One of the more remarkable features of Bobbie Gentry's recordings is their lavish embroidery of down-home sensibilities. In the studio, she often framed already refined portraits of rural people and places with extravagant orchestration; Gentry's vision made her storytelling feel more like theatre.
Brandy Clark's third album, Your Life is a Record, brings her unpretentious virtuosity into focus through similar means. For the better part of the last decade, she's been cited as an emblem of Nashville songcraft and sought out as a co-writer, thanks to the earthy but exacting quality of her vignettes. Now her compositions have finally been given the orchestral treatment. With the arch, subtle and largely acoustic performances of a four-piece combo — Clark on guitar, uber producer Jay Joyce, master picker Jedd Hughes and electronic musician Giles Reaves on various instruments — they are sumptuously enhanced by the addition of the Memphis Strings & Horns.
Depicting blue-collar stoicism has always been one of Clark's strengths. That's a thread through her new compositions, too. "Bad Car" is a rumination on the private milestones witnessed by a junkyard-bound heap. "The Past is the Past" hangs modest hopes for stability on a break-up receding from the present. The self-improvement aspirations aimed at a long-gone lover in "Who You Thought I Was" are thoroughly self-effacing in tone. During those tracks, the elegant accompaniment lends heft to Clark's vocal performance, one delivered with an understated grief.
Elsewhere, the arrangements play up her work's sly wit. "Long Walk," Clark's gleefully clever tell-off of a busybody, kicks off with a frolicsome, funky, Jerry Reed-ish acoustic guitar lick, and the mischievous, swooping strings and flute mirror her exaggerated exasperation. The chipper instrumental figures scurrying through "Who Broke Whose Heart" add to the breeziness of the song's postmortem of a relationship. "Bigger Boat," her droll, sauntering duet with Randy Newman, wouldn't be the quirky track that it is without the varied sonic textures materializing around the singers.
Clark even makes her first foray into the smooth territory of '70s soft rock with "Can We Be Strangers," a gentle accounting of accumulated regret. Her repetitions of the song title's question, surrounded by staccato bow strokes and a synth haze, create the sensation of dissolving intimacy. "Love Is a Fire," with its gliding 6/8 groove, reedy organ pulse and cursive strings, is the closest this new-school country-folk exemplar has gotten to the temperate sensuality of quiet storm.
In a phone interview, Clark talks about the changes in perspective, small and large, that laid the groundwork for an approach that stands out in the Nashville of 2020.
NPR Music: You've been at different places in your career, and probably also faced different stakes, each time you've made an album. First you were an established songwriter, surprising people by how you took to the role of being a recording artist. Next time the spotlight, label, budget and scale of the production were bigger. This time, it's the same label and the same producer, but a result that feels very different. What were your ambitions for this album?
Brandy Clark: It felt more like making that first record, because with my last record [Big Day in a Small Town], we made a big push for country radio. We didn't cut the record with that in mind, but it landed somewhere sonically where Warner Bros. felt like, "Will it fit in this space?" I admittedly was very heartbroken that it didn't fare better on the charts. I had supporters at country radio, but not enough to get beyond about 39. That was one of the bigger heartbreaks of my life, if I'm being really honest, as someone who grew up getting a lot of my musical influences from the radio. Because when I was a girl, people like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, the Judds and Pam Tillis and Trisha [Yearwood], they ruled the airwaves — or at least you felt like that. So I kind of had to throw that idea out the window, like, "OK, maybe that's not going to be the lane that my music travels down." Nobody was telling me it needed to be except me. The label wasn't telling me that. I've never had a manager tell me that. But I think I really had some soul searching between my last record and this time to really think about that, and to think about what a gift it is to just get to make music.
Not only did I have some soul searching — I think Jay Joyce, who I made this record with, had a similar [experience]. He took some time off and I think he had gotten kind of burned out. I got him in an amazing season for him, because he had just come back and was really, really excited. Somebody like him, who's so known for an electric, kind of heavier sound, I thought, "What would happen if I challenged him to only cut with acoustic instruments?" I didn't expect him to get so excited. He called me with this whole idea to cut it with just four of us: myself, him, Giles Reaves, who plays percussion and piano, and Jedd Hughes, who kind of plays anything with strings. I loved that idea.
An acoustic album is often shorthand for a project that's stripped-down, minimalist or naturalistic. How did you get such fanciful performances out of that combo? What's the role of a nontraditional musician like Reaves, once known for making abstract sound art, in a rootsy setting?
I didn't know Giles going in. Jay said to me, "He's the kind of person that if we give him a clothespin, he'll make music with it." There's a song called "The Past is the Past," and I remember Jay sat a banjo on top of one of the drums and had Giles play the drums with that as part of this sonic landscape. I think he added something that was way out of my ballpark. Everybody on this — myself, Jay, Giles, Jedd — everybody brought their A-game and everybody encouraged everybody else to get out there and get a little weird. At some point, Jay said to me, "How do we make this different from every other singer-songwriter acoustic record?" And I said, "Well, I love strings." And he's like, "Ugh, I hate recording strings. You have to have so many of them. Let me think on it." Then he called me and said, "What if we recorded with the Memphis Strings & Horns?"
