Gary Clark Jr. thought about quitting music to open a BBQ restaurant: Instead, with a little help from Stevie Wonder, he made the best album of his career

Gary Clarke Jr studio portrait
(Image credit: Mike Miller)

There are several popular images of Gary Clark Jr: the hipster bluesman; the guitar prodigy who made Eric Clapton want to play again; the political firebrand who channelled his experience of the American South into 2019’s triple Grammy-winning album This Land; the devastated Black man who gave an incendiary response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020. “We just want to wake up in the morning, go and make the most out of what we can, get what we can for ourselves and for our family, and go the f**k back home,” he posted on Instagram at the time. “That’s all.”  And of course, there’s the most familiar, well-meaning if somewhat reductive label: ‘the saviour of the blues’. 

“People get that really wrong about me,” the 40-year-old Clark tells us. “Although I appreciate that, it’s my roots. But if you go back and listen to my old records, I’ve always been incorporating different styles and genres and ideas on all my records. I’ve always been that way. I think people have this vision of like: ‘Well, I thought that guy was gonna be the next Hendrix.’ That wasn’t really what I was setting out to do.” 

He pauses, chuckling. “Or that I take myself real seriously. I think people think I’m serious all the time.” 

In light of This Land, such impressions weren’t entirely surprising. The messages in that record were unflinching, uncomfortable, honest. There was fire there, and Clark became associated with that fire. It was serious. 

Speaking at his ranch outside Austin, Texas, Gary Clark Jr. is a mellowed soul, more keen to talk music than politics. He’s a guitar nerd, and a bit of a nerd all round (not the most obvious descriptor, perhaps, for a handsome six-foot-four guy so often described as ‘cool’). He enthuses about his new Ibanez guitar (“with a Floyd Rose tremolo, something I’d never done before”); Steve Vai’s epic track For The Love Of God; his Neve mixing console; time spent barbecuing outdoors with his family during lockdown… All things that mixed the colours of his career-topping new album, JPEG RAW, a heady yet hooky fusion of blues, smoky jazz, dirty rock, hip-hop and African flavours, peppered with stellar collaborators. 

“For this album I leaned toward really crafting songs and using all kinds of different influences,” he says. “We were sitting at home, it was 2020 through to 2023, and we were working on this thing, so there was a lot of time to sit and discover new music.” 

The fire of This Land can still be heard. It’s there in the heated guitars juxtaposed with sharp beats and worldly textures. It’s there in the political ire of What About The Children, his collaboration with Stevie Wonder, conceived as the Black Lives Matter movement rose up in 2020. Clark hasn’t lost his sense of urgency, his refusal to rehash old standards or settle into a comfort zone. But a shift seems to have taken place. The Clark Jr. of JPEG RAW is more nuanced, more real, less confined to angry, soapbox-y impressions. An ordinary guy with extraordinary experiences, delving into musical styles that he loves. And, ultimately, he sounds more powerful for it. 

“It’s kind of yours to digest and you can feel about it how you want,” he says with a shrug, when asked what he hopes people will take from the record. “You know, it’s kind of open to interpretation after I’m done with it. I hope people enjoy it and come out to the show and rock out with us."


In 2020, as the world remained at home, Clark started holding weekly barbecues. Using an offset smoker and the best brisket he could get his hands on, the father-of-three slow-cooked meat and thought about life – what the future might hold without music. His wife, Australian model Nicole Trunfio, prepared sides. Their youngest child had just been born. Gary and Nicole joked about opening a restaurant if their careers didn’t survive the pandemic. 

“Oh yeah, we would be, like: ‘Maybe we’ll start off with a little food truck and we’ll just travel across the country,’ you know, stuff like that. Fortunately we got out of that thing and were able to get back out on the road. So we put the restaurant project on the back burner, for now.” 

Gathered over brisket smoke, records and a few drinks, Clark and his bandmates brainstormed ideas. They listened to Steve Vai, Albert King, Stro Elliott, Eric Johnson and much more. The soul of JPEG RAW began to take shape. 

