A Conversation with Brandy Clark

On returning to the Northwest, working with Brandi Carlile and telling a good story

Music Features Brandy Clark
A Conversation with Brandy Clark

There are great raconteurs out there, folks who can keep you riveted to your seat with the most engaging tales, time after time. And then there’s country iconoclast Brandy Clark, for whom even the most casual conversation can balloon into a huge, O. Henry-sardonic story. As one of Music Row’s most in-demand composers, she’s written, or co-written, ironic classics like “Stripes,” from her 2013 debut 12 Stories, wherein a scorned lover, hell-bent for vengeance, has the fickle beau in her gunsights, but suddenly has fashion-related second thoughts and eases up on that trigger. “I hate stripes/ And orange ain’t my color,” the protagonist sighs, skipping a murder sentence for simple fashion sense. Another vengeance-minded track she co-scripted for The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two,” is built on the old grave-digging, you kill-someone-in-anger-you-kill-yourself-too adage, and “She Smoked in the House”—the whimsical centerpiece of her eponymous new fourth outing, ably produced by Brandi Carlile—sketches her own late grandmother by listing her personal perquisites, which sound like negatives at first, but really aren’t: “She smoked in the house, would throw nothing out/ She’d cut the mold off cantaloupe and cheese/ The Farmer’s Almanac told her when to plant/ Petunias, potatoes and peas.” For Clark, the devil is always in the delectable details.

Naturally, in interview, almost every yarn Clark spins has an unexpected twist, or a surprise punchline you never saw coming. And it’s just fun to hear her talk and feel that incredibly clever mind, constantly at work and whirring. Discussing her Brandy/Brandi summit meeting recently, she laughingly corrects one common mistake some journalists have made about the jangly new track “Northwest,” that it actually references a campy “Kenny Loggins Show.” No, she says. “And here’s what’s funny—it’s actually the ‘Lewis County Logging Show,’ because I grew up in Morton, Washington, which is in Lewis County, and we have a logging show, a Lewis County Logging Show, there.” This sidesteps into a discussion of the underrated artist Kenny Loggins, in general, and how he apparently scored a soundtrack smash in almost every ’80s movie ever produced. Ironically, Clark, 47, is a big fan of the man, and has met him on two distinct occasions. “First, when I was playing the Santa Barbara Bowl with Sugarland, he came out and sang ‘Footloose’ with them.

“And the second time was through my friend Allie—I was over at her house one day, and she said, “Oh, Kenny Loggins is coming over!” And I said, “The Kenny Loggins? But they’re very good friends, so we sat and talked for a bit, and he’s a very nice guy.” The chat then veers into a possible inclusion of a Kenny Loggins cover in her future concert sets. But which one? She wonders. There’s a minute of thoughtful silence while she considers the possibilities, before she settles on the more obscure “Meet Me Halfway Across the Sky.” “It was in that movie Over the Top, with Sylvester Stallone, where he’s an arm wrestler,” she explains. “And there’s something about that song that just gets me.” Fans might be hoping for ‘Danger Zone’ or something equally obvious. “But you know, it would be cool for me to do a Kenny Loggins song that you just wouldn’t expect. Ooh, I love this challenge! I think I’m gonna dig into this!”

This soon leads down another topical tangent, being the odd origin story of “Northwest” itself. When Brandi Carlile agreed to oversee her album over the pandemic—after the pair collaborated on a duet called “Same Devil,” included in a deluxe edition of Clark’s third outing, 2021’s Your Life is a Record (cameos on that disc included Randy Newman and Lindsey Buckingham; cameos on Brandy Clark include Carlile, Lucius, and Derek Trucks), her benefactor told her she imagined the sessions as her return to her native Pacific Northwest, a woodsy area where Carlile also happens to hail from. Clark liked that concept, and invited her go-to composer friend Jessie Jo Dillon on a weeklong preparatory songwriting retreat to a tiny Whidbey Island off the Washington coast. And viewing her homeland through the fresh eyes of Dillon, who had never seen pine trees so tall and imposing, gave “Northwest” its refreshing verdant zing. “We spent a couple days working on that song, and I don’t know that I could have written it with somebody who is from the Northwest, because Jessie—who’s from Tennessee—pointed out so many things about the Northwest, but because I grew up there, I don’t look at them. She said, ‘These trees are like, mountain tall!’ And I was like, “Oh, my God! That’s a line!” So I think it took Brandi inspiring it, but it took for me to really lock into it through an outsider’s perspective on the Northwest to—not even remind me, but just show me what’s so beautiful about it. I mean, it’s beautiful to me because it’s my home. But I never really thought about how tall the trees are, because they just are.”

