Gary Clark Jr. reflects on his Austin childhood, twenty years of playing the blues and his new album
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Harper Smith
Gary Clark Jr. walks down the stairs at Antone’s Nightclub, and immediately I have a good feeling. He’s warm with our photographer, asking after her husband and son, and when I sheepishly remind him that we went to high school together, thinking the connection might sound silly, he jumps right into the name game. My younger sister, check. Barry and Dax, check. We’re off.
Clark is still young but, at 35 has been playing guitar and performing the blues for a solid 20 years. Twenty years. His first performance was at 14, and by 15 he and classmate Eve Monsees, his self-described mentor, whom he famously thanked in his Grammy-acceptance speech, had been tapped by Clifford Antone himself to play onstage at the club’s then-5th-and-Lavaca location, with legends like James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins. Despite years of hard work and local acclaim, the virtuoso guitar player was essentially a broke, struggling musician when Eric Clapton called him up (well, technically Doyle Bramhall II did the calling) to be part of his 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. That performance led to a deal with Warner Bros. and 2012’s “Blak and Blu,” which earned the musician the 2014 Best Traditional R&B Performance Grammy for the track “Please Come Home.” Clark’s follow-up, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” was released in 2015, and he debuted his newest album, “This Land,” on February 22.
All three albums share Clark’s seemingly effortless combination of blues, rock, soul and R&B, with the first steeped in rock and the second marked by twangy notes. I’ll leave the descriptions there and just say that both are fantastic. But “This Land” is something different, more grown-up, with a sharper edge. Its title single is a statement against both the general and personal racism Clark has experienced and is accompanied by a powerful video directed by Savanah Leaf. The short film seems to reference everything from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Adam and Eve’s serpent, all while protesting the hate imbued in the Confederate flag and ending on a note of victory for the young boy featured throughout.
During our conversation, Clark easily moves between talking about his wife, model Nicole Trunfio; two young children; musical influences; and days gone by at Austin High, joking that despite his less than stellar attendance and grades, the school inducted him into its Hall of Honor a few years back. Clark is funny, laid-back and quick to shine a light on all those who have helped make his success possible. Just imagine what the next 20 years might hold.
Margaret Williams: What’s it like for you being in Austin? You grew up here, but now Austin is a whole thing and you’re super-successful. What’s that been like?
Gary Clark Jr.: It’s been a trip. I left here in 2011 and went on the Bonnaroo Buzz Tour. Me and the Futurebirds, we opened up for Grace Potter. I left and I didn’t come back for months, and it was the first time that I had been gone long enough to see the change. But the thing for me about this town is, the same people that had shown love since day one were still here showing love. I came back to a lot of love regardless of how the city looks.
I think when we were young, we always wanted a little more excitement, and now we got it and we’re complaining about it.
MW: You’ve been playing music since you were a kid and playing in clubs since you were 15. How did you actually learn to play guitar?
GCJ: Eve and I, we would do the research, listen to the radio and she would dub tapes for me. We would sit and rewind these videotapes and audio cassette tapes and figure it out like, “That’s a B minor. No, I don’t think that’s a B minor. I think that’s a D major.” And musicians we were playing with, they would pull us aside. Whether it was before a set or the middle of a set, they’d be like, “This goes like this. We’re gonna play a 2, 4, 5 change,” or whatever. I’d say, “What is that?” So we had these lessons on the spot.
Years and years of that. Fifteen years of going through a musical maze and finally coming out the other side. If I’d had YouTube as a kid, oh nobody could’ve stopped me.
MW: Clifford was a big advocate of yours. Who else has pulled you up and along over the past 20 years?
GCJ: I can’t believe it’s been 20 years.
MW: That must be crazy to hear, especially because you’re only 35.
GCJ: But it’s right. We played our first gig in 1998.
MW: Was this your show with Pinetop Perkins and the Muddy Waters band?
GCJ: No, that was our first show at Antone’s, but the first ever was at Joe’s Generic Bar. A guy named Appa Perry called me up and invited me to this thing called Appa’s Blues Power. That’s where I cut my teeth.
It’s been a trip.
All these great people: Stevie Ray Vaughan, before Double Trouble; Uncle John Turner; Alan Haynes; Tony Redmond, who taught me how to play slide. He’s the one who introduced me to the word “twang” and what that meant as a musician and a guitar player from Texas. Erin James introduced me to a bunch of musicians and asked me to play in a band. Steve Wertheimer at Continental [Club] — so many people.
They would say, “Buddy Guy’s in town, let’s all go to Antone’s. Jimmie Vaughan’s in town, let’s go.” Clifford introduced me to Jimmie Vaughan, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, all these great legends that started this music. Cut to 2003 and Jimmie Vaughan is inviting me to go on tour with him. I was right out of high school.
MW: Not a bad first tour.