What aesthetic were you envisioning when you initially suggested strings?
I was just thinking probably a quartet. I was thinking maybe something along the lines of [Carole King's] Tapestry, where it's just a cellist or a couple of players. When he suggested Memphis Strings & Horns, I didn't know what to think of that. He said, "Go listen to Dusty in Memphis and I Am Shelby Lynne. I worked on I Am Shelby Lynne. That's what I'm thinking of as a sonic palette." He also referenced Bobbie Gentry, who I was very familiar with. I don't think of myself as a very big singer, and I think Jay thinks of me as a bigger singer than I am. He said, "You're a lot closer to a singer like Shelby Lynne or Dusty Springfield than you know. And I think that if we used the the Memphis guys as a flavor in this record, it would turn it into something really special."
I thought it was really interesting that you chose Randy Newman as a singing partner for "Bigger Boat." Lately, the Nashville go-to for a guest with wry wit has been John Prine. How did you settle on Newman and what do you connect with about the musical lineage that he represents?
To me, the song sounded like Randy Newman before he was on it. Not to say that my songs are Randy Newman ilk, but there was something about it that felt good to me, felt like he was the right artist. And once he agreed to do it, he changed a line. He didn't ask for writer credit. I'm just a fan of his songwriting. I love how musically interesting his stuff always is. He's got a signature musical thing that you just know it's him. Even my godson heard the song and he says, "Oh, that's the Toy Story guy!"
That's one of very few songs out of Nashville in recent memory that takes stock of the social and political state of things in a wisecracking way. What felt right to you about that approach?
I think you can get away with a lot with humor. I think you can say a lot of really serious things. If you do it with a little bit of humor, I think, at least for me, I can often get the point across better and not divide. You know, it never says, "Hey, I'm all the way left and you're all the way right." It just says, "We're either all the way left or all the way right." So it's inclusive. I just was listening to [the podcast] Dolly Parton's America, and they were talking about 9 to 5. That was one of my favorite movies as a very small child and I never realized what a statement movie that was. I really didn't even think about it — I hate to admit this — until I was listening to that podcast. Dolly said that Jane Fonda had said, "It's one of those movies that even if people hate the message, they're going to laugh, so they won't care." And I feel a little bit that way about "Bigger Boat."
In the past, you haven't necessarily given people a reason to look for autobiography in your songwriting. In fact, you've pointed out the limitations of writing that way and thinking about songwriting that way. But you're talking about this album in more personal terms and kind of calling it a breakup album. What difference did that personal frame make to the songwriting itself or the way you relate to these songs?
While I was writing the songs, I didn't even realize that, because I just write a lot of songs. Jay was actually the person who pointed it out to me: "This is a breakup record." I went through a breakup of a 15-year relationship. And my therapy on an everyday basis is to go in and write songs, so I couldn't help but write songs about that, even if they were somebody else's idea. You know, I was bringing that baggage in every day. I started to think, "Man, usually I have a bunch of story songs, and this time I have 'Pawn Shop,' which a lot of people don't even feel like is a story song, but it is, and 'Bigger Boat,' and the rest of it's all very first-person." It was scary to me: "Oh, man, this really is me. This really is what I've gone through. And it's going to hurt a little more if people don't like it, you know?"
But what I have found is how many people resonate with it. The record was kind of healing for me, and it continues to be, because now I'm in a really good place where myself and my former partner are great friends. When I wrote songs like "Who Broke Whose Heart," that was hopeful. I hoped that it would get there. I mean, I lived it and was living it while I was faking it, lived it while I was writing it, and now I get to look at it and think, "Wow, what I dreamed would be the circle of that relationship happened." Now, had it not, I don't know what I'd be saying. But it does feel really vulnerable, and a little scary because of that vulnerability.
A lot has changed in the musical landscape since you released Twelve Stories in the early 2010s. How has your understanding of where you fit, in Nashville and beyond, shifted over time?
I feel so embraced by Nashville, you know, the creative community. I don't know what I would do if I didn't have the Nashville creative community. It's where it all starts for me with the people I write with. I don't know what my place is in mainstream country music. I will always carry the torch with what I do for what I feel like is country music. It might not be what is on mainstream country radio, and that's OK. I'm actually at a place where that doesn't make me angry. It's just like, "All right, I'm going to get in where I fit in and play my music for people who want to hear it." Whether that's Americana or singer-songwriter or Triple A or whatever they want to call it, I really don't care. At this point, I'm just trying to carve my own path and make music that matters to me and that I do feel like carries on the tradition of country songwriting.