It’s difficult to believe — or hell, maybe it isn’t — that every major label in Nashville rejected Brandy Clark’s first album, 12 Stories. The Washington State native has written or co-written songs for Reba McEntire, Darius Rucker, Miranda Lambert and the Band Perry, and her debut is an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking collection of character-driven songs about women who go crazy and the men who drive them there. Even before its release, it was hailed as a landmark debut and one of the best albums of the year.
Still, she spent nearly two years trying to get a label interested in the damn thing. It’s their loss. 12 Stories lives up to the considerable buzz, placing Clark squarely at the forefront of a new wave of Nashville songwriters who are quietly challenging the conventions of country music. Writing both alone and in various combinations, scribes like Shane McAnally, Jesse Jo Dillon, Trevor Rosen and Kacey Musgraves are offering vivid portraits of conflicted men and — mostly — women, along with nuanced depictions of small-town life that skips the rah-rah romanticizing of heartland America. In a sense, they’re the spiritual progeny of songwriters like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Donnie Fritts and Steve Earle, who changed Nashville from the inside out during the 1970s.
Clark in particular stands poised to challenge expectations about what Nashville sounds like in the 2010s — and not just because she is a lesbian in a notoriously conservative medium. 12 Stories is full of deft turns of phrase and sharp insights into the messiness of modern romance. On the rip-roaring “Illegitimate Children,” she describes a drunken hook-up and delivers the title phrase like a punch line. In stark contrast, “Take a Little Pill” examines prescription drug addiction, and the lilting melody only underscores the spiritual angst such drugs are hoped to cure.
Clark spoke with Stephen M. Deusner from her home in Nashville and held forth on the new Nashville, small-town America, and her dream collaboration.
12 Stories has gotten so much buzz even months before its release. Did that surprise you?
I’ve been really excited about the buzz. It made me feel great. At the same time the album was getting so much buzz, it was getting passed on by labels. The buzz kept me going. I’m so happy it’s been embraced by so many people that I respect, especially in the creative community — other songwriters and other artists. It’s one of those records that people loved but didn’t quite know what to do with, so it’s great that consumers as getting to hear it.
What was that process like? It had to be pretty discouraging.
The record was made almost two years ago. My management company had partly paid for me to make it, and they told me to make the record I wanted to make and then we’d figure out what to do with it. It turned out a little more commercial than they expected, so we decided to pitch it to major labels. We actually had very few just straight-out passes. I would usually take a meeting, and they would love the record. I’d play live and they’d love that. Label heads would be like, “My wife took my copy of this. Can I get another one?” Or, “This is my daughter’s favorite record. Can I get more copies?” But in the end, they just didn’t know what to do with it. We had a couple of places that were willing to make it work, but the deals fell through for one reason or another. We got to a point where it was like we either had to put it out ourselves or just forget about it. And then Jim Burnett in Texas — he runs a label called Slate Creek Records — approached us two days before we were going to release it on our own. He said he loved the record and wanted to help, if we could push the release back. So that’s what we did.
You’ve been identified as a crucial part of this burgeoning songwriter scene in Nashville. Did that help goose things along?
I think it did. I can’t say enough about Kacey Musgraves. I’ve written a lot of songs with her, and I have a couple of songs on her record. We just had a No. 1 song with Miranda Lambert together. Kacey has been such a champion for this record since day one, and I think that has helped so much. And then Shane McAnally is so successful. He produced Kacey’s record and has been one of the biggest champions for it. She’s busting though some doors, and I think that’s making people think, “Oh, wow, maybe this could work.” There’s definitely a group of songwriters here, and we all know each other. It’s more than just setting up in a room with someone you don’t know. Shane and Kacey and Josh Osborne, Trevor Rosen, Matt Ramsey and Jesse Jo Dillon — these are some of my best friends, too. I met them all through songwriting actually, so there is a tight community of songwriters who have a real reverence for great country music.
Can you talk about the album title? It really emphasizes the narrative and character aspects of these songs, almost like the album is a novel of short stories.
We talked about so many titles. That was something that no one in our camp could fully agree on. Dave Brainerd, who produced the record, he and I would make lists of potential titles and send them to my management company. They weren’t into any of them. I gave the record to Brad Henderson, who did the artwork. Three days later he sat down with me and said, “On first listen I would title this 12 Stories.” And I was like, “Whoa.” Everybody agreed on it. It’s like a bunch of little short stories. I love that, because at the heart of me in an artist in the purest sense: Whether I was a painter or a songwriter or a novelist, I’d still be a storyteller. I view that as my role in this group of songs.
It sounds like these songs could all be about the same woman.
