While Brandy Clark doesn’t come from a long line of professional musicians, she does hail from stubborn stock in a tiny logging town in Washington state, which helps explain the singer-songwriter’s perseverance and deliciously dark, grounded sense of humor.
She is, undoubtedly, her grandmother’s granddaughter and has the childhood stories to prove it, including one about her grandmother’s clever attempt to turn a volcanic eruption into flea market profit.
“My grandmother had these shirts made that said ‘I Skied Down Mount St. Helens — May 18, 1980,’” chuckles Clark, referring to the famous volcanic eruption. “My grandpa was a welder, so she took his blowtorch and blew holes in ‘em, like hot ash and lava [would], you know. The funny thing was, instead of it being 100 percent cotton, it was cheaper to get a cotton-polyester blend. So they kind of melted, and they were scratchy.”
The grandchildren, Clark included, were enlisted as clothing models and told to prowl the flea market aisles.
“We would be like, ‘Grandma, these shirts itch,’” she says, still laughing at the memory.
Even back then, jumping ship wasn’t an option, as Clark’s grandmother made amply clear: “‘Keep those damn shirts on!’”
And if anyone could make a casually unforgettable country song out of a vignette like that, it’s Clark, who has mobilized quite the fan club this year. Championed as part of CMT’s Next Women of Country campaign, she shot a jailhouse noir music video for her rockabilly revenge number “Stripes” that fell into immediate rotation, and the song is getting plenty of spins on the Highway, one of Sirius XM’s country channels.
And music critics are falling all over themselves to declare her the savior of soulful, rooted country narrative. I can say, without exaggeration, that this is my fifth time writing about her in 2013.
All this fuss is being made over a songwriter who spent a dozen or so years behind the scenes, unable to land significant cuts, scored her first sizable successes only this decade, with Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry and Kacey Musgraves singles and now finds herself with her own celebrated album, 12 Stories.
“Yeah, it is just odd,” says Clark of the unlikely arc of her career. “And I guess that’s part of why it was shocking to me. I’ve said it before. Making this record was a dream that I had stopped dreaming a long time ago.”
She adds, “I mean, everything just goes to show you that you can plan and think and try to make certain strategic moves, but your career’s not gonna look like anyone else’s –even if you want it to.”
Above all else, it’s the artful, stick-to-your-ribs realism of Clark’s character sketches that is making the impact.
“There’s a song on my record called ‘Get High,’” she says, by way of example. “At first, people thought it was funny. But then as people would listen to it, they were like, ‘You know, that’s really not funny. That’s somebody that’s just kind of surviving their life.’ And I think that’s an interesting point of view. I think we’re all kind of surviving our lives.”
Her perspective on the timing of her breakthrough is just as interesting. The received wisdom is that many — even most — doors are closed to new, female artists of a certain age (i.e. beyond 30). And yet Clark says she’s glad this attention didn’t come in her 20s.
“It took me all those years of writing songs to get to the point where I had something to say artistically that was unique enough to make a whole record about it,” she reflects. “I mean, if you listen to the songs I was writing, you know, 10 years ago, there’s a difference in those and now. And I couldn’t have really pulled these songs off at 25. It wouldn’t have seemed believable.”