Sometimes being a pop star in the '80s means that you're destined to be a pop star for the long haul, but Gary Clark hasn't found this to be true for quite some time. After politely roaring out of Dundee, Scotland in 1987 as lead singer of the band Danny Wilson ("Mary's Prayer"), Clark spent two albums fronting the group before going solo, then starting a few other bands - first King L, then Transister - before settling into a career as a songwriter for hire. For the better part of the past decade, however, Clark has been working alongside filmmaker John Carney, assisting with the soundtracks to such films as Sing Street and Flora and Son. Indeed, the latter film found a couple of Clark's compositions short-listed for Oscar consideration, and while they ultimately didn't make the final list, there's mild consolation to be had in the fact that Clark was always pretty sure something from Barbie was going to win, anyway.
Just before the Oscar nominations were released, Clark was kind enough to hop on a Zoom call with Q to discuss the work he's been doing with Carney, including the process of adapting Sing Street into a stage musical, and he also acknowledged that - all things being equal - he'd actually be just fine doing a bit more work under the auspices of Danny Wilson, if only he and the rest of the band could find the time...
I've seen Flora and Son, and it's wonderful, which is consistent with John Carney's work to date, but I don't think I actually know the secret origin story about how you and he first crossed paths.
Well, actually, that album that's sitting behind you there [Danny Wilson's Meet Danny Wilson] has a lot to do with it. The Sing Street film that John made in 2016 was all about this kid who formed a school band to impress a girl, and his brother is kind of the big musical influence on him, and he plays him new records. He plays him the Cure, he plays him Talking Heads and stuff. And John's brother used to play him records like that, so that's where the influence of that comes from. And one of the records that he used to play him was that first Danny Wilson album. And John was making this film, which was set in the '80s, and his first idea was to get a bunch of different people that he'd been influenced by, that his brother had turned him onto, and get songs written by a bunch of different songwriters. And I basically got a call from my music publisher saying, "John Carney, the filmmaker, is trying to get in touch." And I was already a fan.
The only thing I'd seen at that point was Once, because Begin Again hadn't been released at the point that he called me, but I was a huge fan of that. And when he called me and asked me to do a song, I was all in. And he sent me a brief and an outline of the film, and I sent him back a song in a few days time, and he loved it. So he called me and said, "Do you want to come on for the whole picture?" And I was, like, "Uh, yeah!" And he said, "Great, we're shooting in about four weeks!" [Laughs.] No, I think it was about six weeks, to be fair. But I had to really kick in at that point. And in a few weeks time, I was actually in the studio with a band while we were still writing. I was running back to my hotel room finishing lyrics and teaching the band chords and stuff live in the studio. But that's how it kicked off: Sing Street. And it was because he'd known my old records from the '80s.
What was the first song that you ended up writing for the film?
Well, the first song is the song that I wrote for the audition, if you like, and the scene ended up hitting the cutting room floor. Actually, it didn't even get shot! We actually brought it back for the stage version. It was a song called "Dream for You." And then the second song... I think it might've been "Up." But basically John sent me a bunch of demos that he'd been working on, and then also a few spots where he didn't have songs. And one of them because "Drive It Like You Stole It," and one just said, "Conor's Love Song to Raphina," and I wrote "To Find You." And then I picked up where John had left off with his demos. But at that point, there was a pile of work, so I was just diving in and sending him stuff as I got it done. So I can't quite remember the order things were done in.
How much of it was asking you to write something that sounded '80s-esque versus "write something that specifically sounds like it could've come off of Head on the Door" or whatever?
Well, the script was pretty clear about that, really. The whole idea was that this band were influenced by these things, and you see it onscreen, you see what they're wearing and stuff. Luckily, I was a fan of all of those bands anyway, so it was just fun to sort of dive in there and relive my own youth. [Laughs.]
So what was the process of adapting it to a stage show?
Well, John had been through the process with Once, and it had been very successful onstage, so he basically said to me, "These are musical theater people, just let them do their thing and get out of the way." [Laughs.] And to some extent, he was correct! They did a version of it off-Broadway at the New York Theater workshop, and the feedback that the producers were getting was that it had lost something from the film, and that people who were going to see it were fans of the film. By that time, the film had started to get sort of a cult-ish following, particularly with young kids who wanted to play in bands and stuff, and they expected to hear it more like the movie. So they asked me to come in for the Broadway version and sort of get it closer to that.
So I basically went back to the way I would routine a rock band, just standing in the middle with the musicians. I got rid of all the sheet music and everything and said, "Let's just listen to this and work our way through it the way we'd rehearse a band." And they felt more like a school band, I believe, rather than when they were reading the stuff. I thought it felt more authentic to the film, but also more authentic to 14-year-old kids playing in a band.
