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Brandy Clark's 'Live From Los Angeles' album is smart to the core

Brandy Clark's 'Live From Los Angeles' album is smart to the core
Country music singer and songwriter Brandy Clark performs at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood in 2016. She recorded her new live album "Live From Los Angeles" at the venue. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

How do you tell when a song has connected with people in a really big way?

"Whenever it becomes a merch item," widely lauded country singer and songwriter Brandy Clark said Wednesday in an interview to discuss the Aug. 18 release of her new album, "Brandy Clark: Live From Los Angeles," recorded last year at Hotel Café in Hollywood.

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"We have a T-shirt that says 'Karma's a … — I hope you have a daughter," she said, referencing the PG-13 line from her song "Daughter," a cut on last year's "Big Day in a Small Town" studio album.

It's a song she played live for the first time last year at the Hotel Café. "If people start wearing something that has something you wrote on it, you know they really identify with it."

In just the two albums she's released since making her major-label debut in 2015 with "12 Stories," Clark has written her fair share of inventive and snappy phrases that are T-shirt-, hoodie- or coffee mug-ready.

For instance, she sells apparel that reads "Ain't your Marcia Brady" (a line from "Girl Next Door") as well as "Love Can Go to Hell," both from the "Big Day in a Small Town" album.

"Girl Next Door" also appears on "Live From Los Angeles" in one of the album's instrumentally stripped down versions she delivered with guitarist and harmony singer Miles Aubrey. Yet the dialed-down renditions lose none of the energy or sass of the studio versions.

Between Clark's consistently smart lyrics, her ever twisting and turning melodies and Aubrey's tasty guitar fills and solos, there's never a dull moment in the new 11-track album.

Originally, the album was made strictly as a bonus vinyl release last April for independent retailers — part of a limited-edition pressing of 2,500 copies. But because she and others at her label were so taken with the spirit of the recording, as well as with the enthusiasm the Hotel Café audience exhibited that night, they decided to release a digital version so more of her fans could access it.

"A lot of times we'll record shows if we have the ability to, and the Hotel Café has the ability to," she said. "I had played there earlier, and it was such a good vibe and such a cool room that we recorded the show when we went back. It turned out better than we had hoped for. A lot of fans had been saying, 'We love your band, but we also love it when the songs are more stripped down'."

Clark had a solid reputation as a songwriter before starting to record her own material. She's best known, perhaps, as co-writer, with Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally, of Miranda Lambert's 2013 hit "Not Your Mama's Broken Heart."

So rather than simply rely on material from her own first two albums on the live set, Clark also used the opportunity at Hotel Café to introduce a previously unrecorded song, "When I Get to Drinkin'." In her intro to the song, she says she'd like to one day do an entire album of drinking songs.

"I don't know if that's on a five-year or a 10-year or a one-year plan," she said. "I don't know if it'll be my next project. So much of what I love about music goes back to my mom, and she had this [1997] k.d. lang album called 'Drag,' with songs that all had references to cigarettes in them, like 'Three Cigarettes In an Ashtray.' I love concept records."

"It would be a great challenge," she said. "It would be a challenge to do the unexpected, to cover the range of emotions that go with drinking — it couldn't just all be alcoholic-type drinking songs."

As much fun as she has in humor-laden numbers including "Daughter," "Get High" and "Smokin' Drinkin' Cheatin'," Clark also dives deep emotionally in the live album's ballads such as "Hold My Hand," "When I Get to Drinkin'" and "Since You've Gone to Heaven."

Of the latter, she said, "My dad was killed in a logging accident in July 2001, just before 9/11," she said, referencing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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"I went home for a week, and then went back to work. I remember 9/11 happening and still feeling raw in the grief of losing my dad, and then seeing the whole country grieving, watching the news on CNN, and thinking 'Since my dad has died, the world has gone to hell.' I had that idea, 'Since you've gone to heaven, the whole world's gone to hell.'"

One of her revelations from the experience of the show at Hotel Café was the audience's response to "When I Get to Drinkin'."

"I always loved that song, but I didn't know how people would respond to it," she said. "One of the first times I did it was at Hotel Café, and the crowd's enthusiasm was such a pleasant surprise. That taught me, 'OK, I need to trust myself a little more'."

She's also received lots of positive reinforcement from the industry, including several Grammy nominations in the country fields as well as a nomination for best new artist at the 2015 ceremony.

"It's funny to me, I felt like we were into it a good six months before I really started to feel a swell" for the "Big Day in a Small Town" album, she said. "The Grammy nominations really helped, and it continues to have a life, continues to grow and have a bigger life. I believe in both records, and I believe in that record so much. To me it's a good bar for what I do next. I want to keep the bar high and keep raising it, but doing things that move me and that move other people."

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