Gary Clark Jr. can be forgiven if he’s tired. It’s 12:15 a.m. in Amsterdam and he just got offstage from the second headlining show of his European tour. But he’s wound up — as wound up as the mild-mannered Texan gets — following his second night at the famed Paradiso club.
The sweaty push-and-pull between Clark, his band and the energetic crowd had a stronger feel than the night before, allowing for more free-form shredding on the guitarist’s trademark extended jams. Despite this, Clark still has some misgivings about how songs from his latest album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, are coming across in concert.
“I’m not quite settled,” he confesses, speaking by phone after the gig. “There’s still some nervous energy there. We’re still trying to find a groove. I feel better about the second night because we’re getting more comfortable and are owning it a little bit more.”
Few if any modern guitarists have ascended as quickly as Gary Clark Jr. A longtime fixture in the Austin, Texas, music scene, the axman has now firmly established himself as one of the main guitar gods of his generation.
He’s been anointed to that lofty position by rock’s older generation as much as his fans and peers. Earlier this year, Clark traded licks with Keith Richards and vocals with Mick Jagger in San Diego as guest artist and opening act on the first night of The Rolling Stones' Zip Code tour (he also just wrapped a stint opening for Foo Fighters).
As he stared into Jagger’s eyes and got the nod of approval from Richards during the Stones’ “Bitch,” Clark had other things on his mind.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Does my breath stink?’” the 31-year-old confesses with a slight chuckle. “Or, ‘Was coffee a bad idea?’”
Only during quiet moments, like when he’s alone in his tour bus bunk, does Clark find time to reflect on the importance of sharing the stage with his childhood heroes. It all validates his decision to pursue music against his parents’ well-intentioned wishes.
“They were looking out for my well-being,” he says. “They wanted me to get an education and pay attention to my studies. I was pretty rebellious, and all I wanted to do was play music.”
Following an extensive, multiyear tour that saw him play what seemed like every major festival in the United States and beyond, Clark hunkered down at Arlyn Studios in Austin in early 2014 to begin work on what would become The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. Although he says he’s able to write on the road, being back home provided him the opportunity to sharpen and focus his songwriting in a “cocoon.”
“I need everyone to leave me alone when I write,” Clark says. “Being out on the road means there’s [always] something happening, and I work best when I’m alone within myself, and it’s quiet. It takes me a couple of hours with the phone being off and everyone around me understanding that I’m about to go away for a minute.”
Though his background is firmly entrenched in Texas blues, Clark politely dismisses the notion that he’s solely a bluesman. Drawing from R&B, gospel, rock and the blues, the semiautobiographical Sonny Boy Slim (his nicknames are Sonny Boy and Slim) reflects Clark’s journey from a lanky kid who cut school to world-class guitar player. The cover art of a child about to step onto a school bus labeled with a question mark, he says, symbolizes never knowing what’s going to happen in your life.
Clark had the bare bones of a few songs, like the gritty “Grinder” and the funk-laden “Star,” before heading into Arlyn, but most of the vocals were painstakingly worked out in the studio. He admits he’s had his issues in the past with laying down vocals: “I’m really self-conscious around people I don’t know in the studio and them judging my voice,” he says. But on Sonny Boy Slim, Clark let himself go, resulting in a more vulnerable, confessional tone on several tracks.
“I really wanted to own it and express myself, and serve the songs vocally the best I could. A song like ‘Hold On,’ I definitely couldn’t sing it in a way that was soft and not a little bit agitated. So I just surrendered to it.”
Even though the album was recorded in his hometown of Austin, Clark, his wife — Australian model Nicole Trunfio — and 11-month-old son Zion moved to West Hollywood in July. Joking that he’s had to get used to the notorious traffic patterns (“I just figured out when I’m at a yellow light that I have to go through it, and that’s why people were honking at me and giving me a nervous breakdown!”), Clark has adjusted to Southern California living. As much as he loves Austin, the time was right for the guitarist to head West.
“I haven’t spent as much time as I’d like to out there yet because I’ve been on tour,” he says. “But I’m looking forward to exploring the city and catching the vibes more.”
“Seeing young folks being shot and murdered by cops
When Zion was born earlier this year, it changed everything for the guitarist. Suddenly, Clark found himself thinking about bigger, deeper issues, knowing that in a few years, his son would be relying on him for answers.
“It changed everything about my writing process,” he says of his son’s birth. “Everything that was happening in the news, seeing young folks being shot and murdered by cops, it made me think, ‘What am I going to tell my child?’ Like explaining things and being an example that he can depend on and can get the truth [from]. When I was singing these songs, I felt like everything that I was saying or wanted to say had to really mean something.
“You stare at yourself in the mirror and [try to] be really honest and think, ‘What am I going to do now, and what happens from here?’” he continues. “It was quite scary at times sitting in that studio. It’s something that I took very seriously.”
As 1 a.m. approaches in Amsterdam, and with a trip to London looming, the adrenaline rush of performing in front of a sweaty, packed room has given way to the weariness of playing back-to-back shows.
As the night catches up to him and is reflected in his voice, Clark pauses for a second, collecting his thoughts about everything that’s happened this year.
“2015 was definitely big and life-changing,” he says. “It was a turning point. I feel like it’s a new beginning for me. I’m in a great place and am very appreciative and grateful to be so free and do what I love. 2015, you may not be able to tell, made me really excited.”
Gary Clark Jr. headlines the Fonda Theatre Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 3-5.