To say Gary Clark Jr. has star quality is an understatement. Music industry folks and fans alike say the 6-foot-4-inch Austin High School graduate, who easily commands a room without even trying, is on the verge of something big.
With a new album set to drop on September 11, fans that include The Rolling Stones and Barack Obama, and the raucous reception he received during his Austin City Limits live taping earlier this week, it seems the Grammy winner’s star is quickly rising.
“He's certainly the biggest thing to come out of Austin in years, if not decades,” says Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “He epitomizes what Austin music is all about — a deep connection to its roots, but very contemporary and original.”
His second major label effort, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (a title born from a combination of nicknames), brought Clark back to his Austin roots, recording the album at the iconic Arlyn Studios off South Congress Avenue. Early buzz about the record is positive, and the audience response to the nine tracks he debuted at the ACL taping was very enthusiastic. The guitar virtuoso, dubbed by Rolling Stone as “The Chosen One,” chose to take charge of this album by writing, producing and arranging all of its songs, not to mention playing most of the instruments.
Clark says he felt very strongly about recording his sophomore effort on familiar ground. “All I knew was I wanted to come back to Austin, to my home, and feel the same way that I did when I first started to play music — where there was no limit,” he explains. “It was just about having the time and opportunity and the tools and instruments to be able to express my experiences and things that have gone on in my life.”
Besides his soaring career, Clark's recent goings on include becoming engaged and having a son. He says fatherhood influenced the overall vibe of the record. “I hate to sound like a new dad, but I am … and [it] was really important to me to try and do some sort of good and sing about things that are positive — to inspire.”
Clark admits he didn’t have a very clear vision when he went into the studio, but knew he wanted to take his time and approach songwriting and making music in the way he did when he was younger. “It was really about just being honest with myself and doing the best that I could, translating the sounds that I had in my head and not filtering with ‘Oh, I shouldn’t put this soul tune with this church song’ or whatever — [it] just happened. It was very organic.”
For a man of few words, Clark captured a level of honesty and vulnerability in his songwriting, describing the process of creating the songs like a birth. “It felt like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders every time I recorded a song and it’s just done. I was like, ‘Man, I’m glad I got that out.’”
Bottling the intensity of an artist known for live shows in a record is always a challenge, but Clark’s latest effort comes very close. The result of pulling countless all-nighters in Studio A at Arlyn is a passionate, soulful 13-track record that exemplifies not only his well-known guitar style but also his maturing songwriting and vocals.
“His new record is a game-changer,” explains Lickona. “It's a new Gary Clark Jr. in the sense that it shows off his singing and guitar skills in new ways that will surprise many people. His music has matured well beyond his years!”
Austin City Limits has helped capture Clark’s musical growth over the years, which seems fitting as he grew up watching the show and says it helped him learn to play guitar. His latest appearance garnered several standing ovations and an enthusiastically received encore. Clark returned to the stage accompanied by shouts of "Gary! Gary! Gary!"
While Clark refers to himself as a “work in progress … trying to grow, be a better man and musician,” the taping in some ways brings him full circle, showing how much he’s already grown as an artist since he started honing his craft as a teenager in Austin clubs.
“To be able to come back home and get on this stage and let loose … it feels great!”
Fans around the country will be able to catch Clark live, opening for Foo Fighters in September and October. He’ll be back home in October for what’s sure to be a popular set on both Austin City Limits Musical Festival weekends and starts a headlining tour on Halloween. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim will be available September 11.