Interview: How Brandy Clark Found Freedom in a ‘Career-Defining’ Record and an Amicable Breakup With Country Radio
Having a much-buzzed-about album is a good problem to have. In the months and weeks leading up to the release of her third studio album, Your Life Is a Record, Brandy Clark saw high praise from the likes of CMT's Leslie Fram and NPR's Ann Powers, who heralded the album as her "masterpiece" and an "instant classic," respectively.
While Clark admits that those commendations up the pressure a bit, she agrees with the estimation that Your Life Is a Record, out Friday (March 6), is a career-defining album that speaks, more directly than ever, to who she is as an artist.
"I do, and here's why," Clark explains to The Boot. "It's the first record I've made -- and this wasn't on purpose, it was just the way it shook out -- that there were so many first-person songs. I'm such a storyteller, and most of my [albums] have a lot of story songs and third-person narratives. On this one, the only song that really does is "Pawn Shop," which still feels very personal."
The project sees Clark expanding out of familiar territory, not only through a turn to more personal lyrical structure, but also in terms of the music itself. She and producer Jay Joyce challenged themselves to cut this album entirely acoustically, teaming up with the Memphis Horns & Strings for extra depth. They laid down the foundations of the music with a four-person crew comprised of only Clark, Joyce, Giles Reeves and Jed Hughes.
Leaning into the acoustic format was a challenge for Joyce, who's known for his prowess with electric instruments -- but Clark says it was a big learning experience for her, too. "I played on both of my other records -- but I played a lot more on this one," she points out. "I had to carry more of that weight. So yeah, that gets scary.
"I remember saying to [Joyce] at one point, 'Look, if we need an electric sound here or there, we can break the rules.' And you'll notice there are a few electric guitars [on the album]," Clark adds. "But he said, 'Yeah, but it would be better if we can paint ourselves into a corner, because we'll be more creative.' And he was right about that."
Indeed they were. In fact, Clark remembers taking a photo, one day during recording, of one of the studio assistants holding up a paper towel roll for Hughes to blow through against the strings of an acoustic guitar. They were cutting the song "Bigger Boat," and chasing a very specific sound that was more difficult to pin down acoustically.
Clark is the first one to admit that she's fairly sensitive to how her music is received: She says she's had some nervous surrounding the release dates of every single one of her albums to date. However, this time around, the singer let go of of the idea of catering to fan appeal in one critical way.
"I'm always worried about, 'Oh, we need tempo on the record.' I did not worry about that this time," Clark explains. That's not to say there aren't moments of levity -- quirky, tongue-in-cheek songs including "Long Walk" and "Bigger Boat" break up the heartbreak and heaviness of the record with little doses of humor -- but she didn't chase anything remotely resembling an uptempo, earworm hit.
"And I found that that worked out a little better," Clark continues. "The second grat track off this album was "I'll Be the Sad Song," and people really flipped out over it. Fans I've had for a long time were like, 'Wow, I've never heard anything like this from you.' Which was shocking to me, because I write a lot of songs like that, but I haven't put them on albums."
The singer says Your Life Is a Record taught her a lot of lessons, but one of the most important of those is that the best thing she can do for her fans is to make the music she loves most, because her fans are likely to like the same kind of songs she does.
"That's why they're a fan of mine," she points out. "They tend to like a lot of the same artists that influenced me."
In order to make a career-defining record, Clark had to let go of some expectations she had for herself as an artist -- among them, her hopes of being embraced by country radio. Your Life Is a Record is a breakup album, and the singer says the inspiration for that came as much from her decision to stop chasing radio's embrace as it did from any romantic dissolution.
"With my last album, Big Day [in a Small Town], they worked it at country [radio] because they really felt like there were some things that could work. I hoped that it would," Clark explains. "I mean, it got Top 40, but of course I wanted more. I was really heartbroken about that. This album's as much about that as it is about any actual breakup."
When it came time to start working on Your Life Is a Record, Clark and her team decided not to waste much time marketing the songs to country radio. "I did hear, 'Look, the country radio door's not swinging open for you. Let's not knock on it,'" she recalls. "That's not always the easiest thing to hear, but it made me think differently in my own mind, like, 'What do I have to lose here? Let me just make the best record I can make and see where it lays.'"
"Nobody ever told me to make a certain kind of record, ever, but in my mind, I always had myself in this box. I definitely knocked the walls down this time ..."
It wasn't that Clark had a particularly bad breakup with country radio -- all things considered, it was pretty amicable, actually -- but as with any breakup, the rejection stung.
"Look, if you can get in the door of country radio, more power to you. There are a lot of great people in country radio and great artists being played on country radio," she offers. "I don't have horror stories about country radio like a lot of people do. I just didn't get as much of it as I would have liked to."
As when recovering from any heartbreak, Clark moved on with time. As she put together her new album, she noticed that as her sadness started to fade, she found a lot of freedom in being able to make the kind of music she loved.
"Nobody ever told me to make a certain kind of record, ever, but in my mind, I always had myself in this box," she reflects. "I definitely knocked the walls down this time and thought, 'Okay, you know what, I don't care. Put flute on it.' Whereas in the past I would have been like, 'Uh, there's not really flute on country records.'
"So I guess I had to go through that to get to here," she adds.
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