Clark’s chugging train of thought is interrupted by a frenzied canine yapping. “I’m so sorry—my dogs are going crazy,” she sighs, then runs down her three-mutt roster: “There’s Bette Davis, who is a Maltese, Ava Gardner who’s a poodle, and then I have Charlie, whois eleven kinds of dogs—I had them all DNA-tested.” And by the time 45 minutes race by with this likable, garrulous singer, you’ve really had a conversation.

Paste: I think you and I talked back in February of 2020 for a pending tour. But the tour never happened. Where were you when the pandemic hit, and how dark was it for you?

Brandy Clark: Actually, I was getting ready to go on tour, and I was in New York City, doing press for my record, and I did a CBS piece, and then the next day went to do The Today Show. And I was the last person that got to do The Today Show in person for a long time. So a lot of things were going on right then, but I was getting ready to start rehearsals for that tour, and then I remember that morning at The Today Show (my publicist) telling me that we had been exposed to Covid, and everybody needed to quarantine, and so we did. And that tour didn’t happen. Well, about a third of it happened in the fall of 2021, maybe. But, you know, we got through it.

Paste: So you were in New York. Where did you retreat afterwards? And who did you retreat with? A Pet? A significant other?

Clark: Pet and significant other! In fact, I gained a few pets in the pandemic, and some pounds that I’m still trying to lose. So I was gonna go to Nashville, but instead went to California for the quarantine. And that was kind of nice, because at the time in Nashville, I was living in a building, so I went to California, and was able to be in a place that was outside, that was out in the country a little bit. And so that was a really nice refuge. I thought I was gonna be there for ten days, and I ended up being there pretty much the rest of 2020. It was in Agoura Hills, but the crazy thing about Covid for me, at least at the beginning of it, was that I really was in denial. I remember being in New York City and talking to a friend, and saying, “Oh, I was supposed to go do this thing, and now it’s getting shut down.” And actually, the thing I was supposed to do was, I’d just opened a musical on Broadway (Shucked), and we were supposed to be having a work session, and that got canceled and moved to Zoom. And on the way to the airport, I’ll never forget it, because I didn’t know what Zoom was, and I don’t think many people did. But our director is in his 80s, and our producer felt like it would be the smart thing to do it, but to not be in person. And so I was talking to a friend, and I said, “Oh—we’re gonna do this work session on Zoom.” And my friend, I remember said, “You know the Universe is giving us all a break, so we’re all good.” And in the beginning, everything was measured in increments. I kept thinking, “Okay—in 10 more days, this will lighten up.” And it just didn’t. And then I transitioned over to doing what I could, promotion-wise on Zoom, and Facebook Lives, and everybody did a really good job of moving to streaming events, if we could. I remember doing some festivals through streaming. But it was still a crazy, scary time for all of us.

Paste: We have another weird tie-in, too. I occasionally do film stories, a few years ago, I was interviewing Oscar Isaac and T-Bone Burnett for the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and I actually gave T-Bone my early CD of your first album. He hadn’t heard of you yet, but I told him you would soon be his favorite new artist. And I really think that’s how your music gets spread—word of mouth.

Clark: Yes—you’re so right. And thank you for passing that along. We haven’t ended up working together, but I’m sure we will. We’ve talked about it. I went to breakfast with him, and it was before I made Your Life is a Record, and he told me something that I tried to do myself—he told me that he took a year of his life, and would get up at 4:00 a.m. and write from 4:00 a.m. to 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., and he said he’d never had a more productive year. And so I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, because I have a friend who has a place there that lets me stay from time to time and do writing sessions, because it’s such a creative place. Or at least I feel very creative when I’m there. And so I went there for a month, and a lot of that month was by myself, and so I did that—I’d get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for three or four hours, and then go about my day. So I tried to do it, but it didn’t work for me in the long run because I have too much going on at night. But he’s not wrong about those hours. And I know he didn’t invent this, about that time of the day, there not being as many people fighting for the ideas. But I’ll do it again, because it was really magical.

Paste: Some of the best songwriters have always maintained that on a clear night, if you have your antennae up, a song can almost beam directly down to you, pre-written, and you just let it channel through you. Have you found that to be true?