“I had taken all these projects on my own, musically,” he reflects. “So it was nice to have that teamwork, and that camaraderie. I think that really helped with the direction, the sonic palette of this album.” 

Meanwhile, Clark also used the enforced at-home time to master music production software Pro Tools and his Neve console, marking the start of a wider-reaching composer/producer role. An early result of that had been This Is Who We Are, featuring London-based R&B vocalist Naala, which started life in early 2020. At the time, Clark tossed the song idea aside, but the finished version feels like a capsule taste of the whole record. 

“It develops,” he says, “it encompasses all the things that I like about music. It’s got kind of this orchestral, symphonic movements, kind of dark minor, bluesy vibes, chugging funky rhythm and weird synth, bass and loud guitar riffs.”

At the time, Clark’s band line-up had changed. “Riff-rock guy” Elijah Ford (ex-Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford’s son) joined on bass. Drummer JJ Johnson had returned from the Tedeschi Trucks Band (“who I love,” Clark says). Their lives and influences can all be heard on JPEG RAW

“He [JJ] comes from San Antonio, so he kind of grew up in that punk scene,” Clark tells us, “but also is an amazing jazz drummer. So he can do just about anything, which is cool. And Jon Deas [keyboards] comes from a church background, so he’s got the soul, the gospel stuff along with the funky jazz, all the colours, all the crazy new sounds – he’s that guy. I love all of it.” 

Jacob Sciba, co-producer/writer/arranger, brought various jazz and West African influences to the table. Riffy opener Maktub (meaning ‘it is written’ in Arabic) emerged from this, and through conversations with co-writer Sama’an Ashrawi’s father, who is of Palestinian descent. All of it hinges on a compelling blues melody. 

“He’s telling stories about how music helped bring people together, in times of war and despair, the terrible things that happen in life,” Clark explains. “And saying: ‘Music is the message.’ It’s very powerful. It was a long conversation.” 

Such messages are embedded in JPEG RAW. Don’t Start, enriched by guest vocalist Valerie June (“I wanted that funky, swampy southern bluesy but dancy thing happening”), is a highly danceable affair with a subtle polemic that sneaks up on you. ‘Better run and hide, better learn to pray/Oh Lord I’m ’bout to kill that man,’ Clark sings. 

“It was a conversation about a certain… situation that maybe a few of us have been in,” he says with a laugh, a little evasively, “where you felt like doing somebody a little harm. But, you know, luckily that didn’t happen, and you got good friends around you to hold you back. But for a minute, you think about doing a little damage.”

With the world in such a tumultuous place while he wrote these songs, you’d be right to expect some social commentary. But Clark says a bigger inspiration was the pitfalls of absorbing global events, and the lives of others, online. With three young children, he became especially conscious of the canyon between life shown on social media and in reality. 

“It’s not as cool or glamorous or easy to get to these seemingly unattainable goals as it looks on the internet,” he says. “You know, it’s tough to not get caught up in it, but I’m really trying hard not to.” 

Does this album feel more like a product of your own experience, or observation? 

“It was observing the world around me, it was a big realisation that…” He thinks about this. “I was getting a lot of my information on the world through my feed. It was crazy out there, you know, and it still is. But I saw how much I feed my brain through my phone, how much it affects my mood and my disposition, versus when I turn it off and I’m hanging with my kids and they’re playing in the yard and my wife’s happy and, you know, singing and dancing around the living room, like, ‘Okay, this is all right, this is cool, I should appreciate this and not stress so much about things that I can’t necessarily control.’”

Following Clark’s Instagram post about George Floyd’s death, Stevie Wonder got in touch. For Clark, who grew up listening to Wonder’s records, it was a turning point. 

“I was expressing some frustration, you know?” Clark says now of the Instagram post. “And Stevie saw and he’s like: ‘Hey, man, I feel you do it. You know, I understand where your heart is.’ And he’s like: ‘Let’s write a song together.’” 

