For an outsider looking in, it may appear that Brandy Clark has had somewhat of a quiet year. There has been no new album, but regardless, the songstress has been quietly plugging away behind the scenes and has earned herself two GRAMMY nominations at the 64th annual awards ceremony. In addition to this she has embraced zoom and made the most of her virtual writing appointments, making good progress on her musical that she’s been crafting for nine years with Shane McAnally. As she gears up to get back into the studio and fly to England next year for The Long Road, Clark shares with me the stories behind the music.
On the morning of November 23rd, the Recording Academy announced the nominees of the 64th annual GRAMMY awards. Musicians, managers and labels the world over were glued to the announcements but Brandy Clark, without a new album this year, was driving to her writing appointments, only slightly interested to see if any of her friends had made the list this year. “I remembered the night before the nominations came out, I was thinking, I wonder who’s going to get nominated? I had a meeting that morning and I was pulling into my writing appointment and my manager called me and said, ‘Same Devil’ had been nominated for a GRAMMY and I was just shocked, so I called my co-writers on that song Marla Cannon-Goodman and Hayley Whitters, Marla knew but Hayley didn’t, so she found out from us.”
Clark couldn’t quite believe it, “You’re always shocked but this is the most shocked I’ve ever been. Last Grammy cycle I had ‘Your Life Is A Record’ out. So I was hopeful that it would get nominated but this year, I didn’t have anything in cycle or so I didn’t think.” ‘Same Devil’ was released as one of the bonus tracks on the deluxe version of ‘Your Life Is A Record’ and features Brandi Carlile who also produced the track. Carlile is nominated for five GRAMMY’s this year including ‘Same Devil’. “That was one of the few blessings in the pandemic,” Clark begins, “I had really wanted that song to be on ‘Your Life is a Record’ but it just didn’t really fit with what the theme of that record ended up being. I remember vigilantly finishing that song with Marla and Hayley because I wanted to record it. I think once again everything happens for a reason because the label wanted a few more songs and I was going to go back in with Jay Joyce but he was in the middle of another project if I remember. So Tracy Gershon, who is a really good friend of mine and also works with Brandi Carlile, she said, What about Brandi?”
Carlile was keen to be involved and via the use of technology they made it work. “I was in Nashville, and Brandi was in her place in Washington State. She came in via zoom so it was myself and the guys that played on that record. We recorded the basic tracks, and then I sang that day and sent it to Brandi. She played that creepy piano, she called it grandma piano and sang and I’m so proud. I’m really happy that, that song, and that performance is being recognised, because I’m really proud of the performance and the production on that track. Brandi has a lot to do with that.”
‘Same Devil’ wasn’t the only GRAMMY nomination Clark received. Alicia Keyes and Brandi Carlile’s ‘Beautiful Noise’ co-written by Clark also received a nod. Clark picks up the story of how she found out, “I went into my writing appointment and whenever I’m writing, I try to be as focused as I can and not look at my phone. So it wasn’t until I got done writing that I found out about ‘Beautiful Noise’” Clark says. The Washington-native reflects upon the journey that song has been on. “A friend of mine, Allie, she runs Live Nation’s women’s nation division. I might remember some of this wrong, because it’s been a while, but I feel like it was like March of 2020. She called me and said they were going to do a concert that I think was also going to be televised. It was for women gaining the right to vote in the US, it was the 100 year anniversary. So she asked me if I could help write a song that would span all genres from Americana to country to pop, to R&B, so that felt like a really big assignment.”
Due to Coronavirus restrictions the only writing was taking place over zoom. “I was writing one day with Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Hayley Whitters. I said, I don’t know if you’d be into this, but I explained what the project was, I didn’t know what would happen with it, but I knew the song would get passed on to other people. It was almost like a relay, we would hand it off to someone else. So we wrote it that day, we ended up writing a full song, most of which is part of what you hear. I remember the next person to get involved was Ruby, she wrote a brilliant verse that is in the song and then Linda Perry and Brandi Carlile, got involved and not only wrote but also ended up working on the production. The next thing I know, Brandi had gotten Alicia Keys on board. By then the event that Allie was talking about had fallen apart because of COVID. So they did it for the Global Citizen concert that was televised, and Brandi and Alicia sung it. Alicia then put it on her album, so all of those women put their voice on it both as writers and artists. Now it’s nominated for a Grammy. I don’t think any of us expected that!”
