After wrestling with what to call her debut album as a recording artist, it’s no surprise that country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark landed on “12 Stories.”
If storytelling is, as is often said, the linchpin of the genre, then Clark is one of its finest purveyors in years, with an uncanny gift for crystallizing the small but crucial emotional moments of everyday life.
“For some reason I love songs that are about a split-second decision,” says Clark on the phone from her home in Nashville. “I feel like life does change in just a second. And I think the changes that affect you the most are the ones that happen really quick.”
Say, in the time it takes for an elevator to reach the lobby, as on the elegantly fraught ballad “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven,” in which a married woman silently weighs taking it up to see a man who is not her husband. Or the instant in which a woman agonizingly wishes her new boyfriend would hold her hand when they bump into his ex-girlfriend on the soft yet urgent “Hold My Hand.” Or in the click of a lighter when a wife and mom — after dealing with the little tremors, humiliations, and stresses of life — sparks up a joint at her kitchen table on “Get High.”
Released this past Tuesday, “12 Stories” contains nine more of those life-size, specific tales that transcend their details to ensnare almost any listener, regardless of their propensity for infidelity, insecurity, or inebriation.
“I wrote a couple of the songs with Mark D. Sanders,” says Clark of the “I Hope You Dance” scribe. “I really tried to learn as much as I could from him, and one of the things he told me was ‘To be general, first you have to be specific.’ And so I filed that away and I always think about that. Someone else said, ‘If you want to reach the masses, talk about the thing that you don’t want anyone to know about you, because everybody feels that same way.’ ”
Another thing that many observers are agreeing on is Clark’s gift, as “12 Stories” generated fevered buzz months before its release from both the press and fellow artists like Sheryl Crow and Keith Urban, for whom Clark has written songs.
That the album exists at all is a something of a miracle to the 36-year-old, a Washington state native with a blue-collar background who migrated to Nashville like so many before her to tell her stories. Although she pursued a record deal when she first arrived she says, “I always gravitated toward the songwriting end of things.”
Gravity proved to be her friend. Over the last three years, as she struggled to find a home for “12 Stories,” other tunes she wrote or co-wrote found a home on the country charts, including two number ones in “Mama’s Broken Heart” by Miranda Lambert and “Better Dig Two” by the Band Perry.
But then there were those songs that were just a little too sharp, too tangled for the current country landscape — songs like the woozy, narcotized portrait of self-medication “Take a Little Pill,” or the darkly wry ode to the results of that self-medication “Illegitimate Children” — which found their way to “12 Stories.”
Clark is now glad that is how it worked out, saying “I really feel like songs end up where they’re supposed to.”
Shane McAnally, Clark’s frequent songwriting partner, agrees. So much so that even though he co-wrote seven of the songs, he feels like a fan, and doesn’t mind not getting as much credit in the “12 Stories” buzz.
“As I listen, I want to put Brandy in those situations because she is so believable as the narrator,” says McAnally, who has a whole host of other hits to his credit, including Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over.” “As a fan I don’t need to know who else helped construct it. I like believing that the singer went through it. Very few people, regardless of co-writers, can write a whole record that good, so she deserves all of the credit and whatever it brings her. And that’s why we wrote them, for her to tell the story, and,” he adds with a laugh, “at the end of the day, my checks look the same.”
Stoughton-based singer-songwriter Lori McKenna — who’s enjoyed recent chart success with Hunter Hayes’s “I Want Crazy” among others — is likewise enamored. “She can take somebody else’s life, this completely different person that she probably shouldn’t even understand, and write from their perspective and still have her own self-identity in there,” says McKenna.“This is really what we need to hear more of. I sent her a text, like ‘Thank you so much for being here.’ ”
“I feel kind of like an actor in these songs. I’m sprinkled in there but if it was all me,” Clark says with a laugh, “it would be a pretty boring record.”