Last year Gary Clark, Jr. played at the White House for Barrack Obama’s Red White and Blues event alongside B.B King, Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck. At the time, Clark was 28. Impressive? Well, that kind of thing can almost be expected for someone who, ten years earlier – aged 18 – was honored by the Mayor of Austin, Clark’s native home
in Texas, for helping the city maintain it’s claim as the ‘Live music capital of the world’, naming May 3rd ‘Gary Clark, Jr. Day’.
From then on, Clark has played a major part in bringing blues back to the mainstream. His fifth studio album, last year’s Black and Blu, is a long train ride of a record. Mixing blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, the journey it takes you on is smooth, rocky, chilled out and jumpy – sometimes all at once. It’s the kind of record that makes you unashamedly dance by yourself; that makes your head groove back and forth as you lean back in your driving seat with one hand on the wheel. It doesn’t mater if you’re as geeky as Napoleon Dynamite or have relationships as hopeless as a Kate Hudson character: When you listen to Gary Clark, Jr, you’re cooler than Steve McQueen on a motorbike.
And according to the man himself, playing it cool is what he’s been doing all along.
Velour met Clark at the 100 Club on Oxford Street to see how he’s taking this sudden international success. After working hard for years, gaining critical acclaim as well as playing with living legends along the way, it’s only in the last year that Clark has been noticed outside music circles and his hometown. “People always say things come back full circle,” he begins as he explains why it’s now he’s getting major recognition. “I think people are more open now to hearing that bluesy, raw sound again.” Arguably, the new openness the world feels to blues is down to another man.
Jack White’s musical projects, from the late 1990s to now, have no doubt opened doors for blues artists of all kinds. From those less credible – Wolfmother, Cage The Elephant – to the brilliant – The Black Keys and of course Gary Clark Jr. “People are hearing something that’s brand new, but it’s bluesy,” Clark muses, adding a few extra u’s in bluuuesy, almost singing the word. “And the people that understand (the blues) can relate to that but the people that don’t just accept it for being great music. And so it’s kind of opened the door for me to come and play bluesy stuff and put my own twist on it.”
Jack White had to force the door open. He once said all the gimmicks The White Stripes had – red, white and black, no bass, boy/girl, brother/sister – was to help distract the world from the fact that he was, “A white man playing the blues”. Now Clark has no need to break that door down with gimmicks or trickery; he drifts in over the threshold like a cool breeze on a hot summer afternoon.
“I don’t know ‘why me?’ but I’m grateful,” he concludes. “I won’t ask too many questions, I’m just
gonna enjoy being in it and thank-you,” he says, signing the subject off. Clark does this a lot during our conversation. He’ll ponder a question in his head and then out loud but, before too long, he’ll put the notion to bed as if too much knowledge is an omen.
This is no more apparent than when we ask how he thinks his music will translate to a British audience. Whilst answering after a long pause, you realise he’s sieving through his entire brain, all of his musical knowledge. “You know…” he hesitantly starts, “With the whole British Invasion; all these great bands learned American Blues. And those bands that have that core in their foundation and I think that translates,” he explains before stating with finality, “The blues is the foundation. It breaks it all down to a certain level and cats over here have a certain appreciation for it, so I’m grateful for it.”
Another reoccurrence in our discussion is indeed Clark’s gratefulness. When in Austin, he met Clifford Antone, owner of the prolific Austin club Antone’s that launched Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Not long after, Clark would go on to play with the former, among many other musical icons including Eric Clapton and Alicia Keys, something he doesn’t take for granted in the slightest.
“It’s a great experience,” he says simply. “Being able to play what I play and having the background that I come from and be able to jam with these people of all different genres and different musical styles; it’s something that I always wanted to do. And lucky for me these people have been just really kind and sweet and have opened up their world to me and let me play guitar and do my thing” he explains. “It’s pretty cool,” he trails off “I could go on, and on, and on, but I won’t.” You can tell he’s living his dream. From as early as he can remember, Clark has always loved music. “My love of music came from dancing around to Motown records and soul records with my sisters. I mean we’d dance around to the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Supremes…”
But his influences – and his sound – are much more diverse than those sixties soul records he danced to as a child. “When I first started to explore and get in to different things that I liked, I was being influenced and showed different things by all my friends,” he explains. “Snoop Dogg to Tu-Pac to Nirvana to Sublime, Guns n Roses, The Ramones, Outcast. And a lot of Jazz stuff as well. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, The Loneliest Monk.”
