Gary Clark Jr. sat with Okayplayer to discuss the method to his music and message, why he doesn’t consider himself to be radical, and his feelings toward President Donald Trump.
“I don’t need the cute shit. I just want it to work,” Gary Clark Jr. said to me gripping a cup of espresso. He takes his coffee black. “I don’t need all the flavor,” he added, sitting in a room at The Dream Hotel in midtown Manhattan.
He’s donning a beanie and a blazer, dressed entirely in grey, matching the waning winter weather that he’s casually lamenting over. “It’s not what I do… that’s why I went right back,” he said, alluding to the brief, two-year move he made to New York. “I like Austin.”
Texas — where he was born and raised — is where he continues to call home. He resides in Kyle, just 20 miles south of Austin, with his wife, model Nicole Trunfio, and two children. But he found himself back in the city he left, completing a media tour attached to the release of his latest studio album, This Land, in which “home” is a central theme. Clark claims America and all that it stands for as his home and defies it in the process — simply by existing and living to talk about it. The 35-year-old artist showed his rage and range on the expansive 17-track project, accompanied by impressive instrumentation and pointed commentary. The title track features fiery declaration and storied lines about race, displacement, and ownership. “Fuck you. I’m America’s son / This is where I come from,” he snarls. “This land is mine.”
The Grammy Award-winning musician produced the album himself. It is as sonically diverse as it is direct — from the punk undertones of “Gotta Get Into Something” to the classic rock of “Low Down Rolling Stone” to the funk-filled “Pearl Cadillac” — marked by soul, angst, honesty, and conviction. It’s D’Angelo, Prince, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, the British rock power band Cream, and more. But as expansive as it is, Clark doesn’t lose his sound or himself in it. He isn’t a staunch advocate of genre-defining, but he calls this project “soul music,” not because it fits within the parameters that define soul, but because it feeds his. “If I didn’t get it out of me,” he said in a statement, “I was going to explode.”
So, he picked up an MPC and his guitar and sang his lived stories. The album isn’t as experimental as it is redux for an artist who has shown time and time again that he’s set on figuring it all out through music. From his 2012 major label debut, Blak and Blu, to the more controlled 2015 follow up, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, Clark has cut through the noise with his modus operandi of singing and playing through it — no matter what “it” is.
This time, the creation of his new music was galvanized by one experience in particular. In an interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1, ahead of the album’s March 1st release, he discussed how the song “This Land” was partially inspired by the current political climate in the U.S. but brought to form by an incident he experienced in the south.
Clark had been standing in his front lawn in front of his home outside Austin with his wife and children. He was confronted by a neighbor who insisted the house couldn’t really be his. The neighbor demanded to know what he was doing in the neighborhood. Clark played it cool in front of his kids but transferred the rage to song.
It’s that balance of cool and contention that defines This Land. On the album, his purview of emotion isn’t picturesque — he sings about love, touring, and being, but he also tackles political activism, the familiar violence that is racism, and more of the ineluctable sentiments that come with the looming presence of the social and political dysfunction that has marked the nation’s fabric since its inception but has been amplified in recent years. Many have pinned this work as rageful and radical. Clark knows he’s neither — but isn’t sure if his audience does.
Okayplayer sat down with Gary Clark Jr. to discuss the method to his music and message, why he doesn’t consider himself to be radical, his feelings toward President Donald Trump, the role artists should play speaking out in and outside of music, and whether fans and critics expect too much.
I read that there’s a before this album and then after this album. What do you think made that transition be so stark?
I think timing is everything. Growth as a man, as a songwriter, as a musician — everything kind of hits at once. So it was like, art reflects life and vice versa. [It’d been] four years, since I released the last album. I’ve just been trying to get better as a songwriter, singer, musician, producer. I’ve just been paying attention. I got a family, I got to focus, the world is going crazy. I got to figure out how I can maneuver through it with the least amount of resistance and keep my people safe, and keep striving.
I read that the album holds a mirror up to America in 2019, but I don’t necessarily think that it can only be for this year. This could function as a mirror for other time periods in America. Would you say that the album is timeless in that way?
Sure. I think it’s a human experience. I want to make a timeless album. Something people can reference… Actually, you know, I didn’t go in thinking that. I just wanted to go and make music that I wanted to make that I felt was good and that I would be able to listen to 20 years from now and be like “yeah, I’m proud of this thing.” All the themes are there.
The formulaic response to making timeless music is always hitting on all those human themes, but when you contextualize it in the scheme of thinking about American history, that’s what makes it interesting. You can always talk about love, but what makes it not cliché is what you superimpose on top of that. That’s how this album functions — it’s the political statement.
I didn’t even think I was making a political statement. I just said the dude’s name in the song, and just in context of like this is where we’re at. This is 2019.
But it gets called political because some artists are not even talking about any of this.
True. I’m kind of laughing to myself, because the title track on my first album, Blak and Blu, is called “Blak and Blu” and the chorus is, “don’t leave me black and blue. You don’t get what you pray for.” It’s touching on these themes, and I think I just took this direct thing, and I’m like, “F you I’m here. I’m not asking; I’m telling you.”
