By Chris Azzopardi
Photo: Chris Phelps
So, about doing an LGBTQ press interview such as this one: coveted out country music singer-songwriter Brandy Clark is really into it. “This is exciting for me,” she tells me one recent afternoon. To be clear, Clark, who’s been carrying the torch for LGBTQ people in country music since launching a recording career in 2013, has never shied away from LGBTQ press. Who knows why, then, she’s done so little of it. Clark has, after all, a full resume: four-time Grammy nominee (including a nod, in 2015, for Best New Artist), songwriter for Reba McEntire and Miranda Lambert and Jennifer Nettles and Keith Urban, and co-writer of Kacey Musgraves’ progressive country ditty “Follow Your Arrow,” which casually brought LGBTQ inclusivity to Southern consciousness.
On the heels of her third album, Your Life Is a Record, Clark, 44, opened up about how coming out in her 20s served her career well, being embraced in Nashville, and hoping for a major out gay male country star.
Who knows which songs will affect me tomorrow, but right now I’m feeling “Bad Car” and “The Past Is the Past” because I’m a sucker for nostalgia.
That’s always great to hear because “Bad Car” was one that I just didn’t know if it would fit on the record. It was in the mix for my last record too and ended up not fitting. We didn’t even record it; it was just one that was tossed around. And it came up again, which always tells me it’s a great song if it continues to bubble up, and that one’s really hitting a lot of people.
I’m a big fan of the way you write. How did you learn to write so well?
Oh, good question. I think it starts with: I love stories and I grew up around great storytellers in my family, and I’m drawn to great storytellers. So there’s that. I love to read, I love to watch great TV shows that are written really well, and I love country music. And I think I was fortunate to grow up in a time where there was a lot of great country songs. I grew up next to my grandparents, so the music they were listening to wasn’t necessarily on country radio at the time.
I remember my grandma coming home from both a Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard concert, who I think are two of the greatest songwriters to ever live. Dolly Parton was big in our home. Then when I was a teen and in my early 20s the country music of the ’90s was happening and there was so much great songwriting in all that. The first modern country artist that I really was a huge fan of was Patty Loveless and she had songs like “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” written by Gretchen Peters, who is one of my favorite writers and someone I would consider a huge influence.
I love songs that make me feel like I’m right there, I love songs that describe in three-and-a-half minutes a split-second decision, and then I love great story songs like (Kenny Rogers’) “The Gambler.” I think that’s what it was for me: It started out with just a love of storytelling and a love of music, and then being in Nashville and being around some of the best songwriters in the world, you’re only going to get better. And that’s what I did: I put myself in this place where the greatest are at.
With Kacey Musgraves and out gay country songwriter Shane McAnally, you co-wrote “Follow Your Arrow.” How much input did you have in the line “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into”?
What’s funny about that was: I think when we were writing that it wasn’t even something that was like, “Oh, should we put that in there?” It just worked. And with Shane and I being gay – and Kacey just being someone who’s so fluid in her thinking – it wasn’t a big deal.
And people would always say to me, “Oh, I bet you wrote that ‘kiss lots of girls’ line (laughs). I said, “I don’t even remember! I hope I did!” But I don’t know if I did or not. I mean, I’m really proud of it. It’s crazy because it’s by far not the biggest hit I’ve had, but impact-wise one of the biggest songs I’ve had. When people find out I was a co-writer on it, it’s like I wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” (Laughs.)
But you understand why, right?
Yes! Oh, I’m so proud of it. And I don’t think any of us realized that day or even when she put it on the album what a moment it was for a lot of people. I’m really proud of that, that the LGBTQ community feels represented, because I live in a bit of a bubble. I’ve always lived in pretty progressive areas. I grew up in the Northwest and I had parents who were gonna be accepting of me no matter what I was; if I was a green alien, they would be like, “OK, well we love you. Don’t smoke.” (Laughs.) And then moving to Nashville and discovering I was gay: I was a late bloomer. Nashville’s a pretty liberal city for the South, and I was always in a group of people who were gay.
I can’t imagine that was the case in Morton, Washington, where you grew up, and where the population is around 1,000. How did you survive that experience?
The truth is, luckily, I didn’t realize I was gay until I was in my early 20s.
Did not knowing until you moved to Nashville work in your favor?
