Metro Weekly

Brandy Clark, out and proud country star, celebrates her most personal record yet

The Grammy-nominated artist on coming out, creating music, and her latest album "Your Life Is A Record"

Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark — Photo by Chris Phelps

“I’m one-hundred percent a lesbian,” says Brandy Clark. “There’s no gray area. There’s no man that’s going to come out and say, ‘Well Brandy Clark had a sexual relationship with me in my twenties.’ Nope. Wasn’t going on.”

Clark is unabashedly open about her sexuality in a musical genre not previously known for its warm and welcoming stance toward the LGBTQ community. Yet society is in the midst of an ongoing sea change, and country music — both its artists and fans — are getting swept up in the wave of acceptance. Take, for instance, the recent acclaim for LGBTQ artist Waylon Payne’s first new album in fifteen years, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me. Or the enthusiastic response to country superstar TJ Osborne’s recent announcement that he’s gay.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that those members who are out are blessed with talents that can’t be denied, that reach beyond those of mere mortals. And one of those is Clark.

“Thank you for sharing with me [the] wonderful talent of the songs that you write,” Reba McEntire gushed to Clark at the end of a 30-minute video chat in June. Over the years, McEntire has recorded a handful of songs penned by Clark, from 2010’s “The Day She Got Divorced” to 2019’s “Tammy Wynette Kind of Pain.”

Shortly after the pandemic hit, McEntire was a featured guest in an episode of Clark’s video series “You Can’t Come Over (But You Can Come In)” during which Clark held conversations with some of the biggest names and most revered figures in country and folk music, including Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Clark launched the free YouTube series as a way to stay connected to her peers and her fans during a time when she had been planning an extensive tour to promote Your Life Is A Record, released exactly one year ago. Clark also spent the first year of the pandemic reaching out to her fellow artists and collaborators, new and old, in an effort to make the most of a horrible time that upended nearly everything. Near the top of that list is a fellow revered lesbian in the music industry with a coincidentally similar name: Brandi Carlile.

“That’s something that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the quarantine. Because I would have been on the road, I’m sure she would have been on the road,” Clark says. “I reached out to her to see if she’d want to do a couple of songs and she said, ‘Sure.'” Using Zoom, Clark and her band recorded from their base in Nashville with Carlile chiming in and handling production duties from her home recording studio in Washington state. “I’m really happy with how they turned out, especially ‘Same Devil,'” Clark says. “She added all these spooky vocals and she called it Granny’s attic piano. I hope to do more with her.”

In a lengthy Variety article from last September about the artists’ collaboration, Carlile affirmed that the feeling is mutual. “We did it and I was like, ‘Oh God, this worked really well. We really need to do this again.’ I’d love it if she gave me a shot at a whole album.” For good measure, Carlile also heaped praise on Your Life Is A Record, calling the powerful breakup album “just excellent. It’s her best work, and it’s absolutely brilliant…. She’s a legend. She’s a fabulous country writer and a fabulous country singer.”

To mark the one-year anniversary of its release, Warner Bros. has issued coming out, adding a handful of bonus tracks, including the Carlile contributions “Same Devil” and “Like Mine,” the new song “Remember Me Beautiful,” and a version of “The Past Is The Past” produced by and featuring Lindsey Buckingham.

While a proper tour with in-person concerts remains on hold until late summer or fall, Clark has opted to appease fans with a special ticketed live stream event this Saturday, March 6. “I said to the band, ‘We’re going to make this a live rehearsal. We’re dressed like we’re doing a show, but if we screw up, we’re going to just start over and let them see a little bit behind the curtains of what we would have been doing to get ready for the tour.”

Clark’s focus will then shift to this year’s Grammys on Sunday, March 14. Your Life Is A Record has been nominated for Best Country Album, while its first single “Who You Thought I Was” will compete for Best Country Solo Performance. Clark is up against at least two former collaborators: Miranda Lambert, whose repertoire includes the Clark-penned 2013 CMA Song of the Year nominee “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and Vince Gill, who contributed backing vocals to Clark’s 2013 debut 12 Stories.

“I’ve never won,” Clark says, noting that this year marks her seventh and eighth Grammy nominations. “Everybody always thinks I have, which is nice. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll win one, one of these days. Maybe this year, who knows?”

METRO WEEKLY: What was life like before you found country music stardom?