I think people are making it more than it is. I think for somebody like me, when I got into this thing, it was a predominantly white audience who loves guitar-playing, who wanted to hear Jimi Hendrix. So if you hear me talking about Trump, and you hear me dropping the N-word and dropping the F-bomb, just like, “Who is this guy? What is he doing?”… It’s funny, this little white kid in the airport, he was like “‘Blak and Blu’ doesn’t fit in context with the rest of your album.” I said, “I didn’t make that for you, man.”
Do you think about who you want your audience to be? And do you think about who your audience becomes?
You can’t pick the people that like what you do. That’s not really up to you, but also, at the same time, I’ve seen it kind of happen. Especially being in this business, people put me in a rock category. I come from R&B music. I come from funk music. I listen to blues, soul, Parliament Funkadelic, hip-hop — that’s where I go, that’s what I do. I’ve been put in these places where people expect me to do certain things. I don’t want to call anybody out.
But I’m not trying to be that guy. You know what I mean? I’m really not. People expect a Hendrix, or like a guitar god. They’ll look past the “Blak and Blu” and go you’re the “Bright Lights” guy.
Do you think it goes over the heads of people who it’s not intended for and then the people it’s intended for catch it?
Of course. I think the only difference really is just the language. You can’t pick your audience. You can’t do that. I just do what I do. I play music that I feel from my perspective, being a black man from Austin, Texas.
When the term radical comes up when it comes to entertainers, I’m not sure how far artists can go. When I think of radical, revolutionary artists, I think of people whose phones are tapped by the FBI type-radical.
I understand. That’s why it was kind of a trip. It’s like, this song and statement we put that out first along with the visual and it’s been looked at as a radical political statement. It’s like, “Oh, he’s all the way left, and they got him, and the Democrats got him,” and this type of stuff. I never was into my comment section as much as I have been recently. If you listen to the whole album this is one snippet of a life — somebody’s life. You can’t relate to it.
I wish it wasn’t that way, but that’s what time it is. I don’t think there’s anything radical about it at all. I think it’s just kind of up front. I think that there’s a sense of anger, or like frustration in the lyrics that people aren’t used to hearing from me.
I can sing love songs all day long, but I don’t feel that way all the time. Sometimes I get frustrated. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I get confused. I feel alone sometimes. I feel like, “What the Hell am I doing all this for?” I’m not sorry. But that’s just living my life.
The rage aspect of your album is the most interesting emotion… People gravitate towards rage because it’s something black people, black artists, are not often granted the space to be. I interviewed Janelle Monáe, and talked about how she responds to everything with love at the core, but understands when it’s time to be mad. What do you make of that? Is your response to everything rooted in love or rooted in rage?
My response to everything is love at the end of the day. I’m not an angry person. I’m not out to get anybody. I want everybody to be able to walk this planet and have peace of mind and feel like they don’t have to feel insecure, afraid, or embarrassed. I just want people to feel good. I made a song about not feeling great. That came from, you could say, an “angry place.” It’s just an angry voice. I can’t do that with a smile on my face, it doesn’t have the same intent. But, the message in the song, and the message in the record at the end of the day is love, it’s strength, it’s faith, it’s family. That’s my M.O., but every now and then people have bad days, and I think you should be able to talk about it.
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Nina Simone talked about how it’s an artist’s responsibility to take these stances and make these statements. Do you feel responsible as an artist or as a person to make these types of statements and to use your platform to speak on things that are timely, and affect people who look like you, and come from what you come from?
I’ll never know any other way, but I do know that the artists I look up to and I’ve listened to have expressed how they truly felt and touched on subjects that aren’t necessarily easy to talk about. Marvin Gaye put out “What’s Going On.” He was like, “I got to do this.” Something just draws you. It’s something that you can’t really get rid of. it’s like a fire that burns. It’s like someone send you a message to put it out.
I never really listen to anything to take me away or really distract me away from what’s really happening. I wanted to be in it, and feel those emotions, and try to understand, and feel like I was being preached to and taught lessons through music. So when I do it, I just do it in that way from the people that I learned from.
Who are you listening to right now?
Right now, I’m listening to Streams of Thought Vol. 2 by Black Thought and Salaam Remi; Sammy Davis Jr.; [Anderson .Paak’s] Oxnard; Tom Morello; Alice Underground; Jon Batiste; Jay Rock’s Redemption. That’s about it for the moment.
Anyone who plays the guitar I always ask who they think is the greatest guitarist of all time.
There’s Jimi Hendrix and there’s Prince. But he’s not just a guitar player, so people look past the fact that. He’s such an energetic enigma. It’s like he can go from anything. I just heard this record of him just playing the piano. Some people are just musical forces, and that guy put in the work and was blessed.
What type of artist do you think you’re going to be remembered as? What type of artist do you want to be remembered as?
I just want to be known as somebody who just makes music. I follow Quincy Jones. This whole idea of genres going away, I’m with that. I don’t want to have to say I’m a singer. I don’t want to have to say I’m a guitar player. I just want to be known as a music guy. That’s it. I don’t think it’s that serious for me. I’m not looking for any sort of crazy legacy or anything. I’m just kind of in this moment doing what I do, and trusting my instincts, and having a good time.
Ivie is a Nigerian-American, native New Yorker, and journalist covering culture. Usually on-air, on deadline, and on point. @ivieani