By Jon Blistein
For two years, Brandy Clark’s solo debut sat, finished, on the shelf, itching for a release. It was a battle to get the record out, the country singer-songwriter tells Radio.com, before quickly reneging her militaristic phrasing with something of a self-aware curl in her voice, to settle instead on “long road.”
Tedious as that time gap might have been, Clark spent it co-penning songs for artists like LeAnn Rimes, Gretchen Wilson, Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, Kacey Musgraves, The Band Perry and Miranda Lambert. She scored her first top five hits this year with the latter two, Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” peaking at No. 2 on the country charts and the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” reaching No. 1, a stunning paean to the “’til death” part of marital vows that briefly broke Florida Georgia Line’s babes-in-Chevys stronghold on the top spot.
Her debut, 12 Stories–released earlier this week via the small Slate Creek label–now caps off a banner, breakout year for Clark, though the pressure of smashing solo success hardly weighs heavy on her.
“I just want that record to be heard, and my goal in life is to make music I’m proud of, that makes a lasting mark,” Clark says. “I’ve always wanted to write a classic song, a modern [Patsy Cline’s] ‘Crazy,’ so whether that happens for me as an artist on my own or as a songwriter, I’m going to be pretty thrilled.”
Clark’s position between fledging solo artist and hitmaker for others isn’t necessarily something new in Nashville, but she’s navigating that unique space from a brutally honest, left-of-center perspective as contemporary country music grapples with not just its past, but more significantly various visions of the future.
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While the traditionalists and mostly male new school (as of 10/23, the Top 10s of the Hot Country and Country Airplay charts featured just one woman a piece: Cassadee Pope in the former for “Wasting All These Tears,” and Lambert in the latter for “We Were Us,” her duet with Keith Urban) dispute the merits of incorporating Top 40 pop and hip-hop into country songs about trucks and the things that make those Southern gals so darn sweet, Clark and her circle of songwriters — Shane McAnally, Josh Osbourne, Jessie Jo Dillon, Trevor Rosen, Matt Ramsey, Mark Stephen Jones, Matt Jenkins, and more – plus artists like Lambert and her group Pistol Annies, have carved a path strewn with contemporary tales of stuck townies, pill-popping housewives and spurned lovers that harkens back to the lonesome ranchers, cowboy junkies and, well, spurned lovers of yore.
Kacey Musgraves became something of the de facto face of this shift earlier this year. Her superb Same Trailer Different Park often tackled those super no-fun subjects with a savvy, openness and empathy distinct to 2013. The record debuted atop the Country Albums Chart and at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, behind Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience. Musgraves recently tied Taylor Swift for the most CMA nods this year with six, and just a few weeks back “Follow Your Arrow,” which she co-wrote with Clark and McAnally, was released as a single. A shimmering fan favorite, feel-good sing along strung with indelible, limber lyrics and melodies, its chorus extolls the virtues of rolling up a joint, making lots of noise and kissing lots of boys or, perhaps most worrisome to the Nashville brass, kissing lots of girls, If that’s something you’re into.
“When great songs get to be heard, it helps all songwriters,” Clark says. “It helps songwriters that don’t even know they’re songwriters yet. I was luckily influenced by great songs, and that’s why I wanted to write great songs…I think it’s a really exciting time, and my hat’s off to someone especially like Kacey who has the guts to put something out that is less a spinner, to just say, ‘This is me and this is the song I believe in.'”
Clark, who is openly gay (as is McAnally, her frequent writing partner), speaks of country’s current identity crisis not in terms of challenging paradigms or social norms, but rather simply in terms of great songs.
Born and raised about two hours south of Seattle in the small logging community of Morton, Washington, Clark was weaned on an eclectic musical diet that included everything from Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac. But it was the Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn biopics Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner’s Daughter that inspired the nine-year-old to pick up a guitar and pen her first heartbreak ballads. “I don’t remember the title of it,” she says of her first song, “but I remember it being about things I knew nothing about at the time.”