Had I realized early on, I don’t know what that would’ve been like for me. Because it was hard enough when I was in my 20s. My dad had passed away by this time. I had a mom who was so accepting, but I can’t imagine being in high school, being in a small school. I think the things about me that are pretty gay actually helped me fit in. I love sports, and one way to fit in in Morton was to be good at sports, and so I was. And I just didn’t have a clue I was gay, and some of that was probably because gay was not represented.
Right. Conceptually you didn’t really know what you could identity as.
Exactly. I just knew that good girls didn’t sleep with their boyfriend and I was a good girl. I mean, that’s what I thought. And my parents were pretty strict. I didn’t have a lot of rope to figure those things out. I didn’t have real serious boyfriends. If there was a dance, I had to be home 10 minutes after the dance, so I didn’t have a lot of room to explore sexuality. I had friends who were sexually active; I just wasn’t. And I think so much of it was: I was so focused on sports at the time, and right when I got out of high school I got really into music.
It wasn’t until I fell in love for the first time, and happened to fall in love with a woman. It really freaked me out. Like, “Oh my god, I can’t be gay. But if being in love with her makes me gay, I guess I’m gay.” (Laughs.) I have a really strong heart in that way. And I’m a fool and will follow it off a cliff. But then the second time I fell in love with a woman, I was like, “Oh, you know what, I think I’m gay.” (Laughs.) And then I was able to wrap my head around it a little differently.
Like I said, I had an incredibly accepting family. I didn’t have heavy-duty religion playing into it for me, telling me I was going to hell. I had a lot of acceptance, and it was still difficult for me, so I can’t imagine what these kids go through that have those things working against them.
Did songwriting help you come to terms with being gay?
It did. One of my early co-writers in Nashville, I remember coming out to her and not knowing what she would think. She was so loving and she said to me, “I think it’s part of why you’re a really great songwriter.” I started to embrace myself differently. And I do: I think writing songs helped me process it.
I’ve heard it said that LGBTQ people are as evolved as they are because we have to go through years of self-reflection. We are forced to self reflect.
That makes sense. I can tell you one thing: There are a lot of reasons I feel fortunate that I’m gay, but one of them is that I’ve never fallen in love for the wrong reasons. It’s never been because of what someone looks like or what they did for a living because it was already like, “OK, this isn’t the popular choice already,” (laughs) so it’s always been what my heart wanted.
I saw there’s this new show on Netflix called Love Is Blind and I haven’t watched it, but I feel like that every time I’ve fallen in love, that’s what it’s been for me. It’s been an emotional connection first. And I do feel fortunate about that.
Years ago, you were proclaimed our “great lesbian hope” by AfterEllen. Maybe you’ve seen that.
No, I didn’t see that! But I love that.
When I read that, I wondered if you felt pressure to carry the torch within a genre where there is so little LGBTQ representation?
Pressure’s not the word. I feel a responsibility. Not everyone can be visible; I can be. And so if me being visible makes it easier for the next person to be, then that makes me really happy. And also I loved country music from probably the time I was conceived and I didn’t know I was gay, so I didn’t know I didn’t fit into that. I just knew I loved it. I loved Patsy Cline. I love, like I said, Merle Haggard. George Strait. Reba. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know I was gay then because I would’ve maybe thought, “Oh, well, I can’t be that.”
But later, did you ever worry your sexuality could be an issue if you were going to be a country music artist?
Yeah, for sure. When I really came out of the closet I thought, “OK, that dream is dead,” and then it’s funny how when you start being your authentic self things line up differently. It wasn’t long after that that I got approached about making my first record and I remember saying to my manager at the time who I was just meeting who approached me about it: “I feel like I need to tell you before we go any further that I’m gay.” And it was no big deal to her. She said, “I just think the focus is your music.” And I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had two managers now and a couple of publicists and everybody’s been really good about “It’s part of the story, it’s not the whole story.” And it’s definitely not something I’m ashamed of. But I definitely did think, “Oh, I can’t have that.”
Because there was no template for artists like you?
Yes. By the time I had the opportunity to make an album, k.d. lang was way far out of the closet. Chely Wright had come out.
But look what happened to Chely’s career. She admits it stalled.
I think part of my journey is that I was always out, so I don’t know what would have happened had I come out. I just know that I’ve been embraced and I’ve never felt like something didn’t happen because I was gay. Maybe it has, but if it has I’ve never felt it.
