Life is a journey full of highs and lows and how we react to them is what makes it truly our own. For Jake Clemons, he chose a piece of his journey and set it to a musical rhapsody that he has titled Fear & Love. Releasing later this week on January,13th, the saxophone player hopes listeners will connect with the emotions he went through and find some part of themselves in there as well.
Although known primarily for his skills on the saxophone, Clemons can also sing, play guitar and piano, of which some can be heard on his 2013 debut EP, Embracing Light. Since then, when not spending time on his main gig as part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, he has played numerous solo shows with either his band or simply him and his guitar.
With Fear & Love, Clemons took on a bigger and more confident role in the production, sticking to his intuition about how he wanted it to sound. It has certainly paid off. “Fear & Love is a journey that forges through loss & hardship and attempts to reconcile those challenges until finding its way to the freedom of being vulnerable and honest, mostly with yourself,” Clemons said recently. “Hard times will come, but it seems that life is sprinkled with these sweet moments that remind us to keep going and that forward is the preferred direction.”
Clemons was raised in a strict Southern Baptist household. His father was a Marine Corps band director who mostly kept rock & roll out and gospel and symphony music in. Needless to say, it was his uncle Clarence who became like a beacon light of musical hope and the younger Clemons was drawn to it. When Clarence passed away in 2011 from a massive stroke, his nephew was asked to join E Street prior to the start of Springsteen’s 2012 Wrecking Ball tour.
Right before Christmas, Glide spoke to Clemons about his new record – which features such standout tracks as “A Little Bit Sweet,” “Hold Tight,” “Burning” and “Just Stay” – the influence of his uncle and life onstage with the Boss.
How did you find the time to create and put Fear & Love together? Because not only do you have another job but you do a lot of things on this album.
You know, it’s just what I do and it’s so much of who I am. Music is how I deal with the world, it’s how I deal with my life, it’s how I deal with things I hear. It’s how I process, it’s my processing center. So in terms of the creating side of it, it’s just what I do. I just write songs and when I feel like there is something to say, something I need to express, then I put songs together. I’ll go into my catalog, if you will, and find all the pieces. In the process of doing that, then I’ll sometimes, or often I should say, write more songs because my thinking is very, very directed.
But yeah, I’m not the kind of person that goes out and just writes a record. There’s often a lot of pieces sitting around. It’s a little more intentional that way but also takes a little bit of pressure off of me, I think, of trying to come up with something. For the most part, there is something already there and I’m just waiting to know that it’s there, to have the revelation that it’s time.
The release was pushed back from an earlier date. You must be glad to have it finally coming out.
It’s always an exciting time when the record is getting ready to come out and most people haven’t heard it so it’s been close to my ears for a long time. It’s always exciting and sometimes a little intimidating for people to start listening to it, the very beginning when people are being introduced to it. But I’m really happy that it was allowed to, I guess, rest a little bit before coming out. I’m really happy that pause was there.
Was there a song that kind of kicked this recording into motion?
This record I kind of had in the back of my head for a few years actually. It was something that I felt that I wanted to put together, even back when Embracing Light came out. But I just knew it wasn’t the right time for me to get there yet. I needed to finish processing what I wanted to say, and for myself, what I was really feeling. So when Embracing Light came out, I really focused on that sense of my life and what was going on in the world and the concept for hope for today was really important to me. Still is. But this record is so much more introspective and required a different level of vulnerability that it needed to wait until now.
The title track, “Fear & Love,” is maybe a good example of the song you’re talking about. I wrote the first stanza of that song ten years ago and never got past that. I didn’t know what else to say. Over the course of the last year and a half, it really summed itself up and is really an appropriate song for the title record.
Which song would you say changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
That’s a great question. I think the easiest answer to that one would be “Just Stay” because it was originally a song that I played on ukulele so it was a very different feel altogether.
Did the ukulele come first or were the words or melody kind of already floating in your head?
I picked up the instrument and I didn’t know how to play it so I kind of experimented. So as I was finding some chords, I guess, that song happened in the meantime (laughs). Learning how to play ukulele is what wrote that song. The melody came out of that and the story fit really well.
