How Brandy Clark made her ‘return to the Northwest’ with Brandi Carlile
Sun., May 21, 2023
Brandy Clark performs onstage for Save the Music & SongFarm.org’s 2022 hometown to hometown event at Musicians Hall of Fame on April 26, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Save The Music Foundation)
SEATTLE – Brandy Clark has lived in Nashville, Tennessee, so long that most people outside her home state of Washington don’t realize the decorated singer-songwriter hails from the Pacific Northwest. But that’s about to change, thanks to her perfectly unvarnished new album, produced by another Washington star.
Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile have moved in overlapping circles for years, yet their first proper collaboration came through early-pandemic recording sessions that saw a Zoomed-in Carlile producing two songs for Clark, including their Grammy-nominated duet “Same Devil.” On paper (and as the results confirmed), it was a natural pairing, especially given their many similarities – as two Grammy darlings with the same name (spelled slightly different) and home state, both gay women with similar Northwest upbringings trading in country-adjacent music.
Neither “Same Devil” nor the Carlile and Alicia Keys duet “A Beautiful Noise,” co-written by the Morton-reared Clark, took home any hardware. But at the Grammys daytime ceremony that year, the seeds were planted for deeper collaboration – plans cemented during a shrimping-season excursion on Whidbey Island.
“When we didn’t win, (Carlile) leaned over to me and said, ‘Hey buddy, you know I’d love to produce a whole record on you,’” Clark recalled. “I was like, ‘Really?!’ I was really intrigued by that, and as we were walking out of the (ceremony), she’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve already thought about it … To me, it would be like your return to the Northwest.’ That really spoke to my heart.”
A few months and about 1,200 miles removed from the red-carpeted affair in Los Angeles, Clark and Carlile discussed it further during some rare downtime for Carlile, an avid fisher and shellfish harvester, over three days of shrimping season in Washington. It didn’t take any arm-twisting to get Clark, who splits her time between Nashville and Malibu, California, to make the trip up to Whidbey.
“The water was rough, so they couldn’t continue to shrimp, but we did go out on the boat,” Clark said. “Her and I went to breakfast and she said to me, ‘You know, I think you need to make a bold move and I’m it.’ That kind of confidence is really attractive to me.”
While Clark’s racked up 10 Grammy nominations during her impressive solo career, she honed her craft as a behind-the-scenes songwriter, penning songs for country stars like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Reba McEntire and LeAnn Rimes. Her solo work has often walked the line between country and Americana, though 2020s ultra-personal “Your Life is a Record” pushed further away from the former, as Clark grew less concerned with chasing country radio hits of her own. With her new self-titled album, arriving Friday, Clark continues the shift away from Nashville’s Music Row sensibilities, an even bigger leap taken hand-in-hand with a reassuring Carlile.
As she typically does with her producers, Clark sent Carlile a batch of 18-24 songs, with Carlile homing in on songs that, as she explained to Clark, sounded like they were written in her bedroom, as opposed to a punch-in, punch-out writing room.
“That was great for me to hear, and it was a great reminder, because I’ve been in that world of staff songwriting for so long, which is where I learned the craft, (and) it’s invaluable,” Clark said. “But her being outside of that was so great to me, because that’s not what she’s going to gravitate towards.”
From the chilling opener “Ain’t Enough Rocks” – a song about sexual abuse inspired by a scene in “Forrest Gump” – to the Carlile duet “Dear Insecurity,” the resulting 11-song set features some of Clark’s rawest, most uninhibited work, even if the process wasn’t always easy. The homiest of the lot are “Northwest,” an ode to the PNW, and a loving number about Clark’s grandmother titled “She Smoked in the House.” Together, they form the album’s two-song centerpiece.
Schedules prevented the duo from recording those tracks at Carlile’s home studio in Maple Valley. Instead, the album was primarily cut at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu, with some vocals and strings done in New York when Carlile and her band were rehearsing for “Saturday Night Live.” It features some of Carlile’s regular collaborators, including her band’s string section and Seattle drumslinger Matt Chamberlain, as well as Lucius, who lends vocals to the stripped-down “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her.” Carlile’s brother Jay even added some harmonica and vocals.