It must’ve lit a fire under your feet once Reba – a country music icon – recorded some of your songs, and that, I think, happened early in your career.
Well, it’s funny that you would say “early.” I had been in the game of writing songs and been around Nashville for over 15 years at that point. When that happened, it started to feel like my ship was coming in.
So you’d been working toward this for many years before you actually released your debut album 12 Stories in 2013.
I’ve been in Nashville for 22 years, I think. So really it’s only been in the last seven years that I’ve had an artist career, and before that I was toiling away as a staff songwriter. All of it kind of happened at once. I mentioned Shane and some other people, and some people who are creatively like-minded, and things started to happen for that group of people that I was in, and I don’t think that was an accident. I think everybody in there had been working a long time and (when they) met, little fires started popping up everywhere, like that new book. Reba had cut another song of mine and it fell off the album, which meant it didn’t make the album, so when she did All the Women I Am (in 2010) and I had two cuts on that I thought, “This can happen.” It was a real turning point, and then right when that was happening I had the opportunity to make 12 Stories.
Apparently you grew up just a couple of hours away from another out gay artist with your first name: Brandi Carlile. Is there ever going to be a duet? Do you guys talk? Do you guys go to gay bars together?
(Laughs.) We’ve never gone to a gay bar together. Absolutely love the other Brandi. We’ve done some shows together, and I was going to get her to sing on my record and it just didn’t pan out. There was a song I was going to do that I didn’t do that I was going to have her do with me. Maybe next time that will work out. But I thought it would be really cool because it was a part that typically a man would’ve sung. I thought it’d be great to have Brandi on this.
After listening to this album, it’s clear you like to challenge gender norms. On “Who You Thought I Was,” you sing about being a kid and pretending to be Elvis and not a cowgirl but a cowboy.
It’s very funny you would mention that. I actually have my manager to thank for that. And at the time it seemed like a small thing, but it’s such a big thing. So right before I went in to make this record I was going back through my catalog and listening to everything, and I had written that song “Who You Thought” with Jonathan Singleton and Jessie Jo Dillon. Jonathan’s a great singer and he sang the demo, so I always thought of it as a guy song, but I loved it. And so I said to my manager, “I wanna play you this and it’s probably not right but I just don’t want to miss anything.” And she was like, “Brandy, you have to record this song.” And she’s like, “Don’t change it to ‘cowgirl’ and don’t change the Elvis thing,” and I said, “Oh. I hadn’t even thought about it.” She said, “It’s way more badass if you don’t.”
It reads as queer to me. I love it.
Reads as queer – I like that!
Do you find people in the LGBTQ community expect you to be more political than you are because you’re a lesbian and there’s so much happening that is directly affecting the community?
I don’t know what people expect of me. I’m not a real political person, and I’m not even necessarily that proud to say that. I’m just not. I mean, I vote. The way I lean would not shock anyone (laughs). But I just … I never get into it. Maybe I should more. Maybe that’s something I should do more of.
I will say one thing: When I was growing up I didn’t see a lesbian that looked like me and that was part of my hang up. I don’t have short hair, not that there’s anything wrong with short hair. If I had different features, I’d wear it and wear it proudly, but I can’t. And so I do think I represent a kind of lesbian that maybe somebody growin’ up is like, “Oh, OK, well, I could see myself like her.”
I can’t wait for the time, and I think we’re moving toward it, that being gay or lesbian is not such a big deal. I see with my nephews, it’s not. And we’ve had to pave that way, by the way. It’s way easier for us than it was even 10 years ago. But I really do look forward to a time where, like with country music, it wouldn’t be a big deal for a male singer to be gay because I haven’t seen that.
Is it easier for a lesbian to be a country star?
Why do you think that might be?
I don’t know, but I can tell you this: When I met Shane McAnally, I drew a lot of strength from him. He wasn’t the only guy I knew who is gay who writes songs, but he was the one I knew the best at the time. I was out but I wasn’t super loud about it, but when I met him and we started working together I thought, “This is so much easier for me than it is for him. So, by god, I’m just gonna be who I am.” And I don’t know why that is. I really don’t. But I’d love to see it. Because I think if we see a (a major) gay male country singer, it would change a lot of people’s minds.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.