Conversations turned into demos and eventually studio time, and they wound up with What About The Children, a super-sweet, funky yet biting tune in the vein of Stevie’s own Living For The City. It’s a bridge between JPEG RAW’s heavier, grittier textures and its softer ones. 

Indeed, across the record there’s a lot of sweetness between the sharp edges. The low-lit jazz/soul/hip-hop fusion Alone Together features sultry trumpet lines from Keyon Harrold (who played the Miles Davis parts in Don Cheadle’s biopic Miles Ahead). Dreamy textures drive the atmospheric Hyperwave, a song that came about while watching sunsets in Austin, pink, orange and purple skies, deer and antelope in the distance. 

“It was quiet, you can hear the crickets, birds,” Clark remembers, sounding happy. “That’s not really something that I’ve had in other studios. I’ve usually been, like, in Los Angeles or New York, you know, places like that.” 

Although finishing touches were made in LA, the bulk of JPEG RAW came together at Clark’s Austin home and producer Mike Elizondo’s Arlen Studios in Nashville. You can hear it in the record’s balance of colour and space. 

“That’s kind of out in a rural spot as well,” he says of Arlen. “So it was a lot of going outside on breaks and seeing wildlife and horses and beautiful sunsets, green pastures and beautiful oak trees. I guess that had something to do with the atmosphere, the tones, the space, the colours in the record."

This affinity with nature isn’t new for Clark. As a child he was in the Boy Scouts and spent a lot of time outdoors, camping and bird watching. He learned to shoot a gun at a young age. His grandfather took them fishing. 

“Oh yeah, I was a big nerd,” Clark says. “Absolutely. I mean, being in Central Texas, we were encouraged to appreciate the hill country. So we would take field trips and go out on boats and search for eagles, take our cook kits and boil up some water, do archery… So I’ve always been appreciative of quiet rural areas.” 

You can feel that quiet on To The End Of The Earth. Perhaps JPEG RAW’s most surprising moment, it’s a minute-long dose of crooning by Clark, inspired by John Coltrane collaborator/ baritone Johnny Hartman. It’s stripped back, with just his voice and an acoustic guitar. A new sort of spotlight for a guitar hero whose singing gets relatively fewer plaudits. 

“I sing all the time,” he says. “I grew up in a musical family where we sang all the time. We were also in choir, so I was learning how to sing classical, jazz, modern stuff, barbershop quartets, you know. So I appreciate singing harmonies. I do it all the time.” 

In high school he and his friend Robbie started a vocal harmony group called Young Soul – a far cry from the heavier sounds he’d come to embrace with his other good friend/guitarist, Eve Monsees. 

“We thought we were gonna go on the road and open up for Boyz II Men back in the day,” he says with a laugh, of Young Soul’s ambitions. “But that didn’t really work out. I picked up a guitar instead.” 

All the while, Clark and his four sisters (two older, two younger) were ingesting their father’s copies of Stevie Wonder’s albums Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life, along with his memories of seeing Parliament and Carlos Santana in Oakland, California, when he lived there in the 70s. 

Some of these formative influences come full-circle on JPEG RAW: the slinky Funk Witch U features Parliament mastermind George Clinton; on the aforementioned What About The Children it’s Clark’s sisters on backing vocals. 

“It was really cool, me and my sisters on a song with Stevie Wonder,” he enthuses. “I played it for my dad and he teared up a little bit.”

Looking forward, his hopes revolve around learning: composing, getting to grips with music theory, honing his craft. 

“That’s not for [my] career or anything,” he says, “that’s just me wanting to better myself as a musician.” 

Beyond that, who knows? After a lifetime of labels, there’s a sense of Clark coming back to his truest ones. Gary Clark Jr. the music lover. The guitar nerd. The husband and father. The human being. Still, he does have some other ideas. 

“I want to be a photographer for the National Geographic,” he says affirmatively. “Or be a camera guy for that show Earth; I want to catch the mysterious snow leopard. I want to be one of those guys. I’m already on my way.” He chuckles again. “My wife is a little bit concerned with the camera gear I’ve been purchasing…” 

JPEG RAW is out now via Warner Records.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.