Clark: I’ve been in situations where it’s like that. And sometimes it comes really fast, and then other times you have to give it time, I’ve noticed. But I think that there’s some real truth in that. I mean, there are two songs on this record in particular that I can think of that felt that way to me. The first one, because chronologically, it was written earlier, was “Up Above the Clouds,” and I wrote that with Jessie Jo Dillon and Jimmy Robbins. And we came out to L.A. from Nashville, and we did a weeklong, or a five-day writing retreat. And it was like we found a portal, and that song specifically? I am so proud of the three of us, because we really did just get out of the way of it. And that’s hard to do when you’re co-writing sometimes, because I think it’s easier to do when you’re writing by yourself, but that one, it came in about 45 minutes. Jessie Jo had that idea, and Jimmy was making a work tape of another song we had just written. And I said, “Jessie, come out to the garage,” because I had a melody in my head, and I started to sing the top of that chorus. And then we came back in and we finished it. But that’s the first example.

And the second example is “She Smoked in the House,” and I wrote that by myself. And that took longer, I think, because I was by myself, but I had been driving around, and I listen to a lot of classic country, and Merle Haggard happened to be what I was listening to right then. And this isn’t all that long ago. And I’m so terrible—and my mom is the same way—if we love a song, we’ll just wear it out, we’ll just listen to it for days. And I got stuck on “Are the Good Times Really Over For Good,” and that song reminds me so much of my grandparents, who I grew up next door to, and I think part of it for me is, one of my first memories was of Mt. St. Helens erupting, and it erupted on my grandma’s birthday. And the night before, they had been at a Merle Haggard concert. And I didn’t know that at the time, but later on, when my grandma would retell the story, she’d say, “You know, I was hung over because we’d been at that Merle Haggard concert.” And so I always tie Merle Haggard to my grandparents. But I was listening to that song and thinking of the values of that generation, and I was thinking about the idiosyncrasies of that generation, and so many of them smoked in the house. And my grandma smoked in the house, and when she died, we took the pictures off the wall, and the paint was a different color behind the picture—the walls had yellowed with so much tar. But I started trying to write that, and I was doing all this research on what I considered that generation, kind of the tail-end-of-the-Depression generation, and I was just having a time with it. I had all these ideas, but I couldn’t quite get to the heart of it, but then I remembered something that someone had once told me that if you wanna be general, you have to first be specific. And then I thought, “You know, this is really about my grandma. It’s not about that whole generation—it’s about her. And I kind of feel like she wrote it with me, in this weird way, like from heaven. Because I knew when it was done, and I feel like that was kind of her telling me it was. But I let that song come through me, and it wasn’t fast. I mean, there would be bits and pieces that were fast, but I worked on it quite a while. And I think that was also because I wanted to get it right for my grandma. But those are the two biggest examples I can think of on this project, where I felt like I was channeling something.

Paste: But if you dig deeper into your lyrics, like “You can’t always see it / That’s why they call it faith,” there’s a lot of your own personal philosophy hidden in there. You’re like a vest-pocket Confucius.

Clark: Oh, well, I feel that way about faith. Faith, to me, is the belief in what you can’t see, so we definitely weren’t trying to show off wisdom there, that was one where it literally did feel channeled—we almost couldn’t write it down quick enough. Jessie Jo, who had the idea, at the time, she was going through some heartbreaking stuff, and I think that was why it was so heavy on her heart. And Jimmy and I loved the idea, and I mean, I love the thought—that there’s always a blue sky up above the clouds.

Paste: But you also tapped into Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

Clark: Thank you! I didn’t know that, but you’re right, and that’s another massive influence for me.

Paste: And in “Come Back to Me,” you urge a paramour to “See everything you wanted to see / And then come back to me.” So Sting was right in “Set Them Free”!

Clark: True! With that one, that might be the oldest song on the project, now that I think of it. But it’s one that every time I’ve made a record, I think, “Man, I hope that fits at some point, because I love what it says, I love the idea of loving somebody so much that you will let ’em go, and that you don’t want ’em to miss anything. And kind of, too, to steal from Billy Joel, I remember him saying that when he wrote “I Love You Just the Way You Are,” more than anything, he wrote that for himself, because that’s what he would want somebody who loved him to say. So I think “Come Back to Me” is the way that I would love to be loved—by somebody who doesn’t want to tie you down, for fear you’ll run away, or you’ll fly away. I think we all want that. Or I believe we all should want that, so I was really happy that it found its place.

Paste: In “Best Ones,” you actually discuss the taste of cigarettes, and there are a few other cigarette references on the album. Now are you yourself a smoke?

