By Brian Ives
Just because you’re a star in the world of music, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to launch a hit musical. Sting and Peter Gabriel are just two legends to try to launch Broadway musicals that didn’t meet with commercial success. That doesn’t seem likely to deter country singer/songwriter Brandy Clark, who has dreams of bringing Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical to the Great White Way. She has other things on her mind in the immediate future though: on Friday she released her second album, Big Day in a Small Town, the follow-up to her critically revered debut, 2013’s 12 Stories.
Clark spoke with us about both the album and the musical, and also about making the transition from behind-the-scenes songwriter to recording artist.
Like a lot of other country artists, you got your start as a songwriter before getting a record deal. Do you think you would have been happy just writing songs and staying relatively anonymous?
There have been times along the journey where I’ve thought, “Have I made the right move?” It was a dream of mine to make my own records, and then my songwriting started to take off, and I thought that there was no way at that point that I was gonna get to make a record. I mean, I would still make records, but I just didn’t think I’d get to be an artist in the bigger sense with a label and all that.
Then Emilie Marchbanks, who became my manager, heard some demos and was like, “You’ve gotta make a record” and helped make that happen. And so then I put out (2013 debut album) 12 Stories on a very small label, Slate Creek Records, and it started to get legs, and then it got GRAMMY nominations.
But along the way, I saw peers of mine that were just taking the songwriting path having all kinds of success as writers. So along that path you start to think, “Am I on the right path?” And I had a real “Ah-ha!” moment recently where I was like, “Yeah, I really am.”
When “Hold My Hand” was nominated for Country Song of the Year, it hit me that I’m on exactly the right path, because I know that if I had not recorded that song, the world would never have heard it, and I know how much that song means to me, and I know how much it means to a lot of people.
And so it just hit me: “You know what, Brandy? You are doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, and this is the road you’re supposed to be on. And thank God you’re on it. Because of that, this song that means so much to you has had this major spotlight shown on it.”
Can you still walk down the street in Nashville without being accosted?
Oh, yeah. I can walk down the street in Nashville and not be bothered. People know who I am, but Nicole Kidman can walk down the street in Nashville and not be bothered. Nashville is really a great place for people who are in the public eye to live, because it’s just commonplace. And I’m known, but I’ve been there so long, I’m known like the guy that walks into the bar. It’s like, “Hey, how’s it goin’?”
12 Stories got such good reviews; was that a big validation?
Wow. It was a lot of validation. ’Cause that record, we made it, and then getting it to be heard was the real difficult part. We hopped it around to major labels, who were all interested… but wouldn’t pull the trigger. And then Slate Creek came along and signed it, and it felt like “The Little Engine that Could.”
And there are times when you’re doing that where you start to feel a little silly, like, “Wow, am I just pushing this because of pride, like I want my record to come out, and is everybody kinda laughing at me?” You start to feel that way.
And then when places like The New York Times review it, and I remember the New York Post, their review, that in particular; I started to feel like, “This really does hit people in the heart.”
People say that reviews don’t matter; if I get a bad review, I’ll say reviews don’t matter. But when you get a good review, you’re like pumping your fist on the inside and feeling real good about it.
You performed on the GRAMMYS with Dwight Yoakam. He really likes traditional country; do you think you’re seen as a torchbearer for old-school country?
Two people who have really waved my flag are Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart, both of whom I was and still am a huge fan of. And so for them to like what I do is really, really—that’s really big. I remember waiting in line to buy Dwight’s records. So him being willing to perform with me on the GRAMMYs, and like you said, kinda more behind me than in front of me, it was like the best two and a half minutes of my life. I always say that, and I mean it, really. And when I watch it back, it’s like, “Wow. I can’t believe that happened.”
Melissa Etheridge told us in an interview that your song “Get High,” blew her away, and she wished she’d written it with you.
I did read that. My nose has always been so deep in country music that I haven’t paid attention a lot outside of it, but you couldn’t not know who Melissa Etheridge is. I remember when Yes I Am came out, everybody had that record. So that meant a lot, and it’s great to me that my music would touch somebody that isn’t necessarily right in the middle of traditional country.
You said country music is a “truth-telling” format. Where do you get your truth? You’re not, for example, the character from “Three Kids, No Husband” from Big Day in a Small Town.
I find it a lot of times in people I know, friends of mine. Every song that I have, there’s a grain of truth in it. I’ve heard it said that a great storyteller never lets the truth get in the way of a great story. So there’s some elaboration, but it all comes from a real place. And like you mentioned “Three Kids No Husband,” not my story, but I know women and men and it’s their story. I know men who it’s “three kids, no wife.” So that’s not a hard place for me to go to.
Explain the story behind Big Day in a Small Town‘s “Love Can Go To Hell.”
That was just a title I had, “Love Can Go to Hell.” And I meant it like it can fall apart, like hell in a handbasket. And I took that in to write with a guy I write a lot, Scott Stepakoff. And he heard it completely different, like “love can go to hell,” like you’re mad at love [itself]. And so that was really amazing, ’cause I hadn’t thought of all the ways that it could mean a little something different.
The song “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin'” is another highlight from the new album. And really, what else is there really to write about other than those three things?
I wrote that by myself. It’s probably the oldest song on the record, and I’m so glad that it ended up on this record because I didn’t know if it would ever end up on a record. But it’s one of those I wrote, I started it at the very top, and it started with that groove. I just liked that groove, and I was playing my guitar, and I just sang that first line, “I ain’t been drinking, but if I was drinking, I think I’d be drinking bourbon.”
