Born in 1984, Gary Clark Jr. took up guitar when he was 12, and by age 14 he was becoming a fixture on the Austin blues scene. In 2007 he played maverick electric guitarist Sonny Blake in John Sayles’s end-of-an-era blues movie Honeydripper, and soon his own music began taking new directions. Incorporating generous helpings of soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz and rock, he transformed himself from a blues musician into a firmly-rooted guitar hero who could also sing and write with the best of ‘em. Blak and Blu, his label debut, has sold solidly since coming out in October (he’d already done indie releases). He toured almost continuously from March through Thanksgiving, concentrating on festivals from Coachella to Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza, and blowing away established headliners. eMusic’s John Morthland talked with Clark about transforming from a blues traditionalist to a genre-spanning jack-of-all-trades.
What would you say is the relationship of your music to blues now?
Blues is the foundation of everything I do. When I started playing I was going to blues bars, blues jams, around Austin. Learning about Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elmore James, Robert Johnson…that’s how I learned to play, starting with the Texas guys like Freddie King, T-Bone Walker and Mance Lipscomb. But I grew up on soul music — Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Marvin Gaye. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there was all kinds of sounds happening, so that’s what I knew. When I was in my teens I met [Austin blues impresario] Clifford Antone and he put everything on me. Next thing I knew I was onstage playing with Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughan, Hubert Sumlin.
After Honeydripper, you seemed to lay out a bit, and you weren’t playing much at all. What was going on during that time?
I’d spent a lot of time mimicking other people. I’d played lots of blues covers in sets instead of originals. I needed to try to find my own voice. I spent days at a time in one little room, without ever leaving it, trying to find myself musically. I taught myself drums, horns, began playing keyboards; I played drums in some local bands. I was trying to figure out how all those instruments worked, and how I could use them. I experimented with my guitar tone, trying to figure out what worked for me. The rest of the time I was hanging out with friends and catching up, something I hadn’t done that much as a kid. The songs I wrote then were blues songs but kinda fonky, hip-hoppy, with jazz even, and I’d thought I could never play that in clubs because all they wanted from me was blues. I drove myself crazy holding all that other music back, so I put all my influences into one bag rather than keeping them separate. That’s when I wrote “Bright Lights,” which was raw and somewhat psychedelic. It was also exactly what I wanted to do, and since then I’ve been able to put all those different kinds of music into my own music.
It seems to be working fine; what happened this last year that all of a sudden, after all this time, you were able to make such a splash?
I’ve been fortunate enough to play music festivals, not just blues festivals. Rather than being off with one kind of music I’m playing my music for all kinds of people. So really, I think it’s just a combination of having Warner Brothers on my team and then getting out and playing these festivals, spreading the word. Now, it’s a whole new ballgame. The cool thing is, people at these festivals are really open and receptive to whatever we do. We’ll play a smooth, falsetto soul thing and they like that; then we’ll play something raw and funky and they’re equally receptive to that. The audience and the band both, they show up and want to be in the moment, to share what is.
Then what do you see happening next, short-term and long-term?
Short-term, I’m happy right where I am now. Long- term my goal is mainly to get out and see more places, to grow as an artist and a human. And to see the crowds grow. I see the music going everywhere; that’s the fun of it. Someone like B.B. King, he’s really diverse and his music goes in all directions but it’s still blues. That’s the kind of thing I want to happen with my own music. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Robert Johnson, so we’ll see where that takes me.