By her own reckoning, Nashville maverick Brandy Clark has composed and/or co-penned more than a thousand songs. Easily. And she has a simple method for doing the math. “I’ve [been writing] professionally now for over a decade, and I write over 100 songs a year most years,” she notes. “But I feel like I have a sweet spot that’s not quite 100 songs—it’s just a little under that.” Some are chart-topping winners, like the vengeance-themed “Better Dig Two” for The Band Perry and “Mama’s Broken Heart” for Miranda Lambert (recently nominated for a CMA Award as Song of the Year), and Kacey Musgraves’ buoyant new hit “Follow Your Arrow,” with its controversial chorus “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into/When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight/Roll up a joint, or don’t/Just follow your arrow wherever it points.”
“But most of ‘em aren’t winners—I mean, 90 percent of ‘em aren’t,” sighs Clark, who finally got around to assembling a dozen sardonic, O. Henry-ish originals for her own debut disc, 12 Stories, newly released—not on some glittering Music Row major—but on the Dallas-based indie Slate Creek Records. “But for me, it’s just about keeping in the practice of it, because the 90 percent of songs you write that never see the light of day, you’re writing so that when you do write that 10 percent that are great, you’re fully ready for that idea. And I think 95 percent of a great song is a great idea, so it always kills me when I hear a great idea that’s not very well written. So unless I’m doing something for my record or doing a gig? I’m writing every day.”
Clark pauses to have the first sip of her morning coffee. She craves coffee, is positively addicted, she says. She’s constantly searching for newer, darker blends, both in bean form and K-cups for her Keurig brewer. “I love a good, strong coffee,” she says after savoring another sip. “And I don’t think I could write without it. It helps me do everything now, from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. I start drinking it when I get up, and I drink it all through my writing appointments. Most writers do, actually. It’s a big deal—you get there and get your coffee, sit and talk for a while, and then start working.”
And yes, the singer adds, you heard that right—”writing appointments.” That’s how it’s done these days in Nashville, says the ex-high school basketball player from the logging town of Morton, Washington(“The day I stopped playing basketball I went and bought a guitar,” she recalls). And no, she says, it isn’t easy to schedule creativity. She used to catch the elusive songwriting spark late at night; Now she has to conjure it up by 10 a.m., on command, often with her longtime collaborator Shane McAnally (who, like Clark, is also openly gay). They bat ideas around the room like badminton birdies. “And then we’ll take off on one of ‘em, and over the next couple of hours, hopefully we’ll come up with something that’s better than good,” she says. “Hopefully.”
The renegade is nevertheless aw-shucks humble about her own talent, even though Musgraves usually doesn’t conduct an interview without stopping to sing Clark praises. “I should pay her to be my publicist—she has done so much for me and this project,” Clark says, genuinely touched. “I met her a couple of years ago through another co-writer, and then I hired her to sing a demo, and she just blew me away. And then her and Shane and I just decided to write, and with the three of us, something just really clicked. And the first song we wrote was “Get Out of My Yard,” which Gretchen Wilson recently cut. Kacey never shies away from the hot-button topics, and I love that—I love to just write songs about what I see and what’s really real, whether it’s pretty or not.”
After years of keeping their claws sheathed, Nashville kittens are working out on the scratching post again. The Goth-country anomaly Lindi Ortega happily trills about burying a fickle beau in the cornfield. The mountain-pure-voiced Ashley Monroe discusses the joys of marijuana and whiskey on her solo set, and even more ribald subjects with The Pistol Annies, her side group with Lambert and Angaleena Presley. But the rapier-witted, truly gallows-humored Clark is perhaps the edgiest of the bunch. 12 Stories opens with the gently loping “Pray to Jesus” and its sad small-town, fingers-crossed existence. “We pray to Jesus and we play the Lotto/ ‘Cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow/ Well, there ain’t no genie and there ain’t no bottle.” And she’s just getting started.
“Who’d have guessed that Aquanet/Could start a fire with a single cigarette/She wasn’t drunk, she wasn’t stoned/Just sick and tired of wondering if he was coming home,” Clark murmur-croons while blues harmonica wheezes on track two, “Crazy Women,” which unequivocally states in the chorus that “crazy women/ were made by crazy men.” The backwoods-rustic “Get High” also touts pot, with a bored housewife who simply relaxes at the kitchen with a joint. A military-marching “Hungover” brilliantly documents the dissolution of a marriage from the missus’ fed-up perspective, and the forlorn “Take A Little Pill” slams Prozac-numbed modern society with “If one won’t work then another one will/ If you got a little hurt you take a little pill.”
But Clark’s finest moment is the rockabilly-rollicking “Stripes,” wherein a cuckolded female protagonist catches her lover, mid-affair, points a gun, cocks the trigger, and then….has this chorus of second thoughts: “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color/And if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearing one or the other/There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion/The only thing saving your life is I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.” “There’s a lot of repression on the album,” Clark says. “So it’s all kind of a fantasy—not all the songs, but “Stripes” is definitely a fantasy, like ‘Well, I’d do this, but I’m too smart to. Too smart to lose my head’.”
Clark never even planned on tracking her own album. But the management team of Fitzgerald/Hartley suggested it after hearing her demos and insisted she concentrate on her raciest material. Recently, an unnamed male country artist listened to “Stripes” and blindsided Clark with an unusual observation. “He said ‘You know, you’re so lucky, because a guy could never get away with saying something like that! A guy could never even joke about wanting to shoot a woman.’ And I was like ‘Wow! That’s so true!’ As women, we have an advantage in that we can paint from a broader palette.
“And I write hokey songs, too,” she hastily adds, not wanting to be pigeonholed as simply risqué. “And ones like that always tiptoe on that line—they could be corny really easily, but I think the truth in them is what keeps them from being that. And you know, the truth is really funny and really sad, all at the same time. So everything for me starts with at least a grain of truth….”