The guitar virtuoso returns for his second effort and tells EW he's playing more than just the blues.

Credit: Frank Maddocks

Gary Clark Jr.’s latest album arrives with tremendous pressure, considering his credits. He’d apprenticed under Jimmie Vaughn in his hometown of Austin, Texas early on, came up playing the clubs there, and before he’d ever cut a record he was dubbed the new standard bearer for the blues by none other than Buddy Guy. Eric Clapton said Clark made him want to play guitar again.

The thing is though, Clark Jr. wants to play more than the blues and do far more than shred guitar. “I wish there was less discussion about genre around my music,” he says over a glass of red wine at Hotel on Rivington in Manhattan. He’s wearing his signature hat, clad in black from head to toe. He’s just finished describing the guitar Pat Smear gave him as a thank you after filming Sonic Highways. “I come from a place where genres co-existed in the most beautiful way, jumping from stage to stage with different genre artists. Its something that I never thought about. And I wouldn’t be happy playing music if I only did one thing.”

Anyone who’s listened to Blak and Blu, his 2013 debut, or his self-titled live album last year knows that Clark does more than than one thing; hip-hop drums, psych-flares, Sweet Philly soul, funk-rock, and yes, blues garage rock show up loudly more than once. “I understand that people have to familiarize or situate it,” he concedes. “But for me, it’s not something I think about. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, if it affects me and I like it, I’m all about it.”

Which is not to say Clark is careless or frivolous in his explorations. In fact, he’s remarkably self-aware, a result of something that becomes clear quickly in conversation with Clark: He was always going to do this. He speaks often of “his path” and his near-obsessive interest in music, of knowing he’d be here, somehow. “I knew what I was going to do from a very young age,” he says. “And I was approached with deals when I was a lot younger but I knew I needed to live first. I had to gain insight, live through my early twenties, make mistakes, deal with them, and in turn understand who I was as a person,” he pauses. “I know who I am.”

Listeners get a further peek into who that is on his newest album and second studio LP, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, out Friday. Clark wrote, produced, and played nearly every instrument part on its 13 tracks. “Now was the time,” Clark says of taking creative control. “And I’ve always been very hands on, up until the point of starting with Warner where there was access to great producers and great engineers who have the plaques on the wall to prove they know what’s going on. And quite honestly, I want those too. But it was like, ‘If you’re going to go for it, go for it.’ No sophomore slump, I’ve got nobody to blame but myself.”

The collection is highlighted by the raw, bombastic “Grinder” and the gospel-tinged “Church” but ultimately finds gravity in the R&B rallying cry, “Hold On.” Clark’s newborn son with supermodel Nicole Trunfio, Zion, is heard cooing through the opening, making the lyrics about wanting to protect his first child from systemic racism immediate and affecting. “I was thinking about a lot when that went down,” he says of the recording process. “Ferguson had happened, Baltimore was happening, and I was thinking about how this isn’t anything new.”

He continues, “And then I was back home and understanding the struggle and the sacrifice that’s made by parents wanting to give their child the tools that they need to survive in this world, to give them the confidence, for the first time. My son was born when I was in the studio and I was like, ‘What am I going to tell him?’ I wanted to try to magnify the light as much as possible in the darkness. That’s what that was really was about.”