Brandy Clark smiles the nervous, excited grin of someone with a good, juicy secret.
In her case, it is the surprisingly rocking edge that pervades her forthcoming album Big Day in a Small Town, due out this summer.
For the major label follow-up to her highly praised indie debut as a performing artist 12 Stories, the hit singer-songwriter (Miranda Lambert, the Band Perry, Kacey Musgraves) turned to in-demand producer Jay Joyce. He has brought a Midas touch — and a flintier sound — to albums by Eric Church, Little Big Town and Brothers Osborne among others and the revved up results of Big Day are sure to turn the heads of those who fell in love with Clark’s intimate storytelling style.
“The safest thing to me felt like making something a lot like 12 Stories,” says Clark backstage at the House of Blues in Boston on a recent stop of the CMT Next Women of Country tour, where she shared the stage with headliner Jennifer Nettles and the undercard of Lindsay Ell and Tara Thompson. “But I didn’t want to be safe and I want to feel constantly inspired and so when I sat down with Jay Joyce, I said, ‘Here’s what I don’t want: I don’t want to make a brother or a sister to 12 Stories. I really want to make a cousin. There’s no way we can beat that, I don’t feel, so let’s do something else.’
“And he said, ‘All I care about is that we make your record. Let’s not make my record, because you have to go out and perform it and, if it’s a success, you’re going to have to go out and perform it for a very long time.'”
And success is in her sights. With 12 Stories, the Washington native enjoyed the rewards bestowed upon a critic’s darling: a mountain of acclaim, peer testimonials and awards show recognition, including a Grammy nod for Best New Artist. With Big Day in a Small Town, Clark would like to scale the adjoining peak of country radio airplay and sales. She hopes “Girl Next Door”—and its cheeky, recently released video — will be the first step in that climb.
Like much of the rest of Big Day, the song — co-written with frequent writing partner Shane McAnally and buddy Jessie Jo Dillon — retains all the hallmarks of Clark’s style: a compelling character, witty turns of phrase and a strong melody. But her tale of a woman disappointed by a man disappointed that his potential mate is not the picture perfect, wholesome ideal has been beefed up by Joyce’s bigger, bolder production sound of galloping guitars and a pulsating beat.
“‘Girl Next Door’ is the most different from what I’ve done before, so I was a little scared of that if I’m being honest,” says Clark. “But I’ll tell you when I knew it was the right choice was the first time I sat in a radio programmer’s office and saw the way that he reacted to it. There’s no in between on that, you’re either going to love it or hate it, it’s a polarizing thing and you need something like that to move the needle.”
She chalks up the song’s more radio-friendly sound more to Joyce’s approach then any change in her songwriting approach. “I don’t think it’s really edgier than ‘Stripes’ as far as subject matter, but just the production on it is edgier and that’s what I hope for it, that it does get some play and that it brings people to my music. Because one thing I know is that whatever it is that brings people to the party — whether it was seeing me do ‘Hold My Hand’ at the Grammys — when they get into it, I always hear, ‘As much as I loved that, ‘Hungover’ is my favorite song or ‘Take a Little Pill.'” Clark believes if “Girl” gets people in the door, they will fall for other tracks like “Love Can Go to Hell” and “Homecoming Queen,” which fit into her small town concept but go for a wide screen sound via Joyce.
“He definitely does that, and there were some places where I had him pull that back,” says Clark of her sense of balancing acoustic and electric sounds. She notes that Joyce fully understood her concerns, telling her at one point, “We’re gonna get rid of Satan’s Orchestra.”
She says with a laugh that she knows that particular, devilish collective would be more at home on an Eric Church record. “I was very cognizant of that. I didn’t want my record to sound like Brandy Clark making an Eric Church record,” she says. “But Jay, he just blew my mind at his lack of ego when it came to making sure that things were the way I wanted them.”
While Big Day in a Small Town is a ways off, those Jones-ing for more new Clark music can hear her contribution to Dave Cobb’s recently released, all-star compilation Southern Family, a newly recorded version of “I Cried.”
The elegant weeper, which pushed Clark to new vocal heights, was cut live in the studio, and is among her favorite sessions. “I’ve been really fortunate in the guys I’ve worked with, [12 Stories producer] Dave Brainard, Dave Cobb, Jay Joyce, none of them are about perfect, they’re all about what a record makes you feel like.”
Clark winds up the Next Women tour next month and then plans to hit the road for a headlining club and small theatre tour. She says the distaff outing has been a joy and has resulted in several co-writes with Nettles, including the headliner’s current single, “Unlove You.”
“Anytime you’re with an artist like Jennifer Nettles, it’s going to go well,” says Clark. “She’s just a great entertainer, so that sets the tone and she’s a very generous headliner. She has us all come back out and sing with her. . . She’s a good person to carry the torch for women in country music.”
Clark believes the tide is turning for women in the format after a period of turbulent discussion about gender imbalances.
“I feel that 100 percent,” she says. “I feel that when I’ve done radio visits. I feel that from what I’m seeing. Kelsea [Ballerini] and Cam both had Number One records. It’s changing, and I think so much of that is just cyclical. A huge era in country music that I’m heavily influenced by is the early to mid-Nineties. Females were so popular then, and I feel like that’s what we’re heading towards, I really do.”