Clay Hardee, who under the alter ego Clay Otis will mark the release of his second album with his band The Showbiz Lights on Friday at the Hi-Tone, had never sung a note before he teamed with producer Jake Vest to make their first record in 2011.
"I'd never even thought about doing music," says Hardee of the humbly titled genre grab bag 12 Magnificent Songs, which started when, frustrated by the screenplay he was working on, he turned to writing songs instead. "I wasn't nervous about going into the studio. I think of it as being busy and collaborating and telling stories. I'm more comfortable with film in my background, but once I started this, I just saw it as tiny, more manageable films."
That approach is even more evident on the new record, The Overachiever, a more deliberate, longer-incubated effort than its predecessor. Hardee describes the record, with its series of dark, interconnected garage soul rockers, as being like a series of "little neorealist films."
"Just very, very blunt, straight forward character-based lyrics," he says of the songs, which were written in and inspired by his hometown of Panama City, Fla. "There're no love songs. It's not really about joy. It's more about family and addiction and responsibility and adulthood and introspection and self doubt."
Otis describes the Florida of his youth as a cultural wasteland.
"Florida is just weird because there's nothing to do there except raise kids," he says. "In Florida even music was real anti-social. You ordered CDs, they came to you in the mail, and you didn't really have anybody to talk to them about."
Given the isolation of his youth, it's not surprising then that Hardee gravitated toward the most universal and accessible of art forms, film. He developed the ambition to become a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker at that. And when he was 23 he decided to set his lens upon a band he had discovered from Memphis, Snowglobe.
"I was real naive because Panama City doesn't really have any music stuff going on," he recalls. "In my mind I knew their first two records, and I thought they were famous or something."
Hardee moved to Memphis to make a Snowglobe documentary. The film never really panned out, but Hardee threw himself into the Midtown music culture. He became a huge Grizzlies fan and could be found most nights checking out bands at the Hi-Tone.
"I just fell in love with Memphis," says Hardee. "I really like how in tune everybody is here with the past. Even 19-year-old kids in East Memphis know who Booker T. & the MGs are and they know how it all came about and the lineage of it. The entire history is so refreshing to me. I even like the grimness of it. The grimness of Memphis to me is nice because there's such a positive counteraction to it."
Through Snowglobe, Hardee met Vest, a fellow film buff who was at the time wrapping up production of a new record by his band, The Third Man, named after the 1949 Orson Welles classic.
The Showbiz Lights also include Vest's brother Toby on keyboards, Greg Faison on drums, and Brent Stabbs on bass.
Hardee and Vest's collaboration has extended beyond just Clay Otis. Hardee, who used to spend all his time in clubs, can now more often be found hanging out at Vest's High/Low Recording studio, where when he's not working on his own screenplays, he's helping direct a new music video or lending a hand on one of Vest's recording projects.