Unfortunately, the pandemic hit just as we went into the theater. We actually set up. It was a very young cast, and the kids actually got to hear themselves playing through the big sound system in the theater. And then we got told that they were closing Broadway...and at that point, they were saying it was going to be for around 10 days or something. But then after a few days, everybody knew it was worse than that. And then the next thing I knew, I was in an empty airport, going back to Scotland! [Laughs.] We did do one in Boston, though, and I think we're gonna get it up somewhere else. We're still working on that. But we haven't got the Broadway back.
With Flora and Son, you obviously had the working relationship with John cemented by that point. Did he just approach you and say, "I've got another music-themed film I'd like your help with"?
Well, John and I had continued to work together on his television series. He did two seasons of Modern Love as executive director and producer - or showrunner, they call it - for Amazon, and he made me Executive Music Producer for that. So I was writing songs, writing the score, recording all the artists, kind of coordinating that, sometimes commissioning songs. So we continued to work together. The first season was done pre-pandemic, the second season was during the pandemic, so it had to be all done over Zoom. So that kind of influenced Flora somewhat! [Laughs.] But somewhere in that area of working on season two, John sent me a script for what became Flora and Son and said, "What do you think of this?" And I loved it, and we chatted about it, and I laughed and cried and all that stuff that John Carney manages to make you do at the same time. I read it to my wife as well, and she thought it was amazing. I don't think we started any music at that point. We just talked a bit about what it might sound like.
And then I think it was early 2022, he called me and said, "Remember that film about the girl that finds the guitar in the skip?" I said, "Yeah!" He said, "We're getting that made. We got it funded, and we need to talk about the music." So he and I... He sent me the latest script, which wasn't that different from the one he'd sent me before, but it was definitely updated. And we just walked through, "What does this character sound like? What does that character sound like?" And again, it was pretty soon before they were shooting, so we had to really start piecing together the music, ping-ponging it off of one another, while John was prepping the film. And then he was shooting the film. so a lot of songs had to be ready before he could shoot them, obviously. Anything that you would see on screen had to be finished. So, again, it was a frantic process, but that's part of the joy and the madness, y'know?
I'm guessing that the Tom Waits and Hoagy Carmichael songs ("I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," respectively) were already cited specifically in the script.
Yes, the only one I think that changed was... In the slot where you see Joni Mitchell play "Both Sides Now," that was originally a John Martyn song called "Couldn't Love You More." And when we watched it, it was kind of clear that it needed to be a female singer-songwriter, because it was going to affect Flora. So that's what was in the script there. I think at one point in one of the guitar lessons he had "You've Got a Friend" in there, but that left. But Tom Waits was there, and Hoagy Carmichael...Oh, no, Hoagy Carmichael was actually Joseph Gordon Levitt's idea! Actually, quite early on, when we were rehearsing the songs. He actually sang it to me and John, and John thought it was great, so he said, "Why don't we do that one?" So that's probably why "You've Got a Friend" got shelved, actually.
I can't even imagine that other scene without the use of Joni Mitchell.
Yeah, I know, it's so perfect, isn't it? It just shows you: sometimes you've got to watch stuff back, and when you do, it's really obvious. A similar thing happened with the song at the end, in the pub, which is called "High Life." That was originally a song for Eve [Hewson] to sing all the way through. And they actually shot that scene with her singing it all the way through. And again, watching it back, it was obvious that her son had to answer back, so he does the rap. So the rap was written and added later. And, of course, to imagine it without the rap now would be insanity. [Laughs.] At the time it made sense! But the minute we saw it, we were, like, "No, this needs... He needs to rap back at his mom."
As far as the originals for the film, did he give you any sort of template for a soundalike or a rough approximation of the sound that he wanted you to go with?
No, I mean, John and I work quite closely together, and he's a great musician. I don't know if you know that he was originally in the Frames with Glen Hansard, so...he knows his stuff. He's probably a better piano player than I am, and he's a great guitar player and a bass player. So he does little demos on GarageBand and sends them to me, and very often there'll be tunes that he'll be humming, and he might have a little bit of lyrics and stuff like that, but they'll be very clear in their vibe, and very often a lot of the chords and guitar parts and stuff with stay. And I take them from GarageBand and put them into ProTools and work it up a bit, do some lyrics, whatever, and send him that back and get his comments. But in this case, those two songs that we actually got the actors in there with us, in the studio and writing, and that was "Meet in the Middle." And then "High Life," Eve came in for that as well, because we wanted her cheeky sense of humor in the lyrics.
I don't suppose Eve's dad ever popped by the set...
