily, Ms. Clark – a native of Washington state who has been in Nashville since the ’90s, when she attended Belmont and signed her first publishing deal – proved willing to entertain a few questions.
When I think of states known for producing great country songwriters, Washington isn’t necessarily the first one that springs to mind. And yet here you are. How’d this happen?
Country music was the staple of my growing up, and so when I started playing and singing and later writing, country music was the kind of music that I wanted to make. Washington state would probably produce more great country songwriters if it wasn’t so far away from Nashville, Tennessee. I was lucky enough to have parents that encouraged me to go where the kind of music that I wanted to be a part of was going on.
After 15 years of working and writing in Nashville, you’ve just had your first #1 with “Better Dig Two.” “Mama’s Broken Heart” is climbing. The release of your own debut album is on the horizon. There’s a lot of stuff happening all at once, after what must have seemed like a long stretch of waiting for something to happen. What kept you plugging away through leaner times?
The things that have kept me plugging away are a love of making music and an unwillingness to give up. Also, I was very driven to get better – write better songs, become a better singer and guitar player. That really has taken up so much of my time that I never have had much time to think about giving up on it. Once my mind is set on something, I’m gonna do it, especially if it’s something I love as much as country music. Music is who I am, not so much what I do, and there is no way I could have given up on myself.
You’ve had quite a bit of writing success with Shane McAnally, even aside from the two songs out right now. What makes that partnership work so well? What do each of you bring to the table?
Shane and I work so well for many reasons. We grew up listening and loving the same music. We see the world very similarly and are both drawn to complicated characters. That is probably the foundation of why we work so well together. Also, even though we have a lot of similarities, we are different enough to really complement each other. Shane really has the best commercial instincts of anyone I’ve ever worked with. Left to my own devices, I’m not commercial at all, so he helps pull me in that direction a little more.
I’ve noticed a trend of songwriters with some mainstream success putting out albums that are, themselves, almost too real to have a chance at cracking the charts – too country, too adult, too whatever else. So real people are out there drinking, having complicated adult relationships, relying on pills and illicit substances to make their day-to-day lives tolerable – all things you’re singing about – while listening to songs about how cool it was to party in a truckbed when they were 16.
What’s your take on that disconnect?
I really don’t know where the disconnect happens, but I know what you’re talking about. I think that maybe the powers that be are afraid that songs about the ‘real’ things that are going on might be too much for moms driving their kids to school and make them turn the station to a little easier listening. Also, the thought is that adults don’t buy music the way kids do and so we should cater to the teenage demographic.
I wish that I had a better answer for this one, but I really don’t know. I’m just giving my opinion.
I find that people do wanna hear about the ‘too adult’ and ‘too real’ topics, whether it’s on during drive time or not. There isn’t a night that I play out that I don’t get approached by people who tell me that I’m singing their life. It might not be exactly what they are living, but the feeling and the sentiment is the same. What I see at shows is a connection to the audience because I’m so honest about life in my songs. No sugar-coating it at all. People gravitate to what is real. I always get approached after I sing “Get High” and people will say “I don’t smoke dope but I have to have my two glasses of wine every night” or “I’m not one for illegal drugs but my escape is food.” We’ve all got our vices. They just might have different names.
In listening to your music, my mind keeps drifting back to the ’90s, when women like Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood were regularly putting out whole albums from a consistent, intelligent adult female perspective, versus the ‘let’s try a little of everything and see what sticks’ approach more common today. Do you see this album as something of a throwback in that way?
Wow, thank you for that comparison. The music made by the female artists in the ’90s is some of my favorite and definitely among my BIGGEST influences. I didn’t set out for this to be a throwback to that time, but if it is, that would be why.
We approached this record with the thought of a character, a perspective. We didn’t want to do a record with two or three singles and the rest be filler. We wanted to create a project, a complete body of work.
I’m very proud of it.
Bonus question: Ten favorite songwriters, living or dead.
Willie Nelson, Gretchen Peters, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Dean Dillon, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Carole King, Elton John, Kris Kristofferson.
The full album referred to above should be out later this year. For now, three tracks are available as an excellent Brandy Clark EP at Amazon.