Brandy Clark Q&A: Memphis Strings And Sad Songs You Can’t Help But Believe

Clark's new record is out now!

Written by Kelly Dearmore
Brandy Clark Q&A: Memphis Strings And Sad Songs You Can’t Help But Believe
Brandy Clark; Photo credit: Chris Phelps

She’s not a household name, well, not yet at least, but many songs written by Brandy Clark are certainly regular inhabitants of household speakers everywhere. The 44-year old Nashville resident is behind such gems as Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” not to mention so many other tunes recorded by the likes of Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire and so many more.

Her reputation as a recording artist isn’t too shabby either. Her first two studio albums, 2013’s excellent 12 Stories and 2016’s Grammy-nominated Big Day in a Small Town, were both slathered with well-deserved critical praise for their storytelling depth and vivid attention to detail. So far, the same can be said for Clark’s absolutely masterful third record, Your Life is a Record. NPR, American Songwriter, and even we here at Sounds Like Nashville can’t find enough superlatives to jam together in praise of the Jay Joyce-produced album.

Brandy Clark; Cover art courtesy of Sacks & Co.
Brandy Clark; Cover art courtesy of Sacks & Co.

We recently caught up with Clark as she was neck-deep in promotional duties for the new record. We chatted about her producer’s creative streak, turning pain into art and recording her first ever duet with a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

Sounds Like Nashville: Randy Newman isn’t a name you see as a duet partner on many country songs. How did you get him to help you with “Bigger Boat” from the new record?

Brandy Clark: I got really lucky. We had already recorded that song when my manager said, ‘you know, that song could be a duet,’ which is something I’ve never done on record, and I had really wanted to. She started naming off all these legends to duet with, and I thought how this would be great to sing with Randy Newman. I had never talked to Randy before, but I worked with [producer and executive] Lenny Waronker, who is very close to Randy, so I asked Lenny to ask Randy and Randy said if he liked the song, he would think about it. We sent him the song, and he wanted to change a line, which I was fine with, and he didn’t even want a writing credit, which I wouldn’t have minded at all. He told me he wanted to do it but he had to finish working on Toy Story 4 first.

SLN: Wow, that sounds pretty surreal, actually.

Yes, it was! I flew out to Los Angeles and he did his part on Memorial Day, which really meant a lot to me to have him do that on his day off. 

SLN: I guess that’s one of the reasons why he’s so respected?

They say you should never meet your heroes but meeting him was so superb and he was such a generous sort of collaborator.

SLN: Working with Jay Joyce as your producer again seems like it was also pretty cool. What does he bring to the table?

I’m glad you brought him up, because it’s easy for people to forget there are other people responsible for records other than the artist. Jay is really just the most creative person I’ve ever met in my life.

SLN: That’s some really high praise!

I’ve made two records with him now and both times I’ve let him basically choose which songs ended up on the record. This time he chose all ballads, and I asked him if that meant this was going to be a sleepy record and he said ‘no’ and he was right because one of his gifts is that he knows how to put movement into things that don’t have any initially. If you had heard the demo for “Who You Thought I Was” you would know it was very different than what is on the record. He came up with the idea of recording several guitars in a way where the tape was slowed down while Jedd Hughes would play guitar in a different key. There’s not a lot going on in that song really, but because of what Jay wanted to do, you feel like you’re really moving in that song. He never lets anything get boring and I feel so lucky I’ve got to work with him twice. Every artist brings their A game to him because he brings his A game every time.

SLN: How did you and Jay decide to add string arrangements to the new songs?

I challenged Jay to cut this record all acoustic, which he loved. He was like a little kid playing with a train set, so much that I started to get a little worried. I told him if needed to add an electric guitar or something like that at some point, he could do that. But he said, ‘no, I like this, I like painting myself into corners because I’ll have to be more creative.’ He didn’t want this record to sound like just another acoustic record, so he came up with the idea to add the Memphis Strings and Horns. He told me to listen to I Am Shelby Lynne and Dusty In Memphis because he thought my voice would work well with a similar approach.

SLN: There are a lot of sad songs on this record. What’s it like for you as an artist to turn heartbreak into songs for fans to enjoy?

I certainly understand how that works because all of my favorite songs are sad songs. But I will say that sometimes I get concerned about there not being enough tempo on an album, but with everything I went through personally leading up to this album there was no getting around there being plenty of sad songs. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how fans have embraced this, and it’s made me remember I’m not some unicorn that loves sad songs.

SLN: Do you find that fans automatically assume all of your songs are strictly autobiographical and that every song represents actual events from your own everyday experiences, even when they clearly are not?

I don’t know if it’s that people think the songs are about me, or if they just believe the songs or not. We did have to cut a song form the album I really liked because Lenny [Waronker] said it was the one song on the record he just didn’t believe. He told me that even in “Pawn Shop,” where I’m not the person selling her wedding ring, he feels like I am. He believed that song. That was our bar for this record. Even if I had never experienced something, I needed people to believe I had when I sang it.