Clark: Ha! You know, I do not smoke! But so many important people in my life have been smokers, like my grandma, for starters. And my grandpa—big-time smokers. Jessie Jo Dillon, who I wrote “Best Ones” with, she’s a smoker. And I’ve never smoked, I’m a non-smoker, other than the occasional marijuana, and even then, I don’t think I inhale very well, so I’m always doing edibles. But there’s something romantic about smoking, even though it’s a tragic habit—it’s taken some people from me that I’ve really loved. I mean, I’ve always thought that cigarettes looked cool on men and sexy on women, so I’d love to be able to smoke. But I just can’t. So I’ll put it in songs.

Paste: Did you know that Susanna Hoffs just covered your song “Pawn Shop” on her covers album The Deep End?

Clark: I did know that! And I’ve never met her, but Peter Asher told me that. And I’d kind of forgotten about it, and then the day it came out, I got a whole bunch of texts from people, going, “Oh, my God! Can you believe that Susanna Hoffs is covering your song?” And I said, “Actually, I did know that. But it still is unbelievable!”

Paste: How does it feel when you hear someone reinterpret your tone, your lyrics, your melody?

Clark: I love it! And I’ve luckily not had an experience where someone’s covered one of my songs and I’ve been disappointed. And I love it when somebody will take a song and really make it their own. Even if it’s clearly different choices than I would make, I like that, though. A song I had that was a pretty big hit was Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and that song is very different from the demo. And I always say, “Well, you know, Miranda Lambert Miranda-ized it.” And I love that. I love when somebody takes something and makes it their own—it’s almost like they become another writer on the song that way.”

Paste: I was talking to Susanna about you a few weeks ago, and she was saying how Peter Asher, this classic veteran producer, had turned her onto you and all these other new artists. And I told her about your O. Henry sense of irony, as in “Stripes.” And she and I both agreed—storytelling that clever is a lost songwriting art.

Paste: Well, I come from a family of really great storytellers. Like my grandma and all of her siblings that I knew—some of ’em passed away before I was born—were great storytellers. My mom’s a great storyteller, and I love a great story. And then I think you’re just drawn to what you’re drawn to. I’m always drawn to a dark comedy, which is “Stripes,” you know. When I think about the movies I’m drawn to, or the music? Music, I tend to be drawn to more melancholy than dark comedy, but I like to write a dark comedy, because I just think that’s what life is, you know? At its best, it’s a dark comedy, and some people would say that’s negative, but I don’t think it is. I just think, “Well, it’s just honest.”

Paste: Taking it into larger metaphor, Susanna just wrote her first novel, This Bird Has Flown. Why not you?

Clark: I would love to write a book! You know? And I’m really looking for my next project right now, because coming off this musical—and other than jumping into promoting this record—what I’ve really learned in the last couple of years is, I like big projects. Those are the things that tend to pay off for me—being involved in the Lindeville (Ashley McBryde collaborative) record, then this musical [which earned her a Tony nomination], then my own records. I like that, and a book would be similar. Because I’ve written down all these stories, because—although it hasn’t yet come to fruition—I’m always getting approached about turning an album into some sort of episodic TV or a podcast. And so in that, I’ll go through the songs and I’ll write stories about each of ’em. And I was actually driving this morning, thinking, “What do I want my next big project to be?” And maybe it is a book, you know? I have so many stories, and I’d love to do something fiction. Because I definitely like to write all the time, so maybe a book. Maybe!

Paste: And with all your colorful relatives for inspiration? Steve Earle once said that there’s no bigger cultural crime happening today than the disrespect we show our elders, who in, say, Native American cultures are valued for their wisdom.

Clark: I was just listening to Fran Leibowitz on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new podcast, Wiser Than Me, where she only interviews women over 70, and she said her whole life, her friends have always been older than her. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus asked her why, and she said, “Well, why would I wanna hang around people who know less than me? There’s no fun in that. Even if somebody’s 20 years old and they’re a genius, a 70-year-old always knows more than them, across the board.” And I was thinking, “That is so true.” I’ve always had a lot of respect for my elders, and maybe it’s because I loved and respected my grandparents so much. And I feel like I have some really amazing older people in my life right now that have so much wisdom, and I’m so lucky to be around them, and I just wanna soak it up. Because they won’t be around forever—well, none of us are around forever. But my mom told me years ago that when a person who is 70 years older dies, the knowledge that they take with them is equivalent to a library or a wing of a library? I can’t remember which. But I was thinking, “How sad is that people do miss that by being on TikTok?” Because when that person’s gone, they’re gone. I mean, I think of all the stories that my grandma told me that I repeat, to keep her alive? That’s invaluable, and us even talking about it is a good reminder to me to look up from my phone. I mean, we’re all in the smartphone era, but it’s making us die for sure. Because there are so many interesting people that we don’t listen or don’t ask them to tell us their stories when we should. This musical I just did, our director is 83, and he’s vibrant, with his finger on the pulse. And he’s a great lesson to me, in “Don’t stop.” And he even says that to me—“Don’t stop!” Who says that there’s an expiration date on creativity? I think that’s a big mistake that our society makes.