So now you and Eddie Vedder can go on tour together
(laughs) That’s right. It’s funny, I recorded a demo of that song and I recorded it on the ukulele but in my best Eddie Vedder voice at the time (laughs).
You were talking about this record being very introspective and I noticed it has a lot of different emotions flowing through it. It’s almost like someone’s journal being opened up. What was the hardest emotion to write about for this record?
Everything that I wrote for this record came very naturally. It was just processing, you know. More than the songs, I think that dealing with the concept of the record itself was maybe my biggest struggle. And it is very much like a journal. I had the idea that the record is a personal journey and it documents the processes of having to deal with fear and hardships, hurt and freedom, and ultimately the truth of what love is. So processing those conceptually, that path, that journey, was the biggest struggle for me on this record cause it was my life.
How did you feel once it was done? Did you feel better, as if you got something off your shoulders?
Yeah, I feel, certainly, that it’s a great gift for me to be able to listen to these songs and reflect and to be aware. I feel like I’m certainly more aware of what these two foundational emotions mean in my life, and having the ability to see them in a clear way, much more clearly I should say. So yeah, I’m thrilled. And also, just to be able to share hopefully some sense of my own revelations with other people and I hope that other people are able to listen to the record and identify with parts of it and be able to explore their own freedom out of that as well.
I’ve seen you do “A Little Bit Sweet” on YouTube with just an acoustic guitar and there is a lot of tenderness in the way that you tell it that way. But on the record it’s a little more peppier.
That’s one of the things I love about recorded music versus live music. I love that they can serve almost two completely different purposes and be two different things almost. A lot of the songs that are on this record I’ve performed differently over the years and I guess just because of the nature of the performance. When I’m playing live I’m very, very much playing for the audience that’s in front of me. I want a communal experience where I’m feeling the same thing that the audience is feeling and it’s engaging as a whole in that way. So the songs might sound different to a certain degree but they are certainly the same songs with the same melodies. In terms of the record, I wanted to create the best way to tell the story as consistently as possible, or the emotions so the intention wouldn’t be confused or lost. So in terms of the record, when that song comes on, it’s a new page.
Are you going to be playing more live shows?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There are a few songs on there that have never been performed live so I’m excited about that as well.
“Undone,” for example, my band had never heard that until we were in the studio. “Just Stay” has never been performed live, I don’t believe. “Shadow” has been performed maybe three times and “Burning,” maybe just a couple of times. So there is a handful actually.
Are you going to do something like you did before in the more intimate rooms or bring the band and rock out?
I’m excited to be able to do both these days. I love being able to express myself musically. We’re booking a tour with the band and we’re booking some shows that are solo as well so it should be a nice mix of everything. To me, I feel like I’m in the luckiest and best place right now because there’s almost no venue I can’t be a part of the experience. When I’m on tour with E Street, we play some of the biggest venues in the world, and then to have the ability to play clubs with my band or theatres all the way down to living room shows solo, it’s an extremely diverse and exciting experience. I feel extremely lucky to have that kind of a platform.
Does Bruce have shows coming up in 2017?
Right now, we’ll be in Australia and New Zealand for January and February and that’s the wrap-up there.
You play guitar on this record, correct?
Yeah, guitars, saxophones, percussion; a handful of things.
When did you first start playing guitar?
I guess I started when I was about twenty-two. It’s funny because the reason I picked up the guitar primarily was because I felt expendable as a saxophone player (laughs). I had this sense of, you know, if a band is ever in hard times, it’s kind of like if you have a boat and you love it and it’s great, it adds a lot to your life; but if you hit hard times it’s the first thing to go. The sax kind of felt like a vanity instrument so it was like, well, maybe I’ll pick up a guitar and if I write my own songs nobody can fire me (laughs). Piano was actually my first instrument. That’s where I first started to exercise songwriting and the chordal side of things.
Did you start on acoustic guitar?
