The attitude of "Girl Next Door" mirrors that of her debut single, "Stripes." In both cases, the singer is standing up to an inappropriate lover. Cementing the similarities, both songs find her so angry that she has to restrain herself from committing a criminal act that would land her in jail.
But the sound of "Girl Next Door" defies stylistic expectations. Instead of framing her as a throwback singer-songwriter, it casts her as a current, edgy artist with a clever wit. Big Day in a Small Town was produced by Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage the Elephant), and the mash-up of folky storyteller and boundary-pushing studio guru puts a more aggressive spin on her music. It also gives her a better shot at a commercial breakthrough.
"I didn't want to try to make the same record," says Clark. "I'm so proud of 12 Stories, and I knew that if I tried to do something exactly like it, it just wouldn't be good. It would be stagnant. And I would rather make something that is different. I always want to grow as an artist, and I would rather do that and fall on my face than try to do the same thing and just stay where I am."
"Girl Next Door" owes its existence to the ex-boyfriend of co-writer Jessie Jo Dillon ("The Breath You Take"). Following an argument, Dillon carped to Clark about the tiff on the phone: "If he wants the girl next door, go next door!" As soon as she blurted it out, both writers saw the phrase as a potential hook. Clark and songwriter Shane McAnally ("Break Up in a Small Town," "Stay a Little Longer") were up to their ears in work on Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, a production that played last fall at the Dallas Theater Center. But "Girl Next Door" was such a great idea that they took a day away from Hee Haw to write it with Dillon.
While Clark didn't necessarily see herself as the artist who would record it, her personality was at least part of the inspiration for Dillon.
"I was thinking about myself, for sure, as a woman in the song, but I was thinking about Brandy a lot, too," says Dillon. "She in her own way is just, 'This is me, take it or leave it.' I love that, and we're similar in that way."
With "Girl Next Door" established as the finish line in the chorus, they started at the top of the song, keyed by an acoustic guitar riff that Clark introduced. They referenced a handful of perfect-woman stereotypes -- Debbie debutante, a Barbie doll and Brady Bunch character Marcia Brady -- as the singer battles Stepford Wives conformity with verbal, female aggression.
"We're talking about a character who's on the verge [of exploding], as opposed to already having gone and keyed a car and carved her name [like] in 'Before He Cheats,' which is the ultimate of those songs," says McAnally. "Once you've done that, you've got to find a new way to do it."
They sealed the deal in the chorus with a "Virgin Mary metaphor" line that all of them debated. Clark thought "metaphor" might be too cerebral for a country song, while Dillon and McAnally feared the religious imagery might be too controversial. That didn't sway Clark in the least.
"We would've had to change that probably for anybody else," notes McAnally. "And to me, that's the best line."
When they arrived at the "go next door" payoff, McAnally served up a surprise post-chorus chant -- "Go next door, and go right now/Don't look back, don't turn around" -- that extended the theme past the expected finish line. The writing went fast, and they came back a couple of days later to shore up the first verse.
McAnally produced a demo that the musicians nailed on the first take, and the song got shopped around on Music Row, with Little Big Town nibbling but never quite claiming it. Ultimately, Clark started thinking of "Girl Next Door" as her song, and she took it into Joyce's St. Charles Studio in East Nashville, where it gained an even more aggressive texture during five days of rehearsal for the album. They recorded for a couple of days, then Joyce burrowed into the songs alone for another nine days before Clark heard the results.
"He's such an artist himself and needs time to just create on his own," says Clark.
When they turned in the album to Warner Bros.' Los Angeles division, Warner president Dan McCarroll accepted the entire project except "Girl Next Door," which he thought needed more work. Joyce gave it a new, almost-disco bassline and changed a couple of other things around it. Then Clark went in to re-sing it, matching its new energy level while envisioning it as a feisty message about determining her own direction as an artist.
"The song is about a woman telling a guy, 'I can't change who I am. That's what you thought was cool about me,' " she says. "But for me to really inhabit the song, it has more meaning [with] the music business."
McAnally and Morgane Stapleton added background vocals, and the new version was such an improvement that "Girl Next Door" became the first single. Warner Music Nashville shipped it to radio through Play MPE on Jan. 22 with a Feb. 16 add date.
More than a year since they wrote it, Dillon has moved on from the boyfriend that inspired "Girl Next Door" -- "shocking," she says sarcastically. "He would probably get off on that, knowing it was about him," she adds. "I haven't told him, but maybe I should -- at the No. 1 party."
Clark isn't making such bold chart predictions, but she's cautiously optimistic that her real-woman dismissal of Marcia Brady- and Virgin Mary-level perfection might push her a little further into the mainstream than she got with 12 Stories and "Stripes."
"I wanted [this album] to be great," says Clark. "I didn't want to just be nominated for best new artist at the Grammys and then nobody ever hear from me again."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.