NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Gary Clark Jr. had to learn how to trust someone else to record his major label debut.
When noted producer Mike Elizondo signed on to help with Blak and Blu, Clark was more than a little leery.
Im very sensitive, Clark said, chuckling as he recounted the story in a phone interview. I like to hold onto what I do, like its mine and this is the way it is. So I was a bit worried going in, you know? Having not known him, what is this cat gonna do to my songs? Theyre good as is. But I let it go: This is great, Im getting to work with this amazing musician, great producer and a cool guy, so get over yourself and just make an album.
Blak and Blu, out this week, is one of the most anticipated albums of the year, put out by a talented guitarist seen as the future of the blues – and maybe rock n roll, too. Contrary to expectations, perhaps, this is not your average throwback electric blues album, running through a range of sounds and styles as Clark changes his vocal approach in surprising ways.
Thats why Elizondo signed on. After hearing Clarks self-produced early work and seeing his supercharged live show, he didnt want to miss out on what he thought might be history-making sessions.
That really appeals to me, working with someone whos willing to take some chances and be bold right out of the gate, Elizondo said. Myself, being a music fan, I look back at what it must have felt like on those very first (Led) Zeppelin records, to be the engineer and go, Wow, I hope we dont mess this up. Or Chas Chandler working with (Jimi) Hendrix. Teo Macero working with Miles Davis – these guys who you felt like there was just something there. Now Im getting the chance to work with true greatness and I felt like I was given an opportunity and I didnt want to miss it.
The producer known for his work with artists as diverse as Dr. Dre and Fiona Apple knew that didnt mean it would be easy: I sensed it before we ever set foot in the studio, that there might be some hesitation. Just like any artist, youve got to gain their trust.
Elizondo started by spending time on the road with Clark, catching three or four shows and the coiled-snake vibe the tall, lanky Austin, Texas, resident exudes. Then they spent the first few weeks of sessions in a room together with just an engineer, dissecting songs and talking about potential direction.
The producer learned Clark can be circumspect. Ask him a question or make a suggestion and you dont always get an immediate response. Several times, Clark said, Im going to go outside and think about it. The rest of the time it was pretty easy.
I thought I was pretty open and aware and he kind of taught me a lot of things, Clark said, like really approaching things differently as opposed to sticking in the same old thing.
The blues first really caught Clarks attention when he put on B.B. Kings Live at The Regal and got punched in the face with all the emotion. He was 12.
I hadnt heard anybody play guitar with that much vibrato maybe, the way hed hit the note and it would scream, Clark said. And then his voice would go along with it. That was a kickin band and the dynamics of the live show, Id never heard anything like that.
Clarks been playing the music for fans around the world. Hes played every significant festival in the last 18 months – sometimes twice – and played in front of 70,000 in Brazil while opening for Eric Clapton.
Theres this wild thing thats been going on at the show where the fans just start chanting my name and I dont know how to deal with that yet, he said. Its overwhelming to me.