Gary Clark Jr. on 'The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,' Hip-Hop & Writing a Record About Home
The man at the helm of blues' next generation, Gary Clark, Jr., just released his sophomore studio album The Story of Sonny Boy Slim today (Sept. 11) -- a genre-spanning project grounded in Clark's lilting voice and definitive guitar skills, which have led him to shared stages alongside everyone from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton.
Clark brought three of his new songs to the set of CBS This Morning: Saturday (airing Sept. 12), interlacing the laidback melodies with his signature shredding guitar solos. The bluesy wails started echoing through the studio during soundcheck, fueled by the racks of guitar pedals in front of both Clark and his rhythm guitarist King Zapata. "This show sells records," Warner Bros.' Rick Gershon told Billboard, explaining why the appearance works for the wide-ranging Clark.
As producers set up the red-tinged Manhattan skyline backdrop, inspired by Clark's fiery album art, the man himself strutted onstage to the test grooves of his band (sunglasses on, natch). Revived from a 13-hour flight by a couple espressos, the bandleader showed off a few of his licks before digging into his new music alongside the three-piece band (and two back-up singers).
Before performing, though, Clark took a few minutes to speak to Billboard about the new album, and what's inspiring him in its wake. Watch a sneak peek of his performance below, and read on to find out more:
This is your second time on the show -- why do you think it gets across to people so well? What do you think this setting does that that maybe other shows don't?
There's a whole morning scene -- people in the morning, they don't necessarily hang out late night for the live experience. It's just a chance to say hello to some new faces, early.
What was your writing process like for this album?
I started working on the album in mid-2013. Just kind of on-and -off between touring, just kind of get home for a minute, quiet down, reflect, process, and express. Everything from singing into my phone to wandering around my house with an acoustic guitar, playing piano on an MPC -- doing whatever, just trying to put ideas down when I can.
Finally got to put it all together in the studio -- it was like a writing/recording process. If I could get in the studio, I would go in there and kind of write on the floor, or if I couldn't, just hang out at the house. On-and-off for about a year and a half -- I think it all condenses into about three months.
With taking such a long time to record the album, were there any overarching themes that emerged as you were putting it together?
Yeah, I was spending a lot of time at home. I guess we left maybe summer of 2011, just got in a 12-passenger van and took off to Bonnaroo, after playing Clapton's Crossroads in 2010, and just have been going ever since.
I think to be home for so long, and be around family and walk up and down the same streets that I used to, I was really inspired by that, and started to write about being home. It became very personal. Definitely the setting -- being able to walk from the studio to the house to the bar/venue, I was very much home. Kicked a lot of ideas.
What inspired the album's title? I read that it came out of your nicknames...
Yeah, there's a couple of them. I didn't really think about it until late in life, but my mom used to call me Sonny Boy from time to time, and I thought that was pretty cool after thinking about some of my favorite artists -- Sonny Boy Williamson, and all the blues guys. I was thinking, maybe she put me on this path that neither of us were aware of.
This guy Greg Izor, a great harmonica player, used to call me Slim every time he'd see me, and a couple of other folks called me that, so I just put them together, It was the best combination of nicknames that I've had, because some of them have been pretty terrible.
What are some of the terrible ones?
Let's not even do that -- just keep Sonny Boy Slim.
It seems like there's a little bit of a political bent to the album as well.
It was just something that was relevant -- sitting around in the studio, and touring, and [people were like] "Hey, did you hear the news?" about Ferguson, or Baltimore, or any of these things -- it really made me take a step back and think.
I was angry and confused and frustrated -- to pick up a guitar and sing about it was natural. It was there -- that's what came out.
I wouldn't say political though. More like just, people. Caring about the world.
Who are you listening to right now?
I'm listening to Kendrick [Lamar]'s new record [To Pimp A Butterfly]. Very nice work -- I applaud the man, and the whole team for putting that record together and giving it to the people. Much appreciated.
Oddisee is another artist I've been listening to. Alabama Shakes. Leon Bridges -- he's from Fort Worth too, so Texas boys all the way. Good old classics like Outkast's Aquemini, Otis Redding: Live In Europe.
There's a decent amount of hip-hop on that list -- do you see more hip-hop collaborations in your future?
Definitely -- some of these artists are really doing some great things that really resonate with me both lyrically and musically. I'm down to play some guitar, or sing a hook or verse or something, but only organically. I'm not going to push it.
If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?
I always say it -- not necessarily for the sake of collaborating, like to have my name on the same record, but I'd like to see how Prince's process is, Stevie Wonder...like, legend-icon-geniuses. How do y'all do that? I'm kind of interested in that.
I would collaborate with anybody -- I've had this nice journey where not really expecting certain things to happen has kind of allowed opportunities that I never thought would ever happen. To be able to be onstage with certain people -- I never though that I would be onstage with these people, or in the studio, so I think if I just keep quiet and don't put it out there and spoil it, it'll happen, you know?