Sunday Conversation: Brandy Clark Teams With Brandi Carlile For An Americana Masterpiece (2023)

To Harvey Mason and everyone involved with the Grammys, Brandy Clark's "Buried" has to be nominated for Song of the Year at next year's awards. I know it is only May, but I feel insanely confident in saying there will not be 10 better songs in 2023. I can't name 10 better songs from the last decade.

"Buried" is one of those songs, like Bonnie Raitt's timeless "I Can't Make You Love Me," that stops you dead in your tracks as soon as you hear it. And by the time it reaches the twist ending you will be left breathless and in awe.

It's hard not to focus on "Buried." It is just that damn good, But the rest of Clark's brand new eponymous album, produced by Brandi Carlile, is just as brilliant. The pair have combined for a masterpiece, one that showcases Clark's superior songwriting.

I spoke with Clark about teaming with Carlile, being part of the Broadway show Shucked and its nine Tony nominations, songwriting and much more.

Steve Baltin: Is this setting you up for a good political run, is that the idea with the shaking hands and kissing babies?

Brandy Clark: Yeah. Actually, the Tony part of it is secondary. What I didn't realize is, since I've never done this, how big the touring component is to Broadway theater or Broadway musicals. So like we did an event today, it was two hours of meeting all these theater owners around the country because everybody's vying for a spot in their theater for a two to six week run. And so they have to put together a national tour, and so it's to hopefully get those people to want our show. And there was a matinee today, I didn't go because I've been doing these other interviews, it was kinda nice to have a break from all that. And so they fill the theater up with a lot of those people. It's like, have you ever done a radio seminar?


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Baltin: What do the nominations mean to you?

Clark: I don't get as twisted about these as I do music awards because this is such a team. I never feel like it's just me that that is either being nominated or not being nominated. And I was telling our book writer, I said, "Here's the thing. It's about where the voters are at. You've got to know where the votes are to get them. That's really what it comes down to." If you've made a great record or a great show or whatever, you still have to know that part of it.

Baltin: I talked to Don Was. And he was telling me about being in the studio with Bonnie when she did," I Can't Make You Love Me." He's like, "You just knew that it was so special." Did you know with "Buried," when you did that song?.

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Clark: Well, when I did the vocal or when we cut it, that was a situation where I really was that upset when I sang it. I had gotten some bad news unrelated to what we were doing, and I came back in the studio and I had been crying and Brandi said, "Oh, let's cut 'Buried' right now." And I said, "Oh, I don't know. I don't sing well when I've been crying like that. " And she was so smart in that, "Well, we can replace the vocal." And then she had Brandon Bell, the engineer, turn my microphone way up and said, "I want you to almost whisper, sing it." And so, when I started to do that, I really got into it because the way the players changed when I quit singing it and just started like, almost whispering it, like what you hear, I really went for it then. And it was so raw and vulnerable. It was hard for me to listen to it. But what got me when I had my moment where I was like, "Oh yeah, this is it," was when the co-writer on that song, Jessie Jo Dillon, she played it for her brother. And she said that her brother said, "Tell Brandy, she better not change a goddamn syllable." Like, "This is perfect don't change it." And so then I knew.

Baltin: What was the last song that you were obsessed with?

Clark: There are a couple that I go back to when I need to smile, "Rose Garden," Lynn Anderson, I can listen to that song forever. It always makes me smile. Before I made the record, I was really listening a lot to "Are The Good Times Really Over For Good," Merle Haggard. Couldn't get off of that. And that's why I wrote "She Smoked in the House," because that puts me in the mind of my grandparents. But then when we were mixing the record, I listened incessantly to John Mayer "Emoji of a Wave" because that song, I can't even describe what it makes me feel. But there were times in the process when I would say to Brandi and Brandon, "I want it to make me feel like this." And I played them that song. And I said, "I don't know what it is, but it has to feel like this. It has to make me feel like this. It doesn't need to feel like that song, but the emotion I feel when I listen to that." So that is probably most recently the song that I have... That I got obsessed with and just listened to on repeat.

Baltin: So how does it make you feel when you listen to that?

Clark: Man, in that song, probably what I like about what it makes me feel is I can't really put it into words. It makes me want to cry. I do cry when I listen to it. It's just what music should be, which to me is the music should say what the lyric can't. And that song does that. It never gets huge, but it feels big. I feel like he's right there with me singing it. And this is really a testament to his songwriting, when I listen to that song, I feel like he's coming up with it as I'm listening. So that's probably part of it. Like I feel like he's discovering it while I'm discovering it.