BRANDY CLARK: I grew up in Morton, Washington, which is a small, little logging community. My dad was a logger and my mom always worked in the timber industry. Grew up there and I started playing guitar around nine. I loved music as a kid, but was more into sports and school — at one point, I wanted to be the greatest women’s college basketball player ever. I didn’t have the talent for that.

When I got out of high school, the music bug bit me really hard and it didn’t take me long to know I wanted to move to Nashville. I ended up doing that when I was 21 and finished college at Belmont University — that was really important to me, to finish college. I started working my way through figuring out how to write songs and all of that, and ended up getting a publishing deal and wrote songs professionally for many years — the whole time wanting to have my own artist career.

Around the time I turned 30, I felt like that ship had probably sailed. I just didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to be an artist on any major level. Then came the opportunity to make 12 Stories on an independent label, Slate Creek. That [2013] record had all kinds of critical acclaim and was nominated for two Grammys. Warner Brothers’ Dan McCarroll heard it and ended up signing me and buying out my deal from Slate Creek. Then Big Day in a Small Town was my first time working with producer Jay Joyce. We took a run at country radio and ended up with a Top 40 song out of it — “Girl Next Door”. I wish it would have been a Top 10, but you can’t control much. That record also ended up being a Grammy-nominated album.

After that I really did some soul-searching, because I was disappointed in the lack of support at country radio. I had to really take a look at the art I was creating and realized I don’t know that what I do is going to ever fit in that lane. Every record I’ve made has been the record I wanted to make at the time, but this time, I thought, I’m just going to take any handcuffs off that I have put on myself and make a record that is representative of me right now.

I learned a lot in the process of making Your Life Is A Record. I learned how to be a better singer. Jay challenged me to not sing so hard: “Let that microphone do its job.” Specifically on the song “Love is a Fire,” he said, “It needs to be sexy, and singing really hard isn’t sexy. Make me feel like you’re whispering it in my ear.”

MW: Just to be clear, moving to Nashville was with the goal of becoming a country star, and not just a songwriter?

CLARK: Yes, one-hundred percent I wanted to be a country singer. When I saw the movies Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner’s Daughter, I wanted to be Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. But that meant writing songs to me, too. That was always a big important part of it. And once I started writing songs, that really became the driver for me.

Eventually, people I noticed that were having success as artists, they weren’t consumed with songwriting the way I was. I started to think, “Maybe I’m just meant to be a songwriter.” My focus shifted. I still had that dream, though. I think for a while I convinced myself, “I don’t really want to do that anyway.” When the opportunity to make a record happened, I was starting to get a lot of cuts as a songwriter for other artists. It was crazy how even though I had all of that happening, I quickly, in the snap of a finger, was dreaming that old dream and seeing myself as the artist. Thank God that happened, because I had a lot in me to say that needed to be me saying it.

brandy clark
Brandy Clark — Photo by Chris Phelps

MW: Even so, you didn’t stop writing for other artists. Fortunately not, given some of what you produced around the same time as your own career took off — “Follow Your Arrow” helped put Kacey Musgraves on gays’ radar, for instance. Did you ever consider keeping that one for yourself?

CLARK: No. I mean I could have, but that really was written for Kacey. When I do get asked to sing it, I always think, “Man, this is a tough one for me. It’s more in her vocal range.”

I still write with other artists. I just had a couple of songs on Lindsay Ell’s latest record and Ashley McBride’s latest record, and when I write with them I definitely feel like I’m writing for them. I never feel like, “I wish I had that song.” It’s where it’s supposed to be. Same way with Kacey: the songs I wrote with Kacey, from before they were conceived, they were for her. I’m not one of those artists that has a bunch of regrets — I hear other artists say, “I wish I wouldn’t have let so-and-so record that song because I wanted it for myself.” I don’t feel that way. I feel like my songs end up where they’re supposed to.

When I think about it, a lot of the songs on 12 Stories were songs that I was frustrated other people hadn’t cut, that I knew the world needed to hear. Now I think more about, “What do I want the world to hear from me?” and “What do I want to say?” more than just, “I think the world needs to hear this song.”

MW: That shift is also reflected in your videos. In particular, some of your older videos, including “Girl Next Door,” portray you in relation to a male lover or suitor.

CLARK: If I do another video that’s about two characters and I’m playing the lead in it, the love interest will be a woman. It won’t be a man, I can tell you that. When I look back on those things I think, “Why didn’t I fight for that?” Maybe I could have made a different choice sooner? I don’t know. But those choices were never, “Ew, I don’t want people to know I’m gay,” they were never made for that reason.