I started on acoustic, yeah. You know, I’ve played electric in the past but I really started focusing on electric guitar for the first time in September. I’m always reaching for something to get to a higher peak to be able to see more and experience more so I’ve really invested myself more recently just to be able to take that experience to another level as well. But that’s typical for me. I’ll turn on for a year or so on something new and just explore it.
How different is it playing regular sax as opposed to the big baritone sax?
It requires a lot more air and the grip on your lips is way different for a baritone sax and where you’re breathing from is different. So yeah, they are completely different modifications. That being said, if I played baritone sax all the time it probably wouldn’t be as big an impact. Being a tenor saxophone player and then switching to barry for certain things, I have to think a little bit differently. I have to put my brain in a different place. It’s a different instrument. It’s a saxophone but I can’t think of it that way. I have to think of it as a different instrument and that allows me to play it better.
When did you start writing songs?
I wrote my first song, if you will, really young. I was probably nine or ten years old and I played it for my brother and was very excited, and him being a few years older than me, as older brothers do, squashed my dreams immediately and informed me that that was plagiarism and I would go to jail for that (laughs). So that kind of put an end to my songwriting for a few years.
Who did he say you were copying?
I don’t know, he said it sounded like another song he knew. But it scared me for a few years. I was about eighteen when I started to mess with it again. But even then, I was so afraid of sounding like someone else that I was reaching to extremes to make sure that those voicings had not been used before. It took me a long time to come around and really understand music as a vessel and that the components inside that vessel are what’s important as opposed to the vessel itself.
I understand you grew up in a household with gospel music.
Yeah, a lot of Shirley Caesar, Andrae Crouch. My father comes from a very strict Southern Baptist background and he was a Marine Corps band director and there was a lot of gospel and symphonic music and marching band music. That was pretty much the extent of what we were exposed to.
Have you noticed if the gospel has played any underlying part in the music you create today?
Yeah, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about that in the last couple of years actually, just how these different things influenced me. I never really reflected on it when I was younger but I can definitely see the influence of each of those genres of music playing a part in how I perceive music today – in terms of arrangement, in terms of even in my conveying of emotion and lyrically as well. They have all played a big part. I’ve played around with the idea of redoing a few hymns just for the fun of it because the melodies are incredible and they are so emotive and powerful. I don’t know, there’s just something about the way those songs are written that grabs your heart, grabs your soul.
What are some of your favorite early memories of your Uncle Clarence?
It’s hard for me to put a finger on anything specific cause for my whole life my time with him was most special when it was just casual, when we were just hanging out. The thing is, my father, as I was explaining, was a Marine Corps band director and came from a very strict background that Clarence came from as well but they identified with it differently. In my generation, that’s a place where Clarence and I resonated. For me, I felt like he characterized a lot more of my identity in terms of like spiritualism and music and expression than I did with my father. He was a very, very important figure throughout my life. When I was younger and he would come to visit, I can just think of being around him and grabbing his leg, but that carried on up until the year he passed away. It was the same kind of fatherly figure in a lot of ways but at that point also brother and friend.
Did he give you any advice or did he let you learn on your own?
Yes and yes (laughs). He was very loving in the sense that he would never tell me what to do. He would more like passively guide me and ask questions and share perspectives in a very, very gentle way. It was great. Musically, one of the biggest lessons he ever taught me, and again in a very gentle way, was how to listen. Musicians have musician jokes and a saxophone is famously the instrument that doesn’t know when to shut up (laughs). If you ever go see a band warming up, the saxophone player has been playing a solo for twenty minutes already. It’s just one of those instruments that has like that personality to it and I used to be very much that way and Clarence really helped me learn how to listen, how to hear what is happening and be a part of the whole as opposed to letting the whole follow you.
As a saxophone player in this huge band with Bruce, other than Bruce, who do you feed off of when you are playing live?
I guess I would have to say the audience, because I’m watching Bruce to guide the experience. That’s his job, he’s the conductor, but it’s my job to, I guess, follow his lead and to make sure that what he is hoping for and intending in that moment is happening; that this energy between the band and the audience is being met. I mean, I’m watching everybody in the band and being aware of everything that’s happening on that stage and certain songs will lend to paying attention to different things more, depending on the song. But I am making the effort to always be very much tapped in to his direction and the audience’s response.
