No one was going to outwork Brandy Clark. As a young person, up into the collegiate years, that meant no one was going to out-hustle Clark on the hardwood basketball court. A shooting guard, she had deep range. She was a skilled long-distance bomber before that became en vogue thanks to the likes of Sue Bird and Steph Curry. Clark learned an ethic for hard work at an early age. Both of her parents were hard workers, her father especially. He was an endurance athlete and the push to keep going, to keep up the effort of any kind was prized.
Clark internalized it, dribbling and shooting a Spalding. And kept it when her efforts took a left turn into the world of music and songwriting. Now, a longtime resident of Music City in Nashville, Clark’s star is rising. She is heralded as one of the greatest at her craft and she keeps getting better. As evidenced by her 2020 LP, Your Life is a Record, and its 2021 deluxe release, which has earned Clark her latest Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Performance for her bonus track duet with Brandi Carlile, “Same Devil.”
“As of today, it’s my most personal record,” Clark tells American Songwriter.
Oftentimes musicians experience their biggest break when they let go. There are countless recent examples, including Fantastic Negrito, Keb’ Mo’, and Aly & AJ. Clark, too. The genesis of Your Life is a Record and its subsequent deluxe release a year later began with heartbreak of two kinds and a choice to wallow or move on. Clark had been in a relationship for fifteen years and suddenly that was over. Also, she’d come to a professional realization that her work might not be fit for traditional country radio. Prior to her 2002 LP, none of her solo releases were sticking to the airwaves, despite the attempts of a number of high-up execs.
“My heart really got broken,” Clark says. “Growing up, I got my music on country radio.”
Clark’s family didn’t have cable television in her rural Pacific Northwest home. She had the traditional rabbit ears, but more than anything on the screen, she remembers her family’s records and hearing music on the radio. When she realized she may not succeed on the radio, despite over a decade as a professional songwriter for herself and others in Nashville, Clark let go of that dream. Okay, she wouldn’t be a radio star. But, she thought, where could she fit in as a solo artist with a new solo life?
“Thankfully, I had great management,” she says. “I’ve always been able to be creative. No one put handcuffs on me but me. But for some reason, I gave myself more freedom creatively on this record than I had in the past.”
In that way, Clark was no longer making music for anyone but herself. She looked inward, not towards the FM dial. She didn’t look for the work that she thought might succeed in other atmospheres. Instead, she made what she wanted. That’s what this album is, she says, from the very first downbeat. As a result, when Clark looks down the road at writing and releasing a new LP in 2022, she knows it’s more freedom, not less, that will help her succeed. One such example of a thoughtful, personal, and empowering track on the latest LP is the song, “Can We Be Strangers,” which says, in an era of connectedness, can we just act like we never met?
“That is probably my favorite vocal I’ve ever recorded,” Clark says. “I love that song. I love the idea—when you’ve run the course with somebody, it’s like, ‘Can we just not know each other again?’ I think everybody has felt that way.”
On the deluxe reissue, Clark’s duet with Carlile, “Same Devil,” is equally nuanced, deliberate, and lovely. The two weave voices like timeless strands. Also included are tracks with former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, songs that were recorded but never had a home prior to the 2021 unveiling. And while the past two years in COVID-19 pandemic seclusion have been bad, there have been a few silver linings. One of which was Clark working with Carlile—over Zoom. It was something that couldn’t have happened if touring and the regular rigors of an album cycle had ensued.
“Working with Brandi,” Clark says, “was the first time I worked with a producer whose first instrument was their voice. She pulled things out of me vocally that I really love. It was great for me to work with her—she lets it alone pretty quickly. She’s very instinct-driven.”
For Clark, who began playing guitar at nine years old (in between basketball practices), she found inspiration first in movies like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Sweet Dreams and then in songwriters like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. Around 12, her interest in music majorly increased. She played piano and sang in a musical production. She took lessons as she got older. All the while her basketball career began to take off thanks to the hard work she put in. But eventually, her talent in the game could only take her so far, despite her hard work. So, she turned to music full-time. The now-46-year-old Clark moved to Nashville in 1998 after her family took her from the Northwest down south.
“I just immersed myself in songwriting,” she says. “Doing writers’ nights, open mics. I wanted to get better. I quickly knew when I moved to Nashville that my songs were not of the highest caliber. But it became my goal to get there.”
She studied great writers. She worked. She sought critique. After five years, she got a publishing deal. And over a decade later, she had her first hit. Clark says she’s appreciative that it took some time to really breakthrough. But she did because she never let up.
“Two days ago,” Clark says, “I just started working out with a new trainer. And he said, ‘You’ve got that athlete mentality. I have to be careful not to hurt you because I know you’re not going to say, “That’s enough.”’”
And all that work has paid off. First, Clark learned the meaning of dedication at the feet of her parents and then found the fruits of that labor as a young athlete. She’s since taken those lessons to the studio and earned sincere, massive praise as a result. Music gave her the outlet she needed when maybe no other thing could. In that way, what she owes the art form is what she puts back into it. And while it took a sense of letting go to get her here. There is ultimately no real quit in Clark. And she’s made a name and an audience for herself as a result.
“I love how it makes us all less alone,” Clark says. “You can feel very alone in an emotion. And then you hear a song and you think, ‘Okay, I’m not the only person who feels that way.’”