“Art isn’t easy,” Stephen Sondheim opined, but some artists can make it look that way.
Over the past few years, Nashville-based songwriter Brandy Clark has written a slew of wildly popular songs that defy conventional wisdom of what makes a hit country tune. They have emerged out of what seems to be an effortless assembly line, but Clark’s work is far more than commercial product. Like many Nashville songwriters, Clark often works with collaborators, yet the songs she contributes to always bear the mark of a true auteur, with lyrics that are smart bombs — maybe too smart — of description and narrative detail. “Gotta take a risk, if you want a story. There’s a real fine line between content and boring,” Clark has written, and she definitely practices what she preaches. Her songs are simultaneously harrowing, cynical, uplifting and just plain funny.
Clark’s new album, “Big Day In a Small Town” is the big budget go-for-the-charts follow-up to her sublime first album, 2013’s “12 Stories.” That first record languished in the vaults for a year, becoming a samizdat hand-out from the Nashville elite who loved it, but thought it might be too smart for the room.
Since the release and critical acclaim of “12 Stories,” Clark has continually made that room a bigger, more literate place. She has written hits for country queens like Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert and fellow traveler Kacey Musgraves, as well as provided CMA fodder for mainstreamers like Keith Urban and The Band Perry. With her new album, Clark is poised to take on the big boys and girls on her own musical terms. But despite her stellar track record, Clark has said that she writes not for the Taylor Swifts of the country world, but for the single moms scraping together the money to take their kids to a Swift concert.
As a performer, Clark may be the best interpreter of her own material, but what goes on behind the closed doors of her personal hit factory is what we talked about at 8.30 a.m. Nashville time. Like the pro she is, Brandy turned up right on time, before heading to the office for another productive day. We talked about her creative process, her musical partners, and two relevant Stephens, King and Sondheim. The interview has been condensed for length.
I’ve rarely seen anyone who’s collaborated so effortlessly with so many people and produced a body of work that has such a distinctive voice.
Well, that’s such a nice compliment, ’cause I’ve never really felt like I was a great collaborator. I’m always in awe of people that I work with that I think really are great collaborators. So that’s really a huge compliment. But Nashville is a collaborative town. I went through a lot of years where I wrote all by myself, and I think that that helped some because I know what I can do all alone. Years ago, a publisher said to me that when you are writing by yourself, you’re throwing a ball against the wall, and you know how hard it’s gonna come back at you. But when you collaborate, you’re throwing the ball with someone else. So you don’t know exactly how it’s gonna bounce back.
Who do you like to play with?
Two of my best collaborators are Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon. I think part of why that works is that not only do they like what I bring to the table, but I like what they bring to the table. And sometimes, when you’re writing songs every day, your role changes. You can’t always be the lead dog in the room. When the songs are on my record, I was probably the lead dog, or it wouldn’t sound like me. But there’s a lot of other songs that I’ve written, that have been recorded by other people, where maybe I was the cheerleader in the room that day. ’Cause sometimes that’s what you need, is getting in the room with somebody who is on fire and just coax it out of ’em. That’s just as important as being the lead dog, I think.
You mentioned bringing stuff to the table. What do you feel you bring to the process?
I think my biggest gift is storytelling. Somebody might say we’re all strong for storytelling, but I think my gift is to tell a really good story. I had a publisher early on that told me that my strength was neither melody or lyric. They felt my true gift was empathy. That I could tell a story in an empathetic way, where someone else might try to tell that story where it might come across as judgmental.
There is a real novelistic quality to your work. When I describe you to civilians, I tell them Brandy Clark is a reincarnated Raymond Carver who happens to be writing top-ten country songs. There are just so many precise, descriptive details that pop out from your songs....
That’s what I mean by storytelling being my gift. You’re not the first one to use the Raymond Carver reference!
Well, there you go. Obviously, the danger here is listening to pompous critics like me and getting all self-conscious, where you start thinking about what you’re doing. Does that ever worry you, that if you overthink the process the magic will vanish?
