Gary Clark Jr on being the 'chosen one' and getting phone calls from Beyoncé

He’s been called the future of blues guitar along with acts such as Benjamin Booker, but Clark explains why he just wants to take it all back home

Gary Clark Jr doesn’t really like explaining himself. He is quiet and either very self-possessed or quite shy, and seems to prefer letting his music do the talking. It’s done a fine job for him so far.

It was his music that caught the attention of Jimmie Vaughn – Stevie Ray Vaughn’s brother and a skilled guitarist in his own right – who mentored Clark for years, helping him learn the ropes of the blues scene. It was his music that earned him fans like Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, who after seeing Clark play wrote him a letter thanking him for making him want to play again. It was the music on Clark’s raucous 2012 major label debut, Blak & Blu, that had critics anointing the soft-spoken Texan as “the future of the blues guitar” and “The Chosen One”.

In the wake of such critical acclaim, Clark’s follow-up album had a lot of expectations and murmured fears of second album syndrome. “I didn’t try to fight the sophomore slump,” said Clark about his newly released album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. “I just wanted to make the best possible record that I could make. I’m not trying to live up to expectation or opinion. I just want to make music for music’s sake.”

The Grinder

While “music for music’s sake” sounds like a half-mumbled stock answer that someone spouts at the end of a long press tour (and Clark is just off the airplane from a whirlwind European press tour and is noticeably exhausted), for Clark, “music for music’s sake” seems like an actual force driving his life and career.

Despite the accolades and acclaim from his first album, Clark seems determined to do exactly what he wants and make the music that reverberates for him, expectations be damned. After he was named the savior of the blues, he released a mixtape remix with Mississippi emcee Big KRIT. It was just something he wanted to do, music for music’s sake and all.

2 Chainz: Gary Clark Jr
2 Chainz: Gary Clark Jr Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

After recording his first album for Warner Bros in a slick LA studio aided by producers Mike Elizondo (Dr Dre, Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day), for his sophomore effort he decided to head back home to Texas to make the album he wanted to make. He recorded the album between tours, putting in about three or four months of studio time at Arlyn Studios, where Clark’s musical spirit guide, Stevie Ray Vaughan, recorded. “Being back home was really key,” said Clark, who said he spent his time outside the studio visiting longtime friends and family and the people who taught him how to play guitar. “It was everything. I could walk to the studio, which meant my real life, my reality, was just right there and I drew from that.”

A new part of that reality is his wife, Nicole Trunfio, and infant son, Zion, who was born while Clark was in the middle of recording The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. “My life changed,” said Clark. “It was a whole transition thing and I had the opportunity to be in the studio at that time and really sit back and reflect and let it out.”

The birth of his first child seemingly put Clark in a ruminative mindset, which is apparent on the personal album that earned its title from two of Clark’s family nicknames. “I started to think about where I came from and about my parents,” said Clark. “I started thinking about what the hell I’m doing out here playing music. If there’s a way to make a living, then I have to make the most of it, because it’s not just about me anymore.”

“The thought of having a child was mind-blowing, life-changing,” said Clark. “I really just looked in the mirror and said, ‘This is it, what are you going to do now?’ I was in transition mode and I had to step up.” To do that, Clark took control of his album, or what he described as “manning up”. He not only played the majority of the instruments, but also stepped behind the boards to produce it himself. “I played most of the instruments on the album so if anyone says the drums suck, or the guitar sucks, it was me,” said Clark. “If they loved it, that was me too.” Clark credits his live engineer Bharath “Cheex” Ramanath and Arlyn Studios chief engineer Jacob Sciba for helping to craft the record’s sound and giving him the freedom to do what he needed to do. “I felt comfortable, I was in my comfort zone, I was in my creative space. I could really just be,” he said. “It let me make sure everything I did really meant something and came from an honest and real place.”

Current events also weighed on Clark’s mind during the recording process, most evidently in the R&B track Hold On, with lyrics that depict a parent who is desperate to shield their child from deep-seated racism. Clark’s son, Zion, can be heard babbling over the song’s intro, reminding listeners how personal the song really is.

While Clark was happy to be off the road “away from the noise and buzz” for the duration of the recording process, he is a creature of the road and eager to leave the confines of the recording studio and tour again. “I’m exhausted,” he explained. “I feel like I got the songs all out of my system. I need to go live and explore, go tour a little bit.”

Clark it turns out is an expert at understatement. What he calls touring “a little bit” is actually a massive, months-long journey that will have him on the road until April of next year. (Clark admits he didn’t actually look at the entire tour schedule: “I don’t want to know!” he laughed.) Many of the dates he will be opening for the Foo Fighters, who he has played with a few times in the past, but he admits he is still in awe. “It’s really crazy,” laughed Clark.

While Clark isn’t the typical rock guitarist, it’s a good musical match for an artist who has broken down genres throughout his career. “When I first started playing guitar I never wanted to commit to one genre, so to get calls from the Foo Fighters to Beyoncé to Ed Sheeran to the Rolling Stones, it’s amazing, it’s a confidence booster, but at the same time it lets me know that nothing’s impossible. You can do anything,” said Clark, who hopes to pass the lesson to his newborn son. “Don’t let anybody tell you that something’s not possible,” said Clark. “Music is powerful.”

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is out now on Warner Bros; Gary Clark Jr is on tour 29 September to 14 April


Melissa Locker

The GuardianTramp

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