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Gary Clark Jr.: Beyond the Blues

©Robert Sebree
Gary Clark Jr (©Joe Koch)

An Austin singer-guitarist proves a young lion with major old-school fans

By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music

You can excuse Gary Clark Jr. for being a bit overwhelmed at times.

Eric Clapton is a fan who's shared the stage and toured with the young Texas guitarist. So are Paul McCartney and Roger Waters, who attended a Clark show in a 300-seat room. In February, he played the White House in a blues tribute that included B.B. King and Mick Jagger, holding his own alongside those legends. The festival circuit has been his home this year, including South by Southwest, the Made in America Festival, Lollapalooza, Coachella, Austin City Limits and Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit Concert this past weekend.

But this is the big week, when Clark's first major-label album, "Blak and Blu," comes out on Warner Bros. Records. This follows the "Bright Lights" EP that came out last year and takes Clark to even more soaring heights. As a singer and guitarist from Austin who has played for 16 of his 28 years, Clark is determined not to get pegged as just that. Jazz, R&B, pop, hip-hop and all sorts of other influences dot the record. And the title cut could pass for one of his musical heroes, Prince.

After years of self-producing and issuing his own work, Clark finds himself suddenly thrust into the world of publicists and high-profile appearances. He took a few minutes to talk about staying true to his music and not losing his way.

MSN Music: How has having this support of your music changed your life?

Gary Clark Jr.: How has my life changed? Hmm. It got a lot busier [laughs]. Working with [producers] Rob Cavallo on the "Bright Lights" EP and working with Mike Elizondo on the new album, that was all new to me. I never worked with a producer before. That was a different experience. At first I was very hesitant. But it opened my world up to a lot of new ideas. That's what a collaboration has to be. ... People might know me as a blues guitarist or singer, but I have all these ideas and I want to put them all on one record and not be strange. I don't want to compromise everything to fit into one category or genre.

Being a guitar player from Austin automatically causes some stereotypes in people's minds.

Yeah. I went in the studio with Mike and made all kinds of noise. Some quiet stuff and some out-there, really big-production stuff. Big guitars, vocals, harmonies, things like that. So it has been great -- they let me be and create what I wanted, which is great.

MSN Reverb Blog: Stream Bridge School Benefit sets by Gary Clark Jr. and others

You've been so hands-on for so long, doing everything yourself, and that hard work is now paying off. You're getting acclaim, bigger gigs and praise from fellow musicians. Do you feel like your moment has come?

It's the next step. It feels natural. You travel, meet people you really respect and be influenced by complete strangers. I've been approached with label deals before and I didn't think that I was ready. I really wanted to get to know myself as a person and what I could do musically -- kinda just some self-exploration.

Where did you find the maturity to do that? Too many artists in rock history signed the first paper that was put in front of them.

I watched a lot of music documentaries [laughs]. I felt like I was still trying to figure myself out and be comfortable in my own skin. Before I'd do something like that I want to be sure of myself and be confident, as I said -- both as a man and in my mission. Now I can put it all out there, see what happens and go with it. ... I feel like I'm doing what I should be doing. All the years of playing, not taking the scholarship at the university to pursue music, doing what I'm doing and where I am now -- I'd rather not do anything else. All the hard work, self-doubt, hard times, whatever, it's all worth it.

It doesn't seem like you had much self-doubt or you wouldn't have stuck with this so relentlessly.

Now and then I'll have a moment: "I wanna be a musician." Well, everybody wants to be a musician. And in Austin there are so many guitar players and artists there. ... It was a big decision for me, not giving up and moving on to new things. I don't wanna do anything else. There were those days when I was pretty down and said "Man, I don't know about this" [laughs].

And you've not had to take a day job?

No! I've been playing gigs professionally since I was a sophomore in high school.

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How did you end up at the White House gig earlier this year?

The White House gig? You know what? I don't have any idea of how that really happened. I got a letter asking if I wanted to play a tribute to the blues at the White House. I guess my name came up in conversation with the people who put it together, which I'm very grateful for. That was a surreal experience.

Now that's a high-pressure gig.

It was. It was more pressure 10 or 15 minutes before, when they had us all in this room with no windows. Just sitting there. Then they said "OK, are you ready to go up?" Not really, but there's no backing out of it now. But it was really cool to be invited to the White House and play a show. I look over and there's B.B. [King], a lot of the guys who laid the foundation for me.

You get comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but were those your biggest influences

As far as guitar players go, [it's] the three Kings: B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King. The funk-groove thing that they did. The bending notes was powerful. And Prince as a guitar player.

Prince is one of the greatest guitarists there has ever been, but he has not been pigeonholed as that. You play a variety of instruments as well.

I heard some of him on the radio the other day and just said, "Damn," and sat there shaking my head.

You alluded to this earlier, but is it hard to let go of control and put your faith in others?

It is extremely difficult to let go. I'm very passionate about music I've written. I don't know how to describe how into it I am. I can't put it into words. To open your heart up and let go of your vision and say help me create this -- not everybody understands right away. They have comments and critiques, and it's very difficult. This is what it is, this is how it's going to sound, let's do it. But it's a good experience for me to get over myself.

Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music blogs Reverb and Scene & Heard.

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