Brandy Clark on Going for Comedy With ‘Shucked,’ Tears With Solo Album

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Singer-songwriter Brandy Clark has enjoyed triumphs recently on two fronts. Ten years of work on the score for her first Broadway musical, “Shucked,” paid off with a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk Award win for her and score co-writer Shane McAnally. And the Nashville resident’s self-titled fourth album, which found her friend Brandi Carlile moving into the producer’s chair, got the kind of great reviews that augur for more Grammy nominations (on top of the 10 nods she’s already picked up over the years).

While she was making one of her many visits to New York, Variety caught up with her for a Facetime feature to discuss both her new Warner Records album, one of the year’s best, and the hit musical, which has a cast album of its own. The joint timing is coincidental, of course (“Shucked” was originally tagged for a 2020 opening, with an out-of-town run in D.C. that was just about to begin when the pandemic kicked in). That she gets to talk about two home runs at once makes her career seem far from anything that ends in “-ucked,” unless lucked applies.

The “Shucked” music is mostly comedic. Is it challenging or freeing to have to be that funny for the length of a score? 

It’s freeing. You know, it’s fun to write a song about corn and say, “It’s the same going in, coming out.” Robert Horn [the show’s book writer] said, “We need one more joke here.” And I remember thinking, “I know what it’s gonna be, and I have dreaded that this is where we’re gonna go in this song, but here goes.” But people laugh every night, and laughter feels great when you’re sitting there and you want ’em to laugh.

“Shucked” cast member Alex Newell won the Tony for featured actor in a musical. Newell gets the biggest showstopper, “Independently Owned,” in the middle of the first act. 

It says a lot to me what a bunch of team players this cast is, because the rest of the cast has never been anything but ecstatic for Alex to get that standing ovation — from before it even happened. I remember the second time Alex sang it in rehearsal, Caroline Innerbichler, who plays Maizy, said, “OK, and then when everybody sits down, I’ll say the next line.” And I thought, wow… they’re very generous with Alex. Alex is one of those singers that God doesn’t make many like, and I think they all feel lucky to have somebody in the ensemble that has that gift.

Unlike “Shucked,” your new album isn’t going for many laughs — although you have in the past. 

On every other record I’ve always had at least one lighthearted song, like a “Bigger Boat” or “Stripes.” I don’t on this record, and I think that’s probably Brandi. She chose the material out of the songs I gave her. Because so much of my stuff is heavy, I tend to feel like people need a palate cleanser, and Brandi said, “Oh, you’re worried about that?” I said, “Well, yeah!” And she’s like, “Oh, I quit worrying about things like that. Dave Cobb [who co-produced Carlile’s own last two studio albums] flushed that out of me. Don’t worry about, is there enough tempo? Is there enough of this or too little of that? Let’s just record the best songs.” That’s her. I mean, I think one of Brandi’s greatest strengths is her gut. I can be a second guesser, so I need somebody at that producer helm that is not. And she likes to go for the heavy and the real.

There were lyrics that we changed in “Dear Insecurity” [which Clark and Carlile recorded as a duet on the album]. I wrote that with Michael Pollock, who’s a great writer, and I think because of it being with him, there were a few things that were probably his insecurities in that lyric, and there probably still are. But it had to be all mine and Brandy’s insecurities when we recorded it. And I’m glad we made those few little changes.

You’ve said Brandi compelled you to change some lyrics, to take out some of the levity or be more autobiographical. 

Every producer I’ve worked with has gone in and changed arrangements. I kind of expect that, actually, and I welcome it. But I’d never had somebody in the producer role say, “Hey, would you take a look at this lyric? I don’t buy this second verse.” That was tough for me, at first. And the first day we both came in running a hundred miles an hour, and when she immediately asked for major changes in “Buried,” it was like I hit a wall a little bit. Before we worked the next day, she came over and we talked and I told her I had a really hard time making lyric changes on the fly. Because unless I wrote something completely by myself, I felt like it was disrespectful to the other co-writers. She said, “Well, why is that?” And I said, “Well, because it’s not like we’ve slopped these songs together… they’ve been written and rewritten, and I like to be in service to the song.” And she said, “Well, I think that needs to change. I think you need to be in service to the artist. And that’s you.” When she said that, it really struck me. Even though I’ve made three other records before this, I really identify as a songwriter, and she made me step into the role of artist

And I said, “OK, I’m gonna trust you.” And so everything she asked me to take a look at, I did. And I remember probably three-quarters of the way through the process, she was like, “Man, you are just so brave. everything I’ve asked you to you to do, you do it.” And I said, “Well, I mean, if I could produce my own records, I would, but it’s not in my skillset. And so if I’m not gonna trust you, then I shouldn’t have you producing my record.” I think it was a little tougher for me to get to there with her, because even though Brandi’s a great producer, I know her as an artist. And I had worked with her before, but we were never in the same spot. We did it remotely. [The first time Carlile produced Clark, it was during the pandemic, for a two-song one-off, including the Grammy-nominated “Same Devil.”] And that’s just different.