Some artists struggled to adapt to writing and performing during the pandemic, having to use technology instead of meeting face to face. So much of country music relies on real life human interaction so it’s understandable that many struggled but for Clark, she made the most of it and found some positives. “What it’s done is, people that I didn’t have as much of a chance to write with, I have another opportunity to write with them now. Lori McKenna is a great example, she lives in Boston and when she comes to Nashville, she has a very limited time, a lot of times she’d come and I wouldn’t get to write with her. I’ve written with her more since the pandemic than I ever have because of zoom.”
A moment in time
As Clark returned from a tour of the US, both herself and Shane McAnally have been posting more on social media about the musical they have been working on together for the past nine years. When I spoke to Clark last time, around three years ago now, she spoke of their aspirations of Broadway. As the social activity has increased, I was keen to hear how close the pair were to achieving those dreams. “I think that you’re going to be seeing a lot about it in 2022,” Clark says with a knowing smile. “Somebody told me at the beginning, musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten. It’s very true. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with. I grew up loving musical theatre, so it’s really a bucket list sort of opportunity for me. I thought it’d be much later in my life before I got a chance to so I’m so happy that it came along when it did,” Clark enthuses.
“It’s a country music musical so that makes it really just perfect. It’s like this marriage of two worlds,” Clark continues. It reminds me very much of the conversation I had with Jennifer Nettles not long ago when she brought out her ‘Always Like New’ album which saw her fuse her passion for musical theatre and country. Clark and I agree the two genres have many similarities. “I think the biggest similarity is, it’s a storytelling genre. I really love that because my favourite part of songwriting is the storytelling. I like literal storytelling and that’s what you’re doing in a musical. I think the challenge, which I love, is you have to tell parts of the story. It’s like you have this opening number that’s sort of like a thesis statement, that’s what I think of it as. It’s like, this is what our world is, but then you’re wanting to introduce characters to your audience and tell bits and pieces of them, but you don’t want to tell too much.”
Clark draws similarities to the songs she’s released previously that perfectly capture a single moment in time, “Some of my favourite songs are songs that describe a split second, like, my song, ‘Hold My Hand’, that whole song takes place in the time it takes to reach out and grab somebody’s hand. I love that kind of song, where you spend three minutes talking about one action, and what goes into that action. So musical theatre does that a lot of times.”
The eagerness to introduce characters comes from her previous work. Clark’s characters in her songs are easy to empathise with and connect with due to the intricate detail she crafts into the story, you can see those people clearly in your mind. They are ordinary people, living ordinary lives with feelings that go beyond just falling in love. For example in ‘Three Kids No Husband’ she crafts an image of a single mum balancing family life and working life; ‘She lights a cigarette out on the balcony/When she gets a couple minutes to herself/There’s how you plan it out, and how it turns out to be/And a broken home, it ain’t no fairytale.’ Whilst in Pawn Shop she introduces us to two characters in different situations, the thing they have in common is this pawn shop. ‘She pushed her wedding ring across the counter/And said, “Tell me that it’s worth more than I think.”’ The song begins with a broken hearted lady, her forever after clearly not working out. Later we hear the story of a struggling musician with a family to feed, trying to sell his guitar. ‘The songs I sing don’t feed my kids and wife/There’s a few belt buckle scratches on the back/And the B-string tends to fall a little flat.’ It’s those little details at the end there that make the characters and the story so real and finding common ground between two completely separate characters will no doubt serve her well as she continues to create her musical.
