Austin Singer, songwriter, and virtuoso guitarist, Gary Clark Jr. has been tearing up the national and international music scene for over a year now and shows no signs of slowing the train down. Few have garnered so much attention before even releasing a full-length album. He has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and performed with the likes of Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, and Alicia Keys. Did I mention he hasn’t released an album yet? Until now. The Bright Lights is about to be a household name. Rarely do the critics, industry folks, purists and media all agree. Rarely. I couldn’t make my interview at La Zona Rosa in Austin, so I ducked into the women’s bathroom outside the press room during SXSW. Gary was nice enough to let me interview him between flushes. Seriously. I spent some time with him at Austin City Limits Festival last September. One thing I noticed was how low-key cool he is. He checks the energy of a crowd, and flows with it. Authentic, real, and unaffected in a music world of manufactured hype, I see why it’s all Gary Clark Jr. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a crush on his drummer.
MP: I interviewed you last year at Austin City Limits about vulnerability and transforming pain. What’s it like to come back for South-by-Southwest in Austin and now everybody knows your name? It’s gotta be surreal.
GCJ: I haven’t really wrapped my head around it. I’ve just been on the road. But I’m excited to be playing these shows—you know, to be back.
MP: A friend sent me a video of you playing in front of President Obama. Has it hit you that your whole life is about to shift very quickly?
GCJ: (laughs) It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’ve been hearing more and more talk about it. I’m just taking it day by day, and trying to realize that it could all go away at any moment, for any reason. But I’m enjoying it, and trying to keep doing what I’m doing really.
MP: It’s been said that you’re one of the few artists that actually feels a crowd. You feel the vibe and the flow of it, and you sink in with that when you play a show. It’s not that you just go out and perform; it’s that you actually mesh with it. What is that process like for you?
GCJ: I grew up being a huge fan of Bruce Lee, and this quote always stuck out to me. He said, “Water can flow, or it can crash. If you put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.” It always made sense to me to adapt the flow and roll with whatever the situation is and to not think about it too much and get caught up in it. It works easier for me that way. I just take it easy and roll with it.
MP: I notice that people are deeply moved by your art. Is music an emotional process for you?
GCJ: It’s soaking up things that I see in other people or things that go on in my life, and I put it out there in the form of a song.
MP: I know this is kind of a cliché, but is there anything that really has influenced you in the last couple of years? Something that was either from your personal life or that has directed where you pull from, or what you’re pulling from?
GCJ: You could say that I opened up my mind as far as playing music. I was at a Cody Chesnutt concert a few years ago, and a friend introduced me to him. We just started talking about music, and he asked me what I did. I said, “I have these songs and I’m kind of nervous to put them out, because I’ve just kind of been playing blues stuff, and playing other people’s songs.” He said, “You should just put them out there, man. Why not? It’s just gonna bother you if you don’t. The easiest thing to do is to just let it go.” So I just took that with me.
MP: Does it feel vulnerable to release your art? Is there some vulnerability with that?
GCJ: Oh yeah, definitely. I put it all out there. Things that I would say or would like to say, like in past conversations, are just easier to sing about and put out there in music.
MP: How do you deal with the feedback? Inevitably people know who you are and you’ll be getting more and more feedback, whether it’s positive or negative.
GCJ: Honestly, I try not to look into it so much. All I can do is do what I can do, and do what I know how to do. I do what I love to do, and that’s pretty much it.
MP: Is there a place close to your heart that you pull from that flows when you write?
GCJ: I like to people watch. I like to see how people interact with each other and I draw from that. I’m inspired by that.
MP: You’ve obviously got a huge year ahead of you. Is there anything that you’re particularly excited about this year?
GCJ: I’m excited about doing these festivals in the summer. I love playing music festivals, so I’m really excited to do that, to be on the road.
MP: Is it surreal when you look out and there are two-hundred-thousand people?
GCJ: It is surreal. I still haven’t really quite wrapped my head around all the things that have gone on in the last year. We’ve been so in it. I think back about certain shows or certain places that I’ve gone and it’s very surreal. It’s kind of like in a dream-like state for me right now. It’s quite good.
MP: Is your family completely stoked?
GCJ: Oh yeah, they can’t get enough. It’s pretty funny. My little sister is over it though. She says she never wants to come to a show ever again. (laughs)
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