Baltin: What was the last lyric from someone else that you got jealous of?

Clark: I get jealous of a lot of lyrics. And I'm not just saying this because we worked on this record together, but I was pretty jealous of "The Joke," Brandi Carlile, that's a great lyric. There are parts of that just slay me. Well, and then there are some Sara Bareilles songs that do that to me too..I'm always jealous of a lyric that I wouldn't have written that is that's different than what I would write.

Baltin: I'm also curious what you think when someone tells you as a writer that they're jealous of your lyrics. I remember telling that to Nick Cave once who had a big smile on his face and he was like, "As a writer, that's the best thing that you could tell me," and just had this huge grin.

Clark: I would agree and I was thinking when I answered that, I've never told Brandi or Sara that I was jealous of their lyrics. For Sara, it's that song she had in Waitress, "She Used to Be Mine." And, to me, it's also the marriage of that melody. Like that just really gets me.

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Baltin: What was the timeline that this album was written versus Shucked?

Clark: We got the musical based on a song that Shane [McNally] and I wrote on my first record called "Pray to Jesus." The book writer of the musical heard that song and said, "I want this musical to be in that vein." And that was why he chose Shane and I. So we've been working on it all those years, but a huge portion of it and a very intense portion of it happened right before I made this record. We went to Salt Lake City in September, October, and worked on the musical for probably six very intense weeks where you're doing rewrites every day, having meetings having watching the show, watching the audience seeing how they respond. So I did that. I drove from Salt Lake City back to LA, thought I had all the songs picked out but listened to catalog the whole way and uncovered a few that I had forgotten about. And got to LA, flew to Nashville to be part of the Lindeville performance on the CMAs, flew back to LA the next morning and started the record. So worked on the record for November, a little bit of December. We tracked this record over six days and then I got sick. And so then we had to do a few things later, but it was fast. And then cut some strings in New York, worked on a few vocals. And then it was done in January. And then we went into Broadway rehearsals end of January. So it was one thing on top of the other.

Baltin: Did writing to fit the musical influence your songwriting on this album?

Clark: It was such a great challenge because our story of our musical changed a lot right up until we opened. And so Shane and I were in constant rewrites. And our text of our musical is so funny. And there are a lot of jokes in it. And so Shane and I are really charged with carrying the heart and telling the story, which we're good at, thank God. But we had to get better at it for this. And we had to learn to tell little pieces of the story. One thing writing this musical has done for me in spades was when I made my first record, 12 Stories, I had never written for myself. And I really was scared to do that. And so I just would always write a lot of songs and then what worked for me worked for me. And when I would write with other artists who were just writing for their projects, I would always think, "Man, that's a really narrow target to hit. That would feel like a lot of pressure to me. I'm glad I have all this time to write all these songs and then figure out what works for me." After doing this musical and while doing it, what I learned is, "Oh no, I can do that too, because I'm always project writing." I was always project writing for this musical and it was a different project at different times. And so I learned a lot. And I also learned from doing this musical, to not be scared of anything. Because we would have to write huge numbers that we never felt like they were in our wheelhouse, but somehow we did it. And so all of that, I think, has helped me as an artist.

Baltin: You talked about "Smoked In The House" at the playback. And that's one of those ones that gets very personal.

Clark: Yeah, that one I really thought I was just writing for me. And I felt like I wrote that with my grandma from the other side. That song took me a long time. And I remember when I was writing it thinking, this is just a waste of time. I'm writing a song about my Grandma Ruth. And I know it's just for me. But I wanted to get it right for her and for me. And so that's a good lesson to me. I've got to make me happy first before a listener is going to like it. And of the songs that have been heard, people resonate to that and say, "Oh, that was my grandma or that was my mom." And I think it's 'cause it is so real to me.

Baltin: At what point then did you decide to include the song?

Clark: When other people started hearing it and resonating with it specifically Jeff Sosnow at Warner, that was top of his list. Brandi, when I sent her, probably 18, 24 songs, it was in her top couple of songs. And I was like, "Oh, wow." And it's always harder for me when it's something I've written by myself to fight for it. And so I had written it by myself, so I wasn't gonna fight for it the way that I maybe fought for some other songs, and I didn't have to fight for it because they were all fighting for it for me. But I still thought, "This is awful specific." It was when it came out on iTunes as that second grand track and it got the response it did that I really started to feel it.

