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Brandy Clark On Women in Country Music: ‘We Don’t Fit the Formula’

On the other hand, Clark says, "Sonically females can go a few more places than men."

By Brian Ives

This weekend, Brandy Clark is nominated for awards at two different ceremonies. She’s up for Best New Female Artist at the ACM Awards (although the ACMs have announced that Maren Morris has won in that category), and she’s also nominated for Outstanding Music Artist at the GLAAD Awards — she’s up against a diverse group of artists, including Elton John, punk rock band Against Me! and pop singer/songwriter Sia. Clark’s as country as they come, so to see her in a category with Sia and Elton is a bit strange. But on the other hand, as she tells us in this interview, she’s been working with some pop songwriters on her next album. And she also gives us an update on her long-in-the-works project, ‘Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical.’ 

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Critics from places like The New York Times and Rolling Stone really seem to love you. And you get played on country radio. That’s a rare combination.

I just try to make music that’s true to me and just hope that it finds its home and work like hell to help it find its home. I don’t just say, “Oh, let’s see who’ll listen to this.” I’m out working it and trying to get everybody I know to play it. So I do feel lucky, and I definitely, I never thought that the critics would like my music as much as they do.

And a lot of people hate the critics; I love the critics. They’ve been really, really good to me and have given me a lane. I feel like without them I don’t know where it would be, because before anybody else was listening, they were, and really, really have done a good job of getting the word out.

You once told me that you thought you might be happy just as a songwriter, without having to be a recording artist. Do you still feel that way?

I can’t imagine my life now, had it not taken that path. When you’re a staff songwriter, and you’re writing every day for the market, that’s a huge portion of your time. And when you pull yourself out of that, there’s a part of you, even though it’s fun to go and do things like this [interview], and play amazing shows, there’s also that part of you that you’re having less and less time to write songs, and you miss that.

For me, I battled that for a while, like, “Wow, maybe I took the wrong fork in the road.” And when I realized that I hadn’t was when a song off my first album, 12 Stories, “Hold My Hand,” was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Country Song. And it hit me that day—and that was a song that meant a lot to me, maybe my favorite song I’ve ever written. And I thought, “I am exactly where I should be.” Because had I not recorded that song as an artist myself, it would’ve never seen the light of day.

After that, I really never looked back. And I love that I get the chance to make records and to have my voice heard as an artist, not just my singing voice, but my voice as a writer. Because no matter how many cuts you get, there’s a voice that’s true to you. Some of those aren’t so much you. The songs that I record on my records are me.

Did it take a while to get used to the role of being the bandleader on stage?

Yeah. I’m still getting used to that. And I’ve always had a bandleader that helps me, and that helps things, but definitely it’s a different role. What I’m realizing is, okay, this is me. If it’s good, it’s on me; if it’s bad, it’s on me, and so it’s my job to get it the way it needs to be. So yeah, that’s definitely a different role to step into.

I did an acoustic tour this fall, just myself and a guitar player, and I felt a lot more control in that situation. And because of that, I was a lot more at ease and I heard that from people. That was the feedback I got was, “Wow, I love you with a band, but I really love you acoustic because I’ve seen more of your personality.”

So for me right now I’m figuring out, okay, how do I build back? I’m doing a tour in April and May that’s gonna be a trio, myself and a guitar player and a bass player, and then we’ll add to that. How do I keep that feeling of not letting it get away from me? That’s a good way to put it, because sometimes when you got four or five musicians onstage and there has to be a count-off and all those things, it can get away from you, and there’s some real authentic moments that maybe you can’t have with an audience because, “Oh, wow, I don’t wanna screw up the flow here, and Sam’s waiting to count it off.”

And so I’m really at this point figuring out a way to do that with a band that feels like when it’s me if it were just me. My guitar player’s played with me enough that he just follows, and so getting everyone else to follow.

