Brandy Clark, one of the finest singer-songwriters in country music, thought her career would only take place behind the scenes. "I definitely had it in my head that being gay and being in country music .. those two things could not coexist," she says. "That's one of the times I've been really happy to be wrong."
Clark knew plenty of other gay songwriters, like her frequent collaborator, Shane McAnally, but the number of out gay singers that've broken through in country music are comparatively rare — it was only in February of this year that T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne came out and became the first out gay artist signed at a major country label. (Similar to Clark, Brandi Carlile, Chely Wright, Orville Peck, and Lil Nas X are not on specifically country music labels.)
"The great thing for me was there was no career suicide to commit because I was already out of the closet," Clark says. "Whatever happened for me, once I became an artist, it was icing on the cake."
Writing for country music staples like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark has seen her career as a songwriter flourish, but now with the release of her third critically acclaimed album, she's created a new example for queer musicians to point to for what is also possible in Nashville.
At the Grammys this year, Clark is nominated for Best Country Album for Your Life Is a Record and Best Country Solo Performance for "Who You Thought I Was"; if she wins in either category, it would make her the first out gay person to do so (the ceremony happens Sunday). To celebrate her nominations and the release of the deluxe edition of Your Life Is a Record, Clark spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about why "simple is the hardest thing to write" and says this new record feels like she's revealing a new part of herself to listeners.
Jeffrey Masters: We have this idea of the country music world as a place that's not friendly to queer people. Before you started working in Nashville, did you have that assumption?
Brandy Clark: I did. I didn't realize that I was gay until after I had moved to Nashville. I was kind of a late bloomer. Once I had that realization, I definitely thought it would make it so that I wouldn't have an artist career.
I thought I could be a songwriter. I knew plenty of gay songwriters. I definitely had it in my head that being gay and being in country music could not ... those two things could not coexist is what I thought. I was wrong about that.
And until very recently, there were very few out gay country music artists to disprove that.
You're right. I thank God for people like k.d. lang, Chely Wright, Ty Herndon. When Ty and Chely came out of the closet, I think people in the industry probably saw it as career suicide. The great thing for me was there was no career suicide to commit because I was already out of the closet. Whatever happened for me, once I became an artist, it was icing on the cake. There was nothing to hide.
Much of your early music, particularly on your debut album, 12 Stories, had lyrics about male-female relationships. Was that a conscious choice you made?
No, not necessarily. A lot of the songs that I've recorded, when I wrote them, we were trying to get somebody else to record them.
And so, yes, I guess that would be a conscious choice if it's like, "Well, we really want Reba McEntire to sing this. So the pronoun is going to be he." I never thought to change that, even though I was out of the closet. That probably would have been a really great thing for me to do for representation. Now that I look back on it, I wish I would have done that. On this last record, there's none of that. I also think that's part of my development and my growth as a human being to get to where I am.
With this new album, you've called it your most personal. Does it feel like you're exposing a different part of yourself?
100 percent. I didn't realize that's what I was doing. In the process of writing these songs, I went through the breakup of a 15-year relationship. There's a lot of that in those songs.
Sometimes when you're writing, it's better to just go in and write songs and not think too much about it. Just, "I had this idea. Let's write it." What usually happens is one song starts to resonate with me, with management, with label. That song this time was "The Past Is The Past." There's a reason why that song resonated. I think it's because for me, I was at the end of writing those songs. It's like, OK, I've made it to this point where it feels in my heart like the past is the past. I can let that go. I think that was why that song became the cornerstone of the project.
We usually associate country music with being conservative. Do you feel like your fans will not tolerate overtly political views that contradict their own?
My base of fans, they're pretty liberal. In fact, I think I'd get more flak for not saying things than from speaking out.
I did a lot of work with Kacey Musgraves on her first two records. I'm a co-writer on "Follow Your Arrow." I have a lot of fans from that. Those fans are extraordinarily liberal. Not that I don't have conservative fans, but I think they're more conservative liberals.
"Follow Your Arrow" was a huge song, but it surprises me that people would look up who wrote that song and then want to seek you out.
Kacey has always been one of my biggest champions. Before I had a publicist, I had Kacey. She would talk about me in interviews and say, "Oh, my God, my friend and co-writer Brandy Clark made this record and you got to hear it." That was how that happened.
I'm fascinated by songwriting because a great song has the ability to wow a listener ... even with subpar vocals. You don't have that problem. But what goes into a great song? What are you listening for or hoping it does to you?
I don't think there's a sound to a great song. I think there's a feeling to a great song. I think it makes you feel something.
My first publisher told me music falls into two categories: It's either good or it's bad. If it makes you feel something, it's good. If it doesn't, it's bad. I think that's what a great song does, it makes you feel.
More than the business of music, it's the business of feelings. We're really selling emotions with what we do more than something specific musically.
One of my favorite songs on your first album is "Hold My Hand." It's simple in a good way, but simple can also be an insult. How do you find that balance?
I think all the classics are really simple. I think simple is the hardest thing to write because you've got to be spare with everything. You have to say it in an honest way, that says it a little differently. A really great example in that song, I said, "Man, I wish that that first word was something you're not used to hearing." Mark Stephen Jones said, "Raven." I knew exactly what that meant. He was coming up with another way to say black. Raven is the color of her long, curly hair.
Little things like that, I think, make simple really work.
One of the things I don't understand about the business of songwriting is if you write a great song, how do you not want to save it for yourself to sing?
I really believe that songs find their right home. I just believe that. There's never been a song of mine that someone else has recorded that I have sat back and thought, man, I wish I had that. I feel like it wasn't meant for me. If it is, I keep it.
There are songs that I write that are on these records that when they were written, I'm like, that song is for me. Don't play that for anybody. It does happen. "Love Is a Fire" was that way for me. I knew I wanted that. That was one where the label really trusted me. They weren't as into that song as I was. Then when they came to listen to the album, it was the third song they heard. They turned around and said, "Well, we were wrong about that one." That's a song I held for a long, long time.
When it comes to the craft of songwriting, how much did you have to learn versus just natural ability?
I feel like I've learned it all and that it's not natural ability. The truth is there is natural ability in there. There are things that I do instinctively. I've always been told that my phrasing is really good. When I first moved to Nashville, I was told, your natural phrasing is really good. That part is instinctive to me. I can always make a line sing. That is instinctive to me. The rest of it I really learned.
This new album is your first that you've ever put out that has a picture of you on the cover.
That was a tough choice for me. I was really pushed on that. I always wanted my albums to never have me on them. I wanted them to be some kind of artwork. The label and my manager were like, "No, you need to be on the cover of this one. This needs to be a different statement. This needs to say 'I am an artist.'"
I'm so glad, because that was a vulnerable moment for me because I'm not somebody who sees myself. I don't want this to be misconstrued. I've never been that person who looks in the mirror and thinks, Oh, my God, you're awful. But I've also never been that woman who looks in the mirror and thinks, Oh, my God, you're gorgeous. I really feel like I live in the middle in a healthy way. Most female artists, I feel like they're just stunning. I was a little bit nervous to step out and put myself out there in that way, but I'm really glad I did.
Your Life Is a Record, the new album by Brandy Clark, is available now.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Guests include Alok Vaid-Menon, Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, and Roxane Gay.
Episodes come out every Tuesday.