Decades later, Clark still turns to movies and TV shows for inspiration — 12 Stories opener “Pray to Jesus” owes its existence to a Weeds one-liner — but more so, her alto’s become like a projector. She sings glassy and cool enough to seem removed, an apparatus almost, but exhales the end of her lines in a warm, hushed twang that softens the gravest details, which set on you the way your skin folds and creases in front of Dorothea Lange’s migrant mothers.
Beyond film, TV and books, Clark’s strongest source material for her characters turns out to be former friends or acquaintances, or, as is often the case, they’re composites of several people she’s met throughout her life. The bored, stoned housewife in “Get High” was about a girl she went to high school with; and she says she, McAnally and co-writer Mark Sanders all knew different versions of the woman going through the motions in “The Day She Got Divorced.” That can be a fragile, tricky line to walk, but Clark mentions that she often has people tell her, with pride, that they think a song like “Get High” is about them. Even when it’s not.
“I have a friend who always says, ‘When in doubt tell the truth,'” Clark says. “So if I’m writing a song about someone I know, a character that I really know, and I’m worried about painting them in a negative light, I just try to paint them in the truest light. No one’s ever offended by that, strangely. I think people like to have their truths told.”
Clark and producer Dave Brainer toyed with making 12 Stories a concept record, one that either chronicled a couple’s relationship, or traced a day in the life of one woman. They ended up scratching the idea, but the notion’s influence is apparent in the record’s run. The songs are strung together almost like posts in a forum, a thread of online confessionals. That kind of naked honesty may garner thousands of lonely late night–and anonymous–clicks on Reddit, but attracting a wide commercial audience is a different story. Slate Creek founder Jim Burnett was blunt when he spoke of the outrageous economics and politicking necessary for a big radio push, but both he and Clark sensed that, behind the strength of Clark’s songwriting success, if they let the music speak for itself, it would be heard.
“It was more about getting her music out there for people who would like to hear it,” Burnett says. “I think Brandy would tell you a lot of these songs that she’s written speak to people, but a lot of mainstream artists wouldn’t do them. She really thought it gave a voice to some people, and a lot of these songs relate to a bunch of different types of people.”
The size of Clark’s audience, or even Musgrave’s for that matter, may pale in comparison to those of 2013 behemoths Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, to say nothing of country’s current overlord Taylor Swift; but the notion that a generation raised partly by the web to over share, open themselves up to – as Lambert sweetly, if not a tad cornily, sang recently – all kinds of kinds, and might seek out music that reflects those themes ain’t farfetched at all.
Clark sprinkled her favorite chord change, a I to a minor or major II, throughout 12 Stories. The classic country turn is there on “The Day She Got Divorced,” anchoring “Illegitimate Children” and “Stripes” and most beautifully, ushering in the chorus on emotional centerpiece “Hungover.” The one step jump tends to portend as much as it peers valiantly ahead — the perfect sonic accompaniment for Clark’s stories, and a rather apt analogue for the changes she and her circle of songwriters have instilled in contemporary country. “I’m really curious to see what happens with the next one,” Burnett says of a 12 Stories follow-up, which he and Clark have already chatted briefly about. “I think country is opening up a bit, and it does that doesn’t it? Country radio kinda goes in cycles, and I think there’s a need for some new stuff.”
And it is quite likely that that new stuff will continue to come from Clark and her writing circle, many of whom helped craft 12 Stories twelve tracks. They’ve built a strong foundation and rapport over the past few years and their 2013 output undeniably caught Nashville’s ear, setting the stage for a potentially groundbreaking 2014. Fears that the biz may corrupt or change their style are certainly warranted, especially in a genre so traditionally, well, traditional; but there’s something telling in the way Clark discusses her pratfalls whenever she tries to write specifically for someone else’s voice, or tries to pull a hit out of her hat.
“I tried to write songs for Miranda Lambert and I’ve tried to write songs for Band Perry, and those aren’t the ones they end up recording. My best luck is to just get in the room and try to write the best song that I can write that day.” She adds, “The best songs that I’ve written are when I’m really entertaining myself, but it never helps for me to think, ‘I’m gonna write a hit song.’ And I’ve tried that a lot – I’ll probably try that today!”