Paste: Going back to storytelling for a second, my dad—when I was a kid growing up in the Midwest—always had the radio on every afternoon for Paul Harvey, and he always had the best punchlines for his Rest of the Story programs, with long suspenseful pauses, like, “And that charming little boy… grew up to be…Adolf Hitler.” And then he’d close with, “Paul Harvey…Good day!”

Clark: “And now you know…the Rest of the Story!” Yes! I grew up with Paul Harvey! That was on our local radio station, and when I say “local,” we lived 35 miles from where that radio station was, so it was a non-reporting station. But that was always on in my grandma’s house, that was always on in ours, and some of it was because it was the only signal that came in really well. But when I was going to college, right out of high school, I went college about 35 miles from home and still lived at home, and on my drive home everyday from school, I looked forward to Paul Harvey and his And Now You Know the Rest of the Story. It was so interesting! There was just something about his voice—his voice was a big part of it.

Paste: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask—teaming up with Brandi Carlile as your producer? A Brandi/Brandy summit meeting! How was it working with her?

Clark: It was all of the emotions. I mean, there was a scary part of it for me—it was challenging, it was really soul-changing for me, you know? Brandi and I come from the same area, the same part of the country, Washington state, and the same place, in a lot of ways, in our hearts. But then we’re also very different in our creative process. I mean, I grew up in Washington and moved to Nashville, and learned how to structure a song. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But Brandi Carlile has a more…untethered way of creating, and I have some rules in my head. So I think it was really a great thing for me to work with her and be challenged on some of those rules. And whenever I work with a producer, by the time I get to the producer, we’ve probably got 18 or 24 songs down, between me and management and label. And I’m always too close to the songs by then to pick the 10 or 12 songs for the album. I always know there’s a couple that I have to have, like “Up Above the Clouds”—I had to have that, you know? But I gave Brandi probably 18 or 24 songs, and she chose most of ’em, and there was only one song where I said, “Oh, we’ve got to do this one,” when she couldn’t get into it. And it ended up being one of her top favorite songs when it was done. But anyways, I said to her, “Why did you choose the songs you chose?” Because I was kind of surprised by some of ’em, “She Smoked in the House” being one of ’em that surprised me. And she said, “You know, they’re all great songs, every one of ’em was great. But I chose the ones that didn’t sound like they were written in a writing room. They sounded like you wrote it in your bedroom.” And That really changes it for me. It makes me want to write things that matter. You know, not just like, “Oh, this is a cool title! Let me write that!!!” But moving forward in my career, and in anything I do, I want to only write the things that I’m passionate about. Because boy, that really did show—the fact that she chose what she chose, it was like, “Oh, yeah! I get that! I get why she chose that.”

Paste: But still, it must be said, there was an amazing symmetrical beauty to the Brill Building and all its writers like Goffin and King, who punched in and wrote perfectly calculated pop songs, and punched out again each night. And circa your debut, you told me how you composed back then in Nashville—songwriters would gather around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. at someone’s house, put on a pot of strong Peet’s coffee, and by 5:00 p.m. you’d have sculpted a song or two.

Clark: Yup. Uh-huh. And for me it works, I think, because I have to keep my pencil sharp, you know? So I think for me, that’s how I have to do it, really. And I always consider that practice, and then when you have that great idea, that’s the game. So if you haven’t been going to practice, you’re not gonna play very well in the game, is the way I always think about it. But I definitely think, after working with Brandi, I’m gonna just think more about what it is I wanna say. Because that is what rises. And I never think of a song like “She Smoked in the House”—and I know I keep referencing that, but it’s the best example I can think of—as anything that anybody would care about but me. And then I find out, “Oh! I’m not the only one who had that grandma!” So that’s where I go forward, and Brandi reminded me of that, is that the first person that I have to hook in is me. And if it hooks me in? Then it’s gonna hook in anybody else that hears it.

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