Your eyes have deceived you if you ever took too quick a look at a passing reference to one of the great singer-songwriters of our day and mistook Brandy Clark for Brandi Carlile or vice versa. But those same eyes will not be seeing double if, in the very near future, you end up seeing both those names in close conjunction, a lot. Clark recently completed her fourth album — a self-titled one — for Warner Records, and the just-announced May 19 release is produced by possibly her biggest fan: Carlile.
Their occasionally confused monograms are among the least of the things the two have in common, since both have enjoyed years of mutual acclaim among music fans who are partial to top-flight Americana or country sounds, or simply the classic singer-songwriter style. Beyond that, there are even more borderline-spooky commonalities that make it seem like they were both born under a good sign. “We’re both from Washington State; we’re both gay — we have a lot in common,” says Clark, picking out some of the obvious shared bio points. “And then a lot not in common. But Brandi is amazing, is how much she wants to prop other artists up. It’s a pretty big, generous gift.”
The album “Brandy Clark” is not the only big thing on Brandy-with-a-Y’s dance card this year. Variety caught up with Clark in a break room at the rehearsal space for “Shucked,” the Broadway musical (opening April 5) for which she co-wrote the soon-to-be-acclaimed song score with another writing powerhouse, Shane McAnally. We’ll have more to report on “Shucked,” too, soon enough, but for now the subject is the record that just got officially announced on Friday, which could put her back into contention for Grammys alongside the Tony consideration her other project is likely to get.
Clark had a lot of experience as a Nashville-based songwriter-for-hire prior to and since making her own records. Notably, one of the songs she worked on with another artist, Kacey Musgraves’ history-making “Follow Your Arrow,” earned everyone involved a song of the year CMA Award in 2014. And even in herself becoming one of the most critically acclaimed artists working in any kind of country-adjacent area, Clark never completely rid herself of the idea that the songs she wrote could wind up being cut by anybody. Part of Carlile’s contribution, coming aboard as a kind of coach, was to disabuse her of the idea that her songs should be that malleable.
Which is maybe why “Brandy Clark” is just a little more serious in tone than some of the more comic-leaning songs of hers that people have loved since her debut album in 2012, like “Stripes,” “Girl Next Door” and her Randy Newman duet “Bigger Boat” (not to mention “Follow Your Arrow” and most of the largely farcical “Shucked” score).
“Truthfully, I love both things,” meaning meaning both humor-tinged and dramatic material, Clark says, “but if left to my own devices, I’d do an album full of ballads. I’m kind of melancholy that way, and I love that. Then on this record, working with Brandi Carlile, she sort of pushed me to go further into that — nothing too light.” (Although the presence of a rocking murder ballad, to which Derek Trucks adds a smoking guitar solo, may count, sort of.)
Clark brings up some other ways in which Carlile gently pushed her, even before they went in together to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu late last year. “She and I were talking early on about making some changes to some songs, ad that’s really tough for me, because, while there’s one that I wrote by myself, most of ’em are co-written. And I always feel disrespectful to the other songwriters to make changes on the on the fly in the studio. I said to Brandi, ‘I just always wanna respect the songs and be in service to the songs.’ And Brandi was like: ‘I think that needs to change. I think this time the songs need to be in service to the artist.’ So that really did change things for me — it’s changed the way I look at songwriting, at least for my own artist career moving forward.”
This full-length collaboration is years in the making, or wishing, especially on the part of Carlile, who’d vowed years ago that the two-song project they did would be just a taste of greater things to come. “Just to take it back a little ways,” Clark says, “at the Grammys — not this last Grammys, but the one before — we were nominated for best duo/group performance in the American roots category with ‘Same Devil,'” which she produced and sang on. She said to me, ‘I’d love to make a whole record on you.’And she said, ‘I see it as your return to the Northwest’ — because a lot of people don’t know I’m from Washington state.
“And so I was talking to a really good friend and co-writer, Jessie Jo Dillon, about potentially working with Brandy and how that came about. I told Jesse that story, and she’s like, ‘Wow, B. Northwest. We should go to the Northwest and write a song called ‘Northwest.’” It was the last song written for the album. “Those are the kinds of things that I’ve never really done as an artist, to go and write specifically for a record I’m making. Usually when I make a record — because I’m always writing — I just put together the songs that I most resonate with.
“And I don’t make a lot of changes to ’em once I do that. They’ve all been written and rewritten. But Brandi would question me on every line and say, ‘Well, do you really feel that way? Would you really say that?’ And so a lot of rewriting happened in the studio because of that. You know, every time I’ve worked with a producer, I always give ’em 18 to 24 songs that I’m too close to to really pick 10 or 12. I was surprised at some of Brandi’s choices, and I said, ‘Why did you choose these songs?’ She said, “You know, all the songs were great, but I just chose the songs that sounded like they weren’t written in a writing room.’ That really hit me. Because I’ve been in that world of writing songs every day for so long, and when I think of my favorite records, I don’t think about where they were being written! I just think about the emotional place it takes me. So that was different for me, to start to think that way, because even though I’ve made three other records, I really identify as a songwriter, and so she made me step into that role of artist: ‘Would you really say this? I don’t believe it when you say it’ — you know, that kind of challenging.”
