The 7 Songs and “Crazy” Desires of Brandy Clark

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What a time to release a record, especially one titled Your Life is a Record. But of course, Brandy Clark had no way of knowing the release date for her long-awaited third album would fall right after tornadoes devastated Nashville, where she lives, and just as a disastrous pandemic would send the world into quarantine. Still, the six-time Grammy nominee was able to squeeze in several February appearances with Tanya Tucker on the CMT Next Women of Country tour before live performances — and live everything — screeched to a halt.

That tour title is a bit of a misnomer in her case anyway; Clark has been a “woman of country” for many years, though several of them were spent behind the scenes, penning hits and memorable tracks for Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow,” “Late to the Party”), Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), Sheryl Crow (“Homecoming Queen” and their duet, “Girl Next Door”), Jennifer Nettles (“Drunk in Heels”), the Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”), LeAnn Rimes (“Crazy Women”) and many others; Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Gretchen Wilson, Darius Rucker, Keith Urban and George Strait are among top country talents who have recorded her songs, many cowritten with Shane McAnally.

Clark released her debut album, 12 Stories, in 2013 — and scored a rare five-star rating from the AllMusicGuide staff. Her first album for Warner Bros. Records, 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town, grabbed 4½ stars, another feat — one she just equaled with the March 6 release of Your Life is a Record. The latter two were helmed by hot Nashville producer Jay Joyce (Lambert, Little Big Town, Eric Church), whom she credits with steering her in a direction she never expected to go. The result is an album that eloquently captures moments of heartbreak and happiness, and even gets cute with “Bigger Boat,” on which she and Randy Newman ham it up. At press time, the album had reached No. 2 on the Americana Music Association chart.

In a review of her AmericanaFest-closing show last September, this publication noted, “Clark’s songs sound like hits — but they also sound like heartfelt expressions of emotions she understands and experiences she’s lived, which makes them great songs in any genre.” 

Clark may not be a “new” woman of country, but she’s part of a wave of strong women who speak their minds, and deliver their thoughts in songs alternately clever and touching, sung with passionate, well-nuanced voices. Though she can’t sing them in person right now, like legions of other artists, Clark is delivering virtual performances; she’s scheduled a weekly live series titled “You Can’t Come Over (But You Can Come In),” Wednesdays at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST, featuring some of her favorite women of country as guests. She’s also inviting fans to join her as she kicks off Brandy’s Book Club, a live-on-Instagram virtual gathering of book fans, tonight (Monday, March 23) at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST. The book is Untamed, by Glennon Doyle.

In the following Q&A, Clark goes in depth about her own work.

American Songwriter: It’s been four years between albums. Was that intentional?

Brandy Clark: It was intentional. I mean, I didn’t know it was gonna be four years, but I needed some time after my last record. And I also needed, not only the right songs, but to figure out where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do. And there were a lot of changes at the label. I’m signed to Warner out in L.A. and there was a complete regime change out there. And just a few people that worked with me before were out there, and so there was that, and just … the right songs being written at the right time. And then Jay Joyce, who made my last record, he also made this record, and he took a little time off. And I’m glad that I got him in the season I got him. I hope I don’t have four yeas between this album and my next, but this time, I just needed that time.  

AS: How did you hook up with Jay? When we think of Nashville producers, Dave Cobb and Jay Joyce immediately come to mind.

BC: [Former Warner Bros. Records president] Dan McCarroll, who signed me with Warner, wanted me to go in and work with Jay. And Jay was a dream for me. He’s made some of my favorite records and continues to. … I don’t think it’s ever a given that you’re gonna work with Jay again, because he’s gonna only work on the things that inspire him. So it’s a little bit of a challenge to me. Like, “Oh, I wanna write things that Jay would wanna work on.” So when he and I sat down, I wasn’t sure. You’re never sure. I’m always afraid my best songs are far behind me. And he said, “Man, you’ve really grown as a writer. I can tell you’ve worked hard.” And that really started to make me feel good. And he and I worked on the last record and it was very different from this one and we were both very proud of it, but didn’t want to do the same thing again. 

I always thought it would be fun to challenge Jay to cut all acoustic, because he’s known for a more electric, heavier sound. So I did that and he was real excited by it. I didn’t know how he would feel about it. So that’s where we started; we started with a group of songs and there was gonna be four of us that cut ’em. And then, as time went on and we were in the studio — it was myself, him, Jedd Hughes and Giles Reaves — he said to me, “How do we make this different from every other acoustic singer-songwriter record?” And by then … I said, “Hey, we don’t have to be hard and fast. We can add a few electric instruments.” And we ended up doin’ that. But he asked me what we could do different. I said what about strings? He wasn’t real excited about that idea, and then he called me that night and said, “What about the Memphis strings and horns section?” And I mean, I never thought of myself as somebody that would do anything with horns. He said listen to I am Shelby Lynne and Dusty in Memphis.

AS: Good references!

BC: Yeah, great records. And he had worked on I am Shelby Lynne, and he said, “You’re a lot closer to that kind of singer than you think you are, and I think that these kinds of songs and your kind of voice would lend itself to some of that.” So we sent a couple songs down to them and they sent ’em back with their interpretation of what to do with those songs, and we were blown away, and just ended up gettin’ the budget to do the whole record with ’em. 

AS: That’s the mark of a great producer to recognize that sort of thing. He’s right, obviously. I saw you do the Americana conference-ending show at 3rd & Lindsley in September and I was struck by the fact that you have this ability to distill complex insights into very relatable lyrics, with that perfect combination of humor and regret. And assertiveness, in some ways. And I’m wondering, does that come naturally to you? 

