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THIS IS AMERICA
Gary Clark Jr. has lived a stunning amount of life since the last time he put a record out. He got married, had two kids, and – like most of us – watched the Western world descend into chaos at the hands of political tyrants. This Land is his attempt to make sense of it all, by way of doing what he does best: pouring his soul out into some truely ripping blues-rock.
Words by Matt Doria
It's a notedly lowkey evening for Gary Clark Jr. Having just announced This Land – the unbearably long-awaited follow-up to his 2015 breakthrough LP, The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim – the Texan shredder plods into a booth at his local tavern, orders a plate of wings (extra hot – you know the drill) and melts into a transcendental state of relaxation. It’s almost surprising how blasé he is; after all, it was just days prior that he’d sent a shockwave through the blues-rock community with the opaquely blunt and polarising video to the title track off This Land.
For those who haven’t yet seen the clip (first of all, you’re doing yourself a disservice), its first half is simple enough – choice shots of Clark doing what he does best (tearing the absolute hell out of a fretboard) are interspersed with shots of young black kids swinging off tree branches, playing pattycake and... Well, being kids. It’s when we turn to nighttime and our protagonist – a young black boy with little expression, gazing curiously as he soaks in a world of acrimony around him – stumbles down a hallway to hell that a more sinister vision starts to unwind.
Ghostly white hands, cold and anonymous, claw violently at the glass door that separates our nameless hero from the real world, a single tear rolling down his cheek as he stares in terror. A series of errant shots drill metaphors en masse – a snake darts through a field of dead grass; the boy grapples with a noose hanging from a tree; he drowns in a lake and runs for his life through a field; a school of kids stand, deadpan, on confederate flags and grasp glossy black speartips. The imagery is sudden, sharp, incoherent – a shiver-inducing parallel to the political unrest that many an innocent child is shaken by in the current state of the Western world.
But politics had never been too regnant in Clark’s life. Though being raised in the proud red state of Texas, where racial tension is rampant and civil rights laws don’t exactly have the most G-rated of histories, Clark was surrounded by the blues and its vibrant community – one which he swears is categorically open-armed. He ponders to us, “Is there a divide in the blues scene? Absolutely not. The blues scene to me is soul music, and soul music is everybody uniting over chords and harmonies.”
The musical inspiration for “This Land” was drawn largely from Woody Guthrie’s 1940 hit “This Land Is Your Land” – a track which, with its rose tint stripped, has been widely debated as a critique on the racial strain that weighed America down at the time. Almost by proxy, Clark’s tune was borne from the resurgence of social injustice that has plagued a post-Trump America. “It was inspired by the news,” Clark explains. “Police killing black kids – unarmed kids, just going about their day and being shot in the back. You see them destroying the Dakota Pipeline where people were protesting, taking these natives’ land and unapologetically stripping them of their resources and dignity.”
The injustices unfolding around him marinated in Clark’s mind for some time, but the final straw came when Clark, his wife (Australian model Nicole Trunfio) and two children moved into a 50-acre ranch near his childhood home in Austin. Rather than a warm visit with apple pie in tow, his new neighbour decided instead to taunt Clark, prod him on who the “real owner” of the land was, and generally make it clear that their mindset was stuck firmly in the haze of the 1950s.
“I was just hanging out at my house,” Clark says. “I’m minding my own business, y’know, my kid’s off riding his bike, and all of a sudden I got into a little altercation with this guy. He wanted me to feel like I was less than equal to the next man. My child asked me what was wrong – why that guy was yelling at me and why he was so angry – and I didn’t want to explain it to him because I don’t want him to have to feel the same things that I’ve felt.”
There’s a pause. The chill has been ruptured. “I don’t want anybody to feel the same things that I’ve felt,” he sighs, “Or that people feel when they feel discriminated against. I feel like we’re all equal, y’know? We all have beautiful similarities and amazing differences. I love people! I think people are amazing. I’m intrigued and in love with life and with human beings, and so to not have that be reciprocated – in front of my own house and my child, no less – that made me angry. But y’know, instead of doing anything crazy and making a scene, I figured, ‘Let me just go and do what I normally do when I feel any type of ways – let me get into a studio and sing about it. So that’s what ‘This Land’ is.”
In the world as it stands today – still very openly callous and apathetic to the plights of minorities, where ‘social justice warrior’ is often (embarrassingly) slung around as an insult – “This Land” is a song as crucial as it is crushing. And although protest songs are in no short supply right now, Clark felt a responsibility to make his voice heard on it. Because at its very core, music has the power to break through the barriers that stand between dissonant communities. It was such accessibility that led Clark to the art form in the first place; as a child, he would binge on Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield records, soaking in the forcefulness they reveled in and feeling empowered by their purport. When he branched out into Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. LPs, he saw similar perspectives told from wholly different voices, being lived through unexampled stories bred from walks of life he’d otherwise never been exposed to.
“I can’t speak for everybody else,” Clark ruminates, “But for me, music has changed the way that I see life. It’s perspective and understanding somebody else’s story and where they come from; their pain, their happiness, their hope, their concerns, their confusions... Y’know, it’s another way to relate on a bigger scale and to have people from all walks of life – different colours, ethnic backgrounds and religions – all come together at a show and relate to the same message.”
Clark looks back to the very first time he felt the uniting power of music: a Michael Jackson show his parents took him to as a five-year-old in the late ‘80s. Specifically, a date on the historically monumental Bad tour (which was immortalised in the posthumous Live At Wembley release, which is well worth a lazy Sunday viewing).
“I was just blown away by the energy there,” Clark says with a genuine, nostalgic smile. “All the love and the excitement! And everybody was there, y’know? I saw every type of person that exists in that crowd. And I thought that was just the way the world was – it was powerful to me, y’know? To hear a song like ‘Man In The Mirror’ and see the visuals for that song when I was a child... I was like, ‘This music stuff is really, really powerful.’ It resonated so much with me, and so I feel like if I’m going to be a part of it, I’ve gotta do my part and try to move people in the way that [‘Man In The Mirror’] moved me.”
Gary Clark Jr.
Thursday April 18th - Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW
Friday April 19th - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Sunday April 21st - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Tuesday April 23rd - Canberra Theatre, Canberra ACT
Wednesday April 24th - Forum Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Thursday April 25th - Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide SA
Saturday April 27th - Concert Hall, Perth WA