Here’s what Clark had to say about forming this evergreen dream team, breaking out of her comfort zone and working on the acclaimed Broadway musical, “Shucked” – up for nine Tony Awards, including best original score.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the song “Northwest”: That came from Brandi saying to me, “I see it as your return to the Northwest.” One of my favorite co-writers, who wrote the lion’s share of the record with me, is a girl named Jessie Jo Dillon. Jessie and I flew up together and wrote for a couple days – actually on Whidbey Island again – and ended up writing “Northwest.” It took Brandi being from the Northwest and still living there to plant that seed in my head, but it really took Jessie, who’s not from the Northwest, to help me see some things about where I’m from that are so benign to me because I’ve always seen them.
On Carlile’s “return to the Northwest” comment: I loved it because a lot of people don’t know I’m from the Northwest, because I’ve lived in Nashville for so long. But everything about who I am is from the Northwest. My ideas of small-town America go back to Morton, Washington, where I’m from. A lot of times in my writing, people will guess that I’m from the South. The South isn’t the only place in the country that has small towns and blue-collar people. So, I loved writing a song saying “hickory shirts paid the bills,” because that’s what I grew up with, a dad that wore a hickory shirt to work. I loved that idea of a return home, because it wasn’t even necessarily a return to the Northwest. It was a return to my roots of why I ever loved music in the first place. That’s what this record is for me.
On Carlile challenging her: I had never had a producer ask me to make changes to songs. They might change an arrangement, but Brandi asked me to change lyrics, and that was uncomfortable for me – really uncomfortable for me at first. The song “Buried,” that was originally called “If You Don’t Love Me Anymore.” Brandi came in and was like, “This song, that’s like the perfect song, but you’re like three lines away. If you would change this line and this line and this line it would be perfect.” I thought, “Well, if it’s the perfect song, how come it needs changes?!” I had to put my ego down about those kinds of things.
Early on in the process, I said to her, “I’m just going to trust you.” Everything she asked me to do, even when in the moment it didn’t feel right to me, I did it because I did trust her. And she was right on all of it because she has such a great instinct as a producer.
On her music shifting further away from country’s mainstream: I think “Your Life is a Record” was a step in that direction and then this is a full departure. All those years of writing for country radio, there’s definitely some unprogramming that’s gone on – and that’s not a slight. But because I was in that world of writing for it every day for so long, I do think I have some of those rules stuck in my head. And Brandi was right, it took an outsider to pull me out of that, I think, because I didn’t realize how ingrained in that I was.
On rewriting songs in the studio: This (album) has caused a shift in me as a writer and an artist. I have a hard time making changes to songs, because most have co-writers on them, so I’ve always felt that was disrespectful to go in and change songs on the fly in the studio. (Carlile) was kind of taken aback by that. I’m a songwriter first and I respect songwriters, so I like to be in service to the songs. She said, “Well, I think that needs to change this time. I think the songs need to be in service to the artist now, and that’s you.” It freed me up in a way and going forward, that’s how I’ll work more and I won’t be so precious.
On writing the music for “Shucked” with frequent songwriting partner/country hitmaker Shane McAnally: As a songwriter, we’re telling three-and-a-half-minute stories, and with a musical, you could take a song like “Ain’t Enough Rocks,” that could be a musical, but you’d have to break it up and tell each 10-second increment in three and a half minutes. That was a really good challenge and helped myself and Shane McAnally to grow as writers, only being able to tell a little bit of the story (with each song).
Also in musicals, you’re working with the choreographer and so your song might have to change because there needs a dance break, and you’re working with a musical director who is taking your songs (to) musicalize them, but in a way that didn’t feel like it bastardized what we do. That’s a world you really learn to not be precious about your songs.
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