Ben Platt and Brandy Clark on Their Haunting Duet, ‘Treehouse,’ a Joint Summer Tour, and How Platt’s ‘Honeymind’ Album Expands the Queer Americana Space

For his new “Honeymind” album, singer and actor Ben Platt brought in an especially honeyed voice as a counterpart on one song, Brandy Clark. He had written “Treehouse” in a writing session with Clark well before the album was being put together, and then he and producer Dave Cobb had the eureka (or as Platt puts it, “duh”) moment of realizing just how much more haunting it might sound as a duet with the co-writer, whose chops obviously don’t begin and end with songwriting prowess.

With “Honeymind,” Platt’s third solo album, he is moving more into a singer-songwriter space that can fairly be characterized as Americana (although he veers a little more toward the pop-anthemic on a tune like “All-American Queen”). It’s representative of the type of music he grew up loving, apart from — or as an appropriate adjunct to — musical theater, two forms he sees as quite adjacent in their emphasis on intimacy and narrative. Having the imprimatur of Cobb and Clark for the album, and the latter singer/composer for a summer tour, certainly doesn’t hurt as Platt expands beyond the devoted “Dear Evan Hanson” fan base to an audience not quite so strictly Broadway-bound.

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But of course Clark herself is no stranger to Broadway, having recently been a Tony nominee for “Shucked” as well as a Grammy winner for her most recent solo album. Variety got the two performers together for a Zoom to see how they met up for a duet and tour — and to talk about what Platt’s new album, as inspired as it is by his relationship with his fiance, might uniquely represent during Pride month.

Did the two of you meet as friends, or colleagues, or was it kind of an arranged marriage to see what would happen if you collaborated?

Platt: I knew of Brandy, as a fan. I mean, I knew her songwriting and her work outside of the theater community, and then it was pushed to the top of my consciousness by “Shucked,” because I have so many friends in the theater community who had loved working with her in the development process for that. So I knew her from both sides, and she was really high up on the list of people that I really wanted to have a chance to work with. Also, everyone at the label, as soon as they saw the kind of record that I was hoping to make and the kind of song I was hoping to write, the first name out of everybody’s mouth was, “You’ve got to write with Brandy Clark.” So I was like, please. And then we did get sort of that arranged marriage, as you do, as co-writers on this song. That session was the first time that we had properly worked together, and hopefully not the last.

Clark: I was a big fan of Ben and was set up to write with him and Jimmy Robbins, who’s the other writer on this song. I’m such a fan of Ben’s, I probably wouldn’t have been my best self had Jimmy not been there, but Jimmy’s amazing at moving things along and making things happen. Ben came in with this wonderful idea for “Treehouse,” and it felt so easy to write that day. I think you did the vocal that day. And then “Shucked” opened, and Ben was always that familiar face at all these Tony luncheons and different things that I would go to, because I always wanted to be in that world, but it was so foreign to me. That was how it started. And I, like him, hope it’s just the first of many things we do.

Let’s talk about the central image of “Treehouse.” It’s easy to imagine that most of the metaphors that there could be for love have been explored at this point, but I don’t remember that particular one being used. How did that image develop and blossom into a song?

Platt: It was right around the time that my fiance and I had found our first joint home and were starting to nest and live together. We were affectionately calling it the treehouse because our bedroom on the second floor, and all you can see outside our window is our neighbor’s trees. Then I sat with that image and started to think about it in a more metaphorical sense. Having now been in this more formative relationship, I was feeling the dichotomy of how it’s secure, protected, safe, special, private and sacred, but also, by virtue of the fact that it’s love, it’s still precarious and volatile and could change at any moment. It’s like the tightrope walk of it, mixed with how deeply secure it feels. That was the whole crux of it — at least what it’s been for me and my relationship — and so that seemed to really go hand in hand with this image that we already had for our shared home. So I had it really high up on the list of things I wanted to try to write on this record. As soon as I found out that I was going to be writing with Brandy and Jimmy, it felt like the perfect image to bring to them. And I think they both really responded to it immediately.

Clark: Oh yeah. Being a songwriter, you try to think of a million ways to write about love, and neither Jimmy nor I had ever had ever thought about that, the treehouse metaphor, and it was just a great idea. I wish I could say it was mine, but it was all Ben.

Were you starting out with the idea of making it a duet, or were you initially getting together purely with writing in mind?

Clark: Well, for me, we were getting together as writers. I’m not a natural harmony singer. Ben had to sing the part and I had to learn it. So no, that was not in the cards. But, man, I was blown away when he and Dave Cobb reached out to me about doing it. It was not something I saw coming. I was just happy he was recording the song; honestly, I never thought I’d be on it.

