The prolific and acclaimed country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark performs in Auckland tomorrow. Sam Brooks talked to her ahead of her performance.
“I hate stripes, and orange ain’t my colour.
If I squeeze that trigger tonight, I’ll be wearing one or other.
There ain’t no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion
The only thing saving your life is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.”
In one chorus, Brandy Clark’s ‘Stripes’ gives us three killer punchlines and a character you’d want to hang out with on a Friday night.
It’s that talent for characterisation that Brandy Clark does better than anybody else in country music, and probably in music in general. And if my praise doesn’t convince you, countless year-end awards, six Grammy nominations and her collaborators (Shane McNally, Kacey Musgraves) should do the trick.
Country music is all about vivid stories and memorable characters. There’s a reason why you’ve never met anybody born since 1973 that was called ‘Jolene’, you know. What Clark does best is fill entire albums full of humans you could swear you’ve met in your real life. There’s the woman scorned in ‘Stripes’, the defiant teetotaller in ‘Hungover’, the smirking ex in ‘Daughter’ – each song has a character, and whether Clark is playing the character herself or the omniscient narrator from above, they feel like someone you’d meet.
But these songs wouldn’t be the same without Clark’s warm, unpretentious vocals. There’s no talent show caterwauling or throat-first singing in Clark’s performances, just the softness of someone telling you a story from behind the kitchen counter while squeezing the last bit of wine out of the cask. But Clark knows a good punchline, and you can almost hear the smile in her voice when she nails a particularly perfect one.
Ahead of her Tuning Fork performance as a part of the Introducing Nashville group show, I talked to Clark about her songwriting, her performing and the way she works humour into her songs.
So how do you get into the songs as a songwriter? Where do you start?
It starts all kinds of ways for me. Sometimes it might be a conversation, something that you say might hit me weird. It might strike me as unique and I might think, “Okay, I can turn that into a song.”
Sometimes it starts with a lyric, it rarely for me starts with just a melody. I’ve had a few that have but it’s usually a title or an overall big idea. Or I might see something on TV, read something in a book – I’ve always got my antenna out looking for a song.
But your songs are so character driven, so once you find a character or an idea, how do you expand it into a full song?
It always has a grain of truth. Most of my characters are composites – there may be someone I know in it.
So for the song ‘Get High’, I saw the TV show Weeds and I started thinking about marijuana, and thought about a girl I went to high school with that smoked a lot when we got out of high school. So for me, the song started as her.
I was going to community college, and I would get done with school and get home, and she was going to school too. Then another friend of ours had had a baby, and she was living in an apartment raising her baby and when they were done with school they would get stoned, and make pies and stuff.
That’s where the song was in my head, and then that woman became a lot of people I had known and also parts of myself. All my characters have some part that’s me, but I just sit down, and if I can imagine the kitchen where they live, then I can write a song.
It always starts for me in a kitchen, usually. If I can see the kitchen, or see the paint or the wallpaper, then I can imagine a little bit more how they think.
So how do you translate that into a performing context? In your own head, how do you find your way into the song onstage?
When I’m writing songs, that’s really basic, I’m trying to break down the basic human emotions.
But when I perform them I do have to get a bit into character. When I’m onstage I talk a little slower, I get made up and dress a little different, but I try to go back to what I was thinking when I was writing those songs. That helps centre me.
So tomorrow night, when I play ‘Get High’, I’ll think about that kitchen that I’m talking about. That’s how I’ll stay in that. Or with a song like ‘Hold My Hand’, to me that took place in a certain restaurant. I think about that when I’m singing it. That’s how I connect to that as a performer.
I saw this great interview with Bonnie Raitt, and she said that you have to treat every night like it’s opening night, because there’s someone there who has never seen you.
I try to bring it back to that – when you see me, I want it to feel like the first time I ever performed that song.
Finally, you have a really great sense of humour.
Oh, I’m glad it comes through in the songs!
And it’s quite specific, there’s a balance of light and dark there. Do you find that the humour is received differently where you go around the world?
I think life is a dark comedy, and I feel I’ve got so much dark in my music that I had to have a little comedy. It makes it more palatable.
That’s exactly how life works, though. If it’s all just sadness, then it doesn’t feel real.
We find humour in the weirdest, saddest places.
We have to, it’s the only way to get through it. You cry until you laugh, then you gotta laugh until you cry, and sometimes both at the same time. We all as people, they say that music is the universal language, but humour is a little different. Humour in the UK is different than humour in the US, but when you sit and have a conversation then you realise that we all kind of laugh in the same place.
I think the truth is funny. I didn’t write ‘Get High’ to be funny, but it is funny, because it’s truthful.
And the song ‘Daughter’ came from a real situation, and there is a funniness to it, but there’s a sadness to it, “Okay, you broke my heart, I hope your karma is that you have a daughter.”
I think that all that plays well wherever I’ve played!
Brandy Clark is performing as part of the Introducing Nashville lineup at The Tuning Fork in Auckland on Tuesday March 26. Devin Dawson, Lindsay Ell and NZ singer Kaylee Bell. You can buy tickets here.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.