Oh, 100 percent. That’s something I worry about a lot. I’m not gonna say that I don’t read reviews, or what people say about me, because that would be a lie. But I try to just read it and forget it. When things started to happen for me as a songwriter, I used to try to write songs that would impress other songwriters. And that’s what a lot of people do. Because we’re in this business where we’re all working together, and we’re all trying to get cuts and trying to matter. But when things started to happen for me is when I quit trying to write songs for other songwriters, and when I started trying to write songs for people who weren’t songwriters. I would often times swing by this bank on the way to my writing appointments to make deposits or get money. And I would think about the girl who was the bank teller. And I would think; ”If she wrote a song, I wonder what it would be about?” And that’s when my songs started to make a difference.
Oddly, I think of your work as the musical doppleganger of Stephen King, another very popular writer whose work is full of blue-collar realism. I’m a huge King fan....
Me too! Sorry to interrupt, but I think of his book “On Writing” almost every day when I’m writing songs. He’s one of my favorite writers. And I’ve studied his writing. He said something in that book that I think about a lot. And I try to bring that into songwriting. Do you remember the part about where he talked about bringing two things together, so, once you’ve written about them, you can’t think about one without thinking about the other? He might have used the example of “Cujo.” I’m not sure. But anyway, you can’t think about a Saint Bernard now without thinking about rabies. And I think that is what a good lyric and melody does. Now, nobody can say, “I beg your pardon,” and not think about that song, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden....”
In “On Writing” King also says one of the prerequisites for becoming a competent writer is to read all the time. If you read constantly, you’re learning something, even subliminally, every time you read a book. Are there any writers outside the Country songwriter pantheon that get your mojo working?
Well, Stephen King, for sure. The thing I love about him is when I read his stuff is that, with words, somebody can scare me so bad that I can’t make it from my bed to the bathroom without turning all the lights on. And I love writers that do that to me. And he’s so great at describing a scene. And then describing it again and again and again, and you never get bored with it. He’s one of the “go to’s” when I need some inspiration, when I feel like I don’t have an idea, because his language sparks an idea for me.
What about songwriters?
Dolly Parton. Every fall, I listen to Dolly ’cause it just puts me in a “fall” mood. I want to hear her then, and her songwriting definitely inspires me. Strangely, most of the things that really do inspire me aren’t when I’m looking for ideas. It’s usually not songs. Dolly is the only writer I think of that, when I listen to her, other song ideas will come to me. It’s usually a novelist. Rick Bragg, who wrote “Ava’s Man” and “The Prince of Frog Town.” He can really inspire me. Biographies will also do it for me. I’m always reading somebody’s biography and some kind of fiction.
Another writer that comes to mind when I think of your work is believe it or not, Stephen Sondheim. He’s another incredibly precise, detail-oriented, strategic songwriter.
Yeah, he’s great.
Besides sharing a creative gift, you, Shane and Sondheim are also gay. Does that add to a more “outside, looking in” perspective?
You mean like us being gay, looking at and talking about it like heterosexual relationships?
Yes. Or bringing a slightly refined kind of focus to that creative table...
Maybe so. But for me, I grew up where pretty much everything about me was “All American.” I didn’t grow up with money, you know, charmed, but I had a really nice family, and was loved, and was good at things. Good at sports, and good at being smart. The only thing that made me feel like an outsider was when I got a little older. And I discovered that I was gay. So, maybe there is some of that. I’ve never thought about it. I’ve thought about when I write about relationships, I don’t think of homosexual relationships as any different than heterosexual relationships in the complexities of them. When I write, some people have asked me, Wow, how do you write about "What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven" — which was a song on my first record — how do you write about that, being gay? How do you write about this man and this woman that are about to have an affair? My answer is, well, it’s the same thing. The feelings are the same. At least, I think they are. I only know what I feel, but I think human feelings are all pretty much the same.
Let’s take a song like “Three Kids No Husband," which is my current favorite song of the year. How did that get written? What came from where?
