When your grandmother enlists you to model her “I Skied Down Mount St. Helens May 18, 1980” t-shirts—complete with “authentic” burn holes—at the local flea market, you can be sure you’re going to grow up with a unique outlook on life. For acclaimed No. 1 songwriter Brandy Clark, it’s an outlook that has served her well.
Born and raised in the small Washington mill town of Morton—yes, in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, which erupted when she was just a little girl—Brandy developed an affection for working-class people and the dangerous jobs many of them undertake to make ends meet. Her father, a logger, died in a work-related accident, her mother toiled in human resources at the mill, and Brandy herself worked amid the lumber, at a fencing mill. As such, she related to the hardship depicted in the film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and became obsessed with the music of Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard.
But above all, Brandy adored eccentric personalities.
“I love characters,” says Brandy. “When Mount St. Helens erupted, I remember my grandmother just standing on the porch, smoking a cigarette, and watching the hot mud fall from the sky. My grandmother was my favorite character in life.”
12 Stories, Brandy’s debut album as an artist, is full of diverse characters. There’s the woman in first single “Stripes” who fantasizes about killing her cheating husband, but doesn’t want to be caught dead in an orange jumpsuit. There’s another who asks Jesus for help, but plays the lottery just in case in “Pray to Jesus.” And there’s the bored housewife in “Get High” who escapes daily drudgery by rolling joints at the kitchen table.
“I get my inspiration from real people who are just surviving their life and getting through their day. That’s who I write songs for,” explains Brandy. “I want to write songs for somebody who is working at a bank—if that person could write a song, what they would write. That’s my goal.”
Prior to 12 Stories, Brandy achieved that goal by penning songs for other artists. Reba McEntire and Kenny Rogers have both recorded her songs. Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow and Kacey Musgraves have Brandy compositions on their new albums. And The Band Perry gave Brandy her first No. 1 single with “Better Dig Two,” followed shortly after by another No. 1 in “Mama’s Broken Heart,” cut by Miranda Lambert.
They are all milestones for Brandy the songwriter, but 12 Stories aims to establish Brandy as a performing artist. The album, a collection of a dozen songs ranging from rollicking back-porch jams like “Crazy Women” to vulnerable tear-at-your-heart ballads like “Hold My Hand,” seemed to have birthed itself.
“I was just writing songs. But with titles like ‘Take a Little Pill’ and ‘Day She Got Divorced,’ artists wouldn’t cut those songs. However, they are some of my favorites and, artistically, I fit them,” says Brandy, who decided to record her own album after playing “Get High” for her songwriting partner Shane McAnally. “Shane said that I could write a whole record of songs from that woman’s perspective and make an album that no one has ever made. That’s kind of what we did.”
Actually, it’s exactly what she did. Teaming up with producer Dave Brainard (Jerrod Niemann, Ray Scott), Brandy used her writing gift and distinctly country voice to craft a record that has touched everyone lucky enough to hear it. Marty Stuart is a vocal fan, as are Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow and Kacey Musgraves. All of them are attracted to Brandy’s unfiltered take on the human experience, its joys and especially its frailties.
“I think my music is a dark comedy, just as I think life is a dark comedy,” says Brandy. “The truth is funny sometimes. I don’t ever want to come across as corny or novelty, but you have to laugh at things. I feel like this record is about what’s really going on in life.”
Things like divorce, death, addiction and unfulfilled desire. Or even more so, inappropriately fulfilled desire.
“I know more people that are cheating than not,” Brandy observes. “And so many people are addicts that would never admit it, which is what ‘Take a Little Pill’ is about. The pill problem in this country is huge.”
Not that Brandy is casting stones. “I have no judgment on anybody,” she laughs. “I’m just a dark comedian. People go, ‘Oh she gets me, because she’s flawed.’ And they’re right. I’m drawn to flawed characters. Because we’re all flawed.”
Ironically, 12 Stories the album is not. Instead, all of its characters and their individual troubles combine to make a clear-eyed document of everyday life in the 21st century, as well as the freshest project to come out of Nashville in years. 12 Stories is dryly humorous, moving, sad and, most of all, real.