GCJ: I drove straight to Phoenix — had never been anywhere but Memphis for a few days. And then California, all the way up to Washington, all the way through Montana, and then back home. And then every Thursday Larry [McGuire] and Will [Bridges] would hook me up with a show upstairs at Lamberts. They’d give me some barbecue, some drinks. I would play until everyone got tired of me and wanted to turn the game on. I would be fighting with a game on the TV and I’d be like, “Ah, f— it, I’ll just go to the bar,” and I’d watch the game also.
I was doing the broke-musician thing, had my lights turned off. I couldn’t pay my landlord, Claire. God bless her. And in 2008 Doyle called me up and said, “Eric Clapton wants you for his Crossroads Festival in Chicago.”
I’m like, “Yeah, right. Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton?”
MW: I love this new album. What’s been the progression from “Blak and Blu” to “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” to now “This Land”?
GCJ: I think just living life. I try to be a better musician every day. I try to practice every day. I try to learn another instrument as much as I can.
I think up until recently, I had a hard time having anybody telling me what to do. I finally let go of that.
I tell the guys [Jacob Sciba, co-producer and engineer, and Joseph Holguin, second engineer], “You’ve lived in this room, we know what we like, we know what the vibe is. Let’s pay homage to what came before us and the next wave of things that are going to happen.” We listened to everything from local artists to Quincy Jones to Bruno Mars to Kendrick Lamar to Leon Bridges. Just anything and everything.
I did my last record on my own, for the most part. For this record, I wanted to make a band of really great musicians.
MW: So how does the band factor into the process of what we’re all listening to?
GCJ: We pulled in drummers J.J. Johnson, Brannen Temple, Alex Peterson, just giving the young guys a shot. John Deas, who’s an amazing keys player, and also Mike Elizondo. He’s a great bass player out of L.A., played on a lot of Dr. Dre stuff, a lot of the hip-hop stuff that I grew up on. Plus Sheila E., who played with Prince and has her own records, played percussion. I decided to open up and bring in people who could make it all better. After all these years, it’s about time.
MW: The video for your single “This Land,” which you made with director Savanah Leaf, is beautiful and intense.
GCJ: Yeah, it’s a lot.
MW: It seems like it’s part of a growing canon, in the same vein as videos by Childish Gambino and Beyoncé. Why now?
GCJ: Art really reflects life. While I was writing this record, a lot of what I was seeing in the news was racist, whether it was outright or underlying. I felt this weird change. I think for a while we all felt like we were “cool.” And then things changed.
And it’s hard, because even though I’ve experienced this [racism], it isn’t my life every day. I mean, growing up you had to be open. That big concrete box [Austin High School] we went to forced you to be around all types of people. We all looked different, came from different economic backgrounds and religions. You’re playing basketball with this person, eating lunch with that person. It was this bubble, I guess you could say.
Not perfect but we went to school with the president’s kids and we went to school with kids who had nothing.
MW: So what happened exactly? Was the inspiration for the song and video personal?
GCJ: I go all over the world — thousands of people every night, and they all look different. Then when I came back home, I was confronted with a situation where I was made to feel less than, in front of my child. It felt like rapid rewind. My kid’s askin’ me why I’m upset, why is he saying these things to you?
I wouldn’t have made it a big deal normally, but when I turn around and see my kid’s face — at three years old it’s not the right time to explain to him why this man is saying these things, but I was angry about it. I couldn’t let this go, and I remembered a time growing up when kids were shouting the n-word to me and “Go back to Africa” with Confederate flags in my face.
I really talked to Savanah about where I came from and what that memory meant. Let’s get rid of these images that have been meant to offend people. I don’t want to see it anymore. I don’t want to have to have my kids see it anymore. Whether you’re red or blue, let’s break it down. This land is mine just as much as it is yours and the next person’s.
Sometimes you gotta turn and think about reality and step outside of your comfort zone. I got in the studio, just popped off [the song] and hit up Savanah, and she was like, “I got you.”
MW: How have you settled into the new phase of your life with a family?
GCJ: I love being a dad. Me and my wife were talking about being parents in New York or L.A., but I got all my family here. I was close with my grandmother and had cousins to run around with. That made me always remember where I came from and not do anything to mess up that seat at the Thanksgiving table. I want to raise my kids knowing how important it is to be around family. If I can just have my kids grow up here and Australia, where my wife is from, I’ll be happy.
MW: What’s music like for your kids?
GCJ: We show them a lot of music, just like my parents did for me. My kid only wants to hear Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” and he likes to hear my cover of “Come Together,” which I think is awesome, ’cause he thinks I’m cool with Batman [Clark covered the song as part of the “Justice League” soundtrack].
Sammy Davis Jr. is one of our favorites to listen to together. The song that he loves the most is “Mr. Bojangles,” and Michael Jackson learned a lot from Sammy Davis Jr. He doesn’t even understand the whole full circle that Jerry Jeff Walker wrote that song and Django [Walker’s son] and I went to school together. Where this song comes from is where we’re from, and he loves it.
So next time I see any of the Walkers, I’d like to thank them for my son’s favorite song.
MW: It’s a good song.
GCJ: Yeah, it’s a great song. We’re doing our part. We’re bringing it all together, you know.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity