Hooks ‘N’ You: Gary Clark, Songwriter-Producer at Large

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

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When we last left our hero, Gary Clark, he was discussing his career as a recording artist…and if you missed it, then you must immediately haul yourself over to Part One, which can be found right here. Now, can we presume everyone’s on the same page? Excellent. Then we can get to the matter at hand, which involves Mr. Clark chatting about some of the work he’s been doing in recent years as a songwriter and producer for hire…

Popdose: Obviously, you’ve been doing a lot more songwriting and producing for other people than recording yourself for the last several years, but what I’ve been wondering is whether or not you do the demos yourself, and if you do, then will we ever get to hear them?

Gary Clark: I do record demos, but I don’t always sing them. Usually, I try and choose a session singer who suits whoever I’m pitching for, but sometimes, either for lack of somebody who suits or whatever, I do sing them. I haven’t really even thought about whether I’d release them! (Laughs) Very often, what happens is, if you get a cut on a record…if it’s a song that’s been pitched, one that you’re not writing with the artist, then they very often want the production as well. They then pay for the master, therefore you don’t own the master anymore. The label owns the master. But in the case of those that don’t get cut…the bad ones… (Laughs) …you never know. One of these days, maybe I will.

I just wanted to run through some of the songs you’ve written. I just recently heard Mark Owen’s “Kill With Your Smile” (In Your Own Time) and the songs that you wrote for Emma Bunton for her Life in Mono album (“Perfect Strangers” and “Take Me To Another Town“). When it comes to writing someone who’s a former member of Take That or the Spice Girls or whoever, how does that happen? Do their “handlers” approach you, or are you pitching the songs?

No, in those cases, the artist came in, and we wrote songs together. The labels kind of get to know you after awhile, which…I kind of knew a lot of them in the UK, but I’ve recently moved here to L.A., so I’m beginning again here. But they get to know you, and they sort of think, “That might work if you put them in a room together,” so they call you up, and…basically, it starts off as something you do on spec, unless you’re Timbaland or someone, in which case people charge to get in a room with you. But for me, you just get together, write a song, record the vocal, they’ll leave, I’ll finish the track, give it to the label, and if they like it, they pay for it to go on the record. And if they don’t…? Well, in fact, at that point, if they really like it, sometimes you get the budget extended to the point where you can maybe add some real drums or strings or whatever. So that’s kind of the way that a lot of records are made nowadays, because the budgets are such rubbish.

When you contributed to Liz Phair’s self-titled album, she was a pretty big name in alternative music moreso than pop music.

Yeah, I was a fan, actually.

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Oh, okay. So what the process of writing “Red Light Fever” for her like?

Well, that was one I wrote with Liz. We wrote about ten songs, and…she basically made that album twice. She made a whole album with Michael Penn, on which there were lot of my songs – like, eight songs or something – and I have never heard it to this day. I was never given a copy. But, basically, when she took it to the record label, the record label said, “It’s too alternative, we need you to go more mainstream.” And that’s when she worked with The Matrix, and The Matrix wrote the singles that were on that album…and there’s Lauren Christy again. So that was kind of Liz’s foray into the mainstream…and she kind of got beat up for it, too. (Laughs) But the only surviving song from those Michael Penn songs of mine…and as I say, I’ve never heard the others…was “Red Light Fever.”

I’d love to hear those songs. I’m a big Michael Penn fan.

Yeah, I’d love to hear it as well. (Laughs) Honestly, Liz is super lo-fi, and she would only record demos on my little Walkman in the middle of the table. She and I would play live. And at one point, they contacted us…her label…to ask us if they could use one of these demos as an iTunes free download or something, and we agreed. So I guess it’s out there somewhere! But, yeah, it’s literally just a cassette recorder in the middle of the table, and Liz and I doing it live. I don’t even remember which song it was!

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You co-wrote “That Boy” with Lloyd Cole. So had you guys fallen into the same circles in the late ’80s?

Yeah, I met Lloyd a few times in the process of gigging and doing promotion and stuff. We were both published by the same publisher, and he suggested that we would be good to write together, so I went to New York and wrote two or three songs with him, of which “That Boy” was one. The interesting thing about Lloyd is that…he’s brilliant, but he doesn’t want to do lyrics with anybody else. He wants to do the lyrics himself. I was used to being very involved in the lyrics, so it was kind of a weird dynamic trying to work with him, because I’d suggest things, and I could feel him pulling away, and I’d suggest more, and he’d just kind of close the song down, as if to say, “Ah, let’s more on to something else.” So I left New York thinking that we had a bunch of unfinished things, and then he finished the lyrics once I’d gone.

Well, it’s one of my favorite songs of his.