Related: Brandy Clark: From ‘Small Towns’ to Broadway Dreams

This year at the GRAMMYs, the nominees for Best Country Performance was you, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris and Keith Urban. Is it safe to say that this is a better era for women in country than it was a few years ago?

Well, I feel lucky. I’ve always felt lucky to be a woman, and in country music specifically, because even though there are the challenges with the difference between the number of men played and the number of women played on the radio — which is changing; there are more women played all the time. I think as women we’re lucky because we can paint with a few more colors.

I don’t know that a guy could get away with… like on my first record I had a song called “Stripes,” fantasizing about shooting someone. A guy couldn’t get away with that for even thinking about it. So that’s pretty lucky as a girl. And I think sonically females can go a few more places than men.

There are a lot of men that get played [on the radio], but they sort of have to fit into something. Chris Stapleton is one of the few that, to me, doesn’t fit into the formula, so to speak. Nothing against the formula, he just doesn’t fit it. And I think as women we don’t fit it either, so, I think it’s an exciting time for women.

You’re up for Outstanding Music Artist at the GLAAD Awards, against Elton John, Against Me!, Sia and Frank Ocean, among others.

Yeah, that blows my mind, it really does, and I haven’t even had a chance for that to really sink in. But it’s amazing to be recognized by anybody, but then being gay myself, to be recognized by your smaller community is pretty great.

So, you started working on your next album back in December.

I’m really digging in and writing a lot. Last year I was promoting this record. It came out in June, but I started really promoting it in January and was on the road almost all the time, probably through Thanksgiving.

And so in December, I dove back into writing real hard, and I try not to think too much about okay, this is for my record. I just try to write songs that entertain me. But I definitely have that in my mind probably more than ever, and it’s probably because I’ve had less time over the last couple years to write.

But things start to bubble up, and for me, it’s usually one song will bubble up. It’s like, “That could be the centerpiece.” It doesn’t usually end up being the centerpiece, but it’s where the idea of an entire album starts. And so I have a few things that are just bubbling up, and over the next year I’ll write a lot of songs and see what sticks.

I was in LA writing, so definitely while I’m out there I’m writing with people generally who are a little more pop-leaning than myself. But I’ve never chased that down because I am so country. I’m out there writing kind of to get a little fresh perspective and a change of venue for me.

But I am writing with people that have had big pop cuts. But I don’t even think about that when we’re writing. I really just think, okay, what can I bring to this? How can we write something great?

It seems like there’s a lot of cross-pollination these days; Lady Gaga worked with Hillary Lindsey on her record.

Well, I believe that that the greatest concentration of great songwriters is in Nashville. And that’s nothing against any other town, I just think it’s the songwriting capital of the world. And so if an artist wanted to write great songs, why wouldn’t they come to Nashville?

And I do think the longer I live the more I see genres… we’re getting into a time where it’s hard to tell one genre from the other, and I’ve heard people say genres are dead. So I guess it’ll just be more and more of a melting pot.

Genres may be dying, but when Alan Jackson puts out a new record, we know where that album is going to get played.

I’m a traditionalist at heart. So I would hate to see genres go away because I think the country genre is really important, and I think it’s different than the Americana genre, and it’s different from the bluegrass genre, just like rock is different from R&B. So I’m personally not one waving a flag saying, “Oh, let’s get rid of genres.” I like a lot of different music, but I like my country to be “country.”

Speaking of country, what’s the status of the musical that you’ve been working on?

Well, it is still in development, and it’s now called Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical. It opened in Dallas, I guess it would’ve been summer-fall of 2015. And we learned a lot there; we had a great run. Making some changes and still shooting for Broadway. This year we’ll be in rewrites, probably some pretty massive rewrites and getting it back up on its feet and in front of an audience and seeing how it works. Musicals are definitely ruled by committee in a different way than anything I’ve ever been a part of, it’s way different than making an album where you even have a label involved. But there are just a few people involved in an album. Musicals, there are a lot of moving parts.

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