In 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Harvey Keitel’s character, Winston Wolf, tells his girlfriend “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”
Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Brandy Clark is a character . . . who has character . . . who loves to create characters. Brandy’s sophomore album, Big Day in a Small Town (June 10), is brimming with characters that she created—some based on real people from her hometown in Morton, Wash. (pop. 1,126), some based on folks she’s met during her travels, some just figments of her incredible imagination and some who are composites of all of the above.
“I love characters,” says Brandy during an hour-long sit-down at her label’s headquarters on Nashville’s Music Row. “I think for every great story or song there’s a character in it. One of my best friends says all it takes to be my friend is to be a great big character and like me, and that’s kind of true.
“I love a character. I love to write about characters. I love to surround myself with characters. I just think they’re interesting. Of course, there’s a lot of me in all these songs, but I sometimes can write best and sing best if I think about a character—almost like it’s a movie. And I play the movie out in my mind as I write it.”
Produced by Jay Joyce, Brandy’s 11-song offering—of which she wrote or co-wrote every tune—plays out like a series of short films.
There’s the long-past-her-reign “Homecoming Queen” who reminisces about her plastic crown and wonders where the last 10 years have gone; there’s the bold every-woman of “Girl Next Door” who refuses to fit her lover’s Marcia Brady-like expectations; there’s the couple in “Broke” who are living hand to mouth with their tattered jeans and empty cupboards; there’s the mom in the title track who, unbeknownst that her high schooler is preggo, chides her for gaining weight, and eventually has to come down to the principal’s office when her water breaks.
“I think the mom in ‘Big Day in a Small Town’ is my favorite character on the album,” says Brandy. “She’s been telling her daughter she’s been gaining weight, and then she goes down to the principal’s office and finds out she’s pregnant. It’s a very different situation, but I think about a boy I went to high school with [when singing that song]. He was dipping tobacco and spitting it in a Coke can. He went to school and his mom took a swig of it. She came down to the school, he got called to our principal’s office and she made him drink it. To me, that’s the mom. It’s that woman—that’s who I think about.”
How’s that for creating composite characters that leap out of the lyrics to become living, breathing entities? On a more somber note, there’s one special character on the album that is near and dear to Brandy’s heart: her father, who died in a tragic work accident in 2001. He was the catalyst for the album’s closing track, “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.”
“My dad was killed in a logging accident in July, right before 9/11,” says Brandy. “I remember after 9/11 happened, everybody was glued to CNN, and I thought since my dad died the world had gone to hell. The idea came to me then, but it was just too raw at the time. I started thinking about how a lot of times families really fall apart when you lose a big, central figure. Fast forward to many years later, I had become friends with [songwriter and producer] Shane McAnally. We were driving home from Tunica [Mississippi], and I told him that idea, and that I really wanted to write it, but it just feels like there’s no hope in it. And he said, ‘Even if there’s not any hope in it, we need to write it.’ And so we wrote it. The seed of it came from losing my dad and things we’ve both seen happen and just how it’s hard to go home after you lose somebody.”
It’s been three years since Brandy released 12 Stories, and in that time, she has logged a lot of miles on the road as a touring artist, as well as pushed her vocal and musical boundaries.
“This album reflects three years later in my life,” says Brandy. “A lot of it reflects being out on the road and seeing what fans respond to and hearing what they want to hear. And growing myself as an artist, wanting to be challenged and not making the same record twice. When I made 12 Stories, I had not been a touring artist. And that changes things in a major way. At least it did for me. I mean, I was doing a lot of songwriter nights, but I hadn’t been on a tour and hadn’t played in front of 1,000 people, much less Madison Square Garden with Eric Church. I will always love 12 Stories. It’s kinda like my firstborn. And I didn’t want to try to recreate that because I knew I couldn’t. So when I started thinking about Big Day in a Small Town, I wanted it to feel more like a cousin than a twin sibling.”
While Brandy’s award-winning 2013 debut album, 12 Stories, was a passion project to let the world know she was more than a gifted songwriter, Big Day in a Small Town reaffirms—and secures—her spot among the elite singer/songwriter/storytellers in the old-school country genre, right next to Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton.
“I think there’s a lot of really great music out there that’s starting to be heard,” says Brandy. “I think there’s room for all of it, my characters and all.”
Ole Winston Wolf would agree with that.
photo by Pamela Littky/EB Media