Greensboro-based songwriter Gar Clemens releases new record
If you’ve been waiting for music that distills the deeply messed-up state of American politics over the past couple years into song, it’s here. Gar Clemens was already fed up with the Trump-era before it even began. Clemens, a Greensboro-based songwriter who moved down to North Carolina from Chicago at the start of 2016, just released Full Buck Moon, a record that he recorded and mostly wrote here. I spoke to Clemens by phone earlier this week about his songs and how he ended up in North Carolina.
The first song on the new record, “I Could Cry My Eyes Out,” is a stomping rocker of smoldering rage. The second verse contains these lines: “And the inbred, born rich, bastard grins/And his little hands make little fists/And give AR-15s to blue-eyed kids” before kicking into the memorable chorus: “Honey, I could hit the streets in rage/For blood I could lash out/Honey, I could cry my eyes out/For cryin’; out loud.” That mix of face-curling anger and bone-deep sadness is something that a lot of people can relate to these days.
Clemens, 32, wrote that before the election. “All that rhetoric was coming out of the woodwork,” Clemens said. “That was kind of a bummer. I was hoping that it wasn’t gonna be as literal as it turned out to be [after the election].”
From there, Clemens slides into a bit of Southern-rock with a touch of amped-up country-soul on “Self-Righteous Blues,” a song about hypocrisy and fear playing out in the mind of an opioid-crisis casualty. “Y’all must be wrong ‘cause I’m always right,” sings the “self-righteous sinner” telling the story.
The record closes out with “Black Flag Patch,” a song about a different kind of character, a half-drunk train punk who’s riding the rails wondering where his one-time girlfriend might have gone off to. It’s a song about love, romance and loss in extreme times and circumstances, about whether people can hold on to each other when they’re pushed to the edge and they don’t have much else. Clemens wrote that song at a motel in Georgia, where he was doing the industrial building painting work that he sometimes does as a day job. He says the rootlessness of the work may have spurred him to feel a kinship with the subject of the song.
Clemens’s songs and his singing can bring to mind the Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle, Drivin’ and Cryin’, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. He’s got an ear for American stories and social justice, for people whose lives are coming apart for one reason or another. There’s an appealing drawl to Clemens’s singing, a way of stretching out syllables and rounding off consonants. His voice is warm and expressive of pent-up feeling.
“I grew up like a punk rock guy,” said Clemens of how he eventually found his way to songwriting and his country-tinged sound. “I guess I was trying to rip off my favorite singers, and they were all from the South.”
The punk connection is partly what led Clemens to the Greensboro. He knew some of the guys from the local band Old Heavy Hands from their days having crossed paths touring and playing in bands. Clemens has also recently started playing bass in Old Heavy Hands, further cementing the connections he had with the band. Members of the Ends and House of Fools make up part of Clemens’s backing band on the record. Clemens and others who’ve gone back and forth jokingly refer to the fruitful linkage between North Carolina and Chicago as the Michael Jordan Highway.
Clemens’s previous record, 2016’s Cricket Hill, was made in Chicago, and there’s a marked difference between it and Full Buck Moon. Clemens was operating in more of an acoustic folk-singer mode, with a clearer debt to early Dylan, and with layers of reverb to add a spectral quality to things.
On the one hand, a lot has happened since 2016, just in the world, and that might help explain any shift in style or emphasis, but Clemens said that moving to North Carolina coincided with other changes in how he was living his life.
“I’m a different person than I was,” Clemens said. “I spent a lot of time in bars in Chicago. While I haven’t been an angel since I’ve moved to North Carolina, I’ve changed a lot of my habits. My day-to-day life is much different. It’s centered on writing.”
Writing is a mysterious, hit-or-miss game, Clemens said.
“I’ve been trying to figure out this songwriting thing for a long time, and I still haven’t figured it out, but I’ve gotten better at my process,” he said.
Clemens said that keeping notebooks filled with lyric fragments and guitar always at the ready allows him to tinker and experiment with mixing and matching, knocking a few words against a set of chord changes, playing lines off each other. He likens the process to that off rummaging around in a junkyard, trying to find the right door or mirror for your old car.
Having worked in restaurant kitchens, Clemens compares writing to cooking, too. The chords and guitar parts are like the skillet, and you have to be ready to throw in whatever tasty pieces you have on hand — a verse or a melody — and turn up the heat to see what happens.
Catch Gar Clemens performing around the area this spring in support of Full Buck Moon, which is available on streaming services and through Bandcamp.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.