The characters in Brandy Clark's songs aren't necessarily where they thought they'd be in life.
There's the woman buying pharmaceuticals out of some guy's trunk in "Take a Little Pill." There's the woman living for religion and lotto-winning dreams in "Pray to Jesus." And there's the married woman, in "What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven," standing in front of a hotel elevator, contemplating a rendezvous with a married man.
"Ten floors up he's waiting with Champagne and candlelight," Clark sings, her voice leaking both hope and preemptive regret, "What'll keep me out of heaven will take me there tonight."
"These are people who are coping with the decisions they've made," says the country singer. "How people do that has always been intriguing to me."
Writing about troubled folk has put Clark in an enviable position. Her debut, "12 Stories," was one of last year's most acclaimed albums, earning glowing reviews in publications as diverse as Country Weekly and New York magazine. Clark was in L.A. last week for an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." On Saturday, she's scheduled to open for Jennifer Nettles at the Wiltern.
Beyond her recording career, the 38-year-old has established herself as a first-call Nashville songwriter, penning hits for such acts as the Band Perry and Miranda Lambert, whose "Mama's Broken Heart" (which Clark co-wrote) is nominated for song of the year at next month's Academy of Country Music Awards.
"Brandy is so special," says Kacey Musgraves, who won a Grammy in January for her album "Same Trailer Different Park," which boasts three songs co-written by Clark. Musgraves admires the "conversational texture" of Clark's music. Indeed, it's the true-to-life quality of Clark songs like "Get High" — about a woman who loves her kids, hates her job and "rolls herself a fat one" just to get by — that characterized "12 Stories."
Yet in a country scene fond of cartoon sloganeering (see "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line), Clark's realist approach is a risk.
"Brandy goes back to the late '80s, when storytelling was essential to country music," says John Marks, senior director of country programming at the satellite radio network SiriusXM. "You have to pay attention to the story."
Getting started took some time. Born and raised in rural Washington, Clark moved to Nashville when she was 22 to study music business at Belmont University. She'd already begun writing songs but learned quickly they weren't on par with Music City standards.
"That just spurred me on," says the artist. "To know the bar is way up here," she went on, indicating a spot over her head, "made me say, 'How do I get there?'"
The answer was to spend a decade writing tunes in order to develop a unique point of view. Eventually her material improved, she signed a publishing deal and artists such as Reba McEntire began recording her work.
Yet Clark found that when she went to record a solo effort, her songwriting success didn't instantly open every door. She shopped "12 Stories" to major labels for nearly two years; deals materialized, then fell through.
The resistance, she reasons, was due to her interest in the kind of adult subject matter that once defined Nashville but has now been eclipsed by celebrations of swimming holes and pickup trucks.
In an era of big guitars and bigger drums, the intimate sound of "12 Stories" is equally unconventional, says the album's producer, Dave Brainard. He built each song like a "little vignette," he says, carefully applying strings or harmonica to draw out the meaning of Clark's words.
The singer had resolved to put the album out on her own when Slate Creek, a tiny indie label based in Texas, finally offered to release "12 Stories."
"I'm not interested in chasing what's on the radio," says the label's founder, Jim Burnett. "I told Brandy, 'My criteria for a record is if it can sell itself by word of mouth.'" Six months after "12 Stories" came out in October, he added, "we're in the black without having sold a million records."
Far from it, in fact. Clark's album is at 26,000 copies sold in North America, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And, as Burnett suggests, it hasn't made much of a dent on commercial country radio.
Having had huge hits with songs she's written for others, Clark says it would, of course, be nice to experience that on her own. But she also knows that for a songwriter eager to embody others' points of view, there are advantages to not becoming an advertisement for herself.
"My manager's like, 'Do you think you could tweet on Monday, Wednesday and Friday?'" Clark says, laughing. "I try to tweet more. But I wouldn't post five pictures a day if I weren't doing this, so I'm not going to now.
"I mean, if I get my picture taken with Ellen tomorrow, I'll Instagram that."
Jennifer Nettles With Brandy Clark
Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $29.50-$69.50, not including service feesCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times