Oh, thank you. You know, it’s weird, that song, because it’s actually been released on three different records of his. He had it on the Negatives’ record, then he had it on the greatest-hits disc, and then there’s one more, though I can’t remember what it’s on! (Laughs) But, anyway, it’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Getting a song (“Got Dynamite“) on Demi Lovato’s new album, Here We Go Again, must’ve been a major coup for you. I mean, in the States, she’s huge in the ‘tweener market.

Well, it really made us feel that the move here was worthwhile. It was a huge thing for us, because…I mean, I’d done stuff with the Matrix, but when I stepped outside of the Matrix, that was the first production I got on my own. It was done unbelievably quickly. I had the track done with a demo singer, but once they wanted to do it, the turnaround was…I have never seen anything like it. It was like lightning. They had it turned around within the week. Everything: recording, editing, mastering, mixing. When they move, that machine…it’s amazing.

So how did you come to meet Ferras?

That’s kind of…the album is produced by me and The Matrix, and one member of The Matrix is Lauren Christy, who I worked with a long time ago. Basically, she came out to London to do some meetings or something, and we had dinner, and she told me that they were supposed to start Ferras’s record in January or something, and they were worried because they were going over schedule with another album that they were working on. I think it was the Korn album. And, basically, they needed another pair of hands, and would I come out first? Initially, it was going to be three weeks or something, just to kind of help them out, and I really clicked with Ferras. It was just working. And so they then asked me to stay on and contribute from the writing point of view, since initially I was just producing. And I just ended up staying on for the entire album. And the time I was staying here, I just loved it, and it made for the final decision to renew my visa and stay out here for a bit.

I know you need to get back to the studio, but I did have one more co-write I wanted to ask about: “Katydids,” the song you did with Swan Dive for their June album. Whose concept was the song’s subject matter, and is it safe to presume that Danny Wilson and the Katydids were gigging through the UK at approximately the same time?

Ah, Bill. Always love writing with Bill DeMain. Such a lovely and talented man. Boo Hewerdine suggested we write together, and Katydids was the song that came out of the first session – we recently wrote three in a day here in L.A. – and I remember it was a beautiful day in London. I lived on a garden square, and it was so nice that we took an acoustic guitar over to the garden and sat under the shade of a tree. Bill tends to have lyrics pre-written before a session, and it’s not the way I tend to work, but in his case, the lyrics are so good and musical and inspiring that I love doing it. So although I was aware of and was into the band, “Katydids” was entirely Bill’s concept and the music was written pretty quickly on that afternoon. But although I never encountered the Katydids around the Danny Wilson period, I remember my friends from Del Amitri did some gigs with them in the States, and more recently, through the Swandive song, I chatted with Suzy Hug on MySpace.

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Lastly, do you have a favorite song that people might not have heard that you’ve written for someone else?

Well, you know, it would have to be one of the ones on the Ferras record, Aliens & Rainbows. That album is really dear to my heart, and it’s just a shame that he basically got lost in the EMI takeover of Capitol, and the album didn’t get the weight behind it that I wish it had’ve gotten. But I’d say there are two or three on there. “Liberation Day,” for one. And I love “Soul Rock,” which is kind of a throwback to my youth. To my Hall and Oates records. (Laughs) And I like the title track, “Aliens & Rainbows.” Working with Ferras was the closest thing I think I’ve done in a long time to the kind of record that I’d make…on the rare occasions that I do.

So do you forsee a time when you yourself will return to recording?

I never say never. There are things I miss about it and things I don’t miss about it. I don’t miss the process of being an artist, where most of your time – and I’m sure you believe it, because you’re on the other end of the phone! – is spent doing interviews and traveling and appearing on television and being made up. All the stuff that has nothing to do with music. So all of that, I don’t really miss. But the hour that you’re on stage, I miss. And I miss the joy that you get from making something that you love when it’s your own record, when you’ve written it and sung it and seen it through to the end. But at least I still get to make records. It’s a tough music business out there, so I’m just happy to be still making records.

Well, I’m officially pitching the idea that you should do some sort of live residency, where you just pop out and play for an hour a week.

I’ve actually thought about it, and I’ve ever talked about doing stuff with some other people, but my problem is just the scheduling. It’s really, really hard, because I just never know when I’m going to have somebody in to sing a vocal or to have a mix done. All the time, I’m chasing deadlines. But I think if I just forced myself to do it, if it was just once a fortnight or something, I could probably do it. So it’s a possibility.

As your Facebook friend, I’m sure I’ll be one of the first to hear about it if it happens.

Absolutely. Just don’t hold your breath. (Laughs)

A Six Pack of Other Gary Clark Co-Writes For Ya’ll:

* Ashley Parker Angel, “Perfect Now” (Soundtrack To Your Life)
* Nick Carter, “Is It Saturday Yet?” (Now or Never)
* Natalie Imbruglia, “Wrong Impression” (White Lilies Island)
* Jack Savoretti, “Dr. Frankenstein” (Between The Minds)
* Skin, “Purple” (Fake Chemical State)
* McFly, “The End” (Radio: ACTIVE)