Nope. I didn't see him. [Laughs.] I do think he and John know each other. I think John knew Eve when she was, like, a 13- or 14-year-old kid, and he remembers her saying, "I want to be an actress." And I know that he's spoke to Bono at various points, but I don't think he was on set, as far as I know.
So what did you think that some of the material was being bandied about for a possible Oscar nod?
I suppose the answer is, I was amazed. But I don't know, it's... [Hesitates.] I suppose what I'm trying to say here is, they don't feel like Oscar-y, Hollywood-y songs. They're very...Irish. And a wee bit Scottish. [Laughs.] But they're more about these characters finding their voices and trying to fix their relationships and stuff through making music together, so they're really super important and integral to the story. But they're not big winner songs. I mean, even "High Life," which is probably the most upbeat song, at the end, we didn't want people to leave the theater thinking that she's gonna be able to become a rock star or whatever. That wasn't really the point. It's about the journey that she goes on in her life. Whereas big movies like Barbie and stuff, with big star writers and cast and things, that's much more what I would think of as Oscar-winning material...and probably will win the Oscar, to be honest! So, yeah, it's an unbelievable thrill and an honor to even be shortlisted, but I didn't expect it at all. Everything's a bonus, really.
I realize I jumped from one film to another, but I didn't intend to skip over Modern Love. In fact, I was going to ask in particular about the cover of "Kooks" that you did for the series. Obviously, I'd heard you sing it before [Danny Wilson did a cover of the song as a B-side], but whose idea was it to do a version for the show?
It's kind of a funny story, actually. It's the end of an episode where we jump forward in time, and you see this gay couple who've adopted this kid, and now the kid's a little bit older, and you get to see a little window into their life, of putting her to bed. And what we shot was, she asks him, "Daddy, will you sing 'Enter Sandman'?" [Laughs.] And he starts singing "Enter Sandman" in this kind of lullaby, and then "Enter Sandman" was supposed to come in. But Metallica wouldn't let us use it. We begged and pleaded. And thankfully, they'd done another version on the day, because they didn't know if they were going to get that, and then it was, "Well, what song are we gonna put here?" And the obvious one to me was "Kooks," because of the subject matter: David Bowie writing to his son when he was a kid. Not only did I know the song, but it just felt right for the scene. So I did a little acoustic demo of it and send it to John, and he actually didn't know the song! But he loved it.
I'll be honest: the first time I ever heard it was when Danny Wilson covered it.
Is that right? Well, there you go! Hunky Dory was a big influential album for me as a kid. Like, massively. Still is, actually. But I remembered going to see my younger cousin Pauline, who had bought a couple of albums that she didn't like, and one of them was Inner Visions by Stevie Wonder, and the other one was Hunky Dory by David Bowie. And she gave 'em to me, and both became massively influential records for me.
My daughter is 18, and she just bought herself a copy of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars on vinyl.
Oh, wow! Isn't that amazing? And I think streaming is partially responsible for it, but kids can hear anything they want at any time, so they can just love something if they hear it. Do you know how she heard Ziggy Stardust?
Well, she's heard me trumpeting Bowie for years, but I think it was actually her friend Finn at college who's a big Bowie fan, and I think that had more to do with it than my fandom ever did! So she went and bought a copy, and as it happens, I believe it was actually on his birthday.
Well, there you go: he got some royalties for his birthday! [Laughs.] Or, rather, he didn't, 'cause he's gone now. Sorry, David! I actually forget sometimes that he's gone, because I listen to his records so often!
Having brought up Danny Wilson... Well, the question I most want answered is why "Mary's Prayer" is currently unavailable for streaming on Spotify, which I don't suppose you can answer.
Interestingly, it is in the UK, so I don't know why it isn't in the United States.
Yeah, it's weird. The second album [Bebop Moptop] is there, but the first album [Meet Danny Wilson] is not, even though they're both on the same label. Go figure.
It's quite odd, that whole streaming thing. And I don't really have time to deal with it, but I probably need to go down the rabbit hole on it. They are other Gary Clarks, and there's another Danny Wilson and stuff, and it's all mixed up in this strange... [Sighs.] I imagine at some point I need to speak to whoever owns the rights now, which I think is Universal Records. You know, it was originally on Virgin, then Virgin got bought by EMI, and I think EMI ended up with Universal, if I'm not mistaken. Or at least some of it did.
The idea that the band's biggest song in the States isn't even available for streaming... I feel like you're missing out on some money, even if it's only a few cents at current rates.
Yeah, that's crazy. I need to get to the bottom of that one in particular.
When you look back at the legacy of Danny Wilson, they're obviously still beloved. Do you still hear from fans even now?
