Check out the striking video accompaniment for ‘Chief Joseph’, the latest single from Nashville-based singer-songwriter Scott Clay. Timeless, beautifully captured scenes of buffalo in the Colorado snow are perfect for a song that takes us back in time, through subtle, poetic lyrics, to a battle fought almost 150 years ago. Over a compelling rhythm, Clay delivers his stark narrative in world-weary, emotional tones while the electric guitar steadily builds to a powerful crescendo.
Clay says of the song: “The creative process for the song ‘Chief Joseph’ has, by far, been one of favourite memories in my songwriting career. The song started out as simply a set of guitar chords, and a melody. I was particularly drawn to it, but had the hardest time placing the context of the story. So I put the song on the back shelf for years. I would take the song out from time to time and write lyrics for it. At one point, I had written it about looking down on earth from outer space. At another point, it was a more personal, contemplative song about early childhood. But none of these lyrics felt right. My good friend in Vancouver, BC, Simon, had given me a book called ‘Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce’ by Kent Nerbern. I read it intensely and was inspired to use the story to write the song.” Find out more about ‘Chief Joseph’ in the exclusive Q & A below.
This single is taken from Clay’s recent album, ‘Let It All Lay Bare’, which is out now. The album can be purchased on Bandcamp here. A talented group of musicians, including drummer Sean Lane (David Bazan), bassist Keith Lowe (Fiona Apple), and pianist Daniel Walker (Heart), give the songs richness and texture, giving life to emotive stories of relationships and history and reflections on the natural world. For his fifth full-length release, Clay has taken inspiration from the wonder of nature and, accompanied by cinematographers Spencer Johnson and Britt Warner, he has explored the USA’s National Parks, documenting the awesome sights and creating footage for his music videos. Check it out.
Exclusive Q&A with Scott Clay about the song and video:
What inspired you to write this song? What is it about? What story do you hope it tells? And how did this song come together – musically, lyrically, vibe-wise?
I was visiting a good friend of mine, Simon, in Vancouver, BC, and he loaned me the book ‘Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce’ by Kent Nerburn. I was absolutely enamored with the book, and since the sites mentioned in the book were within a six-hour drive of my house, I decided to drive to rural Idaho and explore the history myself. My brother, Nathan, and I took a two-day roadtrip along the Clearwater River in Western Idaho and visited the modern day Nez Perce village, the battle sites from the 1877 conflict, and the prairie where the Nez Perce used to live during the winter months. I was struck by the immensity and grandeur of the Bitterroot Mountains, the density and pristine preservation of the Clearwater National Forest, and the vividness of the wildflowers on the Weippe Prairie. It truly looks today as it did in the 19th century. Seeing these sites for myself absolutely brought the story to life, and at this point I felt as if I could dive into the songwriting process.
I had a chord structure and melody for a song that had been knocking around in my head for seven years, so I puzzle-pieced the lyrics together with this melody and the song structure started taking form. I brought the rough draft to my producer, Mike Davis, and we dove into pre-production. He immediately envisioned a song which slowly built in intensity to a final climax at the last note of the song. We started using drum patterns from our session drummer, Sean Lane, to lock together with the acoustic guitar pattern and provide a soundscape for the lyrics to live inside.
I sought to tell the sobering and devastating story of Chief Joseph in as objective a manner as I could. So using the words he spoke at the defeat of the Battle of Bear Paw became the lyrics of the chorus (I will fight no more forever / from where the sun now stands forever). I also wanted to portray the culture and perspective of the Nez Perce tribe in those moments as they were fleeing their sacred homeland on the Weippe Prairie, so this became the basis for the lyrics of the verses (Crossing to the other side/ I knew it was the last time / that I would see this place again / surrounded on every side / we fled into the mountains / away from all their guns and empty promises).
Recording vocals to this song was a beautiful, creative learning experience for me. Mike was coaching me through the vocal recording process. He kept encouraging me to portray a “smaller and smaller” version of myself. The goal was to tell a humble and sobering story, and with too much intensity in the vocals the part sounded simply inauthentic. So as I brought the intensity of the vocal part down, the vocals absolutely melted into the mix, and the story became believable and powerful.
Let’s talk about the video. Where did you film it? How did you choose the location? Who filmed this for you and who directed and edited the video?
The video was filmed at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Denver International Airport. The videographer, Britt Warner (who directed and edited the video), and I were prepping equipment for the ‘Simple Kind’ video shoot that we had planned for the following day in Southern Colorado.
I had just flown into DIA, and we were driving through the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to test our brand new filming equipment. Just as we rounded a bend in the road, the buffalo herd came into view and the snow started falling. We prepped the gear and started filming. We captured such a beautiful Colorado moment that we didn’t want the incredible footage to be used solely for test purposes, so it made its way onto this music video.
With the reference to buffalo and snow in the Chief Joseph lyrics, it was just all too fitting for us to use this footage for this song (The snow of early winter fell / as we approached the hunting grounds / the buffalo moved high along the plain).
Do you have a favourite moment or visual from the video?
I had always wanted this video to capture the era in which Chief Joseph lived. The Battle of Bear Paw, which this song was written about, occurred in October of 1877. It’s really challenging to capture visual images that are true to this time period, because even something such as clothing or hair styles from our modern age would be out of character in trying to portray that era. So the shots of buffalo walking through snowfall were an ideal way to bring the viewer into the time and place that Chief Joseph lived.
Almost all of your videos from this album were shot in national parks. Is there a national park you didn’t visit in which you would have liked to film a video if you’d been able to do so? Which national park is your favourite overall?
There are so many National Parks that I have yet to visit! Glacier National Park is roughly four hours west of the Bear Paw battle site, and because of its proximity to the site, I think it would have been the perfect park to film at, if we had the budget and time to do so. I am partial to the National Parks of Washington State because of my history and upbringing in that state. I absolutely love North Cascades, Rainier, and Olympic National Parks; each of them holds so many vivid memories and experiences for me.