Platt: It was always a very important song to the album. When I went down to Georgia and worked with Dave and we put the whole record together, in that sort of initial listen, when you finally have the whole body of work together and you can listen through, there just really seemed to be something that was missing. There are a couple songs on the album that, given that it’s so much about my partner, deal with love and our relationship, and there seemed to really want to be a two-perspective moment in a song that really hada joint voice. I think it was one of those things that’s staring you in the face, or right on your nose, that you never even think of. I was on social media, and I mean, I follow Brandy in general, but I saw a bunch of performances happening around the Grammys, and I was just reminded of her as a performer, because obviously I think of her so much as an incredible songwriter. And I was like, “What the fuck have I been doing?” Obviously Dave is a huge fan of Brandy too, and so we were like: duh. So we reached out and hoped that she would be game, and she was, and she and Dave put it down together and it was beautiful.

How did the next step come about, to tour together?

Platt: It was sort of the dream scenario that I didn’t necessarily know would even be possible. We had this list that was like, “Well, you know, in a perfect world it would be Brandy, but then, if not, I guess we can talk about this or that.” Then all of a sudden, I heard that it was a real thing that could actually happen. It couldn’t be a more ideal situation. You know, I’m a relative newcomer to this space — to this kind of style of songwriting and this stylistic world — and she is such an icon and authentic person and talent. And I feel a great responsibility to put forward a really great musical live show, especially because she’s coming with me. It feels like a real fire under my butt to do my best work.

Clark: Well, I feel the same way. When my manager asked… She didn’t even really give me a choice. Not that I would’ve said no. But she just said, “Hey, you’ve been offered this Ben Platt tour. I’ve already accepted it. We’re gonna move some things, because I think it’s just the right look.” And it also lights a fire under me because Ben is such a great singer and performer; I know I have to be on my game every night. We all try to be anyway, but when you have that, it really does raise the bar.

I want to say one thing that’s kind of a step back. I had nothing to do with the production of this record, but I’m knocked out, on “Treehouse” in particular, by the bravery to keep that song so sparse. I don’t think there are many singers that can get away with that, but Ben can, and the way that he and Dave Cobb did that blows my mind. I kept thinking, “Oh, they’re gonna add more to it” — not because it needed it, but because I just thought, oh, they will. They didn’t, and I just think it’s really brave and speaks to what an amazing vocalist he is and the kind of artist he is that he’ll be that bare.

Since you bring up Dave Cobb… He is kind of the go-to producer when you have your choice of who you want to produce your music in this sphere. Ben, was that somebody you had aspired to work with, or was he recommended to you along the way?

Platt: A combination. I was certainly a fan. And then I joined Interscope — this is my first record with them — and with Sam Ribeck and the whole team, their first really big suggestion, idea, hope for a collaboration was Dave. And I was thrilled that he was familiar with me and wanted to work with me. Like Brandy was touching on, my biggest hope for the album was for it to feel as unadorned and bells-and-whistles-less as possible, and to really focus in on the songwriting, the vocal performance, and the hero instruments. And as you said, you know it, Dave is the hero guy for that. So I dove right in with him, and he challenged me in a great way to be as completely authentic as possible and accept warts and imperfections and the live quality of a lot of the music, which I think was just a really beautiful match for the type of songwriting that I brought to him.

Did you feel, Ben, that this was essentially a continuation of what you did on your last two records, with maybe more of an emphasis on the finger-picking kind of stuff, or did it feel like a detour?

Platt: I think to me at least, emotionally, it sort of feels like an arrival, like a sort of homecoming. Obviously, it’s hard to predict what I’ll feel or try in the future. But I think as I’ve done my first records and tried to figure out what really is my home base and how my perspective can be the most authentic that it can be, in terms of the world that I’ve stepped into, this has felt the most sort of organically me. I think I tend to come from a very earnest place of narrative storytelling and emotionally forward concepts and stuff like that, and I just think that this is exactly the feeling and the sound for that. So my hope is to very much live in this world moving forward. So, yes, it felt like something new, but also sort of a return, in a way.

You were on “The View” recently and you talked about how you loved the music that gets called Americana, even before it had that name, when it was Paul Simon and people like that. But that you said that, growing up, you didn’t have a record that spoke directly to you as a queer person, and that you kind of hoped to provide that. The Americana world seems very queer-friendly, and Brandy is out there representing, and there’s a bunch of artists representing, but it’s still maybe a small niche. Was that important to you to have a record that kind represented a more specific experience than what you felt like existed in the past… and to think about a young audience of listeners that need it, like you used to?

Platt: Yeah, I mean, certainly Brandy could speak to this too … You know, it wasn’t necessarily going in from the the jump to make a record with that kind of messaging in mind. But I think more so as I started to write, one of the combinations that really was making me feel so inspired, excited and joyful was that crossroads that you’re talking about of this very introspective, softly romantic, narrative stuff that has a very particularly, expressly named queer bent. And I think there are a lot of wonderful queer artists, but especially when it comes to gay artists and men, it can often come from a place of aggression. Or there can be a loudness associated with it that obviously is an incredibly important and formative thing, which helped me a lot growing up, and I admire those artists a lot. But every so often you get someone like a Sam Smith, where there is, at least for me…

I am sort of a softie and very introspective and tend to be very earnest and want to come from a place of total vulnerability. To hear somebody come from that space, when they’re talking about their queer identity and their relationships and they can be just softly romantic, and complex in that, is such an exciting, powerful thing, I think. The idea of contributing to that and being a voice that is in that space — particularly in this stylistic world, as you’re saying, where there isn’t necessarily a ton of examples of artists that live at that crossroads — I think was super exciting to me. Not just in terms of the privilege of getting to have young people listen and hopefully feel seen by the music, but also just in terms of my own processing of my life and my identity and my experiences. To get to do that in this type of music feels super rewarding and warm and fulfilling. So I love that that is an element of the album, for sure. But also, it’s got to be, because I’m writing about my relationship, and it is a queer relationship. So what are you gonna do?