When we started this process, we thought about doing it as a concept record, like a day in the life of one woman, or following one woman through one relationship. We thought about starting the record with “Illegitimate Children” and ending it with “The Day She Got Divorced.” Which is not what we ended up doing, of course. I handed Dave Brainerd 25 songs, and he chose 12 songs with that larger story in mind. Some songs got exchanged and shuffled around and some new ones were added, but I think that’s why it feels that way. I always want to make albums like that — to have a concept and then go in and record.
When you’re writing, does the character come first? Or the predicament? Or a phrase or two?
There’s always a character in my head when I’m writing. My co-writers l think have different characters, though. I wrote “Crazy Women” with Jesse Jo Dillon and Shane McAnally. To me, that character is not someone I know, but it’s a woman I can picture. But Jesse Jo told me how, to her, that woman is Betty Draper from Mad Men. She said when we were writing that song, that’s who was in her head. A lot of times, I’ll get a title or somebody will say something and I’ll go, oh that’s a song! I’ll think of a character as I’m writing, or sometimes I’ll just think of a place. A lot of my songs take place in the kitchen, for some reason.
Setting definitely seems important to some of these songs. “Take a Little Pill” is a pretty bleak depiction of small-town life, as opposed to a lot of mainstream country music that romanticizes that life.
In my head “Take a Little Pill” takes place in a small town, but I guess it could take place in New York City. I think it’s very universal. Prescription pills are a major issue in our country, something that is talked about as an acceptable addiction. But I grew up in a small town, and I love small towns. Just like any place, there are good things about it and there are bad things. No place is perfect. Small towns have problems, just like great big cities. I think the romanticism of small towns comes from everything that happens in cities that makes the news: gang violence, shootings, that sort of thing. You don’t hear about that as much in small towns, but there are other things going on. People are hurting all over the place and trying to figure out how to deal with it.
Tell me about your small town. Washington State is not necessarily noted for its country music.
You’re right. You don’t think of country music being out there. Loretta Lynn spent some time out there, and Don Rich, who played for Buck Owens, is from Tacoma. But it’s not like Oklahoma or Texas or Georgia, where all the country singers seem to come from. I’ve loved country music as long as I can remember. My mom was a huge fan, and my grandparents lived next door and they were fans, too. But there’s country music that’s older than what my parents were listening to. When I was a little girl, I remember my grandma going to see Merle Haggard, and when she went to see Loretta Lynn, I wanted to go so bad. It was at the Washington State Fair. The next morning, I woke up so excited to talk to her about the concert. I remember she told me that Loretta changed dresses three times. So my grandparents were listening to [artists like that], and the country radio station was playing Barbara Mandrell and Ronnie Milsap. Luckily, I was exposed to some great music growing up.
If you could have anyone sing one of your songs, who would it be?
Patty Loveless would be huge. She’s one of my biggest influences. If she cut one of my songs, that would be just…I would probably have to take a day to do nothing but think about it. And listen to it on repeat.
Before we go, we want to play a word association game. I’ll name an artist who has covered one of your songs, and you say the first thing that pops into your head. Let’s start with the Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”)
Oh wow. When [Shane McAnally, Trevor Rosen and I] wrote that song, we had envisioned Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert cutting it. We never thought of a band, but when we found out they were interested, we thought, “How did we miss that?” It was like the song found just the right home with them.
Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”
When we wrote that, her record was basically done, but they went in and cut a few things. “Follow Your Arrow” actually knocked a song or two of mine out that she had already cut. But her version, even though it’s not a ballad…there’s just something about the way she sings it that pulls at my heartstrings.
David Nail, “That’s How I’ll Remember You”
One of the best voices I’ve ever heard. That song is one of my top five favorite songs I’ve ever written, and having a voice like his on it is really a dream come true.
Darius Rucker, “Love Without You”
That’s a very special song to me. I wrote it with Shane McAnally. Sheryl Crow, who I love and who has been so generous to me in so many ways, sings on it with Darius. He’s such a great singer — and such a great guy. He doesn’t cut a lot of outside songs, because he’s such a great songwriter himself. So it means a lot that he decided to cut one of ours instead of doing another one of his own songs.
Reba McEntire, “The Day She Got Divorced” and “Cry”
I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t know who Reba McEntire was. “Fancy” was one of the first music videos I ever saw, when we got CMT at our house. She’s such a fantastic singer and storyteller. She’s cut three of my songs, but the first one didn’t make the record she cut it for. But when she cut those songs of mine and two made the record, that was the moment for me when I felt like, “Wow this can really happen.” This dream of mine can be a reality. I don’t know if there will ever be a bigger cut for me than Reba. Unless Patsy Cline were to come back to life!