Female Friday: Clare Dunn

Dunn finds inspiration from her life on a working farm in Colorado.

Female Friday: Clare Dunn
Clare Dunn; Photo courtesy of Big Yellow Dog Music

When Clare Dunn calls, she’s sitting on the front porch of her family’s ranch in Two Buttes, Colo., soaking in the view of the wide open space. As she speaks, her passion for the land pours through, as it serves as deep inspiration for the music she creates and her identity as an artist. Born and raised in the scenic mountain state, Dunn returned to her roots at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating her EP Real Thing in between tending to the animals and connecting with the earth.

In this edition of Female Friday, Dunn reflects on how music has impacted her life, why there’s “No Wrong Way” to be a woman and how the vastness of the Colorado landscape inspires her imagination.

When was the first time you felt impacted by music and when you knew that you wanted to make it your career?

The first real memory I have of that I was about six, and where I’m from, we’re real close to Oklahoma. Down in Boise City, Okla. they used to do a reenactment of Hee Haw every year and they would put a little band together, a few farmers and ranchers who could pick. Then [if] the locals wanted to be in Hee Haw, you could do a skit, you could sing a song, so I sang a song and I remember not having any expectation going in, just ‘I love music, I love to sing and that would sound like fun,’ and so I did it. I remember it felt like it brought joy to people. I was happy. It seemed like other people were happy and I was like ‘that’s really cool,’ so that was one of the first memories. Then I grew up in a dance studio and I always loved to perform. I always loved the feeling that music gave me.

How did guitar come into the picture? What drew you to the guitar and how did you learn how to play?

That didn’t come until way later. Finding a guitar lesson out here was pretty much impossible. Anybody who could play was too busy running a farm or a ranch themselves. I was pretty intimidated of it. I always thought it was interesting, but there was really never any way to pursue it out here. When I went to college, that was when I started playing. I got some guitar lessons in the beginning and really tried to hone in. I started playing because I wanted to make records and I was trying to make records in my bedroom on my computer. I didn’t have a way to play an instrument and I was like, ‘well, guitar sounds pretty cool, so I’ll try to figure that out,’ and that’s where it started. It always came from a place of trying to make records and I knew that if I was going to communicate with other musicians, I needed to speak the language in some degree, so guitar was my entryway into that. Learning how to communicate with other musicians, learning how to make records, it was a tool. Then when I started going on the road, it came in handy because I didn’t have to pay anyone, I got to play for myself for free [laughs].

I think it really helped in a lot of ways by the sheer fact that it helped me make my own records. It helped me be a producer. It helped me have that independence as an artist. It helps me to truly be involved in the ground-up production and music making process. I got to be involved in the guts of my music and deciding how a lick should go, deciding ‘if the drummer plays this, then I can play that’ and ‘I’m playing it this way, you should match me playing it like this.’ Live, it’s a form of expression. Besides the production process and how that tool helps me there, then when you get to the live part, it’s another extension of who you are as an artist. I’m always a singer first, but there’s some things you can’t sing, and you get to express those things through guitar. That’s some of the main ways, expression and making my music and being a real part of that.

You returned to your family’s ranch in Colorado in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where you recorded your EP, Real Thing. What inspired this project and the process of it? How did the environment impact the songs and stories you were telling?

It was made on the farm in my little studio I built out here. I had a couple of the songs written prior to the pandemic, but “Unread” was written during the pandemic and I produced everything here. I wanted to title it Real Thing because it was made in the real thing. Out here on the farm and ranch, it’s the real deal, it’s not hobby farming. It’s the real thing, so I wanted to title it that and reflect where it was made. My roots, everything here inspires everything about my music. This was the first project I got to do out here fully. Normally when I’m in Nashville working on records or everything I’ve made up to this point, I’m always trying to remember and reimagine what this place looks like and imagine what’s going on out here. This time I got to step out in it, and it was great inspiration. I may continue to make records out here, I’m already working on my next one. It was a lot of fun. I’d work on whatever track I was working on all day and then when I got sick of it, I go jump on the four-wheeler or get in a pickup or go with my mom whenever she was checking cattle and just get to be on the land and with the herd. All of that’s very inspiring to me because it’s how I grew up. It was unique and I hope that it continues.

