Update: Brandy Clark was nominated for two Grammy Awards, for Best Country album (Your Life is a Record) and Best Country Solo Performance (“Who You Thought I Was”).
For the past decade, Brandy Clark has been known as an acclaimed singer/songwriter, and a hit country songwriter. In 2015, she was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards, and she’s received other Grammy nominations, plus CMA and ACM nominations for co-writing hit songs for other artists.
In March (2020), Clark released her third and latest album, Your Life is a Record (on Warner Records). This album is perhaps her best to date, and is full of deeply felt, emotional songs that contain unique and intelligent lyrical insights. The album also features Clark’s expressive, passionate lead & harmony vocals, and stellar production by top Nashville producer Jay Joyce (who has produced albums with Eric Church, Little Big Town, Brothers Osborne and Ashley McBryde).
Your Life is a Record contains 11 songs that flow very well from beginning to end. Most of the songs are intimate and acoustic, although some songs are accentuated by the Memphis Horns & Strings. Most of the songs tell the story of a breakup of a long-term relationship (inspired by Clark’s own experience), and she takes listeners on a journey, from the opening song “I’ll Be the Sad Song” to the closing song, “The Past is the Past.”
There are many highlights on the album, including the first single “Who You Thought I Was,” the beautiful melody of “I’ll Be the Sad Song,” the stories of two different people told in “Pawn Shop,” and the humorous song “Bigger Boat,” that features a duet with legendary artist, Randy Newman.
Clark’s two previous albums are 12 Stories (in 2013, which led to her being nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards), and Big Day in a Small Town (in 2016, which received Grammy nominations for Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance).
Here’s the video of Brandy Clark’s single, “Who You Thought
Besides her work as an artist, Clark is known for co-writing classic hit songs for other artists. In 2011 she had a breakthrough, when she wrote (with Kacey Musgraves & Shane McAnally) the hit “Mama’s Broken Heart” for Miranda Lambert. Clark also teamed up with Musgraves & McAnally to write Musgrave’s acclaimed hit “Follow Your Arrow,” which was named Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards, and was ranked #39 by Rolling Stone on its list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.
Clark has also co-written the hits “Better Dig Two” (The Band Perry), “Biscuits” (Kacey Musgraves) and “Unlove You” (Jennifer Nettles). She has also co-written songs for Ashley McBryde, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Lindsay Ell, Kenny Rogers, Sheryl Crow, Craig Morgan, LeAnn Rimes and other artists.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Brandy Clark. She talks about the writing & recording of her new album, and about the hit songs she’s co-written for other artists. She also discusses the unique current situation, of what it’s been like to release her album during the Coronavirus shutdown.
DK: I really like your new album, Your Life is a Record. Can you talk about the making of this album?
Brandy Clark: I was talking about this for another interview, and I was reminded about how intimidated I was to make this record. I’ve been so proud of my first two records, so it felt like, “Oh man, what do I do here?” And the songs that rose up this time were more first-person and more personal. I had been through a breakup, so I think that was on my mind and in my heart, and that was reflected in the songs, although a few of the songs aren’t [about the breakup], like “Bigger Boat” and “Long Walk.” But overall, the subject matter kind of had a sadder tone.
Here’s the video of Brandy Clark’s song, “Love is a Fire.”
I sat down with Jay Joyce, who produced it, and I thought it would be fun to challenge someone like him to cut an album that was completely acoustic. So that’s what I did, and he loved the idea, so we went in and cut the basic tracks with just four of us…him, myself, Giles Reaves and Jedd Hughes. And somewhere along the way Jay said, “What could we do to separate this a little from every other acoustic singer/songwriter record?” And by this point we had a few electric instruments on it as well. We weren’t so rigid that we didn’t have anything electric. And I mentioned strings, and he loved the idea to send these songs to the Memphis Strings & Horns. We worked with a guy there, Lester Snell, who did some beautiful arrangements.
DK: I like how your album, from beginning to end, flows very well. It has an intimate, acoustic-sounding mood throughout the album.
Clark: Thank you. That was one of the parts that we really labored over…how to sequence this record. It’s been my hardest record to sequence…I felt very strongly about starting the record with “I’ll Be the Sad Song,” and ending it with “The Past is the Past,” because I wanted to take everybody on a journey.
DK: One of my favorite songs on the album is “I’ll Be the Sad Song,” which has a beautiful melody. How did you write this song with Jessie Jo Dillon & Chase McGill?
Clark: We were on a writing retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a place I like to go for a writing retreat, because it’s such a spiritual place and a creative spot in the world. Jessie had an idea…I think it was called “I’ll be the walls”…it was something that Zelda Fitzgerald had said to her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jessie Jo knew that wasn’t the song, but she wanted to write something like that. And so we landed on “I’ll be the sad song.” We were talking about three writers who love a sad song (laughs). You know, to think about your life is a record; and in that record I’ll be the sad song, and truthfully we’ve all got this sad song in us. And I’m glad that you love the melody, because I love the melody, too. It’s one of my favorites on the whole record.
Here’s the lyric video of Brandy Clark’s song, ‘Pawn Shop.”
DK: I know you released “Who You Thought I Was” as the single, but I also think “I’ll Be the Sad Song” could be a strong single. Is this song being considered as a single?
Clark: I sure hope so. I know that it’s a single in Norway; I was in Europe earlier this year touring, and the guy there said it was the perfect single. So I hope it ends up being a single here, too.
DK: I read that “Who You Thought I Was” was partly inspired by John Prine. So how did you write this song?
