Hooks ‘N’ You: A Portrait of Gary Clark as a Young Recording Artist

Written by Hooks 'N' You, Music, Popdose Interviews

hooksnyou.jpg For better or worse…and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s for worse…there really isn’t much from the back catalog of Gary Clark’s work as a solo artist or band member that couldn’t comfortably fit within the “Hooks ‘N’ You” column. As a member of the Scottish trio Danny Wilson, who made their lone mark on the Stateside charts with the immortal “Mary’s Prayer,” Clark easily earned my admiration, so much so that I made a point of following his post-DW career and spending arguably way more than I should have to pick up copies of his subsequent solo album (Ten Short Songs About Love) and the one-off effort by his next band, King L. It ended up being a bit cheaper to purchase the debut / swan song of the next group, Transister, but that’s not exactly what you’d call a compliment, either. Still, it must be said that every one of these albums has found repeat spins in my player, and if I’m perhaps a bit more partial to those two Danny Wilson albums (Meet Danny Wilson and Bebop Moptop), well, so be it. All in all, Clark’s prowess as a singer and a songwriter has been more than sufficient to keep me following his career. These days, he’s spending far, far more time writing and producing for others, but perhaps that’s a good thing, as it means that he has more free time to trade the occasional E-mail with me on Facebook…and, perhaps more important, to put up with a phone interview for Popdose.

Popdose: So how did you and your brother Kit first get started playing music? Did you grow up in a musical family?

Gary Clark: Not really. My grandfather played accordion…well, not really played, but he played at parties and stuff. Everybody was kind of a good singer. Like, my mum and dad would sing, again, at parties. It’s kind of a Scottish thing: we’d only sing at New Year’s Eve parties and stuff. But my mum and my dad were quite good singers, and…actually, I guess Ged (Grimes) and I started working together first, ’cause Kit’s younger than me by about five years, and Ged and I are about the same age. So we had a school band and stuff, and it kind of developed from there. He and I stayed together through a few different things until we worked in Danny Wilson with Kit.

You guys were originally called Spencer Tracy. Did you just get, like, a cease-and-desist order from his estate?

Yeah, we did. (Laughs) The album was done, the artwork was done…it was a real last-minute crazy, fearful moment. Basically, the US label checked it out here, and I believe that because Spencer Tracy had lived and died in California…in this state, you can copyright a person’s name. So we were just told, “If you try and use this, you will be sued.” And so the label just went, “Nope. Change it. Now.”

So how quickly did you come up with the new name, Danny Wilson?

Unbelievably quick. I mean, we’d sort of gotten used to the idea that the band had a person’s name, and so I guess that was the next train of thought. Kit came up with it, as it was a movie that my dad used to always talk about as being one of his favorite Sinatra movies…usually when he was complaining that they didn’t show it on TV anymore. (Laughs) So Kip had that idea, and it just really fit with the album being called Meet Danny Wilson, which was the name of the Sinatra film.

Only recently did I finally get a chance to see that film, when it came out on DVD not too long ago.

Me, too! (Laughs) All through that period, I never saw the movie. Not until much later.

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So how surprised were you when, after a couple of tries, “Mary’s Prayer” finally became a hit for the band?

Well, it kind of happened in the States before it happened in the UK, and because of that, it triggered the UK label to re-release it. By this time, I was going, “No, please, no…” I thought it was flogging a dead horse. But the third time we released it, it was…it was Radio One, which was the biggest station there and still is, but at the time, when it got to the end of the year, Christmas or whatever, they had a phone-in vote for people’s favorite songs that missed the chart or whatever, and “Mary’s Prayer” won by quite a big margin. And that, combined with the fact that it was doing really well over here in the States, convinced Virgin to release it for the third time. They did a remix on it, but it was essentially the same record. And this time, it just went all the way pretty quickly. By the second week, it was #2 or #3 or something like that. So that was exciting.

It’s one of those songs that, even now, remains one of the great ’80s songs that everyone remembers but no one remembers who did it.

(Laughs) True! Well, that’s okay. I get to keep my anonymity. (Laughs)

And, yet, all you have to do is sing the briefest bit of the chorus, and people immediately go, “Oh, of course, that song!”

But, you know, that’s kind of a testament to one thing that I love about the States: you have radio stations that are just dedicated to keeping songs alive. Which is not as much the case in the UK. I mean, people know the songs, but here you have the classic rock stations that just keep playing things. I love that.

By the way, I just had to mention that, when I came over to the UK in 1992 after graduating from college, I had a Britrail pass, and I made a point of stopping in Aberdeen – even though I had no real reason to do so – just because of the song “Aberdeen.”