I was very deliberate this time in not having a male lead. The two videos that we’ve done for this go around — other than “Bigger Boat,” which was an animated video with myself and Randy [Newman] — “Who You Thought I Was” and “Love Is A Fire,” the decision, between myself and my manager, was to really make the focus be me because I haven’t done that so much in the past. I’ve definitely taken on the storyteller role. This is the first album that I’m on the cover versus a piece of art. My manager and label said, “People need to know it’s you as the artist. You need to step out and let people associate you visually with you sonically.” I’m really glad that I did that, but that was a tough decision for me.

You know what part of that is? I do feel more attached to these songs and this record than I have with past albums and songs.

Brandy Clark’s Your Life Is A Record

MW: They’re more directly personal. No more so than on “Who You Thought I Was,” which starts off as a kind of lighthearted reminiscence about you wanting to grow up to be a cowboy and Elvis, then switching to the heart of the matter in the present. Was that a hard song to write?

CLARK: It wasn’t hard to write, but I will say when the idea came across for me, it was real emotional. I was at the Americana Awards and John Prine came out to introduce somebody else and there was no voice of God, he just walked out and everybody stood up and gave him a long standing ovation. When everybody sat down he said, “I’m John Prine, but I’d like to go back to being who you thought I was.” It really hit me because I was at that point in my life with what I was going through personally: “God, I’d like to be who she used to think I was.” The song itself was easy to write because it’s such a great idea and great ideas tend to be, in my experience, easier to write.

As soon as it was written, though, I felt like it was a guy song, and that tugged at me. About a week or two before I was going into the studio to make this record, I found the demo and I played it for my manager, saying, “Hey, I know this probably isn’t for me but I just feel there’s something that keeps pulling me to this song, so I want to play it for you to see what your response to it is.” She listened to it and said, “Oh, Brandy. You need to record this song. And you need to record it and not change anything. Don’t change ‘cowboy’ to ‘cowgirl’. Don’t change Elvis to some female artist. Just keep it exactly as it is. I know why you think it’s a male song, but the song is for you so just keep it exactly as you guys wrote it.” So we did.

MW: I had not even thought about “cowboy” versus “cowgirl” until you mentioned it actually. How interesting.

CLARK: Those were the things that I was thinking: “Man, I love it so much, I just don’t know that it works for a girl.” That’s how I was feeling. I’m really happy that I had that advice, “Don’t change anything,” because it wouldn’t have been as good if I had. But those were the sorts of things that were hanging me up in my own mind. I can overthink things — I’m a bad overthinker!

MW: Did your parents encourage you to pursue music?

CLARK: Yes. I had great parents and they just encouraged me to pursue whatever my dreams were. When I wanted to move to Nashville, to them that was a no-brainer: “You should do that.”

I’m really fortunate in that they always, always, always encouraged me. My mom is really musical so that helped. My mom had a lot to do with my musical development, all of it.

MW: Did you sing in choir or did you grow up singing in a group?

CLARK: I was in The Music Man as a little girl. And I took a few voice lessons after that, but then I got really into sports and drifted away from it. Towards the end of high school I started wanting to sing and play again and I would do that with my mom. After high school my mom and I formed a band with some friends, and we played a lot of fairs and festivals and talent shows.

Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark — Photo by Chris Phelps

MW: When did you come out as gay? And was that a struggle for you?

CLARK: It was definitely a struggle for me. The first person I came out to was my mom. She was amazing with it. I knew she would be. I didn’t have a worry there. It was a struggle for me because it just didn’t fit who I thought I was! [Laughs.] I was kind of a late bloomer in a lot of ways and really wasn’t into my sexuality until I was in my early 20s, and didn’t really, really come out until I was about 30. I had come out, like I said, to family, but not to the greater world.

I feel like you always have those friends — at least this is my journey, and what I find to be a lot of people’s journey — who know you’re gay, that you hang out with. But maybe at work you’re not out. And people who aren’t your close friends, you don’t share that with. That was definitely me for a lot of years. When I was about 30, I was like, “You know what? This is who I am. I like who I am. I’m not going to feel ashamed of it.”

MW: In the past you’ve said you haven’t faced outright prejudice or bias as an openly gay artist in country music. Is that still the case for you?

CLARK: I have never experienced anything homophobic directly to me. I don’t know what’s said about me behind my back. I remember being a little girl and my mom was a huge k.d. lang fan, and I always knew her as an out-of-the-closet lesbian in our house when we were listening to her music. So I had someone who had gone before me.

