It’s tempting to think of 17-year-old Callista Clark as a next-generation Taylor Swift.
The surface stats — teenage female singer-songwriter signed to Big Machine with a first single produced by Nathan Chapman (Swift, Mickey Guyton) — are definitely similar. But there are nuanced differences, too.
Swift’s early songs, including “Tim McGraw” and “Love Story,” successfully captured junior-high and high-school angst and delivered them with an age-appropriate voice. By contrast, Clark’s timbre — much like LeAnn Rimes in the ’90s — is older than her chronological age, as are the characters that seem to draw her in.
That’s exemplified in a preternatural rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” posted to Facebook on April18, 2017, when Clark was just 13. She approaches the song’s adult outlook with Gretchen Wilson-like vocal strength and believability. Clark’s video — seen by 28million people thus far, including SB Projects founder Scooter Braun, who signed her to a management deal soon after the original post — sets her up as a young woman already engrossed emotionally in a different decade of her life.
Clark’s debut single — “‘It’s ‘Cause I Am,” released to AM/FM radio on March1 via PlayMPE — supports that notion, mining the clash between others’ perception of her outward teen appearance and her inner reality. She created the song on Dec.16, 2019, traveling to Nashville from her Georgia home for a last-minute appointment to write with Laura Veltz (“Speechless,” “The Bones”) and songwriter-producer Cameron Jaymes (Rachel Platten, Matt Wertz) at his East Nashville backyard studio, The Garden Shed.
Before her arrival, Clark stopped at a Starbucks. She decided against leaving her Gibson J-200 guitar exposed to the sun in her car and lugged it into the store, where she had a few awkward moments balancing the instrument case and her coffee. A male stranger cracked, “Good luck,” and it rubbed her the wrong way. She brought her frustration into the writing session.
“I was so aggravated by that or just anyone who had doubted me before they knew who I was or what I was capable of,” recalls Clark. “I came in kind of ranting to them about that feeling that I was having, feeling like I couldn’t do something. And so Laura, she’s such a great writer because she starts to make these little mental notes about whatever I’m saying. She’s like, ‘OK, that would be cool with the hook.’ ‘That would be cool with the verse.’ I just kept talking, and she just kept placing things, and we kind of wrote it around that.”
As the rant turned into art, they started with the opening lines: “You wish I was simple/But I’ll never be that.” That progressed to a series of couplets addressed to a boy, emphasizing how different the singer is from the girl he wants her to be.
“As a parent and as a songwriter, I want to write something about a girl who’s going to stand up for who she is,” says Veltz. “And with Callista, it just makes it so much easier because she’s already there.”
As the song progresses through their differences — “Might be born in the same year/But boy, we ain’t the same age” — the singer takes over the decision-making process: “I’ll make the call.” Then she writes the guy off during the chorus, changing the tone of the song from a soulful Maren Morris disposition to a hard-edged Wilson-type sound. Between the interval jumps in the melody and syncopated emphasis on certain notes, the opening lines of that section feel just a tad off-center.
“That was a really big goal of mine, just doing some kind of a really bouncy, weird melody that’s a lot of octaves,” says Clark. “It sounds really repetitive and gets stuck in your head really easily.”
But midchorus, the song takes on a commanding swagger with more propulsive, straight-ahead phrasing as a setup to its ultimate put-down: “You want a one-dimensional woman/It’s OK, I understand.”
“When we got to the chorus, it sort of opens up musically on the chord progression,” says Jaymes. “I really wanted this Robert Palmer ‘Addicted To Love’ feeling in a country, funky way. I just remember the feeling of the chord shifts on Robert Palmer or certain Sheryl Crow songs. They kind of resolve in a different way.”
The chorus’ conclusion cements the singer’s strong-woman stance: “If I seem too complicated for you/It’s ’cause I am.” The mix of elements — the staggered phrasing, the rock-edged chords and the confident conclusion — all make for a Bonnie Raitt sort of experience.
“There’s a musicality to that era where it’s just instruments and voices and soul, and nobody’s fluffing anything,” says Veltz. “And I feel like that’s one texture of Callista, particularly a texture I would want to be a part of. You can tell she’s all over the place with her influences and the way she hears trills and tricks. They’re all from an era that makes her such an old soul musically.”
They grafted a three-line bridge into it to make use of a phrase that Clark particularly liked — “Don’t beat yourself up about it, baby” — near the end of the write. Jaymes had 90% of the demo done before they wrapped, and Clark left Nashville the next day with a song that would make a big artistic statement.
“I’ve heard more writers go, ‘You know, I’ve never met a 16-year-old artist whom I wanted to impress more than Callista Clark,’” says Jaymes. “She comes in, and she knows so much of what she wants to do. It’s incredible.”
Clark performed “It’s ‘Cause I Am” live just one time before COVID-19 forced a shutdown, playing it on Feb.22, 2020, at a Housley High-Rise House Concert in Atlanta for roughly 30 people.
Chapman subsequently produced the recording one layer at a time with the musicians — including drummer Aaron Sterling, keyboardist Dave Cohen and guitarist Kevin Kadish — cutting in separate quarters after the pandemic changed circumstances. Chapman played acoustic guitar and an adventurous bass, which was perfect for Clark, who cites that instrument as her favorite.
“My bass hero is Carol Kaye (“Wichita Lineman,” “Good Vibrations”), and she plays a lot of notes, a lot of melodies, countermelodies,” says Chapman. “I kind of try and approach bass from that side of things.”
The only time multiple people were in the same room at once was when Clark sang her final vocals at Blackbird Studios with Jeff Balding engineering and Chapman providing feedback, continuously pushing her to beat the previous take until she had maximized her performance.
“My job is not to make sure she sings in time or in tune — that’s automatic, she’s going to do that every time,” says Chapman. “My job is to help her dig deeper as a vocalist and to get the best take on it that she can do from a creative place. I’m thinking about how we can make this vocal performance as three-dimensional as possible.”
Big Machine set March 29 as the add date for “It’s ‘Cause I Am” as the label introduces her old-soul musicality and complicated disposition to a wider audience. Ithas risen to No. 51 on the Country Airplay chart, dated April 17.
“Being young, sometimes guys want whatever is easier to understand or easier to have,” she says, distilling the song to its central theme. “I just wanted to say that I’m not that.”
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