It’s interesting that you would bring that song up, because that one truly shows off the beauty of collaboration. I wrote it with Lori McKenna. She and I were set up to write in a Nashville songwriting appointment. Publishers get together and they set writers up, and you meet at a in an office at a certain time. And so I walked in that day and Lori suggested we sit down and maybe have some coffee and catch up a little bit. And then, we started talking about ideas and Lori said, “I have an idea and it came from I was watching you on YouTube last night. You were talking about another song of yours that you wrote that’s about a woman who has five kids and no husband.” That was a song from my first record, “Pray to Jesus” which was about a woman I’ve known my whole life. And she does have five kids and no husband. And Lori said that in itself would be a great song. But then she said, "I think that five kids is a little extreme,” which is funny, because Lori has five kids. But then she said, “maybe, three kids and no husband.” And I instantly loved the idea. And we just started writing it. We never really said, “Hey, I know this person who’s in this situation.” We both just knew people who were. I think we all know somebody like that. I think that’s part of why that song resonates.
I’m looking at a title like “Drunk in Heels” or some of your other one-liners that seem to arrive perfectly at their respective destinations. Are there lines that can provide the inspiration for a song?
Every day is different. Those two songs in particular, I can tell you exactly where the ideas came from. You know, “Drunk in Heels,” I’ve always loved that quote about that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did except she did it backwards, in heels. I was just looking at that, and I thought “drunken heel.” For women, if we get drunk, we do it in heels. I didn’t really know what to do with that, but I shared it with Jennifer Nettles, and said you know, I love that title, “Drunk on Heels.” She marinated on it, and then, came to me on fire about an about an idea on how to start it.
What about “The Girl Next Door?”
That was literally something that Jessie Jo said. She called me, and was talking about this guy that she was dating at the time. And, Jessie’s a bit of a wild child, in all the best ways. And when they started dating, he really loved that about her, until he didn’t, and wanted her to be a little more demure. As she was telling me all this, I said, “Jessie, how does that make you feel?” And she said, “I just wanna say, Brother, if you want the girl next door, then go next door.” And that just sounded like a song to me. And I said, “Jessie, that is a song, and we have to write it.”
And the biggest hurdle was figuring out how I was gonna get Jessie, me and Shane together. How do I get the two of us out of this other project, so we can write this song with Jessie, because, if we don’t, she’s gonna write it with someone else. That’s how urgent that idea was to me. And how good I thought it was. There’s no way Jessie’s gonna sit on this for 48 hours. So, both those songs came about very differently, but ended up in the same sort of place.
Arlo Guthrie had a great quote, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. “Songwriting is like fishing. You cast the line and see what you can come up with.” And, Arlo added, “I don’t think anyone fishing downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught much of anything.”
Does that describe this process? It’s tough to discuss the ephemeral, but you’ve obviously given so much thought to craft.
Somebody said to me a long time ago about songwriting being God-given, but you had to get up and meet God halfway. I think there’s some truth to that. Harlan Howard is a songwriter that I have looked up to my whole life. His songs were part of what made me want to be be a writer. Harlan said, “I didn’t write the best songs of anybody I knew. I just wrote more of ’em.” And I think that there’s some truth in that. I think that you have to write a lot of bad songs to get to the good ones. The people who are commercially the most successful are usually writing the most songs. At some point, it’s a numbers game. I think for me, not every day is gonna be a day where you’re gonna have a great idea.
It’s practice. I think that every day when I’m writing. And when the great idea comes down the pike, that’s the game. But if you haven’t been going to practice, you’re not gonna play well in the game.
I never stop writing. Lately, it’s been tougher for me because I’ve been on the road so much. But in all that, I’m always writing. Maybe not sitting down and able to hammer it out, but I’m always looking for ideas. I think that for anybody who’s a true songwriter, there’s no turning it off. Every conversation. You’re not purposely looking for songs, but it’s just in you to hear songs in what people say. And I think that is a huge part of the craft. I don’t always study other songwriters but what they do moves me. I really listened to their songs and looked at their songs. I used to do it a lot more than I do now. Maybe I should do it again. What makes them hits? I think that there’s something in all of that.
