Written for Warner Bros.Records, July 2016.
Gary Clark Jr. first became enamoured with the guitar at the age of nine when he witnessed Tito Jackson of The Jackson 5 shape-shifting his distinctive riffs via a wah-wah and a fuzz pedal. Twenty years on, it was Clark who was inspiring fans the world over with his six-string prowess after the release of his Warner Bros. Records debut Blak and Blu. Suddenly his list of fans and collaborators read like a who’s who of music: The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, Dave Grohl, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, B.B, King and Buddy Guy.
Such collaborations leave Clark in an unusual dichotomy. On one hand, he’s a fanboy exactly as he was when he was a teenager. On the other, there’s no time to be star-struck when he’s taking the next solo. “It’s great for them to be so gracious and kind and accepting of me,” he says beatifically. “They’re legendary, but they’re just cool dudes, you know? To be able to suck up their energy is something special.”
In a world in which such associations – not to mention the small matter of a Grammy Award and over 500,000 sales – are becoming a “slightly trippy” norm, an invitation to perform at the White House as part of an all-star musical ensemble was something dramatically out of the ordinary. For the likes of B.B. King and Buddy Guy, it must’ve been an unthinkable ambition back when they started out.
“It was cool for black people to be respected for their art in a way that wouldn’t have happened in the past,” he recalls, almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the occasion. “Our effort being recognised on such a huge platform was amazing. To see that up close was really special for me.”
Even president Barack Obama proved to be a fan when he described the Texan guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and producer as “the future.” How can he even react to such praise?
“I just take it in my stride,” responds Clark nonchalantly. “That’s some responsibility, but I’m going to do the best I can. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be, and I feel like I’ve reached the point where people are watching and listening to me now. So it’s time for me to step up and bring my A game.”
Where better to demonstrate that dedication than within his new album The Story of Sonny Boy Slim? Recorded at Arlyn Studios in Clark’s hometown of Austin, it’s a mash-up of his biggest influences which range from Leadbelly to Outkast via Marvin Gaye. Throughout the process, Clark would hang out with old friends at the clubs in which he grew up in order to “soak up my hometown vibe and put some of that energy back on record while it was still fresh.”
This time around he opted to take on production duties himself. As well as guitar and vocals, he also contributed most of the bass, drums, keys, harmonica and percussion that feature within its thirteen tracks.
“The idea to was push myself to my creative limits, and to express myself without over-thinking stuff – I’m happy when I’m able to do that because it’s the thing that I love the most,” he explains. “The guys in the studio [Bharath “Cheex” Ramanath and Jacob Sciba] were very patient with me and let me figure it out, and jump from room to room and from instrument to instrument.”
The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is an album which captures the raw grittiness and imperfections that could be found in Clark’s favourite blues records. It’s a rare example of loose analogue vibes infiltrating an increasingly structured digital world, with sounds that flow effortlessly from retro school soul to hip-hop via aggressive hard rock and sensitive balladeering.
One of two new tracks which have launched the record, The Healing is about “me testifying and expressing how I feel about music.” It commences with a field recording of Austin busker Christopher Copeland before Clark’s guitar rips into centre-stage to kick-start a sizzling concoction of blues-rock, hip-hop beats and gospel backing vocals.
Also available is Grinder, in which Clark twists screeching solos over a corrugated rhythm. Thematically its tale of fighting for money and power is linked with another new track Hold On. “It’s asking: What am I going to say to my kids? The same thing that my Dad told me – hold on, we’re going to make it despite the bullshit.”
The bigger themes that permeate the album – notably on Star, Our Love, Stay With Me – are related to the changes in Clark’s life in recent years following his engagement to Australian model Nicole Trunfio and the birth of their son Zion. “I miss my family and I miss my little man, so that makes touring a little more difficult,” admits Clark. “But we work it out.”
It’s a collection that’s a culmination of a life-long love affair with music. Or as Clark puts it: “Music has been everything to me. It’s been my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my preacher, my teacher. It has taught me a lot about what’s important in my life and what direction I want to take. Just listening to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Outkast has brought me hope and made me reflect. All of these things have been character building for me.”
And what of the Sonny Boy Slim of the title? Is he a long-lost blues pioneer, an apocryphal figure?
“Sonny Boy Slim is… me,” he reveals. “Gary Clark Jr. is my formal name, but my mother always called me Sonny Boy and people around me in blues bars would be like, ‘Hey Slim’. I don’t wake up and think, ‘I’m that guitar-playin’ guy that Eric Clapton or Alicia Keys talks about.’ That’s a different perspective. Sonny Boy Slim is who I am and this record seems like a good time to put it out there.”