And once I let go and thought, “OK, she’s the producer, in the same way that Dave Brainard produced a record on me [her 2013 debut, “12 Stories”] and Jay Joyce produced two records on me [2016’s “Big Day in a Small Town” and 2020’s “Your Life Is a Record”], that’s the role she’s in.” Even though I had chosen her for that role, I still was thinking of her as a recording artist. And when I saw her in the role she was in — a role she was playing very well, by the way —things got way better and easier for me.

What was it about “Buried” [one of the album’s big tear-jerkers] that Brandi wanted you to change?

It was the line “I’ll read ‘Lonesome Dove,’ I’ll start doing yoga.” And now it’s, “I’ll read ‘Lonesome Dove,’ fall asleep to Hallelujah”. Because Brandi said, “I just don’t buy that you do yoga.” And I said, “Well, I don’t.” So she’s like, “Yeah, well, I mean, that needs to change then.” And that was really good because it’s been a long time since I’ve thought, “Oh, every line [needs to ring personally true].” I mean, there are songs like “She Smoked in the House” where absolutely every line of that is true. But a lot of my songs, they always start with a grain of truth and then a lot of fiction comes in. And I never think, “Oh, would I say that? Would I not say that?” I think I’ll think about that differently going forward and write more purposefully for me, which is something I’ve kind of avoided doing. I think I was a little scared of it, but I’m not now. And maybe a huge part of making this record was to do that for me.

On some past albums, you tended to write more in character than you did ostensibly as yourself. Like, you would take on the persona of a bored housewife. 

Yeah, I love those. I love the bored housewives.

But people have taken note of how you use a “she” pronoun, in the song “Dear Insecurity,” when you offhandedly sing about someone you’re worried about your insecurities botching a relationship with. It sounds like you’re writing as yourself there.

“She’s really sure of me.” Yeah, you know, it’s crazy. I realize how far I’ve come in owning my own sexuality in that song, because I never even thought about it the day that song was written. It’s exactly how it was written. Now, I went in and made some changes while Brandi and I were singing it, so that it would pertain more to the two of us — but not to that last verse. And I think that is telling of just where I am, and also I think kind of where the world is, because the first time I even thought about that was Hunter Kelly [the host of Apple Radio’s gay country show, “Proud Radio”] reached out to me because he got the record early and said, “Oh girl, I love that you’re using the ‘she’ pronoun.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “Dear Insecurity,” and he quoted that. And I said, “Man, Hunter, I never even thought about that until you just said it, but it’s the way it was written.”

So there was no thought of, “Oh, should I say he,” and so I’m just happy internally that it wasn’t anything that I even thought about. I just did it. I’ve had people reach out to me, saying how much that song means to them. And I’m like, “Oh, I’m so happy.” That’s what I wanted with that, and I think it touches everybody. But one of my female fans who I know really well said, “Well, it also means a lot to us in the LGBTQ community that you said ‘she.’” And that makes me really happy that it hits people that way.

I’m just being hit by it on a really primal level….

I’m glad it hits you there, because that’s where it hits me.

A lot of us have had teary therapy sessions with ourselves listening to that song. But you mentioned that you and and Brandi changed lyrics to make it more specific to the two of you personally. Can you give an example?

Yes. Like, there was a line that said, “My lips are way too thin / Too many freckles on my skin.” That was always kind of throwaway when it was written. And we changed it to “miles.” Then another part that got changed… man, [the final version] is so in my brain now, it’s hard for me to remember. But, “Dear insecurity… You’re a mean girl, you’re a bully and I hope you’re having fun…” Before, it was, “You’re a mean girl, you’re a bully, and I’m hiding in my hoodie.” So that changed.

It’s useful for people who feel insecure in their lives to hear you and Brandi singing that and feel like it’s not just you projecting, because fans think, “They’re on top of the world — why would they have any insecurity?” So if you’re saying that you own parts of that song…

I relate to every line of that song. I think there’s a misconception, when it looks like you’re on top of the world, that you really are. Because some of the most insecure people I know are people who look like they’re on top of the world. And I think that there’s almost more insecurity, because… You know, I’ve had a really good run here in the last little bit. But I still have things that I don’t like about myself or that feel like shortcomings. And, you know, you put a record out and most people love it. But man, the few people who don’t that are real vocal about it, and it really feeds into those insecurities. I think we’re all pretty insecure.

Is there an underdog song on the album for you?

Everybody’s got their favorites and people kind of coalesce around a few. “Take Mine” is probably an underdog for me, and as this album now has been out a few weeks, I’m getting more messages about that song. I love it because I have a lot of people say, “Oh, that reminds me of the Carpenters,” which I love that comparison. So that’s probably my underdog favorite.