Clark has seen her show change a number of times now over the nine years and songs she’s been fiercely proud of have been cut. “I mean, the number of songs that we have written for this show, we could have had six albums!” She laughs. “Some of my favourite songs that I’ve ever been a part of, not just for this musical, but just in life, are on the cutting room floor of this musical. We were joking about how we should make an album just of the songs that didn’t make the musical. There are ones that are really hard to let go of, there’s some that as they’ve been let go of, I’m like, Thank God, I just never felt good about that one. I hope by the time this show hits Broadway, every song is one that I just can’t wait to hear.”
Even after nine years, Clark, McAnally and book writer Robert Horn are still passionate about their project and have a clear goal that they’re aiming for, though sometimes the process can feel long and exhausting. “There are times, where we’ve probably all been like, what are we doing here for nine years? There’s times where we’re working on it really intensely, and then we’re not for a couple months, because we all have other projects and other lives. So having those partners helps, because we never all want to quit at the same time. It’s kind of like a marriage, they say the secret is never want to get divorced at the same time.” Clark laughs.
Though they can’t reveal too much about the title and story as yet, all three really care about it’s message. “The story of our musical is something I really care about, and the other people involved, I care about. I want us to all get it across the finish line, and not just get it across the finish line but get it across in a big way. I want this musical to run for years, I think about musicals that I have loved and how much they’ve affected who I am as a writer. I want this musical to be that for other people.”
Back to where it began
From her hotel in Connecticut, where she is working on her musical, Clark reflects on where her songwriting began, inspired by some of the genre’s greats! “There were two movies I saw as a young girl that really affected me and one was the movie ‘Sweet Dreams’ about Patsy Cline’s life and the other was a movie called ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ about Loretta Lynn. There’s a scene where Loretta is writing ‘Honky Tonk Girl’ while she’s working in the garden. That was the first time I realised that people wrote songs. Before that I just thought that songs just existed, that there were all these songs when the world was created and we were just using all these songs.” Both Cline and Lynn sung about hard working, every day people, which listeners connected with, not too dissimilar to Clark’s music.
“It was then I started trying to write songs. I tried to write songs like the songs in those movies and the first song I remember writing, I would call it ‘Pieces of Heart’. I just remember writing a little chorus, I’m sure it was to the tune of one of those songs that Loretta or Patsy had sang, but that’s the first time I remember trying to write songs.” Clark was pulled in a different direction through her school days, falling in love with sport and earning a Basketball scholarship at college. “Music was always in my life but when I was in school, I was really into sports. As soon as I got out at the end of high school, I actually saw the movie ‘Sweet Dreams’ again and it really pulled me back into music.”
Now the GRAMMY nominated songwriter is heading back to the writing room and to the studio as she works on her fourth studio album. “I don’t really know exactly where that album is going to go conceptually. So I’m excited to just dig in. I’ve written a song, I’ve written a lot of songs, but I’ve written a song recently that I really love. I love it as much as anything I’ve ever written, which that makes me feel really good. So I know I want to build around that, so I’m just figuring out how to do that.” After the success of ‘Your Life Is A Record’ and it’s subsequent deluxe release Clark will be keen to continue on the trajectory of her career.
2022 is going to be quite the year for Clark as the GRAMMY’s kick things off and she continues to create but in August she will make the trip over to the UK once more as she plays The Long Road Festival alongside the likes of Marty Stuart and Gretchen Peters. It is one of Clark’s favourite places to play. “I feel like I’ve come home. The UK feels like a hometown show to me. From the very first time I played there… I could get emotional talking about it. I feel like my music is so appreciated there in a way that every artist hopes their music will be, so I’m really excited to get back. To play the Long Road, that’s going to be pretty mind blowing, I’ve never played that festival. I think I’m playing the same day as Gretchen Peters, who’s one of my heroes, so I’m super excited about that!” Clark shares enthusiastically.
These latest GRAMMY nominations prove just what a captivating songwriter Brandy Clark is and here at Maverick we will certainly have our fingers crossed that she can pick up both of those awards like she deserves. With so much to look forward to from her in the new year with new music, the musical and of course those festival performances we’re sure these won’t be the last GRAMMY nods for Clark as she continues to capture those every day stories and emotions and share them all over the world.