Don’t Write Off This Songwriter
Nashville — The same way they tune out the coffee shop’s ambient hiss-and-clang, the espresso-sippers at Crema leaf through Sunday’s Nashville Tennessean, failing to notice the woman on the front page is sitting a few tables away. Maybe they’re too absorbed in the newspaper’s grim forecast: “Poor Brandy Clark should know this won’t work.”
In a rumpled hoodie and Converse sneakers, Clark doesn’t look defeated. But she does look a little tired. The 38-year-old songwriter has been balancing the hullabaloo that comes with her first nomination at last Wednesday’s CMA Awards and the roll-out of 12 Stories, a stunning debut album that’s thick with high-definition domestic drama and exurban despair.
The baffling riddle that surrounds it: Will anybody hear it?
Nashville’s confusion over how to market music this good speaks volumes to the country music’s glaring gender gap. Contrary to the testosteroney-rah-rah you hear on the radio, this year’s most compelling country albums have come from women — Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies, Gretchen Wilson and others.
Yet, the only woman currently gracing Billboard’s top 10 country singles chart is Miranda Lambert, and for singing a duet with Keith Urban no less. The only woman up for entertainer of the year at Wednesday’s CMA Awards — where Clark is nominated for song of the year, having co-written Lambert’s Mama’s Broken Heart — is Taylor Swift. (George Strait won entertainer of the year and the song I Drive Your Truck took top song.)
“My audience is the moms that are driving their girls to see Taylor Swift,” Clark says. “That’s who I’m singing about and singing to.”
And after 15 years of hard labor on Music Row, Clark has complete faith that her songs will eventually reach those minivans.
“I think people want county music to be one of those big crayon boxes — not the little one you get in kindergarten with eight colors,” she says. “That’s the feeling I get. And maybe it’s because I’m not one of the eight colors.”
Pithy metaphor. No surprise, though. Throughout 12 Stories, Clark collapses the most unwieldy human dramas into tidy little phrases.
What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven is a ballad that narrates a split second — the moment when a woman must decide whether or not to step onto an elevator and continue her affair with the guy 10 floors up. Clark squeezes the entire breadth of the dilemma into 11 words: “What’ll keep me out of heaven will take me there tonight.”
Her other protagonists could have been plucked from the finest Sunday night cable TV dramas. Get High depicts a mom who copes by smoking weed when the kiddos are at school, while Take a Little Pill — a woozy tune that makes a strong case for tragic psychedelia — employs an entire cast of self-medicators. These are good people doing bad stuff in an attempt to make everything all right.
“I love complicated characters because everyone is a complicated character,” Clark says of her talent for penning lyrics that read like good fiction. “My life is pretty boring. But Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno. And he sang about it like he did.”
Clark first learned to tell stories by listening at the dinner table. “My grandma and her siblings — there are not better storytellers that have walked this earth,” she says. “They taught me one thing: Do not let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
She was raised in a trailer in Morton, Wash., a two-supermarket logging town where the music of Garth Brooks and Nirvana fought for supremacy in the halls of the high school where Clark played shooting guard on the basketball team.
She moved to Nashville in the late ’90s and earned a degree in music business from Belmont University after being rejected by the school’s music program — twice. So she doubled her efforts and has written between 40 and 90 songs each year for the past 12 years.
Her career finally started to lift off the ground in 2010 when Reba McEntire recorded two of her songs, including The Day She Got Divorced, a tune that also appears on 12 Stories, and was co-penned with Clark’s pal, Shane McAnally.
Like McAnally, Clark is openly gay, but says her sexuality has no bearing on her approach. “I don’t write songs for straight people or gay people or black people or white people,” she says. “I write songs for people. I want them to put themselves in these songs. I would feel that way if I was straight.”
For now, she’s reaching those people through the praise of critics who are lining up to crown 12 Stories the year’s best album — in any genre. Her in-town boosters include Leslie Fram, senior vice president of music strategy for CMT, who pushed Clark’s video for Stripes onto American television screens earlier this year.
“Core country music fans want to hear a little bit of everything and they appreciate great storytelling, which is what Brandy Clark is all about,” Fram says. “I definitely feel that she’s going to be a very important artist, not just for the country format, but for music in general.”
“Artist” is the important word, there. Clark knows how to write songs. But she’s never written them for herself. Every cut on 12 Stories — which was recorded two years ago and was finally released last month on independent Slate Creek Records after the majors didn’t bite — was originally written with another voice in mind.
“There’s something to writing a song that you think is compelling enough that Miranda Lambert would choose it out of the thousands of songs she’s been pitched,” Clark says. “When you only have to please yourself, you lose a little bit.”
Later that night, she’s backstage at a cavernous warehouse-turned-nightclub on the opposite side of town, preparing to sing at an industry party hosted by Sugarland belter Jennifer Nettles. Clark jokes around with friends, takes the tiniest nano-sip of Jack Daniels and chases it with lots of hot tea.
Out in the crowd, everything feels very insidery. Exposed filament light bulbs dangle from exposed ceiling beams. The air is thick with premium catering. Industry types mingle with actors from forgettable television shows, making everything feel like a scene out of a forgettable television show.
Clark’s mother is in this crowd, too. And when her daughter finally appears onstage to sing Hold My Hand — a song about asking your lover to do exactly that when an ex strolls past — she beams brightly enough to make the stage lights jealous.
But many in this chit-chatty audience blah-blah-blah straight through it, their noses stuck in their phones.
Clark doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t know how to make the world listen. But she knows everything about patience.