One of the laziest cliches in pop culture is great pain produces great art. Pain, in and of itself, is just pain. How an artist processes emotional anguish after intense introspection is what frequently produces great artistic works.
Peabody singer-songwriter Justin Clancy can attest to this. The musician has had a tumultuous life, marked by recovery from a life-threatening drug addiction, the death of his father immediately after the release of his widely lauded 2018 debut album, “The Color Blue,” and a lonely, soul-searching sojourn to Los Angeles amid the COVID lockdown. After a period of deep self-reflection, Clancy has evolved into a confident artist and a compelling voice in pop music.
The 26-year-old, who headlines his first major club date at the Middle East Downstairs on Friday, just released the bracingly good EP “The Ugly Parts,” filled with memorable dark pop revealing a more mature sensibility and raw emotional truths rare for the genre. The release is his first with Hitskope Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music.
While many young pop artists are busy peddling cheap nihilism, de rigueur despair, and suicidal ideations to young, vulnerable fans, Clancy is creating haunting music with genuine soul, conflict, and humanity. The new highly melodic work — overflowing with indelible hooks — examines the existence of God as it explores imploding relationships, mental illness, and mortality. It’s a major leap forward from his debut, which relied on self-help tropes and comforting life affirmations.
“My whole goal as an artist is evolution and changing the way I see and do things,” says Clancy, speaking by phone recently. “Every six to nine months, I go through this spiritual change and a huge growth. If my art didn’t grow with me as a person, I’d be doing a disservice to myself, my music, and the fans. A big part of the change was being willing to learn every day and understanding I really don’t know anything.”
The best songs on the EP (and every one is a keeper) — “Ghosts,” “Bury Me,” and “Noose” — feature introspective themes that belie the upbeat, memorable melodies and hooks that make them irresistible.
“The creative process of this was more cathartic than anything I’ve done before,” he says. “With ‘The Color Blue,’ I feel as if I was leaning towards, ’Look how far I’ve come — triumphant person in recovery — a big inspirational guy.’ I came to realize I don’t want to be strong all the time. I want to be able to bleed on the records and show my scars.”
He pauses as if to consider how he is revealing himself. “These are things I never said before and was afraid to say. My mental illness is on this, the way I grew up — almost everyone I knew is gone — and dealing with the survivor’s guilt. I’m questioning God here. I never dealt with that in my music before.”
Clancy relocated from Peabody to Los Angeles at the end of 2019 to seek musical opportunities and find himself. It didn’t quite work out as he planned. After breaking up with his girlfriend of four years, he packed his Honda and drove back to Peabody in three days.
“I moved to Los Angeles for opportunities and growth. My experience was an ego death amid a city of giant egos,” he admits. “I met a lot of great people and did amazing things on the end of writing for other people, but after a while it became monotonous. I was writing songs I didn’t even like for other people, and that’s when I realized I needed to go.
“It was the best thing for my art, though. There were no real tangible results, but I learned so much, especially about myself and what I’m capable of.”
And what he is capable of is abundantly evident on “The Ugly Parts” — expert songcraft and lyrical intelligence. The self-taught musician, who plays most of the instruments on the Nox Beatz-produced EP, writes his songs after entering the studio. He says he doesn’t pay much attention to what other popular musicians are doing in order to stay true to himself.
“What makes the music good is I haven’t studied other artists — that keeps it pure,” he maintains. “Too many artists are trying to get familiar with formulas and perfect them. Doing that, their own personality, thoughts, or original melodies and visions fall to the wayside.”
While his music helps him make sense of his troubled past and his conflicted feelings about the death of his father, he works on his mental health in therapy, which he credits for his emotional growth. He also finds inspiration in films and is a frequent patron of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline and the Somerville Theatre.
“I’m a dark guy — I’ve had a hell of a life, dealing with some really dark things in my world or in the lives of the people I surround myself with,” he confesses. “I needed to sort all of that out. On ‘The Ugly Parts,’ I’m saying, ‘You know life’s not always going to be OK, but you know what? That’s okay too.’”
He believes this is just the beginning of his musical journey and says there’s plenty of new music ahead. “I’ve taken a lot of stuff on the chin, and I’ve dealt with the difficulties and still managed to find a way to walk through the fire. There’s not much that’s going to stop me, and I think I can be a vessel. If I move on and create the best I can, people will identify with my music.”
JUSTIN CLANCY: THE ‘UGLY PARTS’ RELEASE PARTY
At the Middle East Downstairs, 472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. (doors). $15-$35. MiddleEastOffers.com