Yeah, quite a lot. You know, social media's made it much easier for people to just reach out to you. But it's quite moving, some of the stories. Because the music's been around for so long that it's kind of got generations of fans. Kind of like your daughter being a fan of Bowie! So people will tell you stories of where they heard it, how people have played it at weddings, funerals, and all that stuff. It's kind of gotten into the fabric of people's lives. It's really beautiful, y'know? Particularly as we're not out playing it or promoting it or anything. It's really a nice thing that the music's just living on in its own way.
Do you anticipate doing anything under your own name at any point in the future?
Well, I never say "no," and I don't even say "no" to doing something with Danny Wilson. We're still all really good friends. I mean, we were all at a party together on the sixth of January! But we're all doing so many different things. Jed's now the full-time bass player in Simple Minds, and he has been for about the last ten years. And Kit does various things. He works in law, and he puts music together for a club in Dundee, and he still writes songs. He's writing a musical, and... Oh, he's got loads of stuff on. So trying to get everyone together at one space in time, it's just so difficult. But there's a willingness there.
We're actually kind of in the process of doing a box set with Cherry Red, which is a label that buys the rights to releases, so we have actually been communicating quite a lot recently about trying to find extra tracks, live tracks, all that kind of stuff. So you never know. I have no negatives on any of it. It's just time and being busy doing other things. Also, it's just that my career's taken a sharp left or right turn or whatever it is, and now I'm doing things that I guess when I was that age if you'd asked me what I'd like to be doing at my age now, I'd say, "I'd like to be writing theater and film and all that stuff." And I think you can hear that influence even back on those records and the way we'd join tracks together and things. So, yeah, that's the long answer. I was going to say, "That's the short answer," but it wasn't very short!
Prior to teaming up with John, you'd been doing a lot of freelance songwriting with other artists. Do you anticipate doing more of that in the future?
It's kind of a similar answer, in actual fact. I still get approached to do things, and I haven't had time. Basically, I was living in London for a long time, and when I started writing and producing for other artists, I was in London, and then I sort of thought at that time that there were better opportunities and better access to artists in the States. So I moved to Los Angeles for two periods, but when you add them up, I was there for around 12 years. And then I think it was roughly nine years ago now when...
Well, I basically found that Los Angeles is kind of a central point where you're not always working with American artists. You've got Swedish artists coming through, you've got Australian artists coming through, you've got French artists coming through... So it actually ended up taking me out to other places. I was going to Stockholm a lot, I was going to Sydney, Australia a lot, I was going to London a lot. And it was getting more expensive to live in Los Angeles, and I was hardly ever there! And we'd talked about maybe moving to Nashville, but it was my wife Alison who said, "Would you ever consider living back in the UK?" And I said, "I don't want to live in a flat in London again." I still had a flat in London at that point - I've got rid of it now - but I make too much noise for neighbors. [Laughs.] So she said, "No, I was thinking about Scotland." She's originally from Edinburgh. And I said, "Scotland?! I left when I was 19!" And she said, "Well, you know, we could live much cheaper, you could be in the middle of everything, and it's easy to get to Europe. Just think about it." And I thought about it, and I said, "Well, why don't we just go look at some property?" So we did that, and we found the house that we're in now. She fell in love with it, and I was, like, "Okay, yeah." And we moved.
Sorry, we're going off on a tangent now, but my idea was to develop young Scottish artists while still continuing to work with major-label artists. And I developed this band called HYYTS, and we got them signed to Warners. They're split up now, as bands do. And pretty soon after I got back, I got that call from John Carney, and then everything sort of went off in this other direction. So I've done very little pop stuff, but it's only because of time. The heart is willing, but...the time is not there.
Well, I was just going to say that I always found it fascinating by the people I'd see you writing with, everyone from Lloyd Cole to Melanie C.
Yeah, it was a very eclectic bunch of people. And I like it that way. My own music's quite eclectic anyway. And that's kind of what I liked about the writing and production thing, and the film and stage stuff as well: you can be really eclectic. You can work with a lot of different artists and a lot of different styles of music. It's exciting. You're always doing something new.
Lastly, just to jump back to the Danny Wilson days to close, what you would say was the most absurd pop star moment you had while you were in the band?
Hmmm... I'm trying to think if I can tell this story. [Laughs.] Okay, I think it's not so filthy that I can't tell it. We were touring the States, opening for Simply Red, and we were doing a lot of local press and stuff. People were telling funny stories, and it became a competition on the tour bus to sort of collect the craziest things that people had said to you while you were on the road, and at the end, the person who won was going to get, like, a magnum of champagne, which of course they were going to share with everybody anyway. And I can't remember any of the other ones, but a radio promo guy saw the gig, and he didn't realize that I was the guitarist in the band, and he said, "I like to stroke a neck a bit, but you really bring that lady off." I won the champagne.