Baltin: Were you initially surprised though at how much people did resonate with a song that is that specific?

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Clark: I was. There's a song on there, "Dear Insecurity," that's probably the most personal song for me because all those things I'm singing about are truly insecurities I have. And to share those, to sing those out loud is scary. But it's not specific in the way that, and I think a lot of people will resonate with "Dear Insecurity" because we all have insecurity. But the way "Smoked in the House" is so specifically about my grandma, that part did surprise me.

Baltin: "Smoked in the House," again is a song specifically about your grandmother. But like you say, "Dear Insecurity" is probably the most personal. And of course, everybody can relate to the idea of "I'm gonna love you until I'm buried."

Clark: Yeah, we all have one of those. We might not tell anybody who it is. But we've all got one. I've learned that through that song too. I've had a few people send me pictures of themselves crying and saying, "I would never want my husband to know this, but, I love my ex-husband, even though it didn't work, I'll love him till I'm buried." I had a friend that sent me that text and it shocked me 'cause I didn't know that about her. I thought, "Oh, I thought she hated him."

Baltin: So you not only have written a brilliant album, but you're also becoming a therapist to people.

Clark: Yeah, I think that's part of being a songwriter.

Baltin: So what is on your therapy playlist?

Clark: I would definitely have to say "Heart of the Matter," Don Henley. That one's up there for me. "You've got a Friend," be it Carole King or James Taylor. I'm gonna say "I Am... I Said," [Neil Diamond] that's on there. "Crazy," Patsy Cline. I was thinking of Dolly though. Patty Loveless's whole album, When Fallen Angels Fly, that's a therapy album for me. Adele, "Hello," that song, I can just drive around and listen to that and cry. There are musical theater, Les Mis, I know that's probably not the coolest answer but that's therapy to me to drive around and listen to the Les Mis soundtrack. Oh, Merle Haggard. I mentioned "Are The Good Times Really Over for Good." But I can just put on Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings and I can drive for hours. And whatever's bothering me gets better in listening to their songs for sure.

Baltin: Talk about what Brandi brought to the project. It's a big deal she produced this because she told me recently she isn't producing much.

Clark: It was such a compliment. The way it started was we had worked on a couple of tracks during the pandemic, and one of them got nominated for a Grammy that we didn't win, and she leaned over to me and said, "Buddy, I'd love to produce a whole record on you," and that floored me. Because I know she doesn't work with just everybody. And we sat down and talked about it, and she said some things that really intrigued me. She said, "You know, I see it as your return to the Northwest," which was what inspired the song "Northwest" to be written. Why I even wrote that song, but the biggest thing that she brought to me, a couple of things. She said, "I want to help you take a further step into Americana." She's like, "You really straddle that country Americana line, I want to help you step further into Americana, because I feel like that world wants to embrace you." And when we started working on the record, this was a real challenge to me, I had to put my ego down, she asked me to make some lyric changes, some of them were on "Buried" actually. And I had never had a producer asked me to do that. And I was somewhat offended, I was like, "Well, these songs, I didn't just slop these together, these have been labored over."And I said, "And I feel like unless I've written it by myself, I feel like it's disrespectful to the co-writers for me to do that," and she said, "Why?" And I said, "Well, because I feel like I need to be in service to the song." And she said, "Not this time, I think you need to be in service to the artist." And something in me shifted, and she's like, "I don't want you to sing one thing that I don't believe." And so that was a big thing she brought, and probably the biggest thing though that she brought to me that I'll take forward, I hope her and I make more records together, but even if we don't, I will take this forward with me as a songwriter for the rest of my life. I asked her why she chose the songs she chose, because I always give a producer, like I said, 18 to 24 songs and say, "Pick ten," 'cause I'm too close to those songs by then. And she said, "Well, I loved all the songs, they were all great, but I picked the songs that felt like you wrote them in your bedroom." And a bell went off inside of me, 'cause it reminded me of why we started making music in the first place. Like it wasn't to be tricky and be clever and show other songwriters what we could do, it was because we had a song in our heart and we'd sit in our bedroom with our guitar and bang it out until we got it down on paper. And so that's a real gift she gave me to be reminded, four records in, why I wanted to make music. Why I make music. It was good for me to be reminded of that.

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