Brandy Clark Brings Beauty From Heartache On ‘Your Life Is A Record’ [Interview]

photo credit: Chris Phelps

Brandy Clark didn’t set out to make her latest album, Your Life Is A Record, which released Friday (March 6). But sometimes the right collection of songs just falls into place.

“A lot of things changed for me between my last record and this one,” Clark says. “There was a big regime change at the label and for the first time I was put with an A&R team, with Lenny Waronker and Jeff Sosnow, I started playing them songs and they weren’t familiar with my catalog, so I played things that were written before both my first and second records, and newer songs, too. When I turned in ‘The Past is the Past,’ which is now the last song on the album, they called me and said, ‘I feel like you’re ready to make a record again.’”

For the past seven years, Clark has balanced being one of country music’s most sought-after songwriters and one of its most respected singers. Clark began releasing her own music with 2013’s 12 Stories on the indie label Slate Creek. In addition to the critically lauded album, that same year brought CMA and Grammy nominations for “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which Miranda Lambert turned into a hit. A year later, Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” which Musgraves co-wrote with Clark and Shane McAnally, and which featured lyrics about same-sex relationships and smoking marijuana, made history when it was named CMA Song of the Year.

In 2014, Clark transitioned to a major label, signing with Warner Music’s Los Angeles office and making a case for country radio airplay with the songs from her first major label release with 2016’s Big Day In A Small Town, an album filled with nuanced, exquisitely detailed songs.

With Your Life Is A Record, Clark turns those keen observations on herself, rummaging through the emotional wreckage of a fizzled-out longtime relationship, most pointedly on songs like the stark “Apologies” and “Who You Thought I Was.” She re-teamed with producer Jay Joyce and settled in to record at Joyce’s east Nashville studio Neon Cross.

“I had gone through a breakup of a long relationship and didn’t realize how much I was writing about that until it was time to make a record. Jay got a batch of songs from me and the label and he said, ‘This is a breakup record.’”

Both were intent on crafting an album that revisited, but also expanded upon, the singer-songwriter aesthetic of her first two albums.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to challenge a guy like Jay Joyce, who is known for more electric, heavier sounds, to cut an all-acoustic album?’”

Rounding out an intimate studio quartet were multi-instrumentalists Jedd Hughes and Giles Reaves (best known for crafting albums of space music, including 1992’s Sea of Glass, as well as work with several rock bands).

 

 

“I didn’t know Giles before this album, but Jay had such a strong feeling that this record needed Giles. He said, ‘You can give him a safety pin and he can make music with it.’”

With a bedrock of music and vocals laid down, Clark and Joyce wanted to up the ante. Clark suggested strings. Joyce wasn’t keen on the idea—at first.

“I’m a sucker for strings on a record,” she says. “Jay was like, ‘Ugh, strings are hard to cut, and you need a lot of them in a room to sound great.’ But then he suggested the Memphis Strings and Horns [with Lester Snell handling arrangements]. And I trusted him with that—I trust the producer. I feel like they are the last songwriters on a song.”

The collaboration with Memphis Strings and Horns began with a handful of tracks, including “I’ll Be The Sad Song” and “Better Boat” (which features vocals from singer/songwriter and seven-time Grammy winner Randy Newman, who also composed for films including Monsters Inc. and all four Toy Story movies).

“We never met them, we just sent them the basic tracks and they would send back their take on it,” Clark recalls. “It made me cry when I heard ‘I’ll Be The Sad Song.’ Jay was really adamant that we not go over there because he didn’t want us to influence their choices, but they listened to my first two records to get a sense of who I am. As much as a leap of faith as it was for me, think it was maybe a bigger leap of faith for Jay.”

 

The result is an album that draws inspiration from Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis and Shelby Lynne’s I Am Shelby Lynne, the latter of which Joyce played on.

It wouldn’t be a Brandy Clark album without songs where emotions can spin on the minute detail of a lyric and Your Life Is A Record includes several gems, such as “Bad Car,” featuring guitar work from Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne, and “Pawn Shop.” The song, which she wrote with Troy Verges, was originally intended for Big Day In A Small Town.

“I’ve always been intrigued by pawn shops; I had an uncle who owned a pawn shop. I was reading a Stephen King book—I think it was Rose Madder—and in the book there is a pawn shop scene and the guy at the counter says ‘I’ve got the job of telling people that what they have isn’t worth what they think it is.’ I didn’t know exactly what to do with it so I took the idea to Troy and it resonated with him.”

Though much of the album deals in heartache, there are moments of levity, like the deliciously snarky “Long Walk,” where she takes aim at a snooty acquaintance. “Bigger Boat,” penned by Clark and Adam Wright, takes a bird’s eye view of politics and classism, infusing it with her signature wit.

“I feel like you can get a way with a lot with humor. I loved the movie Jaws and I thought it’d be great to write a song called ‘Bigger Boat’ about the state of the world and not take a side on it, just comment on it. I’ll play it for right-wing republicans and far left democrats and they love it. I feel lucky that we landed that one and that Randy Newman came in to sing on it.”

Not only did the artist and movie music composer sing on the track, he nearly landed a writing credit.

“The line, Give me that hammer/Somebody hold my coat, he put that line in because it had said The sh**’s been hitting the fan a little closer to home, and he changed the line. He was like, ‘I think my line’s better but I’m not like some of those rappers, I’m not going to need writer credit on this.’ I kind of wish he had wanted writer’s credit because then we could say we wrote a song with Randy Newman,” Clark says.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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