Clark: I was at the Americana Awards a couple years ago, and John Prine walked out to introduce Iris DeMent. He just walked out on the stage, and everybody stood up (and cheered) for about five minutes. And after everyone sat down, he said, “Wow, what an honor…I’d like to go back to be who you thought I was.” And it really hit me in an emotional spot. At the time, I was feeling that I’d like to go back to being who different people had thought I was at different points in my life. So it hit me that way, and it also hit me as a songwriter…Oh, that’s strong idea. So I picked my phone up and wrote that down, and the next day, I was with Jessie Jo Dillon and Jonathan Singleton and we wrote it together.
DK: Another favorite song is ”Pawn Shop.” I read that you had an uncle who owned a pawn shop. Can you talk about this song?
Clark: I did have an uncle who had a pawn shop. “Pawn Shop” was always an intriguing idea to me. I had been reading a Stephen King book and there was a scene in a pawn shop. And somebody said to the guy who ran the pawn shop, “Oh, this is great job.” And [the pawn shop owner] said, “You know, this is the job of having to tell everybody that it’s not worth what they think it is.” And that hit me, and it stuck with me as a great song idea. Then I took that to (hit songwriter) Troy Verges and we wrote it. It’s probably the oldest song on the album, and it had been in contention for my last record but it didn’t fit, and I’m so happy that it fit for this one. This was the right home for it, and I love that people find themselves in that song.
Here’s the audio of Brandy Clark’s song, “I’ll Be the
DK: Another good, fun song is “Bigger Boat,” where you sing a duet with Randy Newman. How did you connect with Randy for this duet?
Clark: One of the A&R guys on my album, (legendary producer) Lenny Waronker, has known Randy his whole life. So when we were talking about turning “Bigger Boat” into a duet, we asked Lenny if he thought Randy might do it. So Lenny said, “I’ll ask him,” and Randy said, “If I like the song I’ll do it.” So that was great when he liked it. Randy said he needed to finish Toy Story 4 first, and then he did it on Memorial Day. And he changed one line, and I loved what he did.
DK: Besides these songs that we’ve talked about, what are your other favorites on your album?
Clark: I think “Can We Be Strangers” is probably my favorite vocal that I’ve sung. I love that song. And I love the songs all for different reasons. I love “That Past is the Past,” which is the song that started this album. When I turned that song into the label, (A&R execs) Lenny Waronker and Jeff Sosnow said, “I think we should make a record.” So that song will always hold a spot in my heart, because that’s what they heard to make them want to go all in (on making the album).
DK: Besides writing for your own albums, you’re known for writing songs for other artists. Can you talk about how you co-wrote the hits “Mama’s Broken Heart” (for Miranda Lambert) and “Follow Your Arrow” (Kacey Musgraves)?
Clark: Both of those songs were written with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves, and the three of us have written a lot of songs together. For “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Shane had an idea that he told me about…”Ain’t your mama something.” He wasn’t sure what it meant, but I kind of got it. So he and I and Kacey were writing one day, and he was telling the story of how his sister was going through a breakup, and she wasn’t dealing with it the way her mom thought she should. So I said, “Maybe that can be, “Ain’t your mama something,” and we started to figure that out. And I remember thinking that “broken heart” wasn’t weird enough, but we hung with it and we wrote it that day and I thought it was a good song. Then that night, Kacey went home and she did a recording of it with her vocal & guitar, and she added handclaps, and really turned it into something special. So that’s how that happened.
Here’s the audio of Brandy Clark’s song “Bigger Boat”
(feat. Randy Newman).
With “Follow Your Arrow,” it was late in the process of Kacey making her first record, Same Trailer Different Park. Kacey wanted to have arrows in the artwork, and she’d written this poem for a friend, and she said, “Make lots of noise and kiss lots of boys, and follow your arrow.” She had that piece and she wanted to turn it into a song, so that’s what we did. And I’m really proud that I got to be a part of that song, because it means a lot to people (and won the CMA Award for Song of the Year).
DK: In the past year, you were busy working on your own album. Did you also have time to collaborate and write songs for other artists?
Clark: Yes, I co-wrote a couple songs for Ashley McBryde’s record (Never Will), and with Lindsay Ell, who’s getting ready to finish her record. I wrote a couple songs with her that I’m really excited about. You know, it’s a good balance, because I like writing with certain artists and I love what they do, because you can step into their world a little bit, and bring a bit of my world into it. And when you’re writing with someone who really knows what they want to say, it makes it easier.
DK: Brandy, this has obviously been a difficult year for everybody because of the Coronavirus crisis and the shutting down of the country. And it seemed like your album came out right when the crisis started. So what’s been like for you, to release your album during this period? And when things open up, will you be going on tour?
Clark: Oh you betcha. When [the shutdown] first happened, I was the last person that got to play live on The Today Show in New York. On that day, March 12, you could tell that something was getting ready to happen. And I remember people saying, “I think we might get locked down.” It was a little bit scary, and we had to self-quarantine for 14 days. And coming out of that, I had a moment of panic, like “Oh gosh, what do I do now?” Luckily, I have great people around me, and they were like, “Well, let’s pivot. Instead of doing appearances live, let’s try to do it online.” I’ve had to postpone a tour, but I’ve tried to do as much as I can online, and I continue to promote. I think it might have been different if I was the only person quarantined (laughs), but the whole world is. And we are on pause because of this virus. But I think people need music now more than ever, so maybe some people have discovered my music that maybe wouldn’t have. So I’ve had to slow down. But as soon as it’s safe, I’m going to go back on the road.