Gary Clark Jr. has been singing the blues for well over a decade. His guitar playing, his sound and his style precede him – up to this point, you knew exactly what you were getting when you pressed play on one of his albums. That's set to change with This Land, Clark's upcoming fifth studio album, which sees the 34-year-old recalibrating and redefining his musical outlook by focusing in on his more niche, outside influences.
“I was in my comfort zone,” confesses Clark. “In order to get out of there, I had to erase this idea in my head of what people wanted from me. I wanted this record to be about me and how I wanted to express myself. I was taking in everything to see how other people went about it. I was reading up on Quincy Jones and how he used to do things. I was reading up about Bruno Mars and what he does now. What I found was that I couldn't go in and force things into existence. It's about just letting it happen.”
Clark namechecks people like Dr. Dre, DJ Premier and Swizz Beatz as influences on This Land – which, as you're almost certainly aware, are far from your usual blues standards. As Clark will testify, however, hip-hop was just as big a part of his musical upbringing as any blues, rock or soul record was. “I grew up listening to artists like Common, OutKast, Warren G, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the whole Ruff Ryders crew, Nelly... all those guys,” he says.
“Being from Texas, there was a whole hip-hop scene going on in Houston, where I'm from. When I was coming up, we had acts like Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Chamillionaire all getting huge.” Clark also points to the Wu-Tang Clan as being a big part of wanting to bring his two musical worlds together in a collision course. “I remember hearing the Wu as a teenager, and they were rapping over Albert King licks,” he says. “That was a big realisation for me – it's like, 'This all goes together!' If they could do it, I thought, so could I.”
Having already released the album's explosive title track, Clark is excited to talk about what listeners can expect from This Land. More specifically, he's excited about what people won't expect. “There are definitely moments on this record where I can already see people hearing it and being like, 'What?',” he says with a laugh. “There's a lot on here that people won't see coming, and I think that's a good thing. I think, as an artist, you gotta find yourself doing new things and changing with the times. You don't do the exact same thing every single day in your normal everyday life – why would you do that when you're making records? You want people to have no idea what the hell's going on.”
Don't be fooled into thinking this means there's no guitar on This Land, however. Clark is still slinging a trusty six-string on the album cover, albeit via a black-on-white painting, and he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve as far as that side of thing goes. “When we started making the record, I was playing through my Fender Vibro-King amp,” says Clark. “After a while, my producer Jake took me aside. He was like, 'You know I love you, G, and I like your tone, but I think we can do better.'
“He gets me to play through this César Díaz 100-watt on top of a Marshall cab. We get some 4x12s going, we turn the amp all the way up to ten and we run to the control room to see what happens. The second I start playing, I prove him right – we could do better, and we just did.”
Not only is this a record where Clark challenges the world around him and the status quo that allows it to be this way, it's also a record where he goes up against his biggest creative obstacle yet: himself.
“I've always been a very stubborn person, and I'm the first to admit that,” says Clark. “I get stuck in my ways, and nobody can tell me shit. As I've gotten older and had more experiences, though, I've come to realise that instead of shutting everyone out and insisting I've got this, I've got to open up my ears and listen. I had to learn to stop being selfish and learn how to be part of a team in order to make the best record possible.”
Gary Clark Jr will perform at Byron Bay Bluesfest which begins on Thursday April 18 as well as headline performances in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. This Land is out Friday February 22 via Warner Music.