Gary Clark Jr
“You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night.” That line could be the most prophetic in recent music history. After hearing it sung live – as it was in Melbourne last month – no-one could forget its author: Gary Clark Jr. And soon enough, everyone will know the 28-year-old singer-songwriter’s name. Hell, even President Obama already knows it!
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Gary Clark Jr is like the walking, singing, guitar-playing embodiment of the live music capital of the world. The eclectic vibrancy of this Mecca of contemporary music is in his blood and his soul; you can hear it in everything he sings. And while he’s only releasing his major-label debut this month he’s already racked up some noteworthy career coups, including many a comparison to Jimi Hendrix.
“It’s great that people would compare me to artists I think are great,” he told me while he was in town. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But at the same time, all I can do is what I do and do it the best I can and just be me. That’s my whole thing: just doin’ what I do.”
Relaxing on a couch at Warner Music Australia’s Carlton HQ, he was the picture of laid-back cool, just doin’ what he do. And what he do is pretty damn impressive. For one, he’s self-taught.
“For the most part,” he corrects me. “Some folks along the way have shown me some chords and certain things but yes, I mainly just sat around, put on a record and played along to it, figuring out chords and learning scales just by listening. And watching,” he emphasises. “I’d watch worn-out VHS cassette tapes and go ‘what is that?’”
One listen to his upcoming album, Blak And Blu, and it’s pretty obvious those tapes must have featured a huge variety of artists, in every different style – funk, soul, blues, rock, '50s high-school dance.
“I’m just such a fan of music, of all of it,” he says. “I wanna learn how to play it, I wanna understand it. Anything that comes out of the speakers I’m into.”
He won’t be tied down to favourites, but he repeatedly attests to his love of soul music. And soul music as he defines it can be as particular as the genre or as broad as the feeling he gets from it. It can be Al Green or Lightnin’ Hopkins, Little Dragon or OutKast.
“I just love anything that taps to your human emotion; that’s what I’m drawn to most about soul music. To me it just does something. It makes me think and feel and connect to the artist in a very grounded, earthy, human-to-human way. But I love Nirvana too. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone blah blah blah – I could go on and on until you run out of paper,” he says, laughing.
Clark’s career has been as eclectic as his tastes. He’s collaborated with Nas, Alicia Keys and The Roots; he’s played alongside BB King, Buddy Guy and ZZ Top; he’s starred in film (John Sayle’s Honeydripper); and he’s even had a day named for him. He was only 17 when Austin declared a Gary Clark Jr Day in his honour (“I was runnin’ around as a young kid, playing my guitar and the city caught wind of what I was doing. I guess I was making some kind of a name for myself.”) but equally venerated accolades have followed. The 2007 Austin Music Awards named him the city’s best blues artist and rock guitarist; Eric Clapton handpicked him to perform a spotlight set at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010; he’s even performed for President Obama, an experience he understandably calls “strange, but exciting”.
Also strange but exciting has been the attention on him since he gained Warner’s backing. And it’s about to get stranger and more exciting, with the worldwide release of Blak And Blu later this week. As a somewhat autobiographical album, releasing it to the whole world is pretty scary, Clark says. “It’s like: here’s my journal, everyone listen to it.”
The album, produced by Mike Elizondo, Rob Cavallo and Clark, swings from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, from soulful hymns to roots rock to psych blues. It’s a musical journey, Clark says. “It’s a taste of all my influences, past, present and future: blues, soul and rock‘n’roll.”
You can check it out from this Friday, and be all over it by the time Clark returns to Australia for the 2013 Big Day Out.
“Yeah. What is that all about?” he asks. “Everybody I ask just says ‘oh, it’s crazy’.”
It’s just a big festival, I reply, like Australia’s Lollapalooza. He’ll be right at home, having been recently called the “Festival King”.
“Cool,” he says. “I like playing outside. I like it when you see folks walking by and they start to stop, and get curious and come closer, and closer. You get to meet new people and introduce your music and yourself to new folks. And the folks that are there for you are ready to have a good time. There’s a set energy already; people are just ready to rock out. It’s exciting.”
Just like Gary Clark Jr.
BY MELANIE SHERIDAN
GARY CLARK JR’s debut album Blak And Blu (through Warner Music) is out this Friday October 19. Gary Clark Jr will return to Australia for the Big Day Out, at Flemington Racecourse on Saturday January 26. He’ll also play a sideshow at The Corner on Tuesday January 22.