The West

Clark is red hot
Gary Clark Jr

On the eve of releasing his major label debut album, Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr is basking in praise. Hailed as an overnight success, the New York Times recently gushed that the American guitar gun "may be the next Hendrix".

The less marketable truth is that the 28-year-old from Austin, Texas, picked up a guitar at age 12, joined local blues legends such as mentor Jimmy Vaughan on stage at local bars as a teenager and released his first album before he graduated from high school.

In fact, Clark released four albums independently in his home State before Blak and Blu was a glimmer in a record exec's eye.

"The first one I cut when I was 17 in high school," he says from Melbourne during a recent promotional visit. "I was running around and trying to sell my albums for five bucks to kids in my class and getting in trouble for it.

"I should've been paying attention and I'm like, 'Check out my record'," Clark whispers, mimicking passing his record to a classmate like a cheat-sheet.

Now Warner Bros are doing the hard sell for the Texan, who takes no offence from being heralded as a hot talent.

"Yeah, I've been hearing the term 'new artist' thrown around. Man, I didn't know after 16 years of doing it, I'd be a new artist still," Clark chuckles. "But I understand it. I'm definitely a new sound and face to a lot of people."

The affable singer/guitarist, who has been named his hometown's best blues artist and rock guitarist at the Austin Music Awards every year since 2007, recognises that the major label support represents a gilt-edged opportunity to expand his career outside of Texas and even the US.

And he has pulled out all the stops on Blak and Blu, recorded in Los Angeles with producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple, Maroon 5). The 12 tracks showcase his broad influences from the Memphis soul of opener Ain't Messin' Around and Texas blues guitar wail of When My Train Pulls In, to the smooth neo-soul of This Life.

The affable musician explains that at the same time as he was jumping onstage at Austin's blues clubs, he was also devouring hip-hop and Stax soul albums - and he wanted that diversity represented on the album.

Clark has a great, soulful voice, but it's his guitar playing that has led to collaborations with big names such as Eric Clapton, Citizen Cope and Dave Matthews Band. In particular, R&B songstress Alicia Keys has championed him to anyone with ears or a Twitter account. Before even Clark himself knew it, she tweeted the release date of Blak and Blu to the world.

The other big fan is US President Barack Obama, who invited Clark to perform at Red White and Blues at the White House alongside BB King, Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy and others in February.

"It's a bit overwhelming to think 'Wow, these folks are actually listening to what I've been doing'," Clark says. "I feel lucky and grateful."

From blues clubs in Austin to beachside gigs in San Sebastian, Spain and, next year, the Big Day Out around Australia, Clark's 16-year overnight rise is now a global affair.

"I get to travel around and I see the faces of people around the world and, for the most part, it's smiles when we get up there and start playing - it's a beautiful feeling."

And what about that comparison to his hero?

"There will never be another Hendrix," Clark says.

"All I can say is, I'm doing me and just doing the best I can with it."

The West Australian

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