Growing up black in the red state of Texas, Gary Clark Jr. considered racism par for the course. He remembers someone leaving dog feces in the mailbox of his family’s home when he was only a kid. When he was 23, a white store clerk told him “those ain’t for you” after he inquired about a vintage microphone. The most recent brush -- a shouting match with his neighbor who refused to believe Clark was the owner of his 50-acre Austin home -- had the most visceral effect on the now 34-year-old, mainly because the explosive exchange happened in front of Clark’s 3-year-old son, Zion.
“I don’t want to be that angry guy, but I’m pissed that in 2018 we still got to deal with this after everything my family went through, my family before them went through,” says Clark today. “I don’t want to have to tell my son that I was insulted because of my skin color. So I was just like, ‘I’m in your neighborhood. I’m going to be here. There’s going to be more of us here. Fuck you.’” But it didn’t end there. Clark went straight to the studio and funneled the tension into the title track to his forthcoming album This Land, out March 1 on Warner Bros. Records.
Clark strikes a match with the first verse, singing: “Paranoid and pissed off/Now that I got the money/Fifty acres and a Model A/Right in the middle of Trump country.” By the arrival of its hook (“N--a run! N--a run! Go back where you come from”), his guitar combusts into an inferno. “It’s menacing, dangerous,” says Clark of the track, which was the last he recorded for the album. Its accompanying music video, which follows black children as they navigate a South still waving the Confederate flag, is equally potent.
The rock, soul and R&B-influenced tracks include “Guitar Man,” in which Clark waxes nostalgic for Austin’s famous Sixth Street, where he got his start. It was there, as a preteen guitar prodigy, that Clark gigged with Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray’s older brother (when Clark was 19, he went on his first-ever tour with Jimmie and his band). “At a very young age I started hanging out with people who were creative and open-minded,” recalls Clark. “We all looked different and came from different backgrounds, so I stayed around that.” In 2010, he caught the attention of Warner Bros. during a show at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe. Within a year, he was signed.
With six No. 1s on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart, four No. 1s on Blues Digital Song Sales and a Grammy win in 2014 for best traditional R&B performance for “Please Come Home,” off his 2012 debut full-length, Black and Blu, Clark has reinvigorated the blues for a new generation. The Obamas invited him to the White House to perform, and icons like B.B. King and Eric Clapton asked him to jam with them. He has landed songwriting credits with artists like Alicia Keys, collaborations with Nas and Foo Fighters, and has plans to produce for Jill Scott (“She has been hitting me up since I first got in the game, but I wasn’t ready”).
With This Land, Clark felt he had been “off the court too long” and wanted to come back strong. He enlisted longtime collaborator Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre) and also brought in Sheila E. on percussion. “What she gave us in a few hours changed the whole vibe of the album,” he says. Clark recorded most of it in Los Angeles, where he and his family were living while his wife, Australian model Nicole Trunfio, was pregnant with their daughter, Gia. When they returned to Austin, he rounded out its sound with his new MPCX, a sampler and sequencer.
Clark feels inspired to get behind the board even more moving forward. “I love music because of the producers,” he says, calling out Quincy Jones in particular. “I’m happiest creating music because there are no rules or boundaries. You can do anything that you want.” But the biggest difference on This Land? His unvarnished message. “I’ve finally found my voice,” says Clark.
His manager, Scooter Weintraub, says, “This is Gary’s tipping point album, to be considered among D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and [Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp a Butterfly. Those great African-American statements.”
On Feb. 16, Clark will be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and come March 9, he will hit the road for a headlining tour, including a stop at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “I play shows and see all types of different faces,” he says, “then some just scurry back to their own thing. I say, ‘Let’s keep it connected. Let’s not leave [that sense of togetherness] at the venue.’ ”
Clark’s growing family has him feeling more empowered to deliver on that. “We need to feed the babies empathy,” he says. “We are so about ‘us against the world,’ but everyone is trying to do the same thing: just make it.”
When he was president of Warner Bros. Records, Lenny Waronker signed Prince and worked with Eric Clapton. Now 77 and senior vp A&R at Warner, he says Gary Clark Jr. is unlike anyone on his celeb-studded CV. “There was something I couldn’t articulate” about him, he says of their first encounter a decade ago. “He was more than a blues guitar player.” Three albums in, Clark and his “singular” talent continue to surprise Waronker.
What does working with Clark entail?
Not much. He’s one of those artists that marches to his own drum. He likes to have the freedom to create, and will open up at some point but not necessarily at the very beginning. There’s very little creative input [from me]. He’ll listen, but mostly it has to come from him.
Did you talk about This Land being more political?
No. He’s expressing himself in the most authentic way. It’s not something you can talk about. It’s coming from his heart. It’s one of those things where you just say, “I’m betting on this guy because he’s special.” And on this new album -- like most great artists, it takes a couple of albums -- he got it [right].
What other artists are in his lane?
I don’t know that anybody is doing what he’s doing. Because he has a massive musical IQ, he can take things and bend them. And you root for him because he’s shy and humble, but he’s strong, too. The strength comes from his belief in himself.
-- JOE LYNCH