BC: Well, I think what comes natural to me is storytelling. And to tell a story in a way that will keep attention, because I come from a family of great storytellers. My grandma and her siblings were great storytellers. And I love a great story myself. I’m also very drawn to complex characters, and complex emotions. I love that you used the word distill. I want to tell that complicated story as simply as I can. 

AS: You said that he said you’ve really grown as a writer, yet you started out writing hits for some of the biggest artists in country and Americana. And you also said that you’re always worried that your greatest song is behind you, which is such a common thing for all songwriters. How is it that you would have felt that you weren’t there yet, and that he felt that there was evolution, and how did you achieve that? 

BC: Well, I think maybe the evolution, to him, was that these songs are a little more personal. I’ve always, amongst a lot of story songs, I’ve always written personal songs, but this time around, those were the songs that really rose up. And I don’t think Jay had heard a lot of that from me. Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever written many songs that were from the first-person point of view, and that were about heart-hurt things, you know. I mean, Jay called this a breakup record. And I did go through a breakup of a long relationship a year before I went in the studio. So all of that was coming out. I didn’t even know that until he pointed it out to me, but I think that was some of what he was talkin’ about with the evolution.

AS: Is it also because previously you were writing songs for other people, or were you always writing songs and they went where they went?  

BC: I was always writing songs and they went where they went. And I still do that. The only time I’ll specifically write for other people is if I’m writing for another artist. When I’m writing for myself, I can’t think that way, because if I do, I’ll get too on the nose and too in my own way. Because I always go back to, like, Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno. As an artist, I almost have to get into this character inside my head to write. And If I think it’s me, then it’s not as good. So I have to just write the best song in the room that day. And sometimes I do it by putting myself — like, if I’ve been watching a TV show, and I’ll think, “Oh, what would that character say?” Because it’s interesting to me, and as a songwriter, you write so many songs that you have to come up with little tricks to inspire yourself, and that’s one of ’em for me. And so, no, I’ve never thought of, “Oh, I’m writing this for others and this is for me.” Unless the other is in the room and saying, “Hey, I really wanna write with you and this is the story I wanna tell.” Then I can help someone else do that. But on most days, I’m just writin’ a song. 

AS: During that 3rd & Lindsley show, you said something to the effect that “there are seven kinds of songs we keep rewriting.” You still stick to that? What were they again? 

BC: I do. I mean, I don’t know if it’s seven, but I know I always say that, because I tell that story a lot. To me, there’s the love song, and the love-gone-wrong song, and the song about your hometown, and the song about your mom and dad. There’s oftentimes a song about death; there’s the revenge song, and then I guess the seventh song would be the “I Hope You Dance,” the “Humble and Kind,” like that sort of song.

AS: Like the hope song? Or wish song?

BC: Yeah. And like, the wisdom song. A wish is a good [description]; there’s a Rascal Flatts song, “My Wish.” “I Hope You Dance” is my favorite of that kind of song. But “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” … those kinds of songs. And I do, I think that we just keep rewriting those songs, and sometimes there’ll be a turn of phrase that’s new, or maybe hasn’t occurred in a while and it feels fresh. But yeah, I think they’re just all out there, and we just keep redoin’ ’em. 

AS: How do you prevent yourself from — I don’t want to say self-plagiarizing, but when you write something, do you worry about, “Oh, this could sound like something else and how do I make sure it isn’t something else?” Do you go through that? 

BC: Oh, I’ve definitely gotten on top of other songs. And once I realize it, I just get off of it. And sometimes it means I scrap something I really like. But the last thing I wanna do is plagiarize myself or anyone else. I’m not a big fan of, like, “Ooh, let’s write a song like …” whatever. That’s one of the reasons I love Jay so much; he’s looking to create something that‘s not being created. And to me, that’s where the great songs lie. When something comes around that really hits us, and that the whole world takes notice of, or that people are still talkin’ about a hundred years from now — I mean, “Crazy,” which is my favorite song of all time, that’s an odd song. I’ve really never heard anything else like it. Trust me, I’ve tried to write it again and again and again and again. But it’s too good. 

AS: And [Willie Nelson] wrote that in the same week as two or three other indelible songs [“Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life”]. So you would say you aspire to write something as good as “Crazy”? 

BC: Oh yeah. That’s been my career mission, to write a classic. ’Cause I’ll tell ya, that’s one of the songs that made me fall in love with country music. And if I could be behind something that made some young girl who’s just pickin’ up a guitar fall in love country/Americana/roots music, I would feel pretty dang good. 

AS: Your career opened up not too long after you got out of Belmont College, right? You started writing back then? How did that evolve?

BC: I started writing at Belmont, but I was in Nashville for 15 years before I had a hit. But I got a publishing deal five years into living in town, and really learned a lot about the craft of songwriting, and how to do it professionally, every day. And, like everyone, I had a ton of rejection in those years — and I still have a ton of rejection. But for me, everything kind of happened at once. I had a lot of near-misses, and then right about the time I started to get a lot of songs recorded and have hits, I got the opportunity to make my first record. So I was of those 15-year overnight successes. But it all happened at once. And both parts of my career, the singing and the songwriting parts, have really given me a lot of joy in my life — and a lot of heartache. I’m sure if anybody’s honest, there are always things that you wish would have gone different, or songs you wrote that you wish were bigger, and records you loved that you wish had sold a million copies — I don’t know if anybody really sells a million copies anymore — but it’s been good.

AS: Do you feel part of that has been because of the way women in country have been treated on radio, etc.?

BC: Oh, sure. It’s hard, there’s no — I mean, I could sit here and say, “Oh, no.” But the facts are the facts. Women have a harder time of it. I always say, “The only time it pays to be a woman is on a sinking ship.” But I wouldn’t want to be a man; I love being a woman. And I don’t hate men. There just seems to be more slots for them. But I think, as women, we’re lucky because we have a different story to tell, and I feel responsible to try and tell that story. 

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