10 Questions with ... Clint Black
November 22, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Clint Black is back. The multi-million selling country mega-star has released "On Purpose," his first full-length album of new songs in a decade and he's doing it on his own terms.
These new songs continue a stellar career. To date, Clint Black has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide and racked up 57 charted singles, 31 top-10 hits and 22 number-one smashes. Recordings such as "A Better Man," "Killin' Time," "Like the Rain", "When I Said I Do" and "Nothin' But the Taillights" have led to honors from the Country Music Association, The Academy of Country Music, The Grammys, and the American Music Awards, as well as membership in the cast of the Grand Ole Opry.
Raised in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, Clint Black is the youngest of four brothers. He began performing with brother, Kevin at the family's backyard barbecues. After high school, he worked construction for a year and spent 10 years on the local nightclub circuit. He auditioned for a Nashville recording contract in 1988. The following year, he led a movement of young talent that transformed country music into a multi-million dollar industry in the 1990s.
1. Clint thanks so much for taking the time for "10 Questions" with All Access. Let's start with the 'Concert For A Cause' show that took place a couple of months ago, benefitting Rett Syndrome. How did you first become associated with this cause?
It started when we lost my niece Courtney - my brother Kevin's daughter to Rett at 16 years old. The symptoms came on when she was a toddler, so I watched my brother fight that battle, for about 14 years. Kevin started to get involved with fundraisers in Houston; I saw that, got involved and brought my support to it individually when I became the chairman of the Research to Reality Campaign. Then when I was later approached by rettsyndrome.org to be an ambassador to the website, I came up with this idea for a songwriter contest; they just ran with it and then as we got closer to the final voting, I thought of just having this finale show, and they loved that. They made it all so much bigger than I could've imagined it would be with all those media partners. It's an important time to have something great like that happening for Rett. They're in trials for treatment now, and that's the most expensive part of the research, so this is just great timing for us.
2. Let's talk about the dream recording session and that partnership with rettsyndrome.org. I know at the show on September 9th, you had four finalists - have you selected the winner and started working on the recording session?
Actually, yes we just narrowed it down to finalists, the fans voted for the winner and we announced the winner on the night of the taping, and the winner is Blake Esse with his song "Tastes Good Don't It." We're going to get another recording session on the schedule in the studio and take that song up a notch and get some of the best musicians in Nashville to come over and record it.
3. I was just wondering, when people enter contests like this - and you probably had a diverse selection process, - so a lot of times when people enter contests they don't really a background in recording. Having produced records for a lot of artists in the past what would you say is the hardest thing for one of these finalists- usually newcomers to the music biz - to pick up when they get in the studio and start making music?
Well some of them are just naturally talented so performing isn't a big deal. If they're very, very musical it gets complicated because they have so many ideas, you're trying to take one approach to the song, so sometimes it's just corralling them into what they want the song ultimately to sound like. The hardest part for most performers coming into the studio is getting comfortable in the headphones. I've got a lot of experience setting up mixes for myself on stage and in the studio, so I feel like I'm really well positioned to help a young singer to get settled in, to where it feels natural singing in the headphones. You don't have the instruments all in the right places at the right levels and have your voice set right in the mix. You know, it can just feel like you're over on Mars trying to sing into the band on Jupiter and you can't; you'll never feel like you're doing a good job.
4. And just the environment too, because if people are performing live, there's a stage, there's a crowd and all sorts of stuff going on, and in the studio it's much of a laboratory; a more sterile environment, so I guess getting them to loosen up in that context is a bit of a challenge at first.
You know I think in my sessions I learned early on from James Stroud to make recordings fun, and we had a joke in the studio - when the red light goes on 'everybody tense up.' But the key is, is don't tense up, relax, have fun, and the great thing about bringing somebody into that process for the first time is that it IS a lot of fun. It's a blast; like NASA putting someone up into space, except for that old fear. You get to hear your song grow up right before your ears and there's just nothing I can think of more exciting than that. Of course, you know, riding out on a horse in Reliant Stadium in the hometown crowd is fun, but you write a song on an acoustic guitar and you hear your track played by a full band of just excellent musicians- it's really exciting and then once that slows down, it's just you singing in the studio, then it becomes a little bit more of a work environment, a little bit more serious. And as it is with myself and with other singers I produce, you know that's when you have the most pressure because you're capturing your vocal performance on something - and that's the way it's going to be forever.
5. One quick final on that, will this be a yearly contest? Because it sounds like you've established something that could be a tremendous awareness campaign for Rett's syndrome.
Well, from your mouth to God's ears, I would like to see that happen. You know, I think it's going to depend on all the media partners and how this works for them. They're donating a lot, donating the ad revenue and hopefully this is big win for them. I know they're going to feel good about helping out the charity and helping young talent so we will see, I'll be hoping big.
