Imagine the detached charm of Jimi Hendrix and the sultry croon of D’Angelo cocktailed into a 6’4 slight, deep cocoa brown man from Austin Texas. Sounds a bit enigmatic, right? So is everything else about Gary Clark Jr.
His music is intoxicating. After five independent albums, Clark is on the eve of his major label debut. He’s concentrate if you will, a quasi veteran in his own right but still artistry at its purest form.
“I worry about that,” Gary says over lunch. Less than fifteen hours before, Clark took the stage at The Darby with the likes of Q-Tip, Swizz Beatz, Zoe Saldana, Pharrell and Leonardo DiCaprio in the audience. “That’s been the hardest part, letting go, learning to trust.”
We’re at The Mondrian Hotel where Gary sips Jameson straight and watches me, watching him. He smiles often, takes a second before he answers anything but has perfectly timed moments of charm. “Don’t laugh at me yet!’ he beams as he tells the story of the first song he ever wrote.
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Clark began playing guitar at twelve with the magical addition of songwriting occurring soon after. “I wrote a song with my friend Ryan Chapman called ‘Dream Girl’. It was very Boyz II Men or AZ Yet, and we sang it after a baseball game for this girl Courtney. I didn’t get comfortable until fifteen when I wrote this song called ‘Find Somebody Else’ it was kinda like once that dream girl became a nightmare.”
A lot happened that year for Gary who was already headlining blues clubs throughout Memphis, Louisiana and Chicago, jamming alongside a childhood friend. But as his career began to grow, so did his parents concern.
“When I first started playing they were really excited because I found something I was passionate about but then by 17, I wasn’t paying attention in school, hanging out with cats older than me, I wasn’t on point and they weren’t feeling that at all.”
But that didn’t stop his mother from helping him record what would become the first of five independent albums at seventeen when he was just a senior in high school. “We would go to these shows and we were asked if we had CD’s. They wanted the music to take with them. So I put out my little record, I saved up and my mom put in with me and we went in for like a day and laid down these songs that were in my head.”
One could argue after five independent albums, why choose to sign with a major label? Timing. “I wanted to stay indie, experiment and do everything I wanted to do artistically, just to see where my strengths and weaknesses are as an artist and also as a man, see what I could do on my own. Then I got to be about 25 and was like its time to let go.”
Letting go meant inking a deal with Warner Bros records last year pushing ever closer to his tipping point. “The challenge now is sort of keeping the new people in perspective,” his road manager Blayne tells me as we watch Gary’s photo shoot for a popular magazine. “All of the sudden there’s a lot of new people who all want a piece.”
Blayne’s been working with Gary for a little over two years, in fact most of the GCJ team – as they call themselves – predates his deal. Managed by his mother, Clark says his biggest moment so far was the Bonnaroo Buzz Tour last May that saw Gary joining other hand-picked artists on a thirteen city tour.
“(The label) they let me branch out on this album. Blues, soul, rock’n roll. I got to put all the records I wanted to on this album. Now it just comes down to the mixing. And that’s tricky cause now there’s a lot of people involved. And you gotta play fair.”
With a Nas collaboration already under his belt, a bigger Hip Hop presence is inevitable. ‘I would love to get into more Hip Hop. When I’m not out here doing this, I got this beat machine set up at my house, this keyboard and I make beats.’ In true Gary Clark Jr. fashion, he quickly adds, “…I’m kind of self-conscious about it. But that’s something I’m very passionate about doing, making beats. I would love to just sit in a room with Questlove and just pick his brain about music. I’d love to just sit in with the whole Roots crew actually.”
Asking Gary for a secret became an interesting end to a spirited lunch, as he sat intensely searching his mind for something to divulge. Teetering between amused and slightly frustrated, twenty minutes later he confesses: “One of my biggest insecurities is that I don’t know a second language. I think about it a lot, especially traveling as much (as I do). I’m really insecure about it. I started learning Spanish. I took six years but can’t hold a conversation to save my life. And that really bothers me.”
Welcome to the world of Gary Clark Jr., as mysterious as he is engaging. You may not know him now but he might do for blues what Buble did for standards and Esperanza did for Jazz, becoming an aging genres youthful ambassador to now. If only he can learn to just let go.
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