Blues musician Gary Clark Jr. has got some pretty famous fans. When he stopped by Complex for an interview a few weeks back, his publicist had just run through the guest list for Clark's showcase at The Darby later that evening. Pharrell Williams would be swinging through. Estelle was planning to attend. Q-Tip was set to DJ before and Questlove would spin afterwards. “Really?” Clark responded with disbelief. For real—they all came through that night to see the electric guitar virtuoso wail on songs like “Bright Lights” and “Please Come Home.” Also in attendance: surprise guest Leonardo DiCaprio.
Gary’s a favorite amongst in-the-know industry types and A-list celebs alike. And with his major label debut album coming this September, the man The New York Times said "may be the next Hendrix" is aiming to translate his guitar god credentials into true rock star status. (If you happen to be in Milwaukee you can catch him tonight.) Clark told Complex about how he came up, why he probably won't be working with any of his celebrity fans, and how a mild-mannered dude from Texas transforms into a monster performer on stage.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
COMPLEX: Tell us about your journey.
Gary Clark Jr: I got a guitar at like 12, started hanging out downtown in Austin, Texas. There is just a bunch of bands playing blues, jazz, and the whole thing. So I went down there at 14 and just jumped in and pretty much didn't stop. I moved out of the house around 19 and started wandering and adventuring and going on road trips with some of the older guys and hitting the road and doing that thing and learning things that I shouldn't know.
I moved out of the house around 19 and started wandering and adventuring and going on road trips with some of the older guys and hitting the road and learning things that I shouldn't know.
Got introduced to a lot of the guys that already kind of put Austin on the map as far a blues. Antones is like a staple music venue in Austin. I met with Jimmy Vaughan, Derek O'Brien, Buddy Guy, a lot of these older blues guys. I started to hang with them. They had me open up shows and I got to travel and see the world. A couple years ago I did this Eric Clapton Crossroads concert in Chicago—a recommendation from Jimmy Vaughan. Met some cats from Warner there and started talking to them and I hit it off with them and just kind of got going.
How long ago was that?
That was summer of 2010. Fairly recently. I had been in the game since ‘98, ‘99. It just hit.
Was it a struggling artist type of deal?
Yeah it basically was like the struggling artists type thing. But I kind of put it on myself, I didn't want to do anything else. I didn't have another job or another gig or anything like that. I just wanted to play music. Sometimes I could eat and sometimes the lights would be cut off and I'd be sitting there for a minute—that whole type of thing. But I'm just passionate and wanted to play music.
When did you realize this could be “it” for you?
That was pretty much a decision that was made after I went to go see Michael Jackson when I was five years old. I went and saw the concert. It was like the Bad tour. My parents surprised me and went to that thing. I started school soon after that and I was like, “Psshh—come on man!” I was always interested in music. I used to sing in the choir, play the guitar in church, all that. I pretty much knew young that this was all I wanted to do. I would tell my folks I had a backup plan and I'd do something else, but I was a horrible student. That was it. I figured it out.
I like to listen to Alicia Keys, I dig Anthony Hamilton, D'Angelo and stuff. I like bands like Little Dragon, something kind of different. I like Big KRIT, stuff like that.
You're pretty chill right now. How do you transform when you get on stage?
I guess something happens from the walk from the dressing room like right up the stage and when I pick up the guitar it's just go time. I don't think about anything. I'm not nervous. That's where I feel comfortable. I've got my guitar, I've got the mic, I'm letting it go. It's like a release for me. I let it all out. Everything. I'm cool and calm and collective and laid back during the day. I get excited up there and let it out. You've got to at some point.
Being from the blues world, it's kind of its own little pocket. Either people dive all the way in or they don’t talk to you.
Are there nerves during the day of concert?
Leading up to the show, on the day before I have moment of anxiety like, “Ah, this is what I've got to do to make sure I'm on and make sure my guitar is tuned and make sure I have it.” Just the basics really. I try not to wrap my head around too much.
Where do you think you fit in to the spectrum of pop music?
