A few years ago, local filmmaker/screenwriter and music-scene fixture Clay Hardee decided it was time to get off the sidelines, musically speaking, and enter the fray. But not being a "musician" himself, at least in the traditional sense, Hardee turned to his close friend Jake Vest, a talented local songwriter and guitarist behind many successful Memphis bands over the years, including the Third Man, the Bulletproof Vests, and, most recently, Tiger High.
"I had finished writing a screenplay called Spring, Breaking that I really thought would get made, but it wasn't seeming to happen," Hardee says. "I sang a song in passing to Jake, and he is the type of dude who really inspires the best in people. We cut two songs in one night. I decided I just like the ability to tell stories with the guys musically. It is still collaborative, like film, just more direct and with less people, but everyone collaborating equally."
Hardee and Vest then recruited a crew of capable musicians — fellow Tiger High members Toby Vest (Jake's brother), Greg Faison, and Greg Roberson, and Scissors & the Cuts frontman Brent Stabbs — to collaborate on the project. In 2011, the newly dubbed Clay Otis & the Showbiz Lights released an excellent eponymous debut album, one of the year's most pleasant musical surprises. Eclectic and fun, and punctuated by Hardee's dark and self-deprecating sense of humor, the record established Clay Otis as one of the more distinctive voices in Memphis music.
Now the group is back (although the Showbiz Lights moniker was dropped) with another adventurous and enjoyable offering, The Overachiever. And where the first record was a genre-hopping exercise of reckless abandon, The Overachiever is more focused and, dare I say, serious.
"If the first record felt like a joyous celebration and night on the town, I think of this one as being the hangover and introspective doubt that is the other part of that joy, the coming down," Hardee says. "This album is much darker. There are no love songs. The album is about family, drugs, and social issues. It's much more cohesive in tone, I hope."
Which isn't to say that there aren't moments on The Overachiever that induce laughter. It just feels more personal this time.
"I think of it like storytelling and being sincere," Hardee says. "Even the first record, which was way over the top, was coming from a place of grounded honesty in every word. This record is coming from an incredibly honest place of loving people and wanting to portray problems in an honest way. Problems are fucking hilarious. Rarely do people laugh or cry without adversity, so I hope people laugh. I laugh the whole time I make records, all of them."
The music on The Overachiever — more relaxed, rootsy sounds bolstered by the occasional psychedelic flourish — perfectly matches Hardee's subject matter. What's more, the group's transition into this new sonic territory feels entirely unforced.
"The music is usually a pure collaboration between Brent [Stabbs] and me," Jake Vest vest. "We've written together since 9th or 10th grade, so it comes naturally to us. Clay will step in and guide us in the right direction if we get too far out. Occasionally, we will create entirely new parts that Clay will then go and improv over. Everyone gives their input. Clay knew what his concept was, and we did our best to follow him down that weird, dark road."
That weird, dark road has led to this Friday's performance at the Hi-Tone Café to celebrate the release of The Overachiever. The show will also mark the first live appearance of new member Keith Cooper, of the local band the Sheiks. (His bandmate in the Sheiks, Frank McLallen, is also joining the band but will be unable to play on Friday, because he's on the road with Jack Oblivian.)
According to Hardee, the addition of the Sheiks duo has been a real source of inspiration.
"We are recording a new set of songs in early February with Frank and Keith," he says. "We had been jamming with them getting ready for the show Friday and turned every jam they fiddled with into a great song, so we just have to ride the muse.
"Memphis and my friends all inspire me and tell me what is good and what sucks, so I can't imagine taking a break from anything going on right now," Hardee says. "It's cheaper than therapy to be an artist in 2013."
Clay Otis Record-Release Show
Hi-Tone Café Friday, January 18th
9 p.m., free