I’m so sorry. (Laughs)

I hope you’re proud of yourself! (Laughs)

The funny thing is that I’ve had quite a few people say that they’re curious about Aberdeen or that they’ve been to Aberdeen because of the song, but, y’know, there was nothing particularly magical about the town of Aberdeen. My brother was at university there, and I used to go visit him on weekends, so I spent a little bit of time there. I basically was trying to write the Scottish version of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” or “Galveston” or something. It always seems to be these quite obscure American towns that make it into songs, so I thought I’d give it a go for Scotland. (Laughs)

I think my favorite song from Meet Danny Wilson that didn’t get released as a single was probably “Lorraine Parade.”

Oh, wow, thank you. Yeah, I like that song.

Do you have any other favorites that weren’t released as singles that you still remember with particular fondness?

On the second album, I always liked “The Ballad Of Me And Shirley Maclaine,” but the first album…? I don’t know. I’d probably need to see a track listing. (Laughs) And I don’t really think of them as favorites, you know?

Well, they say you have your entire life to write your first album, then only about six weeks to write the second. How many songs did you have stockpiled when it came to write Bebop Moptop?

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Not that many. Really, for the first album, I had cherry-picked over quite a long period. I mean, some of the songs were older, “Mary’s Prayer” being one of them. So was “Davy,” and “Steamtrains to the Milky Way” was older. I felt like I’d used the best stuff, so that album was basically written from scratch. I’m trying to think of how long we had to do it, actually. It didn’t feel like a rush at the time. The only thing I remember was that, when I first started writing it, I got my first serious case of writer’s block.

Ugh.

I guess it was because I had so much to live up to with the first album, and I just wouldn’t finish anything, because I felt like it was all rubbish. But I somehow convinced myself, “Look, if you just finish stuff, just finish it, then at least you’ll be moving forward.” And when I decided that I was just going to finish it, that’s when it kind of started to work again, and it slowly came together…thank God! (Laughs)

I understand that “Second Summer Of Love” barely existed as a song and actually had to be extended to make it into a single.

Yeah. It was kind of a joke, really. I actually remember writing it. We were in my girlfriend at the time’s apartment, and we were waiting to do a bunch of phone interviews, I think it was, so we all had to be in one place. It was kind of a long, boring day, and I basically went out to the store around the corner to get some stuff, and it honestly just wrote itself in my head between the house and the store. I went back, grabbed a guitar, and scribbled it down. And it was honestly just a laugh, a bit of a joke. A few friends of ours were getting into that acid house scene at the time, and Kit was born in 1967, which was the first Summer of Love, and we’d just been joking about his birthday and…I don’t know, I just wrote it as a one-minute joke. But the label heard it, and they were, like, “This is your single!” And we’re going, “How in the hell are we going to double the length of this?” (Laughs) And, so, we added that harmonica solo!

It seemed as though Virgin tried everything in their power to make a hit out of that album. I mean, there were something like five singles released from that album between the UK and States.

(And if you’d like to hear them, here they are!)

* “I Can’t Wait
* “If Everything You Said Was True
* “Never Gonna Be The Same
* “If You Really Love Me (Let Me Go)

Yeah, absolutely. Virgin were really great at that time, and, y’know, we didn’t really fit what was on the radio at any time. We kind of got lucky with “Mary’s Prayer,” in the sense that it just happened to fit, whereas the records were pretty eclectic. And Virgin, even though they loved the band and loved the stuff, they obviously had trouble at radio. It didn’t fit with what was going on.

When I was over in the UK, I actually managed to find a copy of the multi-disc Sweet Danny Wilson compilation, so I came to love the band’s versions of “Kooks” and ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” In fact, I actually heard your version of “Kooks” years before I ever heard Bowie’s.

Oh, did you really? I loved the Bowie version since I was a kid. Hunky Dory was one of my super-landmark albums, and I still kind of use that as a kind of reference point. I used it for Ferras. He’d never heard it before we were working on his album. That one goes way back for me. (Laughs) And that version was done at a small studio in Dundee. We just did it as a fun B-side kind of a thing, but it was really good fun that day.

So who did Danny Wilson view as their peers, as far as the music you were putting out, who did you feel was putting out the same kind of music?

You mean contemporaries?

Yeah.

(Sighs) There wasn’t really anyone. We always felt like we were slightly out of time, because the people that we loved kind of came from another era. They were either the Bacharach & David ’60s kind of stuff, or the obvious Steely Dan reference, or…I was a huge Stevie Wonder and David Bowie fan. But at the time…? I don’t know. There weren’t that many. We didn’t fit in with anyone, really. Even the sort of Scottish scene of bands, like Deacon Blue, Hue & Cry, and Love & Money, I don’t think we really sounded like any of them.

When I listen to Danny Wilson, I often think of Prefab Sprout.