6. I want to segue to your new album, "On Purpose." On your website. I saw this is the first album in eight years. Why was there such a long gap between your last album and this one? Was it just because you had different projects and stuff going on, finding the right label and just gathering songs during that period?
I've been continually writing and recording off and on, really busy making some movies and writing songs for movies and TV shows. But all the while I was going through courtships I had with major record companies wanting to sign me, so that really was the biggest part of the delay. I would make music, go through the process with the record company and in the end it just wasn't the right feel for me. They'd want to pick songs for me to sing from other writers - and you know I've never done that - I've always written and produced my own songs, so I would walk away and there would be another label, and we'd repeat the process with them all in good faith, but in the end it just wasn't right for me. The last label who was interested ended up taking about six months of my time trying to decide if we were right for each other, and ultimately I decided I wanted to go the independent route. I need to write my own song and decide how they're going to sound and which ones make up an album, which was kind of how I did it from the start at RCA. And I thought whatever brought that guy to the dance is what we'd rely on; if that means going with an independent label and without all the big muscle of a major record company, then that's what I'll do.
7. In one of your quotes I saw before we were talking, you said, "I'm not here to sell records, I'm here to make records, and if someone can sell them that's great, and if they can't, that's too bad, but that's not going to change what I do." Having known you during your career over the years, that's the definitive Clint Black approach, so it seems partnering with Thirty Tigers is a perfect pairing for you. We've all watched your success with the model of the artist owning their music, but at the same time allowing them - encouraging them - realize their complete creative vision.
I've tried so hard to develop as an artist and grow. I've practiced - RJ you'd be surprised at how much I practice on guitar and how much I study music still today after almost 30 years in the record business. I'm working harder at it today than I did 10 years ago or 20 years ago. I want to be someone who got better with 20 years of doing it; I want to look ahead to the artists like Merle Haggard or James Taylor who are still doing great work today, and that's my model for what I'm doing. I don't want to start out thinking of commerce. I want to start out thinking of art, and I've really poured everything I had into it. You know, we're talking 10-12-14 hours a day and it would be hard to do that trying to fulfill someone else's vision. I think I owe it to myself and to my fans to try and be as authentic as I can, authentically me, not the Clint Black who did "Killin Time", but the Clint Black who grew from there and took advantage of all the talent I had around me, who I learned from. Learning from James Stroud, learning from Hayton Nichols, learning from Steve Warner. How can I play that guitar riff that he did and make that my own? So you know it's been a long road to get to a point where I realized where I belong, but hopefully the payoff on that is with the fans will hear me in that album and not the head of a label. And I don't want to knock that, because that's their company and they can do what they want with it, but it was important to me to accept that that's not how I'm going to continue to do what I do.
8. The ownership of your sound and your vision is something that a lot of us know that you've been committed to for many years, and part of that is the songwriting process. Everybody believes Nashville is the ultimate songwriter town. Is there something about that environment that is not appealing to you? For example, taking writing sessions and all that - I'm just curious as to what makes that not match your creative and artistic vision?
I like the creative environment, and actually there are other songs I had, but there's one on this album called "Stay Gone" that was a product of that environment. Somebody at one of the record companies introduced me/fixed me up with a writing session with Phil O'Donnell, who I've never me. I met him that day, we wrote that song and we stayed in touch via email but I haven't seen him since. That's one of my favorite songs, not just on this album but one of my favorite songs I've ever written. I had that experience before w Costas and Rivers Rutherford; I've written with a lot of songwriters, just to try to get something different out of myself, and try the environment - and I really enjoy it. The part of it that doesn't work for me is when you have two or three people at the top of the record company, and they're going to find the song that they think is a hit, and they're going to get me to sing it, and they're going to hire a producer to produce it in the sound that they think that song should fit into to be on the radio. So the idea of going through the creative process of writing with great talents in Nashville - that's very appealing; I've enjoyed that. But ultimately it needs to be at least that where I'm involved in the creation of my music. There are a lot of artists who don't write songs and this process where the record company works really well for them. I remember before I got into the record business hearing a Reba McEntire interview and she said that she listens to about 1000 songs in order to pick 10 that will pick for her next album. At that time, I wasn't a prolific songwriter; it wasn't so much a craft to me as just a byproduct of having something happen to me. I remember hearing that interview and thinking I better get cracking, because I don't want to be listening to 1000 songs someone else wrote in order to pick 10 for myself, so I'm going to really get on this. What I ended up doing was having a three to one ratio. I would have 30 songs written every time I went into the studio starting with the third album "The Hard Way," so I always shad an abundance of my own songs to choose from. To RCA's credit, they put them out and I made my records the way I wanted to make them. Joe Galante was not involved in song selection with me. It was a point of contention and I'm sure it wasn't great for the relationship, but they did put them out and they sold a lot, and they were very supportive once I delivered the records. When that deal was up I went into the independent world and it just reaffirmed for me why I did the Thirty Tigers deal, that with all of these major labels, it wasn't going to be like it was at RCA, and so I just had to turn away from that.
