At the 2021 Grammy Awards, much-heralded Nashville songwriter Brandy Clark and Americana stalwart Brandi Carlile were nominated for their collaboration “Same Devil.” Though the duet didn’t cinch a win that year for the two singer-songwriters (Clark has 10 Grammy nods to date, while Carlile has nine wins), it did provide the genesis for Clark’s self-titled album, which released Friday (May 19).
“She leaned over to me and said, ‘Hey buddy, I’d love to produce a whole record on you.’ I was really taken aback and flattered,” Clark tells Billboard, noting the shared geographical roots between the two Washington state natives. “She said, ‘I like to think things through and I see it as your return to the Northwest.’”
Clark, who now splits her time between California and Nashville, has formed a reputation as one of Nashville’s most sought-after writers, one capable of penning songs that are both commercial and clever, including “Better Dig Two” (The Band Perry), the CMA song of the year-winning “Follow Your Arrow” (Kacey Musgraves) and the Grammy-nominated songs “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) and “Beautiful Noise” (Brandi Carlile/Alicia Keys).
In 2013, Clark issued her own debut album, the sterling 12 Stories, followed by 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town and 2020’s Your Life is a Record. The new album pairs the twin pillars of Clark’s songwriting muscle (and intimate vocal talents), with Carlile’s skills as a collaborator and producer. Carlile previously co-produced the Tanya Tucker project While I’m Livin’, which brought Tucker her first two Grammy wins in her decades-long career.
“She pushed me a lot. I’ve never been as challenged by a producer as I was by her,” Clark says, noting Carlile’s approach to narrowing down the songs that ultimately make up the album.
“I gave her like 18-24 songs and asked her to pick about a dozen. I liked them all, but I was surprised by some of her choices. She told me, ‘I chose the songs that I thought sounded like you wrote them in your bedroom, and not in the writing room.’ And that was a really good reminder for me, because when we all got into music it wasn’t because we needed it to be perfect; it was because it moved us.”
On this carefully constructed, eponymous project — Clark’s fourth album — she turns her detailed style of songcraft on her own stories, relying less on character sketches and instead excavating her own stories, familial influences and even emotional hesitancies as source material.
“Dear Insecurity,” is a musical letter to the self-critical hauntings, written with Michael Pollack (Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers”). “I knew from day one that I wanted that song to be on this record,” Clark says. “When we went into the studio, it was also on Brandy’s list. She suggested a duet and I instantly loved the idea.”
Carlile had a list of artists she had thought about bringing onto the record — names including Ed Sheeran and Lucinda Williams. But when Carlile sang on the scratch vocal, Clark was so moved by the sound of their intertwined voices across the vulnerable lyric that she decided to keep the duet with Carlile.
“We do share some similar insecurities, and that’s probably why it comes off the way it does. To me, it’s a great song, but when you add her to it, it makes it exponentially something else, just magic,” Clark says.
Carlile’s own longtime collaborators, Lucius, offer otherworldly vocals on the bluesy groove of “All Over Again” and are featured on “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her.”
“I don’t go to a ton of shows — I should go to more — but the last time I went to a show it was one of theirs,” Clark says. “When I mentioned that I love their music, Brandi was like, ‘They have to be on this record.’ She got them and her brother Jay [Carlile] to sing and give it that choir thing [on “All Over Again”]. I don’t know how we’re gonna pull it off live, because we don’t have that many voices onstage, but we’ll figure it out.”
“She Smoked in the House,” which was written about Clark’s late grandmother, vividly recounts a woman who unabashedly lit up cigs in the house and cut the mold off of cantaloupe and cheese.
“I used to write a lot in the car. I would take drives out to Leiper’s Fork in Nashville when I was blocked and songs would come to me. That song came when I was driving around and really on a Merle Haggard kick,” Clark says. “I was missing my grandparents and he always takes me back to that — I got stuck on ‘Are the Good Times Really Over’ for weeks — that would be the only thing I would listen to.”
Carlile started out attempting to craft “a big wide sweep about her generation,” writing numerous verses, though not enough that connected with her emotionally. “I kept thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this song?’ Then I remembered something Mark Sanders — who is a fantastic writer — told me early in my career. He said, ‘If you want to be general, you must first be specific.’ And honestly, the song was really about my grandma, so once I locked in on that, there weren’t a lot of throwaway lines. I can’t believe the texts that I’ve received from people who say, ‘She cut the mold off of cantaloupe — that’s my grandma, too.’”
A five-day writing retreat in September 2021 with Jimmy Robbins and Jessie Jo Dillon yielded two sonically disparate tracks — the bluesy murder story “Ain’t Enough Rocks” (featuring Derek Trucks), and the tender ballad “Up Above the Clouds.”
The former was written the first night of the retreat, and inspired by a famous scene in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, where the character Jenny is throwing rocks at the home she once grew up in.
“She says, ‘Sometimes there’s just not enough rocks,’ and Jessie Jo said she had always wanted to write a song about that scene,” Clark says. “Jessie Jo, Jimmy and I have each known different people who were sexual abuse survivors, but it did feel a little weird to me to record it because, fortunately for me, I’m not an abuse survivor. But my way into it is that all of that song is the storyteller, but the last verse is ‘Some crimes don’t deserve a jury or a penitentiary.’ I believe that, so I can get into it from that point of view. I love that this song comes first, and then ‘Buried’ follows it, because the record has a whole palette of colors here.”
“Up Above the Clouds (Cecelia’s Song)” is a tender ballad dedicated to a child battling cancer, the niece of one of Clark’s best friends. “We sent the song to his brother, Cecelia’s dad, and his brother sent me a text about how much that song meant to them,” Clark says. “It was just the work tape, helping him to see the sunshine amongst all these clouds in their lives. It was heavy on my heart and I asked Jessie Jo and Jimmy if we could dedicate that song to her and Jessie Jo said, ‘Why don’t we just call it “Cecelia’s Song?”‘ I was really moved by that.”
Alongside crafting her new album, Clark has seen the long-awaited release of the musical Shucked, the project she and writer/producer Shane McAnally have been crafting for the past decade. At the recent Tony Awards nominations announcement, Shucked picked up nine overall nods, including original score. “I’ve never been involved with something that has taken on the life that this has; it’s been an incredible gift,” Clark says.
She was also a key contributor to Ashley McBryde’s collaborative album Lindeville, which musically tells stories from the different perspectives of the unique characters that reside in the fictional Lindeville (Clark also performed alongside McBryde on the recent ACM Awards). Moving forward, we could see more cinematic-flavored works from Clark.
“I’d love to write all the music for a movie. I’ve also had people approach me about — it’s never panned out — about turning one of my records into a series or a movie. I’d love to do that. I love writing visually, and I think more on a big-project basis even than writing songs and trying to get people to cut them. I did that for so long and I loved it, but now I gravitate towards full projects. I’d love to do music for a dark comedy, something like Raising Arizona. I also think I could do something animated. If I could do anything with musicals and movies, the thing I wished I could have done would be Charlotte’s Web. But [Shucked] has opened doors for me to things I probably can’t even dream.”