Apparently the only thing that can slow Brandy Clark down right now is the flu. When she calls for an interview, she’s been laid up at home in Nashville all week, losing precious songwriting time.
That’s become a lot harder to come by since she started landing opening slots for the likes of Jennifer Nettles, Eric Church and Alan Jackson, getting booked to perform on daytime and late-night talk shows and snagging Grammy nominations in big categories like best new artist and best country album.
And to think that just a couple of years ago, Clark was floored to hear that a total-upstart indie label in Texas, Slate Creek Records, wanted to release her debut album, 12 Stories. She’d resigned herself to the idea that she and her manager were going to have to put it out themselves. But that was a million and one interview requests ago.
CMT Edge: Last I spoke with you, you were at an entirely different place in your career. So much has changed.
Clark: I know. I was thinking this morning you were one of the first interviews I did.
At that point, there were still so many questions about how your album was going to be received. But I think it’s safe to say those questions have been answered.
Yeah. I would agree with you. They’ve been answered in a way that I love, so that’s good.
In January, Warner Bros. in L.A. re-released 12 Stories, and I’ve read that you’ve been working on new song demos. How soon will you owe your new label a new album?
This year, the 2015 calendar year. The great thing for me is that 12 Stories is a couple years old. There were songs I wrote during the making of 12 Stories that’ll end up on this record and things I’ve written since. I went in and did 24 guitar-vocals (demo versions) of songs that, between the label and management and me, everybody’s loving and trying to narrow things down. I like to have a concept.
How has touring so much altered your approach to songwriting — when and how you do it, and with whom?
It makes it more sacred to me. Because for so long, I had the luxury of being an everyday songwriter. I’ve always loved that gig. Without songwriting, I have no artistry. So I’ve really worked hard in the last year to protect that part of it for myself. I wish there were 48 hours in a day instead of 24, but there just aren’t. So what I’ve found I have to do is when I am in town, I don’t let anything come between me and writing songs — other than being sick.
I try to write on the road, but it’s hard to do that. It’s just not a good environment, for me, for songwriting. So I have to protect the time I have when I’m in town to do that. I set aside a large portion of the month of November to write with Kacey [Musgraves] because she was writing for her next record.
I’m glad I did that because it’s good for me to get in there and write for someone else. I’ve never really been in that mindset of writing for me. And I don’t wanna really get in that mindset. I didn’t make this record with that mindset and it turned out great. I’m really proud of it. I think the way I need to always focus for my own records is to record songs that move me.
Congratulations on the Grammy nominations.
Thank you. That was crazy.
You are, quite conspicuously, the only artist nominated for best new artist that didn’t have the promotional push of a major label. Of the responses you’ve seen to your nominations, what’s surprised you and what hasn’t?
It surprises me when people aren’t surprised that I got those nominations. … It doesn’t surprise me when people are like, “Who is Brandy Clark?” That doesn’t surprise me. I actually love that because I think, “Well, now’s the time when they’re gonna find out.”
How many years have you been casting Grammy ballots?
I hate to say this — it’s embarrassing — but I wasn’t even a [voting] member when “Mama’s Broken Heart” was nominated. I didn’t get to vote last year. So this is my first year voting.
So much of the response to your album has been press-driven, which isn’t usually the case in country. In all those interviews and reviews, what have people looked to you to represent?
I definitely feel like people, for whatever reason, have branded me as someone who is carrying the torch for traditional country music. And there’s no other torch I’d rather carry. But it makes me really think, as I go forward, “OK, I want to be really thoughtful in my choices.” As someone who’s loved traditional country music my whole life, I don’t take that lightly. … My name is said in the same breath as people like Kacey and Sturgill Simpson, Ashley Monroe — like [we’re] saving country music, you know?
I know what country meant in my life. I think about when I saw the movie Sweet Dreams and the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter and how in love I felt with that music. Because when I was a kid, the music on country radio was pretty pop. So I fell in love with a very traditional sound. I think about being a little girl and listening to those songs in my bedroom, and I think, “Man, if somebody’s listening to my music and it’s gonna shape the music they’re gonna make 25 years from now in a positive way, then that’s great.”
I also noticed that a lot of music critics wrote pieces at the end of last year offering you as a symbol of country music’s progress toward greater acceptance of LGBTQ people. Do you identify with that interpretation? Do you share that optimism?
It has pleasantly surprised me how I’ve been embraced. I don’t feel like my sexuality has been the focus in a negative way at all. I’ve tried to make it not even the focus in a positive way because I’ve wanted it to be about the music. It feels so good that it doesn’t really matter. And I think the success of a song like “Follow Your Arrow” really exemplifies that. And I think people underestimate the country music audience. I think I did.
Early on, you said you felt there was an audience for songs about messy, adult realities. Now that you’re finding that audience, what have you learned about it?
That they want more of it. That they like to have a light shown on their frailties. … I kinda judge everything by the merch line after shows. I’ll go out and sign merch and meet fans. This woman came to the merch line and she really got emotional. In fact, her friend afterwards was like, “I’m so sorry. She wanted to say so much more, but she just got so emotional.” She just said, “I want to thank you for writing my life. The good and the bad and all of it.”
I always knew that there was that audience because those are my friends. Those are everybody’s friends. So it’s great to be hitting that audience.