You two now have something in common that not that many people have in common, which is the intersection of the kind of Americana and Broadway worlds. You’re kind of coming from different directions where, Ben, you’re moving more into the Americana world, and Brandy comes from the country-Americana realm, and obviously has become a force in Broadway now too. You’ll be spending some time together out on the road. Would it be crazy to think you might talk at some point about developing a musical together?

Clark: I hope so. It’s funny you would say that, because when this whole thing came up of us doing this tour … I didn’t tell anybody until it was announced, except I did tell the producer of “Shucked,” Mike Bosner. We’re trying to find a new idea to work on, him and I and Robert Horn and Shane McAnally. And I said: “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe we’re supposed to develop something for Ben.” And so, you know, you just never know. But I have definitely had that thought.

Platt: Well, I’m game. I’m signing on. And also, you know, my only ulterior motive basically in going on the tour is to force Brandy to hang out with me all over the country. So I do definitely plan to spend some time (talking ideas). It sounds good to me.

Clark: I love that. It’s a deal.

Do you think you’ll be singing “Treehouse” together on tour?

Platt: It’s up to BC.

Clark: Oh, yes. In fact, I’m spending the next weeks just practicing that harmony part. When I say I’m not a harmony singer, I am not a harmony singer. My ear just goes to that melody. But for this, I have to —it would be such a terrible moment to miss. So, yes.

Platt: So, yay — yes.

As an aside, Brandy, congratulations on your Americana Honors & Awards nominations.

Clark: Thank you. I’ve never been nominated for those, so it was really a nice surprise.

It was surprising that you hadn’t been. But Brandi Carlile (who produced Clark’s self-titled 2022 album) is always very upfront with her aspirations for who she helps get nominated for what, like when it was her goal to get Tanya Tucker some Grammys. I think I remember her mentioning that getting you nominated for the Americana Awards was one of her goals for your project together.

Clark: Yeah. I texted her that day (the nominations came out), and I told her I remembered her telling me that one of the reasons I should work with her is that I straddled the country and Americana space and she thought I should be more in the Americana space, both for myself and for the format. She said, “I can pull you over there. I can pull you more Americana.” So I texted her and I said, “You did it. Mission accomplished.”

The two of you are playing a lot of iconic venues on this tour, like not just the Greek in L.A. but two nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. This will come after your Palace residency in New York, Ben (which Brandy is not on). Have you had any thoughts about how it might be different doing this new music at some place like the Ryman versus some place like the Palace?

Platt: I’m excited for the combination, especially in a space (like the Ryman) that’s iconic like that. (The Palace residency) is a slightly more musical theater-leaning show than what will ultimately be our kind of proper tour show. What I’m so excited about in terms of that opportunity is what we saw with something like “Shucked,” which is that these things are not very far apart, and that music is storytelling and it’s character driven, whether the character is yourself or somebody you’re writing. I think when I started to work on the show and put these songs alongside some standards and some musical theater moments, it felt like it all very much can exist in the same perspective. And I think that it’s really fun to continue to sort of dispel the myth that musical theater is this thing that’s way out to sea in a different zone from other music.

The Ben Platt “Honeymind Tour” with guest Brandy Clark:

June 18            Boston, MA                   Boch Center Wang Theatre

June 20            Providence, RI               Providence Performing Arts Center

June 21            Philadelphia, PA            Academy of Music

June 23            Vienna, VA                   Wolf Trap

June 25            Toronto, ON                  Massey Hall

June 26            Toronto, ON                  Massey Hall

June 28            Highland Park, IL           Ravinia

June 29            Minneapolis, MN            Orpheum Theatre

June 30            Milwaukee, WI               The Riverside Theater

July 2                Columbus, OH               Mershon Auditorium

July 6                Nashville, TN                 Ryman Auditorium

July 7                Nashville, TN                 Ryman Auditorium

July 9                Atlanta, GA                   Fox Theatre

July 11              Grand Prairie, TX          Texas Trust CU Theatre

July 12              Austin, TX                     Bass Concert Hall

July 15              Denver, CO                   Buell Theatre

July 16              Salt Lake City, UT          The Eccles Theater

July 17              Salt Lake City, UT          The Eccles Theater

July 20              Los Angeles, CA           Greek Theatre

July 21              San Diego, CA              San Diego Civic Theatre

July 23              Saratoga, CA                The Mountain Winery

July 25              Portland, OR                 Keller Auditorium

July 26              Vancouver, BC              Queen Elizabeth Theatre

July 27              Seattle, WA                   Benaroya Hall

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