Outside the Country tradition, are there any songs that you say, “Boy, I wish I had written that?”
Definitely. Carole King. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” That’s one of my favorite songs of all time. This is a strange thing. I love songs that are all about sex — without ever saying that. I think it’s brilliant. You know it never says making love. And I think it’s so vulnerable. I try to write songs that are vulnerable. Will you still love me tomorrow? If we do this tonight, will you still love me tomorrow? I don’t know anything much more vulnerable. Outside of country, Elton John is probably my favorite artist. So many of his songs moved me for a different reason than “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” That’s really about the lyrics. Elton John’s songs move me melodically. I went and saw him and Billy Joel a couple years ago. And there’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and that part where it’s like ... [She tries to sing it, but —] It’s too early this morning, but I remember crying on that part. And thinking, that’s not even a lyric. But the melody says so much it moves me to tears.
I like a lot of those Linda Ronstadt songs. I don’t even know who wrote all of ’em but those hit me. You know, “Long Long Time” and “Love Is a Rose,” those sorts of songs. To me, they’re rock songs, but they’re really country songs.
Neil Young wrote “Love Is a Rose.”
Did he really?
Yeah. One of the ones he gave away.
I didn’t know that. The Eagles. I think Don Henley’s one of the best — not only with the Eagles but in his solo career. I think Henley’s one of the best songwriters of our time, of any time. Those songs are a great balance to me as American melodies.
What’s interesting here is the artists you’re connecting also happen to be hugely popular artists. But then, I come back to your particular gift of detailing, that kind of literary quality. This is why I can’t understand why “12 Stories” couldn’t get released for so long. You must have spent a lot of time staring at your beer saying, I know this is brilliant, what gives, why don’t people recognize it? Why do you think it took so long for mainstream Nashville to “get it?”
I think all the artists that I’ve talked to you about were huge, but they’re also from another time. And, I think that songs like “Hotel California” are very literary. I think we live in a fast-food society now. And if those sorts of songs were being written today they’d have a harder time finding a home. If that makes any sense.
And I’m not comparing myself to those artists. I wanna make real sure that I don’t come across as doing that. They just inspire me, as does Dolly Parton. I think there are things about Dolly’s music that would have a hard time finding a home today. Merle Haggard. I think Dolly and Merle are two of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. I put them up there with James Taylor and Carole King — but they just happen to be Country.
As far as me having a hard time finding a home in Nashville, I think sometimes songs that are a more detailed and literary have a harder time. It was an L.A. guy who signed me. It wasn’t that people in Nashville didn’t like what I did. I definitely felt like they did. I just think they didn’t know what to do with it. I got told that a lot. Like, “Oh I love this, or “Man this is my daughter’s favorite record.” I don’t know what to do with it. That’s all I know how to say.
From the sublime to the maybe ridiculous, tell me about your “Hee Haw” musical. That sounds completely intriguing.
Now, it’s called “Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical.” And it’s still in development. That was the project we were working on when I told Shane we needed to take a day off and write “Girl Next Door.” He and I were approached based on “Pray to Jesus,” to work on that musical along with a guy named Robert Horn, who wrote the book. It opened in Dallas last summer. Shane and I are kinda taking a break from it right now because the changes everybody feels are necessary are story changes. And so we can’t make any changes to songs until we know what the story changes are gonna be! But it’s taught me a lot. It’s taught me that I can write for a project. I never thought I could do that. That always scared me a little bit to write like, "Oh, now I’m gonna write this record. And this is what it’s gonna be about.” I’ve always shied away from doing that. But after working on “Moonshine” I learned that I could do that, because the producers would come in and say “Hey, we need a different first act closing number.” Shane and I would sit down and do that. He and I live in a world where we have to tell a whole story in just three minutes. But in that world you need to tell little bits of the story and be real careful to not give away too much too soon. But I learned a lot. I was pushed to do things that I never thought I could do.