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Tena Clark

is one of America’s most successful songwriters and record producers, winning a Grammy for her work with Natalie Cole and nominated for a Grammy for her work with  Patti LaBelle. She has also worked with Leann Rimes, Dionne Warwick, and Aretha Franklin, to name a few.  In addition, she has contributed to soundtracks for movies such as “Hope Floats” and “Where the Heart Is,” and for television shows such as “Desperate Housewives.” Her just released memoir, “Southern Discomfort,” is about growing up in Waynesboro, Mississippi, where she was a member of the county’s wealthiest family.

Q&A

Q: We last spoke in 1997 for a book I wrote titled Women on Top. It was a history of women in music. You were living in LA at the time writing songs and producing records with Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and others. Now you live in Atlanta and you have written an incredible memoir about growing up in Waynesboro, Mississippi. Have you seen as much progress in the music industry as you would have liked since our last conversation?

A: Oh, my God, no. No one has ever asked me that question so poignantly.  It is interesting because I am on the newly formed board of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, part of the University of California School for Communication and Journalism. They originally did a study on women in film and television. That study has had a huge impact. Now we are doing the same thing in the music business. It is pretty compelling.

Q: Where are changes most needed in the entertainment business ?

A: In the music business, you were accepted as a songwriter or a singer, but as a producer—no way. As a music director—no way. Anything that puts you in a place of more power at the record labels has been off limits. In film and television, you have the same thing. As long as you are being an actress, that’s fine.  But directors, producers, people behind the camera, people in the studios; it has been a long struggle for women to get into those positions. I won’t do a knee-jerk reaction that it hasn’t changed at all in the music business—it has changed after “Women on Top” and conversations through the years—but now you have a lot of women who produce themselves. That piece is different. What is not different, though, not that I want to wear this crown, but I don’t know any women like myself who get called to write and produce a major commercial, a song for film or television, or to write and produce a record. It is very rare. If I am an artist and controlling my fate, I have more power to say, “I am going to produce myself.” They may say, “No, you will co-produce.” It still goes back to power. If I am a male and the head of a label I am the one telling you “yes, you can do that” and “no, you can’t.” It is the same thing in film. It is really about where the power lies. Mostly it is not with women … when I produced Aretha’s album, the only Christmas record she ever did, she said to me straight up in the beginning, “I want to co-produce three songs,” and I said, “of course.” I didn’t have an issue with that. She had originally called and asked me to produce the record. I can’t tell you if that request would have flown if the producer had been a male. Maybe.

Q: In your memoir, you write about your childhood and coming of age in Waynesboro living in an antebellum house that had the only swimming pool in town. Despite that façade you had one of the most dysfunctional families imaginable. Tell us about your father.

A: My dad was an incredible businessman. When I look at my life, people say to me, you never see a creative with both sides of the brain. But I say half of my brain is my dad’s and half is my mom’s. He really was a scrapper. He started out with nothing. He was a self-made man. He was short in stature. He always had a Napoleon complex. There are a lot of people who do. But he carried that through business, through his personal relationships, and with women and everything else. There were two things that seemed to be important to him. That was making money in business—and women. It is so complicated. That is one word that resonates with the South—and with my book also. It is a windy road. It is not a straight road. I talk about the way I feel about Mississippi. I loved my father greatly, but at the same time I hated so many things about what he did or did not do. There is a twist at the end. So there always seems to be some sort of redemption for all of this. When I would ask my mom, “Why can’t my dad just say he loves me?”—her answer would be, “He is complicated, honey. He is a complicated man.” He has been gone now twenty years or so. I still miss him, especially on Sundays because I would call him every Sunday, but I still have this in my head. I struggle with it. I struggle with my feelings for him.

Q: Some of your exchanges with him are very memorable. I will never forget what he said to you on his death bed. How do you ever forget something like that?

A: As painful as it was, as hurtful as it was, what I left with, after the whole thing, was “son of a bitch. You really had to say that on your death bed?” Is it really all about competition? My dad wanted me to be successful. He wanted me to make money, but he didn’t want me to make more money than he did. I also think it bothered him that I dated a lot of beautiful women. Obviously that bothered him. There was some sort of competition. I have other friends who have competitive parents. That is the most screwed up thing you can do to a kid. I know with my daughter, who is a veterinarian in New Orleans, the last thing I would feel about my daughter is competition. I want her to do better than me. But to say what he said on his death bed, it was pretty bad. It was like Lazarus had raised from the dead and said that. Then he came back around and called me before he passed away … I was in Nashville when he actually died.

Q: How did your mother react to your father’s excesses?