But I mean, my favorite is “Dear Insecurity,” for sure. That song means a lot to me, and it would’ve meant a lot to me had it not become a duet, but then that took it to another level. Just having Brandi and I on this project together and singing that song together means a lot to me. Because she had wanted to get Lucinda Williams, and then she sang it [for a demo vocal] and I kind of got lost in it. I went home thinking, “Oh, God, what am I gonna do here? I love the way this feels.” And so I was really happy that she agreed to be the duet on it.

The way Brandi tells it is that she always wanted to do the duet part with you, even though she’d suggested Lucinda, and was afraid to ask. It’s hard to imagine Brandi being afraid to bring anything up.

She never did. I think she didn’t want to force her own voice on anything. But it made me really happy that she’s on it. I can’t imagine anyone else. When she first said “duet,” I instantly thought of a male singer, and so I didn’t go right to her. But then when she sang that scratch vocal to me, the two of us together was magic. And you don’t wanna squash magic.

Of course the basic idea of the two of you together for any purpose delights people who know you both. And Brandi was kind of making a joke out of it — “Two gay Brandys from the Northwest walk into a room,” or something like that. Just the name similarities… I can remember looking up photos of one or the other of you on wire services and there would be photos of the wrong person. I was talking to Belinda Carlisle recently about her feelings about those names getting mixed up, and whether they could ever record a duet together just for the fun of it. In your case, you haven’t worried about, “Oh, maybe it’s too cute for us to work together.”

No, you know, it’s happened for so long — and then when Brandi Carlile exploded, it really started to happen to me. When she had that big performance on the Grammys and somebody tweeted at me like, “Oh my God, you’re a rock star.” And I said, “Well, that’s Brandi Carlile, but yes, she is.” So I just leaned into it. And, you know, if I’m gonna be confused with anybody, she’s not a bad person to be confused with.

It’s easy to talk about how your sensibilities really align in a cool way. Is there any way in which the two of you are really different, though, that also made this collaboration work?

One of the major differences we have is where we’re coming from as songwriters. I went to Nashville and learned how to write songs, and there’s a real structure in that. I believe that the best songwriters in the world — not all of them, but a good hunk of ’em — are in Nashville. Brandi comes from no school of songwriting. She kind of learned how to write songs writing with the (Hanseroth) twins. And there’s something really powerful in that too. And I think those two things together made this record. Like I said, I’ve never had a producer who felt like they could take me to task with songs, because none of the producers I’ve worked with come at it from us as a songwriter. They’re musicians, first and foremost, who became producers. Brandy’s a singer and a songwriter who’s producing records. So I think her wanting to loosen up a little bit on some lyrics — like, “Hey, it doesn’t have to rhyme perfect,” or “It’s kind of cool if it doesn’t rhyme there” — helped. But I think myself coming in with that structured songwriting background also helped. I think we end up in this really cool middle ground.

Of course your collaborations with Shane McAnally go way, way back. And now it’s almost like we’re getting two albums from you at once, in a way, with the release of the “Shucked” cast album.

I’m really pleased with how it turned out, and I’ve never seen musicians work as fast. We tracked 18 songs in a day for that cast album. A lot of that is you’re using the same players that are playing in the pit every night, so they know what they’re gonna play, but still, it’s a lot, and I was so impressed with the process of that.

When we last spoke, as “Shucked” was midway through the rehearsals for the Broadway opening, you and Shane were writing new songs even then. Did it seem at all ironic to you that, as you’d worked on this show for over 10 years and written dozens or even hundreds of songs for it, even at the last possible second, you were coming up with fresh material that is presumably going to be locked into the show forever?

Well, I had always been told by Robert (Horn) that you make changes right up until the end. Actually, I thought we would make more changes during previews. The show was a lot closer to the finish line than any of us knew, and the way we could find out was to put it in front of an audience. (Director) Jack O’Brien had said to me, “Now, look, you know, we’re gonna have some tough previews,” and so I was prepared for certain things to fall flat, and when they didn’t, the first preview was opening night to me. I mean, I probably cried for 24 hours, with the way I was just blown away by the way that it was received. And then overnight tickets started selling. We still made a few changes, but they weren’t massive changes like I thought we might make. So that was pretty crazy.

