Gary Clark Jr: 'I want to let it be known: this land is your land, but it's mine too'

The Grammy-winning singer, whose third full-length record finds him subverting genre and expectation, talks Trump, keeping the blues alive and the fire in his belly

While working on his new album This Land, the genre-defying musical multi-hyphenate Gary Clark Jr had an uncomfortable confrontation with a neighbor. With his wife, Nicole Trunfio, and their toddlers, Zion and Gia, Clark had recently bought a 50-acre ranch near Austin, Texas, where he grew up. To say nothing of his status as a volcanic live performer, he had already won a Grammy, played with the Stones, strummed at the White House, and released two ambitious full-lengths, 2012’s Blak and Blu and 2015’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. But, as he revealed to Rolling Stone earlier this month, Clark’s neighbor insisted he didn’t live there and asked who really owned the property. “It’s 2017,” he told the Guardian “and I’m being confronted with racism in front of my own house.”

The encounter led to the rap-rock thumper This Land, which also happens to be the lead single and name of Clark’s new album, a defiant, energetic and sonically unclassifiable pastiche of blues, rock, R&B and hip-hop. The 34 year-old spoke to us about addressing the Trump era, unburdening himself of anger, and the pride and pressure of being a torchbearer for 21st-century blues.

You’ve called the lead single This Land the most important song you’ve ever written. What was the process like of addressing racism and the current state of the union in music?

The process was, one, being black in the south, and two, it was right around 2016 and it reflected what the climate was, what the culture was, what was in the news, both for black people and anybody else who feels discriminated against. There was a situation that I had, which wasn’t a big deal but it was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I found it frustrating and sad and I just decided to go write a song about it. I had the music to it already. It’s an adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. “This land is mine” was the only lyric I had over it and we just kind of played.

It’s bold to put your own spin on a song that’s so associated with a very specific, wistful form of patriotism.

I remember singing that song as a kid. I love the song and I love what it stands for, but I unfortunately don’t think we can all sing that song as a nation unified. I just wanted to let it be known: this land is your land, but it’s mine too, and we all, as Americans, as citizens of this country, should all have an equal shot.

On this new record, you showcase a really wide array of sounds: blues, reggae, R&B and hip-hop. You’ve talked about your admiration for Prince, how he was a world-class guitarist but wasn’t typecast as a “Guitar God”. Is that something you’re trying to get out from under?

Absolutely. I’m a guitar player at the end of the day, but I do other things as well. I’m playing other instruments, I’m singing and I’m writing songs. I’m trying to be an artist, so [“Guitar God”] isn’t the right representation. Sometimes I wake up and I play drums and I’ll just be a drummer out there. But because of the guitar you get put in this pigeonhole of blues Americana and I’m ready to express more than that. Growing up I would perform in blues clubs, but I would always be playing something else, whether it was jazz or country or reggae. Quincy Jones has been talking about breaking down the idea of genre for a long time with his music. And the contribution that Quincy has put into this world: that guy has done everything, composing with Sinatra, he brought us Thriller. I want to be on that same wavelength.

You’ve been associated with a kind of nostalgia for the heyday of the blues and rock’n’roll. On this record, you’re reaching for something fresh and contemporary, too. Where do you see yourself on that continuum? Do you consider yourself a modern-day torchbearer for the blues?

Everybody that I’ve come across, people that have inspired and mentored me, have always supported me pushing the music forward. The blues are relevant, you know? It’s not some throwback, something you check out in a museum. It’s alive and well and it’s not going anywhere. It’s going to be in modern music and I don’t know any other way. Sometimes I do feel like a torchbearer for modern blues and I’m actually proud of that, you know? People like Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, for them to bring my name up in a positive light, it means more to me than what a lot of other people say and feel. When I played Crossroads Festival in 2010, I walked across the stage for the finale and BB King grabbed my hand and looked at me and just kind of nodded, smiled at me. It was kind of like a welcome. I’m not going to lie: I got teary-eyed. I was like: “Whoa, that’s heavy. Get it together, there’s 30,000 people watching. Be cool!”

Gary Clark Jr. with his wife and kids in the new John Varvatos campaign.
Gary Clark Jr with his wife and kids in the new John Varvatos campaign. Photograph: Danny Clinch/John Varvatos

You’ve said there’s a particular focus on lyric-writing on this record. Is it true that Langston Hughes is a big inspiration to you?

Langston Hughes was my first introduction to writing. I remember checking out a book of his poems at the library in elementary school. Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe: there was something about poetry that really got me. That kind of turned into me and my friend Ryan in fourth grade writing our first song together called Dream Girl, which is a horrible R&B tune. But I was interested by that process, putting melody to words, so I made a beat, I got a Casio keyboard. That was how my songwriting process started. I still kind of feel like I’m trying to put poems over a musical soundtrack.

Who are you reading these days?

Lately I’ve been into Charles Bukowski. I also think that the comedian’s perspective on life is very interesting. Like, my next album might be on some Weird Al-type stuff. Comedy and music are both truly unfiltered ways to communicate with people and share a perspective that’s much needed.

In front of President ObamaGary Clark Jr. performs at the White House with, from left, Troy Trombone Shorty Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, and B.B. King.
Gary Clark Jr performs at the White House with Barack Obama and, from left, Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks and BB King. Photograph: Pete Souza/The White House

In the last few years you’ve bought a 50-acre ranch and settled down with your family and kids. Has happiness been as creatively generative as other emotional states?

If you listen to the album, my emotional state is all over the place. Every human being goes through ups and downs, so I just put all that on record. Without calling anybody out specifically, you know who it is. As far as the song This Land, I immediately felt like I had this thing I needed to say. I didn’t want to come across as angry because I don’t think anger is positive. At the same time, I think holding back emotions is unhealthy. So I made a choice.

How soon after writing the song did you feel relieved of your anger?

I felt unburdened by my anger kind of immediately, after I got into the booth. Playing the record for people at the label, getting their immediate support, I thought, “Alright, people are really willing to hear this and it’s beautiful.” It’s about time. When the video was released, I was like: “Yes, this is how we feel.”

Growing up in Texas, you hang out by the creek and sometimes you find these arrowheads, and I remember learning about natives in school and wondering what kind of people were here, where were they now, why are they not here? As far as the imagery for the video, the Confederate flag was something that was confirmed immediately to me, as a youngster, as something founded to make me feel fearful. When I talked to Savannah [Leaf, the music video director], she asked what it meant to me. And it’s basically that from darkness comes light. That fire in my belly, that feeling that we’ve got to do better just treat people right: that’s genuinely how I felt it.

  • This Land is out now


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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