(The Root) – At age 12 Gary Clark Jr., a guitarist and singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, heard his first blues record and was immediately hooked. Now, after four independent albums of rock and roll, Clark has released his major-label debut, Blak and Blu. The multigenre set features classic blues, rock and even airy R&B, and Clark shows his knack for modulating his voice to complement the mood.
With an album that has topped Billboard's Blues album chart, he's become a critical darling, drawing comparisons to rock icon Jimi Hendrix in publications such as Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times. In fact, Clark performs a nine-minute medley of Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun" and Little Johnny Taylor's "If You Love Me Like You Say." It's all growling, sweet guitars and hot-stepping funk. The musician, who has skipped across genres to collaborate with artists like Mick Jagger, B.B. King and Alicia Keys, says he's just following his creative path.
The Root recently caught up with Clark just before a Hurricane Sandy benefit at New York's Brooklyn Bowl to talk about how he manages to straddle a number of musical genres and live up to some lofty expectations.
The Root: Why title your album Blak and Blu? What do you have against the letters "c" and "e"?
Gary Clark Jr.: "Blak and Blu" is the album's title song, and it's different for me. I wanted to bring attention to that. It has live guitars and a straight-ahead blues thing. I just left out the "c" and the "e" because you can still pronounce it, and it made sense.
I was just having fun. I got to play and record without filtering anything. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do right out of the gate. I was completely free as an artist. I'm not going to lie. I was a bit worried about signing to a major label [like Warner] because they might not have known what to do with me, but I feel good about it.
TR: The album has a multitude of different sounds, from blues to rock to R&B. As the music goes from style to style, so does your vocal range and sound. How did you manipulate your voice?
GC: I was influenced by a lot of different styles, so I try to use my voice any way I can that best fits the song. Sometimes I might sing more straightforward, and others, I might mess with the timing. Some of my [vocal] textures might come out more one way than another. I don't think about it much; I just sing the way I feel.
I also played drums, congas and bass guitar [along with electric guitar on this album]. I got to be a bit of a hip-hop producer, pulling samples and playing with a drum machine. I was all over anything that made noise.
TR: As you blend those genres, is it difficult straddling those spheres?
GC: I'm most comfortable jumping into all of them instead of doing one thing. The common thread in all of it, though, is an element of blues. [A mentor] told me that the blues is three chords and the truth. You can change it up, but it's about people giving you their heart and soul. The beat or instrumentation might be different, but it's soul music; that's what blues is to me.
TR: Amid all of the critical adulation you've received, including comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, are you living up to your own hype?
GC: I can't answer yes or no and be 100 percent confident, but I'm going to lean toward the yes. I'm just playing shows the way I've been playing them and making folks happy.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.