As far as where I fit in, I'm a very small percentage of what's going on. Being from the blues world, it's kind of its own little pocket. Either people dive all the way in or they don’t talk to you. But my situation has been pretty lucky because we've been put in front of these different audiences who are hip to all kinds of music and a lot of these young hip kids that are on a path and trying to do something new and change it up.
To kind of be on that radar is kind of a good place, I think. Hopefully when the album comes out and folks feel like I delivered, you know? Maybe it will shed a little light on the whole thing, that's the hope anyway. We'll see. I'm taking it day by day. It'd be nice to be amongst what's going on in popular culture today. Blues is the foundation of a lot of music. It hasn't gone anywhere. It's a pretty basic form of music. From the beginning, it's all kinds of instruments and all kinds of sounds and all kinds of things you can do to manipulate sound and get people grooving. And I'm guilty of it, too. I like to sit down and get on my turntables and my beat machines and write stuff down.
Your sound is highly regarded, but kind of a tough sell on the pop level. With your album, are you giving any thought to making your music more relatable or having other producers come on board?
I've been pretty stubborn about it. I'm going to do what I do and it's not really just blues it's been influenced by all kinds of things. I was born in the ‘80s with all kinds of interesting music going on. I try to be hip to what’s going on now. I kind of put it all out there. But I think it's definitely true to what I want to say and what I love about music. But yeah, there have been talks like, "We should get this person on the album” or “We should do this or bring in this person.” And I've been open. But at the same time I'm giving something away. Maybe that's just growth and getting over myself and my ego. Really, I just want to see where I stand on my own as an artist, what I can do and what I bring. What can I put down on record that makes some sort of a ripple, some sort of a wave?
I just want to see where I stand on my own as an artist, what I can do and what I bring. What can I put down on record that makes some sort of a ripple, some sort of a wave?
How far along are you with your album?I finished recording a couple weeks ago in LA. Now we’re mixing. It’s blues, soul, rock and roll, some R&B music. I just consider it soul music really. Some of it is loud guitars, blues and solos. Some of it’s kind of funky R&B stuff. I play drums on some of it, I play trumpet on some of it. Just kind of experimenting.
You play a bunch of instruments?
I play some keys a little bit. Drums, bass, guitar, trying to play trumpet. I want to play like Miles Davis, but I'm not advanced. [Laughs] I just want to wail, I'm ready to go. Dizzy Gillespie and all that.
Did you pick up these instruments along the way?
The trumpet came along in the last five or six years. That was just an impulse buy in a music store. Knew nothing about how to approach it. Everything else, my grandmother has a piano in her house, so I'd go do my thing on it. I had a keyboard in her house. My sister got drums the same year I got guitar—she lost interest. My cousin got a bass like a year after and he lost interest. They were just around. So when I was learning to play guitar, which was my main focus, I was also playing these instruments as well.
What's it like to have this type of excitement around you?
It's been some moments pretty recently where I've stepped off stage and been like, “Oh OK. A Beatle, Paul McCartney.” That's pretty major. There has been a lot of folks recently.
What did Paul say?
He said it was great, fantastic. He complimented me on my guitar, because we played the same style. He was just real complimentary. Basically, what it is is—you see these people and they've been in the game and they've obviously figured something out. So for them to turn around and show you that kind of love and just have that respect from people you look up to is great. But in that moment there is no time to process it. That's when you're in the hotel room and are about to go to bed and are like, “Oh. Alright!”
How have you enjoyed this tour so far? You’ve played at SXSW and Coachella already.
It's been great. I'm just grateful. I get to go out and play these shows and we've been playing big festivals and if not festivals we've played venues that have been sold out. To sit at home and write my little stuff and play guitar and put it down on tape... You go to a place where you’ve never been and get that love back, I'm just soaking it up and it's been exciting.
What will that day be like, releasing your major label debut?
I don't know. That's going to be crazy. It's a dream, you know. You put everything into it and hopefully you get to that point. Trying to see the finish line. It's exciting. I kind of had this feeling when I left the studio a couple weeks ago. I drove around the corner and was like thinking about all the gigs, running around and playing shows. Passing out CDs like, “Here, take my shit.” It's going to be pretty amazing.