And it sort of became a daydream, if you could just sort of kiss your reality goodbye and responsibilities goodbye, what you would do? And in my mind I had the characters figured out in my head, and they lived in a place where the dishes were stacked two sinks high, just kinda had it with each other.
And I think Shane McAnally came in and sang on that with me, and he didn’t feel real confident in his vocal. And Jay only wanted him to take it like twice, because he wanted it to feel very real. And somebody mentioned to him, “It sounds like you and Shane are singing to each other in that,” and I was like, that is so perfect. I think he did a fabulous job; I wanna add that.
Do you think of Big Day in a Small Town as a concept album?
That’s what I did with 12 Stories, I think it helps to have a concept, even if you don’t end up with a “concept album.” It helps because it narrows the focus of the song selection.
And one of the concepts I had was to do a record called Big Day in a Small Town, and all the songs could take place in this small town. But songs like “Love Can Go to Hell,” that can take place in the middle of Manhattan, and that’s true of all of them.
The subject of marijuana used to be super-taboo in country music. As someone who has addressed the matter in song, when did that change?
Well, when I wrote the song “Get High,” which was the oldest song on my first record, it was very taboo. When I wrote it. Now by the time it came out it wasn’t so taboo, but I think when it became legalized, people started to write about it more. But when I wrote about it, it was so taboo that the publisher wouldn’t demo it, ’cause there’s no way that song would get cut.
And even for TV placements, I think the television show Weeds probably did a lot for that as well, just sort of put it in our bigger consciousness. I don’t know, but I do notice a lot of other songs about it: the Brothers Osborne, who I’m a big fan of, have that “Greener Pastures” song. In some ways I’m like, man I feel like my “Get High” song was special, and now everybody’s got one.
I sell a lot of “Get High” merch. But that song to me was never about pot. It was just the vehicle to tell the story; it was more about escapism and how one woman escapes her life, the parts of her life that are too hard to deal with.
“Hold My Hand” feels like such an honest song.
You always hate to say you have one favorite song you’ve written, but it’s my favorite pretty consistently. It’s a great song for me to perform every night. If we have to do a shorter set it never gets cut, and that says a lot about it.
I love it because I feel like there’s nobody that doesn’t relate to it. I had somebody come up to me, another songwriter I really respect say, “Wow, that’s the heart of a woman” when I first started playing that out. And that comment meant a lot to me, but I thought, “No, really it’s the heart of a human.” It’s not about a man or a woman, it’s really, it’s a human heart, it’s a vulnerability. And my favorite songs are usually songs about a real big vulnerability.
Like, Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is one of my favorite songs. There’s a lot of reasons I love that song, but I always go back to the line, “Tonight with words unspoken you say that I’m the only one, but will my heart be broken when the night meets the morning sun?” I love that. That’s so honest.
And so I always try to write songs that have that kind of honesty in it. And I would not compare “Hold My Hand” to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” I’m not trying to do that. But to me, when I hear “Hold My Hand,” that’s my attempt at writing something like that.
You’ve been working on a musical. Will it hit Broadway?
Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical. Yeah, we’ve been working on that for three years now, and we opened it in Dallas this summer, had a great time down there. Spent the last part of July, all of August and half of September down there in rehearsals getting ready for it to open. I think it ran for six weeks, and then it closed, which it was expected to do that. And we learned a lot about our show and people loved it.
The ultimate goal is Broadway. And so whatever step is gonna get us there is what we’ll take. I don’t know if that’ll be another out of town run or if it’ll be a New York workshop. We’ll see.
You know Sara Bareilles. Did she give you any advice on working on musicals?
We did talk about that, yeah. And she was talking to me about how it never stops, the rewrites. And that was something Shane [McAnally ] and I really learned down there is that you’re in a constant state of rewrite.
Musical theater is a lot of the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing; not just having written a musical, but I’m so influenced by the music I heard in musicals as a child. My mom was a huge fan of musical theater.
The first show I ever saw was Oklahoma in a community theater, and I still think about those songs, and how I felt when I heard them, and being able to sing them back the next day. When I’m writing, whether it be for the musical theater or the market, I always think, would somebody retain this in 24 hours?
I love “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” from Oklahoma. I remember singing that the next day. But the thing about that, and I think the allure of writing a musical is that music, they’ll still be talking about that in 200 years in a way that they probably won’t talk about most popular music. There’s something about the musical theater that just sticks. ’Cause they keep reviving it.
Were you ever in a musical?
Well, I was in The Music Man. After I saw Oklahoma I was so excited, and then the next year the same community playhouse did The Music Man, and I played Amaryllis. That was the first time I really sang, and I remember after that I started taking some voice lessons and wanted to be as good of a singer as the woman who played Marian.
I loved so many of them. I loved Little Shop of Horrors. I loved Phantom of the Opera. I loved Les Miserables. I love Sound of Music. I loved Grease. I loved movie musicals. We lived about two and a half hours from Seattle and the same distance from Portland, and that’s a long ways to go to see a show. When I got older we would do that, but we saw a lot of things that were movie musicals.
Your parents seem supportive. Were they supportive of you moving to Nashville?
You know, I think I wanted to do it for a long time, and I was going to college, and my parents just sort of gave me that push of “You know, you might as well just do it, like really do it. If you’re gonna do it, do it, instead of working a job you don’t like and being in a bar band on the weekends.”
And that was the best thing they ever did for me, because I’ve never felt like I had a job. And I’ve worked really hard, but I’ve loved it, and I don’t ever watch the clock and think, “Oh, when’s this gonna be over?” And I’ve worked enough other jobs where I’ve done that to know what a blessing that is to not do that.