Mic Check: Callista Clark unveils country debut, ‘Real to Me’

Callista Clark, a 17-year-old native of Zebulon, Georgia, released her debut country EP, "Real to Me," in February 2021.
Callista Clark, a 17-year-old native of Zebulon, Georgia, released her debut country EP, "Real to Me," in February 2021.

Credit: Ford Fairchild

Credit: Ford Fairchild

Editor’s note: With live music and concert reviews on hold due to COVID-19, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is focusing on how Georgia musicians are spending their time in our feature, Mic Check.

Callista Clark grew up in a small town but is on a big path with her debut EP.

The 17-year-old country singer, who still lives with her family in Zebulon, recently released the five-song effort, “Real to Me,” on Nashville powerhouse Big Machine Records.

Ranging from the guitar-infused lead single, “It’s ‘Cause I Am,” and the slicker country-pop of “Don’t Need It Anymore” to the bluesy slow burn of the title track, the songs showcase Clark’s versatility and burgeoning songwriting talents. (She worked on the material with top Nashville scribes including Chris DeStefano and Liz Rose.)

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While Clark is still relishing small-town life — especially her grandparents’ Christmas tree farm and visits to her grandfather’s Open Arms Baptist Church — the release of her inaugural single to radio in late March is already boosting her national profile.

In a recent chat, the unpretentious Clark talked about singing with Jennifer Nettles as a pre-teen, her obsession with the keytar and learning classic rock songs to cover as a young performer.

Q: When were you able to record the songs on “Real to Me”?

A: I was supposed to go into the studio [at the] top of 2020, and the world just shut down. It delayed me a bit, but I went back in late summer, and it wasn’t the typical recording process. We had all the musicians send in the parts from their houses, and my producer and I built it ground up with him in Nashville and me in Georgia. I went back to Nashville to cut the vocals, and that’s when we were figuring out the release date and photo shoot.

Callista Clark, a 17-year-old native of Zebulon, Georgia, released her debut country EP, "Real to Me," in February 2021.
Callista Clark, a 17-year-old native of Zebulon, Georgia, released her debut country EP, "Real to Me," in February 2021.

Q: Did the past 12 months give you extra time to work on music?

A: Definitely. That’s when I got the keytar! When I asked the label for one, I think (they) thought I was going insane. I’m obsessed with vintage-looking things, usually ’70s stuff. But Lady Gaga plays keytar, and I watched her documentary, and I was just obsessed.

Q: You got to sing with Jennifer Nettles when you were 12. Have you seen her since you’ve started your own career?

A: I haven’t seen her in person since then. I went to a (Sugarland) concert at 14, and she remembered me and was telling (bandmate) Kristian (Bush) about me. She has stayed in touch and in contact. She’s a great mentor.

Q: You worked with a lot of seasoned Nashville writers for the songs on the EP. Was that intimidating?

A: Yes, very (laughs). I tried to just ground and center myself and have the mentality that I’m going to go in and learn first and foremost, which I still do every day. Then I just tried to be open-minded and tell them exactly how I was feeling. I’ve been writing and having co-writes in Nashville the past three years and building my catalog, but the ones on this (EP) were some of my very first co-writes ever. I have a lot of songs from then to now that I can’t wait to put out.

Callista Clark, a 17-year-old native of Zebulon, Georgia, released her debut country EP, "Real to Me," in February 2021.
Callista Clark, a 17-year-old native of Zebulon, Georgia, released her debut country EP, "Real to Me," in February 2021.

Q: The songs “It’s Cause I Am” and “Heartbreak Song” blend the traditional with modern country. Who are some of the artists who inspire you?

A: Jennifer being one of them, definitely. She’s an incredible singer and performer. But I also grew up listening to all kinds of music. I’d go around to small venues in hometown with siblings, and they had older crowds, so my mom had us learn things they wanted to hear. The only thing I knew was Christian music, but I learned Tanya Tucker, The Judds, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Aretha (Franklin). In a way, I grew up with all of that that music, so I feel you can hear that a lot.

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Q: Where did you play around town?

A: Just little fairs and fests that would happen in my hometown. A venue called the Music Barn, they had an older crowd every Friday night, and they had a different bluegrass band, but me and my siblings couldn’t play instruments at first and would sing to karaoke tracks. We’d go to the Hollonville Opry House (in Pike County) and it was really fun for us. We were 4, 7 and 8 (years old) and I was the middle child, so they loved seeing the kids up there.

Q: You play more than a half-dozen instruments. When did you start?

A: I was around 10 when I started with the ukulele. My mom had tried to get me to play guitar, but my hands were so small. My little sister got a toy ukulele from a fair, and she started playing it really quick, so I figured it would be an easier one for me to start on. Six months later, I turned 11 and started playing guitar, and Jennifer, I played with her when I just turned 12 and had just started playing guitar and from there my mom taught me basic chords on piano.

Q: What have you been listening to lately?

A: Anything to make me feel happier. I really got into Surfaces; they have some of the happiest sounding music, and The Band Camino. The last concert I went to was Dan + Shay, and I realized I knew every one of their songs! I also listen to a lot of Joss Stone. Anything that boosts my mood, so a lot of throwback rock and my ’70s playlist on Spotify.

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