Oh, that’s a great example, actually. Prefab Sprout were probably the only group at the time where I actually thought, “Well, that’s not so dissimilar from the ground we’re trying to cover.” I was a huge fan, and Steve McQueen is still one of my favorite records. And I also felt a kinship with the Blue Nile, who also seemed to exist in their own timezone, regardless of what was playing on the radio at the time. I adore their records as well.

So when you went to do your solo album, Ten Short Songs About Love, in 1993, you were still pretty much working with Ged and Kit, at least to a certain extent.

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Yeah. But Kit’s my brother, and Ged and I are, like, best friends from way back. I think Ten Short Songs is the Danny Wilson album that I wanted to make, and the guys…well, part of the reason that the band split up was that they had started writing, and so when we got to the point where we were trying to choose songs for what would have been the third Danny Wilson album, instead of being able to write the album as I had done before, I was now kind of inundated with tons of songs, and it turned into a difficult situation, because it was, like, “We don’t like all of them, we don’t want to sing them,” and so on. And so Kit’s suggestion to that was that he wanted to make a solo record. In fact, he went to see the A&R people at Virgin, who basically said, “No, you’re contracted to do another Danny Wilson album.” That kind of didn’t sit well with him. He wanted to leave. And, basically, I thought that the band would be just so different without him, so much weaker…not necessarily musicianship-wise, but he was kind of a really good force just in terms of ideas and the flavor of things. And I just felt that, with just me and Ged, it would be a completely different thing. So I decided that was the time to call it a day. We were still friends, but the songs that I had started to prepare for the third Danny Wilson album basically became Ten Short Songs.

Well, I will tell you that it was a tremendous struggle to hunt down a copy of the CD back in the days before internet shopping was a regular thing.

Yeah, it was never released here. I remember at the time doing meetings here with record labels, and the reaction was quite simply that there were no singles on it that fit in with any radio format that existed. (Laughs) It fell between the cracks.

* “We Sail On The Stormy Waters” (Ten Short Songs About Love)
* “Freefloating” (Ten Short Songs About Love)
* “Make A Family” (Ten Short Songs About Love)

And a few years ago, when I was on my honeymoon in the UK, I managed to hunt down a copy of Great Day for Gravity, the album by King L, which was you, Eric Pressly, Neill MacColl, and Matt Laug. I really enjoyed it. How was the experience for you?

Well, it was kind of…I was still under the same deal that I had with Virgin after Ten Short Songs, and looking back on it, I think I was so disappointed in the sales of Ten Short Songs that I just needed to rip it up and start again. (Laughs) And the thing that I hadn’t been doing…’cause all of those records were really made with a small group of people in studios with overdubs and blah, blah, blah. I just missed that thing of standing with a live band in a room, and that was kind of the trigger for what became King L, you know? It started as sessions where I’d bring in musicians to try and cut tracks live, which we did, and when I found my kind of favorite players, it developed into a band thing. It seemed obvious to get the sound, and the band was great live as well, though… (Laughs) …hardly anyone ever saw us! But it was a good band. It was a reaction, I guess, to what was going on at the time.

* “Life After YouGreat Day for Gravity
* “First Man On The SunGreat Day for Gravity

And then King L more or less evolved into Transister?

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Yeah, that was interesting. What happened, really, was that the label dropped King L. King L sold even less…by quite a long shot…than Ten Short Songs, and the label dropped me and, therefore, dropped the band as well. And Eric, who was in King L, is from L.A., had four weeks left on his work visa, and in the process of working a lot in the UK with King L, he had met and fallen in love with Keely (Hawkes). And he basically said, “With these four weeks that I have left, how do you feel about writing some songs and producing some tracks so that I can try and get Keely a record deal?” And I said, “Sure.” It sounded like fun, and I needed the distraction from the misery of being dropped. So we just went into my studio and did the first four or five tracks in that four weeks, and Eric went back to the States. And a friend of a friend played it to Chris Douridas, who’s a radio DJ in California and, at the time, had the morning show on KCRW. It was a pretty free show called “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” so he could play demos and stuff, and that’s where he started to play the Transister demos…before we were even Transister! (Laughs) And it kind of got the record companies interested again…including Virgin, who had just dropped us, which was funny. And at the time, it was kind of a, “Whoa, this thing’s kind of taking off,” and my initial job was producer / songwriter, and in some ways, I wish I had kept it at that! But at the time, I was persuaded to sort of jump on board and join the band…and that was a whole lot of jumping! But that album (Transister) and the Lauren Christy album…and I don’t know if you’ve heard that, but I did this album with Lauren Christy…was kind of the beginning of me starting to do what I do now, which is write and produce for other people.

* “Look Who’s Perfect NowTransister
* “Dizzy MoonTransister
* “HeadTransister
* “FlowTransister

Stay tuned for the second part of my conversation with Mr. Clark, in which we discuss his work with artists like Ferras, Demi Lovato, Liz Phair, Swan Dive, and members of the Spice Girls and Take That.