Gary Clark Jr. Finds the Right Words, as Well as Solos, on New Album

The singer-guitarist explains why he considers "This Land" a soul album.

Credit: Photo by Adela Loconte/REX/Shutterstock (9788964b)Gary
Adela Loconte/REX/Shutterstock

From the scorched earth rock and anti-racist (and anti-Trump-ian) howl of its title tune to the pounding country-blues of “The Governor,” with its cynical take on social justice issues, Gary Clark Jr.’s third studio effort, “This Land,” does what none of the 35-year-old singer-guitarist’s albums have in the past: it puts his mouth where his ax is.

The album’s Friday release comes barely a week after his magnetic appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” And this time the lyrics are up to the task of his mixed-bag music, with smartly incendiary words and images set upon blisteringly hot guitar leads and smoldering rhythms that tap into the pulse of hip-hop and the swagger of R&B. Anyone who thinks they can call this new album “the blues” — in accordance with Clark’s longstanding reputation as an East Texas hotshot guitarist — may want to think again. He talked to Variety about his new music, that “SNL” appearance, and moving away from the blues.

We know that President Trump saw the “SNL” you were on, because he tweeted that next morning that NBC should get “retribution.” Considering he may have watched you do “This Land” and “Pearl Cadillac,” is there anything else you would like him to know?
If he did listen to the songs and got his feelings hurt… if he wants to have a conversation, and feels any sort of way about what I said, we can talk and he can get a perspective on what it’s like to be black, to be somebody who has been discriminated against. We can have that dialogue, because if he wants to represent people, he has to represent all of us.

Considering some of the places you went lyrically on this album, did you have any trepidation about saying too much? 
If I did, I would have stopped myself.

A lot of people got to know the live Gary Clark Jr. experience from your appearances on both days of the debut Made in America festival in 2012. There were a lot of eyes on you. What do you remember most about that moment?
What I recall from that is that we were in the middle of “Don’t Owe You a Thing,” and all of a sudden, the crowd went wild. I was like, “Aw man, they’re really feeling it! This is something incredible.” It just so happens that the crowd got excited because Jay Z and Beyoncé happened to walk through the crowd right during my show. That’s what the hype was about. It was a cool moment though.

For a guy people peg to the blues, hip-hop and R&B have been part of your equation going back to the first album. Other than the work you’ve done with Childish Gambino (2016’s “The Night Me and Your Mama Met” from Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!”) and trap stuff on your new album, what is your relationship with hip-hop? What’s your feeling for it? 
I grew up listening to hip-hop. My uncle introduced me to Warren G and West Coast stuff. I had friends who introduced me to Tupac, Biggie and DMX. And I fell in love with the production of New York guys like RZA, and West Coast guys like Dr. Dre. J Dilla, DJ Premiere, Swizz Beats. I was an ’80s/’90s R&B guy too, so there were elements of that carrying through to my records. Terry Riley. Jam & Lewis. I grew up with those people and they were as big an inspiration to me as Buddy Guy, Albert King and Eric Clapton — all at the same time. It’s like any of the choices you make in your career: are you gonna be analog or are you gonna be digital? We’re in a world where the only natural thing to do is put it all together. I’m a musician and a creator, and I like to try different things, so I did. I did, however, keep my beat-making to myself until this moment.

Is that why you chose to produce “This Land”? Word had it that the label wanted you to go with a name such as Pharrell Williams. Why did you eschew their suggestions and do it yourself?
I feel as if I have always been working on and toward my own particular sound. I’m not just a guitar player. I understand arrangements and composition. I was always trying to get better. Given the time and opportunity to figure it out, I can chip away at it, for myself, rather than work on somebody else’s vision — which has happened to me in the past. No disrespect to anybody, but I felt as if I knew what I wanted to do and how it should sound.

It’s not the first time you’ve captured a gospel sound, but it does feel like your most earnest: “Guitar Man” is very gospel. What is your relationship to the church?
My relationship to the church was that I started out playing downtown on 6th Street on weekends. And my mother said that if I could play for the drunks downtown on a Saturday, I could play for Jesus too on a Sunday. Now, I wasn’t doing well in school, then, so playing was my thing. “You have to give me something, mom!” Rather than be grounded, I could still play in church. I learned a lot about the guitar there.

It’s probably not a far-flung guess to think that you have wanted to break free of the bluesman tag, and that you had to be frustrated by such pigeonholing. How would you say that “The Story of Sony Boy Slim” tore that notion down? How was that album a precursor to “This Land”?
I always made records that had a soul element. Curtis Mayfield, Ray Charles, the Temptations, Chi-Lites, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Sam Cooke — I heard all that before any electric guitar or anything like that. Around that time, I kept hearing people say that I was this way or that way. I just figured right then that I wanted to take a step back, to just do what felt natural to me as a musician. The label gave me one shot to do just that, then another with “This Land.” The third album has got to be better than the second album, so we broke down “Slim,” what we could do differently, what we needed to explore. We listened to lots of other records, some new stuff, and some that came before us and put it all together. With “This Land,” we just wanted to do something great and not put it in any genre or stick to any pre-written script. Let’s just make noise.

How did you become a more confident lyricist? 
I think I got that confident in lyric writing when I had children. That’s when I think that I started asking myself, what was it that I stand for? What am I as a man? Who am I going to be, and continue to be, for my kids? Where you stand matters.

There are tense looks at social justice and deep-seated racism on the new album. Certainly you’re touching on a general ennui and what black America is going through during the Trump administration. But I know a little bit about where you grew up in Austin. The Oak Hill section was not always a pretty place… I’m being diplomatic.
You’re very diplomatic. Certainly as an adult I haven’t really had to face that many troubles. Some, yes, that I talk about on “This Land.” But more so growing up, racism was a part of my life. It was all around me.  I didn’t know anything about what racism was at first. I was surrounded by so many differed people as a kid. We all played together, and it was fine and fun and cool. And then it was “such and such can’t hang out with you because so and so.” It was weird. I remember that. That doesn’t go away.

There is as much love on this new album as there is disgust and bile. What is the challenge of love vs. hate on “This Land”? Or maybe hate is too strong a word.
Yeah, let me clarify that, because I don’t believe there is hate on the album. My intention is to give people a perspective from someone who has felt belittled and frustrated and no longer wishes to deal with those situations. I wouldn’t call that hate. I call that recognizing. It’s emotion. Pure emotion. It is just what it is.

You are moving away from the blues. Yet this album holds very real sadness, angst and even disgust, which make up the bloodlines of the blues. It’s always going to be part of your DNA.
Most definitely. I’m not trying to run, I’m just trying to expand upon that which was already there for me. I feel like the blues is the foundation — but who am I to try to walk in Muddy Waters’ shoes and claim that legacy as my own? In this day and age? I’m just putting all of that together, what I have been doing for a good portion of my life. Call it whatever you want, but “This Land” is a soul album. There’s rock, blues and funk involved, but that’s all soul.