Brandy Clark Sees Life as a Dark Comedy

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Brandy Clark may be enjoying quite the winning streak as a Music Row songwriter, but she also has an album of her own on the way — and it’s no vanity project. Right off the bat, her storytelling is the sort that sticks to your ribs. Then there’s the down-to-earth finesse of her performances and her preference for sumptuously rootsy production.

It’s hardly surprising that Clark — like many a tradition-reviving act before her, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Quebe Sisters to name two — has found an advocate in country crusader Marty Stuart. So far, Clark has played his Grand Ole Opry anniversary celebration and his late night jam at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

And, rest assured, Stuart’s not the only one making her phone ring. Along with significant cuts by artists ranging from Reba McEntire to Kacey Musgraves, Clark has also been recognized as one of CMT’s Next Women of Country. Rarely does a veteran songsmith emerge out of the background to this much buzz.

CMT Edge: You’ve said that as a kid you were exposed to the country-pop crossover ballads your parents listened to on the radio and the hardcore country storytelling your grandparents listened to. Which did you gravitate to more?

Clark: I always loved both things. I was a child in the ‘80s, so [I heard] all that real country-pop — like Barbara Mandrell and Ronnie Milsap. Then my grandparents were [into] Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn kind of stuff. I think one of the hugest influences on me, though, was the movie Sweet Dreams about Patsy Cline. Patsy Cline had been dead over 20 years when that movie came out, but I fell in love with all that music.

Did you go see it in the theater?

It must’ve been in the theaters, but no, I saw it on HBO. That probably is what grounded me real hard in the more traditional stuff. I was, like, 9 when that movie came out, and I remember for my birthday the next year getting Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits. So I really fell in love with that real traditional sound then.

When you moved to Nashville for college, were you already writing songs?

I was. I mean, I thought I was writing good songs at that point, but I really wasn’t. (laughs)

I got into music really hard my first year out of high school. I had played guitar up until then and been in some musicals, so I sang and played and did all that. But when I got in my first year of college, the music bug really bit me, and I started taking guitar lessons again and got into a band. Somebody said to me, “I think it’s really cool when bands write their own songs.” That’s kinda what started me writing songs.

There are so many different avenues that people take with songwriting. If you do the singer-songwriter thing from the beginning, you tend to be focused on self-expression and autobiography. But for so many years, you’ve had to think about what other performers would want to sing. What difference do you feel like that’s made to your songwriting? Has it helped your chops in any way?

Oh, I think it totally helped. I think it’s always harder to write something that someone else is gonna wanna sing as much as you are. If all you’re doing is writing songs for yourself, you only really have to please yourself. So to write songs that will compel other people to wanna record ‘em, they’ve gotta be interesting.

If everything I wrote was autobiographical, it would be pretty boring. Any song of mine that is decent, it started with a seed of truth, but I love having the license to make it fictional. And I feel like people will talk about songs needing to be autobiographical, and the thing I always go back to is: Did Johnny Cash really shoot a man in Reno?

A lot of the stories in your songs are about coping mechanisms. How do you get inside those experiences the way you do?

I’m drawn to real flawed characters. In anything I like to watch on TV or read, in friends and in my own self, I’m drawn to flaws. … I mean, I think that a lot of people are just trying to survive their lives. And those stories, to me, are the ones that I want to tell. I don’t think many people are telling that story.

There are videos of you performing “Get High” or “Pray to Jesus,” in which you talk about people who inspired you to tell those stories. So in some cases, it sounds like the stuff comes from real-life encounters.

Oh, yeah. Most of those songs, when they were written, I had someone in mind that I knew. And when I perform them, that’s where my mind always goes — to that person. Sometimes it’s me, but more often than not, it’s not. Even in the songs that are first-person, I think of myself as more of a storyteller than the character in those songs.

Where do you think the dark humor element comes from? You write a song about drunken hookups, and it comes out “Illegitimate Children.”

I believe life is a dark comedy. I don’t know if that’s just because my experiences have been that. My favorite movies are dark comedies, like Raising Arizona. There’s so much tragedy in that, but it’s still funny all at the same time. And I think life is that way. In the sadness, there is humor. The truth is funny. And I also think those dark subjects are a little more palatable if there’s a little humor wedged in there.

I mean, “Illegitimate Children,” if you wrote that song like, “I’m a bastard,” it wouldn’t hit people as much. It would be like, “Man, that just brought me down for three minutes.”

My co-writer on that song is a woman named Deanna Walker, and she was talking about this bachelorette party she had been to on a party bus. There was also this group of guys that were there for a bachelor party. She was talking about one of the girls being so drunk that she started makin’ out with one of the guys on the party bus. I said, “And this is how illegitimate children are born.” She goes, “Oh, that would be a great song.”

So far, you’ve found your success writing for others. It’s a new thing for you to be releasing your own stuff. What kinds of adjustment does it take for you to go from writing for others behind the scenes to being the one who’s out front performing?

There’s definitely a difference there. I mean, there’s fun and not-so-fun to it. I’ve been a songwriter for so long, just going in and writing songs every day, not having to worry about having my makeup done for an interview. So that kind of stuff is a little different for me.

I don’t have serious demands on me, but I am performing more than I used to. I’ve always performed quite a bit — writers’ nights and that kind of thing — but I am doing more of that than I was before I did this record. So it’s like trying to balance all of it. Without writing songs, there is no artistry for me.

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