The first time Brandy Clark recorded an album, she didn’t have too many expectations. She self-funded the recording sessions for her 2013 debut, 12 Stories, and didn’t even have a label until tiny independent Slate Creek came along at the 11th hour.
Her literate, sometimes acerbic songs struck a chord in music circles, and it wasn’t long before her profile was on the rise. Warner Bros.’ home office in Burbank bought out her deal with Slate Creek, she earned a handful of Grammy nominations — including one for the all-genre best new artist award — and secured concert opening slots for the likes of Eric Church, Alan Jackson and Jennifer Nettles. She also snagged a Country Music Association trophy for song of the year as a co-writer of Kacey Musgraves’ impactful “Follow Your Arrow,” a title that has been plastered on the sides of Coca-Cola cans and bottles in a new “Share a Coke and Song” campaign.
As a result, there’s more interest in — and more awareness of — Big Day in a Small Town, Clark’s sophomore album that’s due June 10. It’s a mixed bag for Clark, who on one hand felt pressure to deliver, but on the other had the luxury of a champion at the top of the food chain — Warner president Dan McCarroll — and the clarity that comes from connecting with an audience.
“He didn’t want to change me. He wanted to help me grow as an artist and evolve,” says Clark in a casual room with sofas, a bar and a view of 16th Avenue at the label’s Nashville office. “At the time I sat down to make Big Day in a Small Town, I had been on the road touring really hard for three years, and I hadn’t done that before 12 Stories, so there were certain elements of the live world that now I’m aware of. I see what resonates with fans and what doesn’t.”
Not surprisingly, Big Day in a Small Town presents a version of Clark that’s more creatively confident. The first sound of her voice, in the opening “Soap Opera,” comes in a blast of a cappella harmonies, almost shocking on first listen in its boldness. Some of that is Clark’s heightened sense of self, but some of it can be attributed to producer Jay Joyce (Church, Little Big Town), whose rock-based history seemed on the surface to some of Clark’s Music Row friends to be a recipe for potential disaster.
Instead, some of the sounds he brought to Big Day — such as the funky grunting tone of “Broke” or the buzzing attitude of “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’ ” — expand her sonic footprint. At the same time, the quiet thoughtfulness of “You Can Come Over” and the rolling trad-country of “Three Kids No Husband” maintain a connection to the core sound of 12 Stories.
“It doesn’t feel that different to me,” says Clark of the new album. “But I had the [experience of] not only recording the record, but writing those songs, and a lot of these songs needed something different than the songs on 12 Stories did. So it does feel bolder, and I just think the edges are a little different.”
One thing that’s fairly similar is the thematic material. Clark showed a knack on 12 Stories for exploring flawed, small-town personalities doing their best to muddle through addictions and thwarted dreams. Even the title of Big Day in a Small Town proclaims continuity, and there’s plenty of it: the former high-school beauty grappling with her sagging hopes in “Homecoming Queen,” the adult woman contemplating a family broken by the death of a strong father figure in “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” the inflated dramas on the grapevine in “Soap Opera.”
Where towns of every size are populated by people more than willing to fix blame for their situation on an outside source, Clark’s characters invariably look inward and take a measured evaluation of their circumstances. She writes about them in a way that they tend to see themselves with brutal honesty.
“I have a song I just wrote called ‘Making the Best of My Bad Decisions,’ ” says Clark of those reflective self-evaluations in the songs. “That’s what we all have to do. I mean, a lot of times the bad choices shape our life more than even the good ones.”
Clark views her own current circumstances as a measure of good fortune. While she signed with Warner’s pop division, Warner Music Nashville got involved when the Big Day material showed signs of fitting mainstream country sensibilities. “Girl Next Door,” a feisty, driving piece with a big chorus and clever imagery, has all the sonic hallmarks of a hit, even if its chart performance hasn’t yet shown it: It remains at No. 41 in its 16th week on Country Airplay. That’s perhaps a slower climb than either she or the label might have hoped for, but as research comes back, she’s beginning to see stations bumping up the spin count.
“I can get really frustrated until I talk to the promo team and see how excited they are,” says Clark. “They always reference other records they’ve worked that have been hits, and they’re like, ‘Man, at this point on this record, we were not near here.’
“The thing that’s really promising to me is any market that has played it enough to research it has converted it. I played a show in Scranton [Pa.], and [WGGY PD] Tanya Burko said, ‘This thing researched off the charts for us.’ When I played it that night at their guitar pull, it felt like I was playing a hit, because they’ve heard it in that market.”
It’s clearly not the first time around anymore. Brandy Clark is starting to have expectations.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.