What about with Max Weinberg [drummer in the E Street Band]? I know that bass players and drummers have a connection but do you have a connection with Max onstage during a live performance?
Yeah, for sure, especially because I’m playing so much percussion. I am very much trying to pay attention to him and hear exactly what he is doing. He’s been a great instructor as well. I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s famously considered to be like a human metronome at this point. In my immediate circle it’s Nils [Lofgren, guitar player] and he’s right in front of me and he knows what everybody is doing in our band and knows everyone’s parts. His brain is fascinating the way he knows everything. But I’m constantly checking in with everybody along the way. It’s important to me to feel a sense of everyone’s presence and be aware of what’s happening sonically.
When you first started playing shows with E Street, did you feel like you were prepared enough when Bruce started calling audibles? Were you worried about that at all?
(laughs) In the beginning, the concern was like, there’re three hundred songs that could come out at any given moment and I had practiced nine hours a day for three months, and predominately maybe a hundred of them. So there was a certain awareness I had of all the songs but even today it’s effectively impossible to be as prepared on three hundred songs across the board. It was intimidating in that sense. I remember when he started to call audibles I knew he’d never heard me play before and I was fine but in my head I was like, what is he thinking? There’s like 50,000 people here! (laughs). Does he really want to hear me play this song? (laughs). But that’s typical for the experience and I think also just kind of set the tone for me to know that anything can come out. He has this great ability too to have faith in his band and that goes a long way. If somebody expects you to succeed there is a much better chance in doing so.
What’s the funniest thing Bruce has ever done to you onstage?
My immediate response to that would be Dublin, Ireland, July 18th maybe, 2012. I could be off on those dates but we played Dublin, Ireland, two nights in a row, and the first night I had torn the lining in my spine onstage at the end of the show. It was a pretty terrible moment but at the end of the show fortunately. But I sneezed – a very aggressive sneeze – and I turned my back away from the camera because I didn’t want to insult the audience and in doing so I tore the lining in my back and I couldn’t move. We had a show the next night, same place, and I ended up being the first person in the history, the forty year history of the band, to be escorted on the stage in a wheelchair (laughs), which was the only way I was going to be able to play. I couldn’t move. But he had a lot of fun with that that night. There were a lot of wisecracks.
Getting back to Fear & Love, what do you think was the main thing you have improved upon since Embracing Light?
I’m happy to say that I feel like the production quality across the board was at another level on this record. Embracing Light, we had fifteen songs we had started recording for that record and that one was such a challenge because we were on the road the entire time. When I wasn’t touring with E Street, I was touring on my own so at certain points I was actually flying from an E Street show to a Jake Clemons show the next day and then flying back to an E Street show the next day. So it had gotten to be a little bit hectic (laughs). But there’s a certain, I don’t know, peace about the process with this one. You know, Fear & Love, we had the band together there for a week, ten days, and tracked and then post-production, and it felt like a much more measured experience in being able to maintain a certain synergy for it, I guess. So I think overall, I’m really proud of the production quality.
It was probably less stressful
Oh by large, enormously less stressful. I mean, the reason we released a five song EP for Embracing Light as opposed to the fifteen is because after a year and a half, that was as much as we could get done at that point. So this is enormously less stressful. And also, it was exciting for me to take it to another level of intimacy.
Did you feel more in control of what was actually going to get out there?
My method hadn’t changed in that sense. The same was true for Embracing Light as well. But I think this was the first time I really went for what I wanted, even though it might have seemed a little bit strange at points. I can remember being in the studio and everyone going, “Really? You want to do that?” In the past, I would usually just shut it down and say, Okay, if everyone thinks it’s crazy then I’ll go on the side of caution. For this record, I didn’t do that cause there were things that I wanted to have in there and even though people thought it was strange, for me, it was worth the risk. I wanted it to be my art fully. I just didn’t want to risk this record not being fully honest, to expose my heart and I was willing to take all this to that level.
Top photo by Jonathan Thorpe