But every other stage of the process, there were changes right up until it opened, and there were some people who still wanted changes. But Jack was like, “No, the show’s done.” He’s really good that way at knowing “it’s as good as it’s gonna be. If we keep tinkering with it, we’re gonna get diminishing returns.” He was really great at putting the brakes on some overthinking that had started to happen. Not by me — this is the one area where I’m not an overthinker. And thank God that Shane and I had each other… Certain departments are always wanting — “Oh, can we get one more song?” And the hard thing about that is, as composers, you tend to like what you’ve just written. What’s happened in the past and what I asked Jack to please not ever let happen when we got here (to Broadway) was: There was always a song right before a reading, or right before the show opened in Salt Lake (for an out-of-town tryout), that we would write that everyone would freak out about — and about 10 days into it, it didn’t sound as good as it did, and there would be that cringey moment. And I had said to Jack, “I don’t want to feel that way when the show opens on Broadway.” And he said, “You won’t.” And I think that that is is part of his genius — knowing when to say “Enough is enough” so that that doesn’t happen.

It’s funny, because at the run-through I saw in February, there was a risque song at the beginning of the second act called “Plowed” that I thought would be one of the most popular songs in the show. And then within days, Robert Horn told me that you and Shane had just written new songs for the end of the first act and beginning of the second over the weekend. And so when someone I knew went to the first preview, I had to ask, “Is ‘Plowed’ still in there?” And they said, “That doesn’t ring a bell.”

Boy, that was one I always fought to have in there, and that one never made it to any stage beyond when you saw it. I think that’s the only time it was ever in a reading! But that song got kicked around a lot. I mean, I’d love to see it in the show. That’s not gonna change now, but maybe the touring cast you can put it in or something.

There needs to be a “Shucked” boxed set, with outtakes from the dozens of the tunes you two wrote over the years that didn’t make it into the final show.

You know, we did something called “From the Shucking Room Floor” after a matinee for 200 “Shucked” super-fans, and then some Tony voters, and most of the songs we played are songs that aren’t in the show, to especially give those super-fans, a taste of the evolution of the show. “Plowed” was one of those. And, for example, with Lulu (played by Newell), who has “Independently Owned,” every Lulu song we ever had was a great song. I can’t say the same for any of the other characters, but every song for that character was great — yet the character changed and so we would have to write a different song.

I don’t know if Robert told you this or not, but the song that was on my first record, “Pray to Jesus,” that Shane and I wrote was why Robert chose us. So we played a little bit of that song and talked about how Robert heard that and knew that that was the tone he wanted for the show and so he chose us. And then we played our very first opening number, which was called “Hee-Haw” [from the period in the mid-2010s when the show itself bore that name]. The amazing thing is, most of these (outtakes), we love them as much as we love the ones that are in the show. Now there are some that are on the shucking room floor that we don’t love, but these ones we love and it’s like, oh wow, these were great too. You know, just as the show changes, the songs have to change.

It is interesting that “Pray to Jesus” caught Robert’s ear.

Robert listened to several songs from different teams of writers in Nashville, and he said that when he heard that, he knew that was the song. Robert Filhart, who used to work at ASCAP, was helping him find songwriters and played that song for him, and Robert Horn said he remembers thinking, “Oh, these are the people — whoever wrote this song could write the show I’m envisioning.”

It must be interesting to look back on serendipitous moments in your life where you can think, “If I hadn’t written that song, life would be very different.”

Oh, it would be. I told Shane I was going to start that “From the Shucking Room Floor” event by saying, “It all started with an episode of “Weeds.” He said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “Shane, don’t you remember?” I loved the television show “Weeds,” and there was a scene where Nancy Botwin was working as a a cleaning person in a hotel; she had fallen from this massive drug lord to running from the law and she was working at a hotel in Canada, and something happened on some sheets. I don’t remember what it was, but it was something awful that I’m sure people that clean hotel rooms have to deal with every day. This other woman was putting the sheets in the washing machine, and Nancy Botwin said, “How do you live this life?” And that woman said, “Well, I pray to Jesus and play the lotto.” It struck me right away. I sat up and I wrote it down, and then the next day I saw Shane and said, “I have this idea that I got from ‘Weeds.’ I think we could write it.” We didn’t write it right away; we talked about it for a long time. But, you know, had I not been watching “Weeds” that night, I would’ve never gotten that idea, we would’ve never written it and Robert wouldn’t have heard it. And so I think all those things were meant to be.

When you look at “Shucked” now and what it’s become and where it came from, do you think about this show is really subversive in getting messages through that maybe are unexpected, or do you just think of how it works as a delivery system for pure entertainment?

It depends on the mood I’m in when I watch it. Now that you ask that, some nights I’m just entertained by it, and then other nights I see all the hidden messages. I have to say, Jack O’Brien… he didn’t write those in there, but he pushed Robert, and us in turn, to find deeper meaning than just the froth of making people laugh. And so, yeah, some nights I’m just highly entertained, and then other nights I’m like, “Ooh, look what we did there. I wonder if they really got that part,” you know? But either way, I’m always proud. And some nights I get lost in it and forget that we wrote it.

For more on Brandy Clark, read our feature story about “Shucked” here, or our announcement story about the “Brandy Clark” album here.

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