9. RJ: When you ran Equity Records which saw early success -it was a very viable label - did some of the persona experiences you're describing form the way you coached and helped sign artists, and the process they went ?
It was. I really felt like if you could get artists personally invested in a company that they would never leave you if they had some ownership in that company. So part of the idea was, artists are going to own some of this company. As it grows we know that they have a future beyond the ebb and flow of a career and record sales, and the other part was we are going to have artists be the artists they want to be, and if that brings them success, then that's great. If it doesn't it won't hurt the company so much because the artists are making and owning their own records, so economically it wasn't that big of a hit. We had huge success with Little Big Town before they left us and went to a bigger label. And having really poured everything we had into launching Little Big Town, it was just a financial blow to the company that the partners really couldn't sustain. It made me realize that we're not all thinking the same way as artists. I think differently than they thought, and maybe my idealistic view wasn't something that can be shared by every artist out there. But the other part of it economically was that I wasn't billing the company. I was on the road, working constantly, visiting radio stations and doing concerts, and every time I would come back to town, there were two more artists signed on the label. We were going to be a small label and we ended up with a roster as big as any major label out there. So the company had extended our liabilities so far out with all these other artists that when LBT did leave, there wasn't the cash flow and the revenue there to support everything else the label had committed itself to. It was a devastating blow to a great business plan but also just to me personally; I just felt like everything I believed about artists creating something for themselves to own was just not real, not viable.
10. Describe the "On Purpose" album to me - how different is this Clint Black album than the ones that we might be familiar with?
I would say there's more of an expression for me in that because I did so much of the guitar work. You really hear a lot of my own musical sensibilities coming through in the music. From a lyrical standpoint, I think I'm bringing wisdom to the lyrics that I just couldn't have possessed 10 years ago, just because I hadn't lived the past 10 years. So my views - you know I've written a lot on the subject of time, because it's so precious and I think my views on those things have deepened. I think my well of inspiration and wisdom is deeper now and so I think kids will like the songs because musically, I think people who are a little older are maybe looking for a little bit more meaning in a song that will have more depth there and relate more to in their own lives. Creatively, I think it has a diversity to it that I've always tried to have. I don't want a bunch of songs that all sound like they can get on the radio or a bunch of songs that are all great for two-stepping; I really want to have the dynamics. If you're going to sit and listen to an album for an hour or an hour and 20, it has the same dynamic range that you would have at a movie, in that if you were sitting at a theater you can't have the same kind of scene constantly through a movie, you have to have an arc to it. You have to be able to go from exciting and fun to slow down and think a minute. So I think this album has that, really diverse musically - but it also rocks as much as I've ever rocked. The diversity brings a song like 'The Last Day' which starts out with an acoustic guitar, string section, French horns, English horns, and it becomes more; the band comes in and it becomes a little more Merle Haggard; you can start off rocking to that and the "Last Day" is something really small sounding and really deep philosophically.
1. Your wife, Lisa is singing with you at least on one track, "You Still Get To Me," and I remember when you guys had the collaboration years ago. I think everyone was like 'wow they have to keep doing this. You guys just sound so good together and it's nice to see that you've paired up again on this one.
Yeah thanks, it's one of my favorites. If I had to pick one song on the album that I'd hear over and over again for the rest of my life that'd be the one, and its partly because her voice is in it and that still does something for me. It's also the lyric and what it says about who we are today. 'When I Said I Do,' we say it to each other in front of God and the world and that song was it. We were not newlyweds, but a good bit younger, so what the song says about how we've grown closer and the attraction stronger. All of that gets me and also it's got one of my favorite grooves, which is kind of a party shuffle drum groove on a real sort of toughness to the musical feel of the song, which juxtaposes the sweetness of our relationship. While we're singing with each other, I'm dueling with myself playing the regular electric guitar parts and slide electric parts. I call it dueling because it's kind of arm wrestling; how do I fit both parts in there and make them work together? It was a lot of work just to get those two instruments to live together in the record. But the fans have been pushing me for years to come out with another duet with her, so this was the answer to that.
2. Last thing I was going to ask: you mentioned a few minutes ago about the number of songs that you have available for any given project. I know that process is sometimes excruciating, picking the right 10 or 11 or whatever it is. With that much music behind you, does that mean for all of us it will be less than 8 years before the next Clint Black album?
I hope so. It was good and bad to wait that long. There are songs on there that are dated; I had recorded nine years ago, that were going to be on what would become this album and by the time I got to six years ago or five years ago I just didn't think the track was right and I just re-cut it. There is one song I cut three times, and I think that's the boredom. If I'm thrilled with it and get it out there and that's the way it is. It's a little easier emotionally than tormenting myself with two or three versions of a song. I kind of think one day I'm going to - maybe if it's just a YouTube thing - let people hear some of the other versions of songs.