Should you need a quick primer course in Brandy Clark’s considerable prowess as a songwriter, just cue up the single “Girl Next Door.” A radio hit last year at this time, the tune establishes its sense of unapologetic coarseness in the first verse (“my house and my mouth and my mind get kind of trashy”) before setting the record straight on just where a would-be Romeo could go if demure niceties were what he was after.
“If you want the girl next door,” Clark sings. “Then go next door.”
It’s a masterful phrase because it’s so efficiently demonstrative and simple. It was actually the song’s co-writer, Jessie Jo Dillon, who came up with it as part of a casual conversation. But it was Clark that recognized it at once as the catalyst of a great song.
“Jessie was talking about a guy she was dating,” recalled Clark, who performs Monday for the “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour” with her Warner Bros. Records label mate Charlie Worsham. “She said she told him, ‘If you want the girl next door, go next door.’ And I thought, ‘Man, that’s great. That’s a song.’
“The magic of that is she said something she didn’t even hear as a song. She just said it. Me, being outside of the situation, heard it right away as a song. But songs like that don’t come about everyday. A lot of days, you’re essentially practicing for when you get that idea so that you know how to write it when you get it.”
If Clark sounds especially versed in the art of composing for an artist with just two albums to her credit, it’s because she had an entire career in Nashville as a songwriter before she began, quite literally, singing her own tune. Among the major hits she helped design for other artists were “Mama’s Broken Heart,” co-written with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves that scored big for Miranda Lambert, and “Better Dig Two,” a No. 1 single for The Band Perry.
Does Clark have a better appreciation for songcraft now that she has established her own name as an artist? Certainly, but Clark also realizes that recording her songs constitutes a very permanent sense of ownership.
“How do I do something that continues to be interesting that reflects who I am as an artist but also allows me to evolve and grow? How do I keep myself entertained? That’s really the bottom line for me with songwriting, especially in my own career as an artist. I have to go out and sing those songs night after night after night. So if I don’t like them, then, man, that becomes not a fun place to be.”
I’m pretty proud that I haven’t had to compromise myself as far as what I want to say and who I am.
With her 2013 indie album “12 Stories” garnering enough attention to land a recording contract with Warner Bros. (which promptly re-released the project) and her 2016 follow-up “Big Day in a Small Town” earning a Grammy nomination, Clark has become one the most distinctive new names in country music. Credit much of that to the strong traditional undercurrents within her songs, which earned major fans and supporters in veteran country stylists Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart. The former even served as a duet partner for a performance of the “12 Stories” tune “Hold My Hand” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
“I remember Dwight Yoakam had a record called ‘If There Was a Way.’ I literally wore that cassette out when I was younger. I thought, ‘Man, if I could transport myself back to that girl and tell her, ‘You’re going to be singing on the Grammys with Dwight,’ she would have never believed it. So getting his stamp of approval and getting to perform with him … that’s a bucket list sort of thing.”
Add that accomplishment to Clark’s ability to establish a strong, respected artistic identity in Nashville circles. That’s never been an easy task for a female artist, much less one who is openly gay.
“You’re right, that is an accomplishment, both for being a woman and being gay and then just existing in country music,” Clark says. “I think it’s a constant struggle to want to be relevant, to want to find your audience. Those are constant thoughts in my head. But I’m pretty proud that I haven’t had to compromise myself as far as what I want to say and who I am. I think a lot of that, for me, has to do with the times we’re living in, and that feels pretty great.”