These varied influences all find their way into Clark’s music. He was hailed as the next Jimmy Hendrix and the saviour of the blues after performing Numb, a grungy, psychedelic take on Come Together by The Beatles – if Come Together had stayed up all night in a bar drinking whiskey – on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last year. And just as you might mistakably pigeonhole him, this month he was on The Late Show with David Letterman, performing the soul-infused, slow burning track Please Come Home. His pitch perfect, Marvin Gaye-esque falsetto simmers over the track until he breaks into a scorching guitar solo, going places a voice simply can’t.
Once mixed together, his influences could mismatch, but Clark’s skill, love and dedication to his art steers his music to destinations many would struggle to locate. “It was kind of all over the place,” he says regarding his curiosity. “Once I got into music I just was soaking up everything. Anything that made noise I was interested.”
It’s one thing loving so many different areas and genres of music, but taking part is the biggest step. There’s always a trigger, and Clark’s couldn’t be anymore just. “My first concert I ever went to, I was five years old; I went to see Michael Jackson’s Bad Tour,” he tells us happily reminiscing. “After I saw that I was like, ‘Alllright. I
think I wanna do… something like this.” He adds a couple of extra modest s’s to ‘sssomething’, realising that to say you want to be Michael Jackson, is quite the statement.
This self-modesty makes Clark warm and relatable. He admits that the many greats he has had the pleasure of working with still intimidated him regardless of his critical acclaim. “To sum it up,” he says, “I tried to be as cool as I could be (when having) the most upmost respect and being a fan of these people first off. So going in and having these artists say, ‘I want you to come play’; I wanna keep it cool but still it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s crazy to be here. I’ve only seen you on TV or heard your records.”
You can understand why these icons bag every opportunity to get him on stage with them. Black and Blu is a triumph and his live shows are hugely engaging. Blues and especially guitar acts have a reputation of self-indulgence: lengthy, closed- eyed guitar solos over that same 12-bar blues riff is surely another reason it took blues so long to get back to the mainstream. But Clark’s diverse catalogue, vocal guitar playing and ice cool stage presence is what keeps you standing in awe or dancing to your stereo – not to mention where the Hendrix comparisons
Despite the praise, he’s grounded. “It’s been good so far,” he says simply. “I’m a day-by-day type of person. I’m grateful,” (there’s that word again) “I’m fortunate. I’ve released an album worldwide and people are digging it and coming out to shows.” He smiles, knowing that simply no words can justify how lucky he feels, finally expressing understatedly, “I’m good with that.”
Clark worked with another guitar legend recently, although not in a musical situation. Of his fashion shoot with Jimmy Page for the John Varvatos campaign, Clark says it was “An interesting experience.”
“Basically how that went down,” he says as he begins telling the story, “Was that I was in Los Angeles and was due to fly to London but in my genius way left my passport in New York, so I had to stop over and get that. So I was only in London for less than twenty-four hours,” he explains almost regretfully. “So I showed up late to the thing and I was a bit nervous to meet Jimmy Page. I only know him from his records and being an amazing guitar player, so what do you say? ‘Hey, nice to meet you, your awesome?’ he knows that already. So I kind of just played it cool. They took a few photos and didn’t say much – then we started talking about music,” Clark says with a twinge of excitement.
This must have been unbelievable for him. Working with great musicians like he has is one thing, but chatting informally with someone you admire so much, about the element that connects you both, is another dream coming true entirely. “He was asking me what guitarists did if for me. Who were the guys that I heard that really changed my life and I mentioned Elmore James and his eyes lit up. So we just clicked and we started talking and laughing.”
The day climaxed when Page picked up Clark’s guitar. “I was hoping he would play something but he didn’t; such a tease,” he laughs.
During our photo shoot with Clark, he sits playing an acoustic Gibson Epiphone. At first noodling fingerpicked blues riffs and then finally breaking out into the blues standard, Next-Door Neighbour Blues. His playing is impeccable, improvising his way through the 1920’s tune, making it his own; his vocal is soulful and groovy as he syncopates against the stamp of his boot.
He plays his final chord and the room applauds, everyone certain in the knowledge that some young buck is going to be the one lucky enough to play with him someday.
Until then, he’s playing it cool.
Words by Rob Jones