Gary Clark Jr. had to learn how to trust someone else to record his major-label debut.
When noted producer Mike Elizondo signed on to help with "Blak and Blu," Clark was more than a little leery.
"I'm very sensitive," Clark said, chuckling as he recounted the story in a phone interview. "I like to hold onto what I do, like it's mine, and this is the way it is. So I was a bit worried going in, you know? Having not known him -- 'What is this cat gonna do to my songs? They're good as is.' But I let it go: 'This is great, I'm getting to work with this amazing musician, great producer and a cool guy, so get over yourself and just make an album.' "
"Blak and Blu," out now, is one of the most anticipated albums of the year, put out by a talented guitarist seen as the future of the blues -- and maybe rock and roll, too. Contrary to expectations, perhaps, this is not your average throwback electric blues album, running through a range of sounds and styles as Clark changes his vocal approach in surprising ways.
That's why Elizondo signed on. After hearing Clark's self-produced early work and seeing his supercharged live show, he didn't want to miss out on what he thought might be history-making sessions.
"That really appeals to me, working with someone who's willing to take some chances and be bold right out of the gate," Elizondo said. "Myself, being a music fan, I look back at what it must have felt like on those very first [Led] Zeppelin records, to be the engineer and go, 'Wow, I hope we don't mess this up.' Or Chas Chandler working with [Jimi] Hendrix. Teo Macero working with Miles Davis -- these guys who you felt like there was just something there. Now, I'm getting the chance to work with true greatness, and I felt like I was given an opportunity and I didn't want to miss it."
The producer known for his work with artists as diverse as Dr. Dre and Fiona Apple knew that didn't mean it would be easy: "I sensed it before we ever set foot in the studio, that there might be some hesitation. Just like any artist, you've got to gain their trust."
Elizondo started by spending time on the road with Clark, catching three or four shows and the coiled-snake vibe the tall, lanky Austin, Texas, resident exudes. Then, they spent the first few weeks of sessions in a room together with just an engineer, dissecting songs and talking about potential direction.
The producer learned Clark can be circumspect. Ask him a question or make a suggestion, and you don't always get an immediate response. Several times, Clark said, "I'm going to go outside and think about it." The rest of the time, it was "pretty easy." "I thought I was pretty open and aware, and he kind of taught me a lot of things," Clark said, "like really approaching things differently as opposed to sticking in the same old thing."
The blues first really caught Clark's attention when he put on B.B. King's "Live at the Regal" and got punched in the face with all the emotion.
He was 12.
"I hadn't heard anybody play guitar with that much vibrato maybe, the way he'd hit the note and it would scream," Clark said. "And then his voice would go along with it. That was a kickin' band, and the dynamics of the live show, I'd never heard anything like that." He fell for Hendrix, too, and being from Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan was always there. And he soon found Albert King and other trailblazers like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed and Buddy Guy.
The 28-year-old also grew up in the age of hip-hop, was a child when Prince ruled and heard the infectious grooves of R&B, soul and rock, too. Couldn't ignore them, and all these things ended up on "Blak and Blu." Clark's been playing the music for fans around the world. He's played every significant festival in the last 18 months -- sometimes twice -- and played in front of 70,000 in Brazil while opening for Eric Clapton.
The crowds continue to grow. And at every stop, something happens that Clark finds strange.
"There's this wild thing that's been going on at the show where the fans just start chanting my name, and I don't know how to deal with that yet," he said. "It's overwhelming to me. I go from being in the front row at shows ... to being onstage and having people show up to come see you and show that much love. I'm standing there just saying, 'How did this happen?' "
WHO Gary Clark Jr.
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St., Manhattan
INFO $25; 800-745- 3000, ticketmaster.com (call for last-minute availability)
MORE Clark's new album, "Blak and Blu," is in stores now