The Canadian country star flew from Toronto to Calgary, then drove five hours to the visually stunning landscape of Kimberley, British Columbia. “It’s wilderness at its best,” she says. “It’s quintessential Canada — mountains and Mounties and bears and lakes and beautiful, beautiful countryside.”
The cinematic backdrop illustrates the outdoors lifestyle of Clark’s home country. She regrouped there last year after her mother, Linda, died after a long battle with cancer. The loss came on the heels of a divorce and a career lull in the U.S. after a string of hits, including “You’re Easy on the Eyes” and “Girls Lie Too,” both No. 1 singles, and Top 10 favorites such as “Better Things to Do,” “When Boy Meets Girl” and “Now That I Found You.”
Nevertheless, Clark emerged with a batch of compelling new songs and recorded them — at her own expense — with the top studio musicians in Nashville. During a recent visit to Nashville, the thoughtful singer-songwriter visited with CMT.com about the inspiration for “Northern Girl,” the tender approach of “Smile” and the long-lost country tune, “Lonesome’s Last Call.”
CMT: What were you hoping to capture when you wrote “Northern Girl”?
Clark: It captured me, in a way. I had rented a cottage in Canada for a month after my mom passed away. I found myself really wanting to be tethered to my roots and to where I came from. I got around a bunch of people. I needed to feel that bond with people who knew me before my record deal and who weren’t connected to my work or artist-driven career in any way.
Your mom loves you for you, no matter what, so I was seeking out that kind of unconditional love. I went back up and got closer to my dad, my grandmother, my sister and my nephew. There’s a friend of mine who was five cottages down that I’ve known since I was 12. We went to junior high and high school together. I have a lot of friends that I’ve maintained since I was in the seventh grade, and I hang onto them for a reason — because they tell me the truth. That’s something I want to hear. Sometimes I don’t, but it’s what’s best.
Anyway, I was sitting in this cottage, and I started writing “Northern Girl.” A moment hit me of being proud of where I was from and the people that I was around. I felt a great sense of pride being from the North. … It’s a different kind of culture and mindset. You view a sunny and warm day in a completely different way than somebody who’s from California or Alabama. It’s like, “We’ve got to soak this up for all it’s worth.”
I like the reference to “Four Strong Winds.” Have you known that song your whole life?
Oh, yeah. My mom used to sing me that. She used to sing a lot of Ian & Sylvia and folk stuff. “Four Strong Winds” is about Alberta, where I grew up … until I left for Nashville. I spent lots of my childhood in Alberta.
“Smile” is a beautiful song about your mom. Can you trace your love of music back to her?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, my grandparents played music and supported five kids playing country bars in Montreal. My mom obviously adopted the same musical talent in some ways. She played coffeehouses and folk music and was singing instead of reading bedtime stories to me as a kid. I have her guitar now, which she actually taught me my first three chords on. It’s sitting in my bedroom, and it’s my most prized possession.
What did you and your mom talk about on that long drive to Nashville?
(laughs) We drove down here with her best friend, Pat, who’s still around. She lives up in Ontario, and I see her quite often. It was like Thelma & Louise, and I was just the Brad Pitt character in the back of the car trying to get through it. We had a Honda Civic packed full of stuff and my big, bulky Martin guitar case in the backseat. We were talking about — oh, gosh — what the plan was. I was going to try to get work for cash because I didn’t have a green card. Maybe babysitting or something. Then we had to find a place for me to live. Once we got those things figured out, then we would go see things like the Grand Ole Opry and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Ernest Tubb Record Shop. All these things I read about as a kid and wanted to do.
I never got to the babysitting job. … We went into Tootsie’s to see what the place was about, wound up onstage and got offered a job. (laughs) It was the third or fourth day that we were here. My mom had to go back because I had a 5-year-old brother at the time, so she couldn’t stay and hold my hand through this process. I was 18 and in a foreign country, 2,500 miles away from everybody and everything I knew. No car, no green card, no job really.
Tootsie’s was a job that paid $15 a day plus cash tips. Back then, nobody wanted to take their life into their own hands by going down to Lower Broadway. The tumbleweeds were rolling through Lower Broadway unless it was Fan Fair week. It was a tough going for a while. I lost a lot of weight those first six months.
“Lonesome’s Last Call” sounds like classic country. Does that take you back to those early days? You’ve said your earliest demo recordings were really, really country.
They were, yeah. I wrote it 21 years ago, so that tells you what I was writing back then. I was writing a lot of stuff like that. If I were to dig through my old Sony Tree [publishing] catalog, wow, it would be pretty country. I remember at the time, I was being pitched to labels, and a couple of them actually said, “She’s too country.”
They pitched me to one label and I remember the executive — and I won’t say his name — said, and I quote, I’ll never forget this: “She’s probably the most powerful female country voice I’ve heard, but it’s not what we’re looking for.”
Wow. What was going through your mind when you heard that?
“What?!” I’m like, “That’s like telling me the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted, but you don’t want the whole bowl.” (laughs) I was like, “Come on! Come on!” It was a frustrating process. Then I started to write with people who had their pulse a little more on contemporary country and what was going on at mainstream radio at the time. We wrote things like “Better Things to Do.” It was still country. … It had a rockin’ country edge, and I found a blend that would work. It ended up doing well. It was authentic. I meant everything, and it wasn’t contrived. It felt like a good blend between high-energy rockin’ stuff and traditional country.
There were pretty traditional things on my first three records. If you listen to them, they’re really “dirt country” stuff. That’s what I love about “Lonesome’s Last Call.” Jim Rushing was a writer I always admired for some of the stuff he did that Ricky Skaggs recorded. Skaggs was a huge influence on me. Somebody offered to help me get with [Rushing] as a co-writer when I first moved to town, and I was like, “Oh, my God! Praise Jesus!” So I got with Jim Rushing, and that’s the song we wrote. It’s been kicking around in my head for 20 years, and I’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity to bring it out, dust it off, sparkle it up and put it on a record. I’m glad I finally got to do it.