MW: What do you make of the recent coming out of TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne and the reaction he’s received?

CLARK: I think it’s amazing. First of all, I’m a big Brothers Osborne fan. John played on this record. There have been gay men in country before TJ too, but not like there have been women. It’s a lot of bravery for all of us, but what I love about him — TJ doesn’t fit the gay male stereotype to people who are not part of the gay and lesbian community. That’s really great because people need to see we come in all shapes and sizes and colors, just like they do. Not all straight men look like Tom Brady — some straight men look like Luke Combs. It’s really important that people see different representations.

I don’t know TJ well, but I know him. I’ve always really liked him. It wasn’t something that I picked up on right away. I don’t have the greatest gaydar.

As far as other artists and people in the industry, I think it’s been open arms. I’ve only seen love go towards him. I don’t think it will change things for them in a negative way at all. Now, I think some of that is because they’re a band. It would be really interesting to see how an openly gay solo male artist would be received.

I tend to think the best of people, and maybe that’s not always the smartest — I didn’t realize how much racism we still had in our country until last summer. It’s not something I have to face every day, so that’s probably why I was naïve to it. That was an eye-opener for me and I just thought, “Man I can’t believe that there’s this much hate.” I would be naïve to say that there’s not that same contingent of hate towards us.

Since I’ve always been open and out, I don’t think I have a lot of fans who are homophobic because they always knew I was gay. With my last record, we worked [really hard] at country radio and even though it didn’t get the results that I would have loved to have seen, I never felt it wasn’t getting traction because of my sexuality.

I’d love to say, “Oh, they’re not playing me because I’m a lesbian,” but they also don’t play Kacey Musgraves. They don’t play many females at all.

MW: So at root, the issue is really sexism.

CLARK: Oh yes, completely. All you have to do is just look at a chart and see the disparity there. Vince Gill got a lot of flack because somebody asked him about artists of color being on country radio and he said, “I don’t think it’s much different than what women have faced.” And that really got some hate towards him. But I would agree with what he said. He’s right.

I actually would like to hug his neck for saying it because it’s how I have felt. Yeah, women can’t get a break. If they play one woman they’re not going to play another woman. If they play one man they’ll play six of them. This problem didn’t begin with me and Kacey Musgraves, this has been going on a good long time.

Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark — Photo by Thomas Crabtree

MW: Earlier, you mentioned The Music Man. Did that spark any interest in musicals for you? Would you like to write a musical, or explore that aspect of music writing?

CLARK: Funny you should ask. I’ve been writing a musical with Shane McAnally and Robert Horn, who actually won a Tony for Tootsie in 2019. The three of us have been working on a musical for eight years. We opened it in Dallas in 2015. Got mixed reviews, didn’t go to Broadway from there. Since then, we’ve changed producers and everything. The only thing that’s still there from that production is myself, Shane, Robert, and two actors. Everybody else is new — new choreographer, new director, new music director, all of that. We are looking at opening the show this summer somewhere and then hopefully going to Broadway, probably 2022. We’re still working on it.

MW: What’s the name of the musical and what’s it about?

CLARK: It’s called Shucked, and it’s a country music musical about a town where nobody’s ever really left and never let anybody new come in, and the town is run by corn — and the corn is dying. They have to figure out how to save the corn.

MW: Was that your idea? How did this come to be?

CLARK: It was not. Originally I was approached about it because The Opry owns the rights to Hee Haw and they were wanting to musicalize Hee Haw for Broadway, that’s what Shane and I first interviewed for and were chosen to do. Along the way that changed and I almost hesitated to even add that part because it’s so not that anymore. There’s really almost nothing from what we originally had.

MW: Overall, has it been a good experience? Enough to pique your interest in possibly writing more?

CLARK: I would. I love musical theater. I’ve had opportunities to do other shows, I just haven’t done them because of time. I now know the commitment that you have to put into a Broadway show. It’s not a year process, it’s decades. I’m actually interested in musicalizing some of my music. I’d love to take 12 Stories and turn that into a musical.

MW: One of the things I gathered from your video chat series is that you’re an avid book reader. You must take a lot of notes and get a lot of song and lyrical ideas from all that reading.

CLARK: I sure do. I wasn’t a kid who loved to read. I look back and say, “Man, I wish I would have been that bookworm of a kid.” I wasn’t that. It wasn’t until I chose songwriting as a profession that I really became a reader. Somebody said to me, “You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader, for the most part.” So reading became an assignment to me. I would take a day a week, sometimes I’d go to the library and just read and look at titles, and I started to get ideas that turned into really great songs from that. So it became part of my discipline.

