On a beautiful mid-Spring day in Nashville, I had the chance to catch up with the brilliant singer-songwriter Brandy Clark. Hailed over the past three years for her 2013 disc 12 Stories, I couldn’t help but start with what seemed like an obvious question – What does it feel like to be Brandy Clark? I say that because not since Lee Ann Womack broke through in the mid-90s has a female solo artist conjured up more rave reviews from not just the critics – but her fellow artists as well.
“I’m not going to lie. It feels pretty good,” she admits when asked about the glowing praise of her work. “I have been so lifted up by the press and other artists. Eric Church, Jennifer Nettles, Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves, and Sheryl Crow. It feels good.” She tells #CMChat there is a flip side, however. “At the same time, there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with it. You don’t want to disappoint those people.”
Needless to say, it’s a safe bet that few are going to be disappointed with her follow-up to her debut disc. Big Day In A Small Town hits stores on June 10, and fans will be glad to know that her penchant for telling stories is as potent as ever. Clark worked with Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) on the disc, and said there are a few differences between it and 12 Stories, but she thinks her audience is going to be pleased. She recalls how her latest musical union came about.
“Dan McCarroll, who is the guy who signed me (to Warner Burbank – who picked up the rights to the debut disc) is such a fearless music guy, he suggested that for this record I should think of working with Jay. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but I wasn’t sure. It’s always scary, and my worry going in was that I loved 12 Stories so much, it was like my first-born. I knew that I couldn’t just try to go in and remake it – it would be like the little sibling who is not as good as the older one. So, I thought it needed to be a cousin – instead of a younger or twin sibling.”
Once she spoke with Joyce, the singer-songwriter knew she was on the right path. “When Jay and I sat down, he said to me ‘Here’s the thing. If we work together, we have to make your record. If we make my record, you’re still going to have to go perform it.’ I knew then that I felt real comfortable and safe with him. He’s a genius, and I’ve worked with two of them, including Dave Brainard on the first one. Jay is without ego. He’s in service to the artist and the song, and whenever something would feel too far to me, I would tell him, and he would pull it back. There was never an argument about anything between us…It was scary at first, the whole ‘getting to know you process,’ but it made me grow and stretch. There are some songs that pushed me a little more, and that wasn’t on purpose, it just happened to be the songs that I wrote. I feel like Jay knew how to wrap all that around me.”
The disc kicks off with “Soap Opera,” which Clark says is not exactly what you think it’s going to be musically. “That was one that I had written, and my manager was going through my catalog. She emailed me, and said ‘Man, I love this song. You ought to think about this for the album.’ Then, Jay came out to see a show, and we did it. He said that ‘one song we have to do is that ‘Ain’t We All The Stars.’’ It didn’t hit me, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then, he sang it, and I knew. He and I agreed that it would be a good idea to start the album with it because it’s just the vocals up front. He came up with that little intro thing, which we now do live. I love how you think it’s going to be one thing, and boom! You’re right into it. To me, that bass line feels real old school country, and the subject matter is.”
A track that many will identify with is the story-filled title song, of which she says, “The idea came from a friend of mine who lived in Nashville, but had moved back to her hometown in Oklahoma to be a teacher. One day on Facebook, her post was ‘I washed my hair and went to town, now that’s a big day in a small town.’ It just made me think of the town where I’m from – all the things that happen that are big news. It doesn’t take much.”
Fans of the Billy Sherrill “Countrypolitan” sound will gravitate toward “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin.” She said it struck a chord with her, as well. “That’s my favorite vocal on the record. I just love that old-school country feel, but also that old-school country subject matter – where it just tells it like it is. To me, that song is a big daydream. Who has been married or in a long relationship who hasn’t thought ‘Man, if I were drinking, I would be drunk on my ass right now, because you are making me crazy.’ But, at the same time, you think ‘Man, I’m lucky to have you, and glad I’m not doing those things.’”
On the other end of the spectrum is the salty “Daughter,” which she says is quickly becoming a fan favorite. “We just started doing that one. The first time we did it, I was playing at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles – just me and a guitar player. The first time that we did it, when I said ‘Karma is a bitch. I hope you have a daughter,’ the crowd just went crazy. Of course, that’s one setting where you have their full attention. We started doing it full band, and it’s the same way. That song is the gift that keeps on giving. I feel fortunate that we have that one on the record, because it never falls flat.”
Clark’s songwriting is flying high these days. On the day of our conversation, Jennifer Nettles released her new solo disc, Playing With Fire, which contained seven songs that Clark co-wrote with Nettles. She says the two made for a great combination. “It was really easy. She and I were on tour together, so we have a friendship. When I first met her, I thought she was such a big star. I hadn’t met a lot of big stars at that point, so I was in awe. Her husband had mentioned that she and I should write together sometime. We were in Boston, and Lori McKenna and I were going to write at the House of Blues. I said ‘No pressure, but Lori and I are about to write, and if you wanted to join us, it would be awesome. So, we ended up writing ‘Salvation Works.’ Then, we just started writing some more. We would tell each other ideas, and one of us would let it marinate, and come back with ‘What about this.’ It was just an easy collaboration. Her manager told me that I had seven songs on the record, and I said ‘No way.’ I didn’t think we wrote that many, but it was so easy. Little by little, in such a short time, we had a great body of work.”
You can pre-order Brandy Clark’s new album Big Day In A Small Town at iTunes.