Clark with her three-pickup Silvertone 1488 Silhouette at a February 2010 date at the
9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Photo by Brandon Wu
You eventually went to Berklee College of Music. Did you study in the guitar program?
Yes, I was a guitar major.
Even though you left after three years, how important would you say that whole experience—the studying, the interaction, and the stepping away from it—were to your journey as a musician and songwriter?
I think I got a bit more knowledge of harmony—or at least I could put names to the harmonies that I already had in my ears. But the way in which an institution can teach art is not necessarily the way I like to experience art. I mean, they have to do things like have grades and have this codified way of experiencing things, and that’s not the whole picture. A lot of people can get caught up in getting the best scores on a guitar exam, and they can be technically very good guitar players or instrumentalists, but there’s a difference between athleticism and artistry. The best place is where those two things can really meet. But the school can’t teach you anything about how to be an artist—they can teach you how to be an athlete. School inadvertently made everything competitive, and made music—which is so powerful and so joyful—completely analytical. That’s not how I want to experience it, and that’s not how I want to make it, either. I can go there, but it’s not that fun.
So you felt like they were making you study the soul out of the music?
Yeah. They’re not going to have a class on the soul of music. But, actually, I would go to school if there were some kind of cosmological class—like, “The universe resonates on a Bb.” That would be amazing to me. Or, something about, like, the first sound in the universe being very low, but if you pitch it up many, many octaves, it would be a root pitch with some other note that’s in between major and minor. If there was something like that, that would be powerful.
Despite what you’ve said about formal music education, are you glad you went to Berklee? And was there a final straw that made you say, “That’s it—I’m out of here”?
[Long pause.] No, I left school to be in a rock band. I was just, like, “I’m through studying this thing.” And no one has asked me, ever, to see a college degree.
Like, “Let me make sure you’re qualified to play this club … ”
[Laughs.] Exactly. It’s like, “That guitar sounds pretty good, but … I don’t know—there’s no diploma attached to it.”
But do you feel like it changed you as a player, even if you felt their priorities were in the wrong place?
I got some new things under my fingers. It wasn’t a wholly bad experience, but they’re in a tricky position: They’re teaching a music industry that is changing every second—and that massively changed in the early 2000s with the internet and the fact that it’s harder to monetize a record. So they’re in this position where they’re, like, “Here, kids, come on in—go into debt to go to this school that’s going to teach you the secrets of how to make it in the music industry.” But the only way to make it in the industry is just to go out there and do it—because it’s changing every second. [Secondary music education] is very much steeped in this major-label model. I signed to an indie label, and [schools] don’t really account for that in their Music Business 101 classes, or whatever. They don’t account for the fact that barely any of us will go out there, sign to a major label, and get hundreds of thousands of dollars for our first record. That’s not where I was, and that’s not where I wanted to be. That’s what they’re selling, though—how to go out there and make it on a major label. That’s a way to do it, but the statistics are stacked against you.
Because your music is very indie, it’s kind of surprising that you studied in a formal guitar program. Do you still think in terms of theory when you play?
Not really. If I needed to communicate with somebody—like, “No, I’m sorry, this chord is actually an Ebm(b9) chord”—I could tell them that.
But you’re not worrying about stuff like, “Oh, this scale can’t go with that chord …”
No, it’s all by intuition and all by ear.