Then it became something I enjoyed. It’s like a workout. When you haven’t been working out in a while, you have to make yourself go to the gym, but then when you start doing it and you miss it, you’re like, “Oh my body doesn’t feel right, and my head definitely doesn’t feel right.” That’s how reading is for me now. It’s not just about getting ideas, although I almost always do get ideas when I read — even if they’re not directly something I see on the page. I just think immersing myself in someone else’s story and someone else’s use of language opens me up to ideas. Reading has become probably my favorite pastime.

MW: Can you give us an example of something you read that turned into something you wrote?

CLARK: “Pawn Shop” came from Stephen King’s Rose Madder. There’s a guy in a pawn shop and he says, “I have the job of telling people that what they have is not what they think it is.” That really hit me like, “Oh there’s a song in that.”

MW: What inspired “Long Walk?”

CLARK: I was on Twitter one night, and a fan was saying something really negative about another female artist’s weight, and it really pissed me off. I don’t usually get involved with trolls, but every once in a while one of them will suck me in like that. I tweeted at the guy, “Hey, take a long walk off a short pier.” That’s something my mom says. As soon as I tweeted it, I thought, “Oh my God I just tweeted out a great song idea, I better write that down.”

Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark — Photo by Thomas Crabtree

MW: Your newest song is “Remember Me Beautiful,” a tender ballad that’s perfectly attuned to a time when we’ve all lost someone we knew to COVID. How did it come to be?

CLARK: Right before Christmas, I was writing on Zoom with The Love Junkies, which is Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, and Hillary Lindsey. I had stayed up the night before looking for ideas. I wanted to really throw something at them that would blow them away. When I got on the Zoom, it was just Lori and me to begin with, and Lori said, “I’ve been up since two. My aunt passed away last night and I had to go tell my dad this morning.” Then Liz and Hillary got on, and Liz had just lost her mom not that long ago, so we started talking about all of that and I had an idea — that wasn’t the idea I was planning on throwing out to them. I had written down, “Remember me beautiful, remember me young.” It was about someone who had passed away, but that was all I had. We sat there and wrote that song through tears, all of us thinking about somebody we had lost.

The label is planning to [release it to] Americana radio in the next couple of weeks. My manager’s really excited about it. I said, “I don’t know, songs that are that sad sometimes struggle on radio because people don’t want to hear them again and again and again.” She said, “Usually I would agree with you, but we’re in such a different time with everything that’s happened. People are hurting and they want to hear something like that.”

MW: What are you most looking forward to in a post-pandemic world?

CLARK: There are so many things that, for the rest of my life, I’m not going to take for granted. I’m not going to take for granted getting to be out on the road performing, because I’ve always loved that part of this career, but there are still parts of it that you complain about. When the travel is hard, I don’t know that I’m going to complain about that anymore.

I’m really looking forward to being able to do some of those things that we do all the time and not be behind a mask — like go to Target and just walk around without a mask and feel safe. I’m looking forward to being able to see my mom, who I haven’t seen in over a year because of all of this. And being able to just get out and see and do with ease. I’ve actually flown a lot in all of this, and knock on wood and by the grace of God I have not gotten COVID. I’ve been really careful.

I’ll say this: I don’t know if I’ll fly again without a mask. Because planes have always been a source, for me, to get sick. In the past when I’ve flown, I would have gotten something. And so maybe the fact that I’m wearing a mask on a plane is a good idea.

MW: To your point, the number of cases of the flu reported this season by the CDC is barely a fraction of what it was last year, in large part because of routine mask-wearing. People may not want to wear masks routinely once the pandemic is over, but at least occasionally, in high-risk situations, it seems advisable.

CLARK: I think you’re right. I remember when I went to Japan and played a couple of shows in April 2019. Everywhere, everyone was masked. I remember asking a friend, “Why are they always wearing masks over here? Are they wearing the masks because they’re sick or they’re afraid somebody else is sick?” Well, now I don’t think it matters: just wear the mask!

Brandy Clark’s “Your Life Is Still A Record: 1 Year Anniversary Virtual Concert” is Saturday, March 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, or $95, which includes a pre-show virtual Meet & Greet and autographed lithograph. Visit https://boxoffice.mandolin.com.

For more on Brandy Clark, visit www.brandyclarkmusic.com.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.

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