A Conversation with Songwriter/Composer Gary Clark

Posted in News on November 8, 2023

As founder of the Scottish band Danny Wilson (named after the protagonist of the 1952 Frank Sinatra film, Meet Danny Wilson), Gary Clark found initial success as the band’s primary singer/songwriter and guitarist, penning soulfully sophisticated pop best typified by their breakout single, “Mary’s Prayer,” in 1988. Two albums later, Clark dissolved Danny Wilson to pursue other projects. After stints in bands like King L and Transistor, Clark stepped away from performing and decided to concentrate his efforts on writing and producing for other artists, going on to work with names like Natalie Imbruglia, Liz Phair, Nick Carter, Lloyd Cole, k.d. lang, The Wanted, Demi Lovato, Melanie Chisholm and Emma Bunton of the Spice Girls, and many others.

In 2016, Clark was recruited by Irish director John Carney to write music for a film he was working on called Sing Street. Clark ended up composing the score, as well as all the original songs featured in the film. This first collaboration led to a string of projects with Carney. Most recently, the duo co-composed and co-wrote nine original songs for Carney’s latest film, Flora and Son. We caught up with Gary Clark to find out more about this project, his collaborations with Carney and his creative process.

You and John Carney have had a long-term creative relationship, having worked together on films and television series such as Sing Street, Modern Love and now Flora and Son. Can you tell us how your partnership started and how it’s evolved?

John and I first worked together on 2016’s Sing Street. I was already a fan when I got the call, initially to write one song, and then from there, to do the rest of the movie with him. So, as you can imagine, I was thrilled and jumped at it. Work started with us co-writing long distance in Dublin and Dundee and then, a bit later, I joined the band in the studio as a musician on the tracks, and worked closely with Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, who played Connor, on his vocals. When the film was almost done, John asked me to do a string arrangement for the song “To Find You,” and our working relationship has kind of organically grown from there.

We did two seasons of John’s Amazon Prime series, Modern Love, on which I got to work with a number of other great directors, all with vastly different processes and musical tastes. My official title became Executive Music Producer, but that’s really just shorthand for “Doer of whatever’s needed to get the music over the finish line.” When John and I work with each other, we write songs and score mainly together but occasionally separately. I tend to do the techy stuff like producing, mixing, and editing, but John is extremely musical and involved in the whole process, so it’s very much a collaboration. We’re like a little band that doesn’t tour. The films go on tour for us.

Music is a key component of the storytelling process. Can you share a little about how the sound developed for this film?

I’d say that Flora and Son is the broadest thing that we’ve ever done together. Each character has a very unique voice, from the rapper kid making drill on the housing estate to Flora’s club music, her son Max’s electronic laptop pop and his dad’s nineties angst-rock, and then of course, we have Jeff the guitar guy’s love of sophisticated singer/songwriters like Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. A few months before shooting, John and I walked through the script on a Zoom call and kicked around ideas for how those characters might sound, and pretty soon after that we started sending each other bits and pieces of ideas and refining and recording as we went. We had most of the songs completed before shooting began, but a couple were trickier and were being finessed right up to – and sometimes after – they were shot. The score was created a little later as the picture was being edited, and quite often echoes chords or bits of melody or instrumentation from the songs.

From memory, one of the of the more challenging things was creating the song “High Life” for the last scene in which all of these characters have to come together on the stage of the local pub talent night. We wanted to create a really uplifting moment for the end of the film, but without it ever sounding like Flora was about to score a record deal, leave Dublin and become an international pop sensation. She definitely doesn’t do that!

The songs in this film are very character specific. Tell us about writing for Flora? How involved was Eve Hewson, who plays Flora, with regard to creative direction and performance?

Both Eve and Joseph Gordon-Levitt had strong and very valuable opinions about how their characters might sound or what they might say or not say in song, particularly after they’d been shooting for a few weeks. Instead of kicking things backwards and forwards, John made the bold suggestion that we all just get into the studio together and hash it out. He and I had already made in-roads on “High Life” and what became “Meet in the Middle,” but I think the teamwork experiment really paid off. Eve and Joe brought their considerable talents and the understanding of their characters into the songs, which really helped us get something that felt genuine and honest.

You made the transition from successful recording artist to film composer. Tell us about your path to film work.

After my band Danny Wilson split, I made a solo album and a couple of other band albums, but by the end of the nineties I was increasingly being drawn into projects with other artists. I always preferred the studio to the road. In 2001, I produced and co-wrote Natalie Imbruglia’s White Lilies Island album, and that led to a lot more production and writing with an eclectic mix of artists. I’d been obsessed with film and film music since I was a kid, but although I’d had a number of songs placed in quite big films, I’d never been approached to create something specifically until I got that Sing Street call from John. Looking back on it now, I feel like the years of writing songs for other voices really helped me when it came to writing for character, and the musical diversity of the artists I’ve worked with also frees me up stylistically. It’s been a long and interesting journey to film composer, but I feel that I was really ready to do this when it finally came to me and overall, I’m having the time of my life doing it, and feel extremely blessed to work with John for his beautiful, moving and quite hilarious film musicals.


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