Clark admits she had a weak moment of thinking she was not up to, or at least cut out for, that particular challenge. “It was an adjustment for me, to have somebody say, ‘This song’s almost right. I think you need to rewrite this.’ I’ve never had a producer do that. And there was a part of my ego that that was tough on, the first day. But she came over the next morning before we started working, and I said, ‘You know, Brandi, I’m just gonna completely trust you. I’m gonna go down the roads that you’ve asked me to go down.’ And a couple days in, she said, ‘Man, you’re brave! Like, everything I ask, you’ll try it.’ You know, if I could produce my own records, I would, but it’s not in my wheelhouse. And I think of a producer as the last writer on all those songs — the last person hearing ‘em and figuring out how to do that one more thing that makes ’em that that much more special. Or, maybe taking that one thing away!”
The wordplay she’s famous for might be played down just a little this time, but not so much that even the more dead-serious songs — like “Buried,” which was released Friday as the first teaser track — don’t still have killer lines… like, “I’ll be an over-you-achiever.”
“That was a line that, when we were going through and really talking about the songs, I said, ‘Do you think maybe that’s too clever?'” No adjustments there. “I remember Brandi was like, ‘No way, buddy. I wish I wrote that line.’”
Her previous album, 2020’s “Your Life Is a Record,” was acclaimed by many critics as one of that year’s finest, and it showed Clark moving in a more autobiographical direction, although it was leavened with the Randy Newman duet “Bigger Boat.” So it’s not as if the new album is completely shifting gears, in also being more personal.
“Definitely, that was a total breakup record,” she says of the prior album, “I had gotten out of a 15-year relationship, and it was tough. I had written a lot of songs about it, but I didn’t realize it before we started going through songs, and Jay Joyce, who produced it, was like, ‘This is a breakup record. That’s what this is.’ And after I (realized that), I didn’t think things could get more intimate.
“But then when I started going through songs for this, Lenny Waronker, who I work with at Warner, said, ‘Man, I feel like these songs are more personal.’ I was like, ‘Really? I don’t know if you can get any more personal than that breakup record.’ And he pointed to ‘Dear Insecurity’ and said, ‘You’re talking about your own deepest personal insecurities there. That’s pretty personal.'”
And that personal track became a duet, with Carlile joining on lead vocals, after a detour in getting there. “When that started, Brandi wanted to get Lucinda Williams on it. And she even sang (a guide vocal) in a way that was like, ‘This is how I think Lu would sing it.’ It felt so good. And I said, ‘Man, Brandi, I know you want to get Lucinda and I love her, but there’s just something about us singing it together that I love.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, well, all you had to do is ask!’ So that vocal that she sang, trying to phrase it the way she thought that Lucinda would phrase it, was the vocal she used. It just really worked for us to do that together, because we’re close to the same age and grew up in the same place and have similar insecurities. So it just really worked for us to do that together.”
Clark hopes a helpful message gets across amid the attention-getting combination of voices. “I think someone had kind of been mean to me,” she says, in recalling the song’s origins, and “if somebodyhurts your feelings, it’s usually their own insecurity. And I thought, man, wouldn’t it be something to write a letter to insecurity? There’s this last verse where it’s kind of like, ‘Dear insecurity, please don’t fuck this up. She’s really sure of me. This time feels like love.’ Nine times out of 10, when we mess something up for ourselves, it’s insecurity cutting in on the dance.”
All the things Clark has going for her at the moment prove that if she suffer from that condition, anyone can. It’s a heady year ahead for her.
“It’s crazy how it all is happening this way,” Clark says. “The musical was supposed to open in D.C. in September of 2020, and then the pandemic happened., so that didn’t. The (out-of-town dry run) ended up being in Salt Lake in November. I left the day after we opened there, and I went to Nashville and did the CMAs as part of that ‘Lindeville’ performance” — Clark was a participant in Ashley McBryde’s collectively written and performed concept album of that name — “and then flew to L.A. to start this record the very next day. So it’s been a crazy time.”
In a recent interview with Variety, Carlile talked about working on Clark’s record, calling it “such an incredible departure for Brandy — much more Americana than country, with deliberately, intentionally very raw and real vocals, super-hyper lyrical examination, songs selected to be as deeply personal to Brandy as any song that I’ve ever heard her put out… and it was also recorded live in one room with one band over the course of one week. It’s got that rock ‘and’n’ roll risk, edge-of-your-seat feeling when you’re listening to it — you know that chances are being taken, and that’s just something that your body knows when you’re listening to music that’s recorded live.
“On the last day we were doing our live cutting,” Carlile adds, “I was like, ‘Man, these expertly written songs are what Americana needs, because we can sometimes get a little indier-than-thou in our world.’ Brandy was laughing and she goes, ‘I know. I have this friend who is the biggest songwriter enthusiast, and I got him these tickets to this Americana festival out in Memphis. I said, ‘Oh my God, get ready to hear the greatest music you’ve ever heard. You won’t hear a chorus for four days, but you’re gonna have an amazing time.’” [Laughs.] So to that point, Brandy’s cut this incredibly honest, vulnerable, rugged, life-pinnacle record, but it’s freaking expertly written, three-minute songs, and I think it’s a deadly combination. So I’m ready for this to be ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ for 2023.”
The track list for “Brandy Clark”:
1. Ain’t Enough Rocks (feat. Derek Trucks)
3. Tell Her You Don’t Love Her (feat. Lucius)
4. Dear Insecurity (feat. Brandi Carlile)
5. Come Back To Me
7. She Smoked In The House
8. Up Above The Clouds – Cecilia’s Song
9. All Over Again
10. Best Ones
11. Take Mine