I think you’d have to have traveled to this part of the world or spent a little bit of time to understand the full depth of how this really influences my music. Everything out here is wide open. It’s a wide open sky, there are wide open fields. It’s flat, it looks like an ocean except of land. As big as your imagination can get, this place can hold it. Your imagination could never even attempt to fill up the vastness that is where I’m from, but it’s how I artistically think about it. How that all ties into my music, it’s vast, it’s got a lot of influences. I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of different music growing up, and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never lost a love for any of the music. I grew up listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bob Seger, and I still love their music as much today as I did when I first heard it. I’ve learned to appreciate other things now that I’ve spent so much time with it, but all those influences are just as relevant to me today as they were when I first found them. I remember driving down a dirt road when my mom first played Waylon Jennings to me and I was like, ‘this is the coolest thing ever.’ Being here, I have all those memories. I have all that music that has always been important to me and it’s just as important to me today. All of that, it feels like it’s all at your fingertips or it was a lot more accessible. Putting those heroes, their influence into my music was very natural being out here.

Is there a song on the EP that you felt most vulnerable to write or record?

“No Wrong Way,” that was very vulnerable to write. To put it out into the world, I’m very proud of it, but I don’t want people to take this the wrong way, because it came from an experience. I’m not a ‘woe is me’ person and I think we wrote it in a very non-woe-is-me way, but I think anytime you’re trying to tackle that subject matter, that threat is always there. It’s very vulnerable to reveal some of the things that you go through and I went through an experience where I was told by people in the music business that I was working with at the time ‘you need to lose weight,’ ‘your hair isn’t right,’ ‘your makeup isn’t right,’ ‘your clothes aren’t right’ and went through that whole deal. There was a clear hypocrisy that was happening, and I think this song is really calling BS on ‘you say all these things about women empowerment and yet you’re telling a woman that she’s wrong.’ These particular people that I was working with were kind of talking out of both sides of their mouth, and I think that no woman should have to go through that. There’s already so much that women deal with, so that song was a vulnerable topic to take on. These things that I was going through had nothing to do with making music. I wanted to write it because if anyone else out there goes through it, take your constructive criticism when it’s valid, but you don’t have to go chasing your tail through life thinking that everything is wrong with you because somebody else said so. I think that’s a good reminder that however you’re put together, whatever your personality is, however you move through life, you are who you’re supposed to be and that’s it.

How do you hope to continue growing and evolving as an artist?

Just keep following that small voice, it’s never really let me down in the past. As an artist, I feel like your life is like walking through a jungle or a forest and you don’t ever really know exactly the end goal. You know what you’re ultimately trying to do, but your path to getting there, you can’t always see every turn and sometimes you’re walking at night and you’re feeling things in front of you three feet away, and sometimes that’s how far you go. Sometimes you’re walking in the day and you hit a clearing and you’re like ‘I know how I’m going to get across this valley or this next place in my career.’ Sometimes you know where you’re going, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you’re feeling it out and the growth happens.

This next project that I’m working on now has been you know where you want to go, but you don’t quite know how you’re going to get there. Exploring different sides of who I am and what I love and really moving forward, but also getting back to my roots musically. There’s a lot of blues influence in my playing. There’s a lot of Pete Anderson, I love him as a guitar player. He played for Dwight Yoakam and produced all those great records. Eric Clapton, he’s a big influence as a guitar player. So it’s having those roots with me every day, but moving it forward and in a way for myself so this next round of music that I’m already working on, it is a growth. It’s one of those things that I didn’t really know how it was going to all come together, but it did.