A: You know there has always been a debate about that in my family. It is why my mother became an alcoholic. Because she had to medicate herself to deal with it. One of the takeaways that is important in this book is that if you are settling for something that you know is not ok, not the life you want, then you are settling for money or because you are afraid that you can’t take care of yourself. That was my mother’s problem. Because she only had an 8th grade education, with him being so powerful, how in the world could she ever leave him? To deal with infidelity, she drank. She did not start drinking until her mid-30s, and then she started socially drinking. I think she found that was the way to medicate herself. And feel better about her situation. I know so many artists who have done the same thing. If you are not living your truth, it will come out some way and it won’t be pretty. It will come out through addiction, drugs, obesity, you use eating as your emotional crutch, depression—it is going to come out. I feel like with my mom, even though it was so difficult when she left her family, she showed how strong and brave she was. How she, in her own way, said that “if I have to live like a pauper, I can’t live like this anymore.” It took her a while to get her life together, but she was an amazing woman, and I miss her greatly.

Q: The family’s black maid Virgie provided you with your only sense of stability and opportunity for personal growth. How important was she to you?

A: There were two people who gave me anchors. One was Virgie and the other was my middle sister. I had three much older sisters. My middle sister was always there to help sweep up the pieces. She was always the one who asked, “Have you studied for your test?” She had her life, too. All my sisters were married and gone by the time I was six. Virgie represented calmness to me. She was the buoy in the storm. She didn’t live with us. She wasn’t like a nanny today that drives the kids wherever they need to go. She was the one who was there every day who validated the craziness, even though she never would say so out loud. I knew by the way she took me by the hand, saying, “Let’s go out and look at the cows.” She always tried to distract me. It is hard to be distracted when a hurricane is coming through the house. I would go to her house, her shack, it was a pink shack, another planet from where I lived. But it was like a big old warm, buttered biscuit. The smell. The love. The sweetness. The simplicity. I think I was searching for simplicity because at home everything was so complicated, so much drama.

Virgie gave me unconditional love. There was not a bone in her body that would have thought, “Does she like women or does she like men?” She didn’t care. She never said a word to me. All she cared about was that she loved me. I lost her before Mom or Dad. I wrote a song about her at the time. It was titled “I Have to Find a Star” and it is about Virgie. It was on an album. It was just simple and I felt safe. With my sister I felt protected. I felt she cared about me and my future. Also I knew she had her own life and her own husband and her own child. It was very limited as to who I felt safe with.  I had to depend on myself mainly.

My birthday was on December 19. That was the day my mom left. On December 23 my dad dropped me off on a corner and gave me a hundred dollar bill and told me to go buy Christmas presents for my sisters and whoever else I needed to buy presents for. Then he pulled off and I remember thinking, “ OK. I think I’m on my own now.” It was like, “Buck up buttercup. This is the way it’s going to be.” That is when I became, in my own way, a scrapper. I knew I had to take care of myself.

Q: Later on, the two issues with your father—that you could make as much money as he did and the realization that you preferred women to men—were those things of equal value in his calculations?

A: He would have never said either one of those things. In my mind, knowing my father, those were of equal value.

Q: If you had not been interested in women would your life been different with your father?

A: I never thought about that. I think it would have been somewhat different because he would have only been competing on the money issue, but he always wanted to control everything in our lives. If there had been a man involved in my life, I don’t think that would have stopped him from trying to control everything. After the time I came out to him in the truck, it was never mentioned again by him … not until he was on his deathbed. I guess he had held that one in for quite a while.

Q: When was the last time you visited Waynesboro?

A: Probably about 5 months ago.

Q: This book would make a great movie. Who would you like to see play you?

A: You are the 50th person to ask me that. Until it happens, I haven’t let my head go there. There was a little girl I was impressed with. Did you see the “Florida Project” that came out last year? It is really good. A small film, but it won awards, but the little girl who played the lead, Brooklynn Prince, I think she would be perfect. I have had so many people say, “You remind me of Scout and Iggie.” But I haven’t really let myself go there. A person that I think would be perfect for Beulah Mae would be the black woman on Saturday Night Live, Leslie Jones. She would be perfect.

Q: How long did it take you to write “Southern Discomfort?”

A: This book was years in the making. I would start it and put it down. Start it and put it down. Mother read 100 pages before she died. She told me, “I want you to do this baby. But would you mind waiting until I pass?” I put it up and didn’t think about it again until she passed away in 2001. I picked it up again three years ago.

Debbie Allen and I were flying from L.A. to Atlanta. We had worked together forever. I was telling her a story. She was laughing so hard that I wondered if everyone on the plane probably wondered what Kool-Aid we were drinking. She looked at me and she was like, “Girl, you have got to write a book. You can’t make this stuff up.” I knew she was right.  I originally wrote it as a screenplay and showed it to Norman Lear. He told me it needed to be a book before it was a movie. I never did it to hurt anybody or to defame my parents. I love both my parents. I still love them. They both had redemption I feel like. Yeah, it has been a journey.

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