NASHVILLE — When singer-songwriter Brandy Clark went into the studio to record her next album, many of her songs reflected on the breakup of a 15-year relationship. But musically, she was also divorcing herself of the notion that she was just a country singer.
"All I ever saw myself as was a country artist because most of my influences were country," said the 44-year-old singer from Morton, Washington. "But in this record, I guess I just kind of took the handcuffs off of myself."
Clark has co-written big hits for Miranda Lambert ("Mama's Broken Heart"), The Band Perry ("Better Dig Two") and Kacey Musgraves ("Follow Your Arrow") on top of releasing her own critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated albums. On Clark’s previous records, her country songs were primarily character driven, full of observant details about the lives of ordinary people that Clark either knew or imagined. But on " Your Life is a Record," which came out in March, Clark reflected inward not only on her breakup, but her career in country music as well.
"The country radio door didn’t swing wide open for me like I would have loved for it to," said Clark, who is among the many female artists who have struggled to gain traction in country radio in recent years. "I’m just gonna make a record that is the most creative record I could make."
She started with the idea of restricting herself in the studio to just acoustic instruments and a small trio of musicians. Those included multi-instrumentalists Giles Reaves and Jedd Hughes and her producer Jay Joyce. But to elevate it, they added a cinematic flair to the songs of loss and love with help from Memphis strings and horn musicians, orchestrated by prominent Stax Records session musician Lester Snell.
"When you think of those horns and strings, to me it starts to feel big," said Clark. "And Jay did a really good job of pulling me back because my instinct was to sing harder."
Influenced by the soulful R&B sounds of the classic 1970s record "Dusty in Memphis" by Dusty Springfield, Clark whispers her desires on songs like "Love is a Fire," backed by delicate swells of strings and tinkling pianos.
One of Clark’s longtime songwriting partners, hit country songwriter and producer Shane McAnally, said that Clark went looking for more universal themes about relationships for this record. They co-wrote "Love Is a Fire," and "Who Broke Whose Heart."
"I just don’t know anybody who is better at telling a story with just few words," said McAnally. "She’s serving the song and the story and then she gets out of the way."
Folk icon John Prine inspired her to write the song "Who You Thought I Was," after he remarked at an Americana awards show that "I’m John Prine, but I’d like to go back to being who you thought I was."
But one of the biggest left turns on the record is a duet with Randy Newman, famous for his Oscar-winning film compositions and wry musical songs. Clark pitched a song she wrote called "Bigger Boat" to Newman, who agreed to do it if he could cut out a curse word. "He said, ‘I changed that line. I don’t want to say that word and my line is better anyway,’" Clark said with a laugh.
The song is full of the witty, sarcastic and subtle political lyrics that Newman has made all his career as well as a number of references to films like "Titanic" and "Jaws."
"A lot of my stuff is heavy," Clark said. "And so you need those little moments of levity. My philosophy is life is a dark comedy."
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