By Jeff Maisey
The role of a true artist is to show the world in an imaginative way a mirrored reflection of reality, and Jake Clemons does exactly that in dramatic fashion on his dynamic new solo album titled “Eyes on the Horizon.”
Clemons, who grew-up in Hampton Roads and attended the Governor’s School for the Arts, officially debuted as a solo recording artist with 2017’s “Fear & Love.” His new album was co-produced with Jake Hull and mixed by legendary and award-winning producer Eddie Kramer ( Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Beatles).
Jake Clemons, nephew of the late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons, joined Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for the Wrecking Ball Tour in 2012. Like his uncle, Jake plays tenor and baritone saxophone with The Boss.
Surprisingly, unlike his uncle’s solo records, Jake Clemons doesn’t feel the need to spotlight the saxophone, but rather emphasis his self-expression through songwriting, his multi-instrument talents, and stepping up behind the microphone as vocalist.
Jake Clemons and his full band will appear September 23 Back Bay’s Farm House Brewing Company in Virginia Beach for a fundraising concert dubbed “Brewed to Read” to benefit the Sinkinson Dyslexia Foundation. The mission of the organization is to identify, remediate, and raise awareness of dyslexia and the impact it has on our community.
Clemons said he still maintains an address in Hampton Roads, but primarily lives in Montreal, Canada when he’s not touring. We spoke by phone recently about his new studio album.
VEER: What was life like growing up for you? Were you influenced by your parents’ record collection or your famous uncle, Clarence?
Jake: Clarence was a huge influence on me. Seeing the E Street Band was the first I had seen or heard rock ’n’ roll. Watching the concert was the first thing that turned me on to the live concert experience, and it made me want to pickup an instrument.
My father was a band director for the Marine Corps. I was born in South Carolina, lived in Hawaii and North Carolina for a while, and then Virginia. We moved here when I was in third grade.
In terms of my dad’s record collection, the quick answer is no. He was really straight and had a Southern Baptist background. We listened to classical music, marching band music, and gospel at our house when I was a young kid. Nothing else was allowed.
Coming of age in Virginia Beach, I got pretty heavy into the local music scene. There was a really strong one when I was 15, 16. It was kind of a golden time for Hampton Roads back then — the mid-‘90s.
We had the Jewish Mother at the Oceanfront, which was always cranking out shows. Even The Abyss back then would have concerts. There were lots of local venues for local bands.
VEER: You also attended the Governor’s School for the Arts back then. What impact did that learning experience have on you and did it shape you in terms of expanding your musical horizons?
Jake: Oh, man, for sure.
My experience at Governor’s School was amazing. They gave me an intense and incredible background from which to work from.
I went for Jazz Performance, and didn’t really have much of a relationship with jazz before that. You dive headfirst at Governor’s School.
Two weeks after I got out of high school I joined a band and moved to Los Angeles. I was just dumbfounded. It was easy to take for granted the talent that was in this area (Hampton Roads) at the time. Being on the road on tour at that time people seemed impressed with my playing ability, and yet I didn’t feel special when I was here.
So, yeah, that was significant to me. I wouldn’t say I was one of the best students at the school, but they did such a great job of preparing me for a successful music career.
VEER: Speaking of music career, your second studio album, “Eyes on the Horizon,” has just been released, and I’m wondering what your songwriting process is like. Do you sit down and say you’re going to write a tune or do ideas pop into your head walking down the street?
Jake: I’d say that all of those are true. Music is kind of a therapeutic thing for me in terms of songwriting. I’m fortunate to be able to be brief with the music. It’s not usually an arduous project. It’s just a reflection of what’s going on around me.
Some of the songs just happened; they just came out. Some of them were lyrically written first and then the music came out later. There’s a song on the record written with a lot of deliberation. So it kind of covers the spectrum.
VEER: You are known to a majority of people as the guy that plays sax in the E Street Band, and yet the saxophone isn’t dominate on your solo album. Was your approach to the album more about showcasing your multi-instrumental and songwriting abilities, and not have the sax spotlighted?
Jake: I would say it’s not as intentional as that. I feel like I’m as much of a songwriter as I am a saxophone player. So I don’t feel required to put saxophone on anything, and I’m not necessarily inclined to do it just for the sake of doing it. For me it sonically has to make sense.
I got some feedback from people on “Fear & Love” because there’s not a ton of saxophone on that either. People were surprised by that when they first heard it, and this one has a little bit less, actually.
VEER: You begin the album with a hard-hitting one-two punch with “Swan Song” followed by “Consumption Town.” Musically it sounds straight out of the 1970s, but the vocal style is quite different — almost preachy in some moments and not quite hip-hop but not far removed. There’s also a really nice change in “Swan Song” that elevates it to another level. What can you share about these two tracks? What did you want to communicate?
Jake: There’s a theme throughout the whole record and a storyline as well. In terms of the sequencing, I just really felt it needed to start with that.
In terms of the delivery that’s a really new approach for me. I hadn’t done that before. It was not necessarily intensional either.
Both of those songs were written on guitar to be very different. We recorded “Consumption Town” first.
I was having a hard time. I liked how the song sounded but it didn’t make me feel it conveyed what I wanted. It boiled down to a moment of I’m going to try something different, let’s just roll the tape and see what happens. That’s basically what came out and it sounds really strong.
It was kind of a moment of, like, wow I didn’t know that I could do that — to deliver something that way.
For “Swan Song,” again it was a slightly different approach. That one was more of an Eddie Kramer move. We had been working on the vocal part and again conveying the message as well as we could, and he really encouraged me to step more outside of my comfort zone and I think it worked really well. So, yeah, it’s a different feel for me all together.
VEER: And both are exceptional.
Jake: Thank you very much.
VEER: “Ayuda (When the Sun Goes Down)” is one of those late ‘90s melodic punk rock sounding tunes that would have fit right in when you were first playing clubs in Virginia Beach. What inspired that song?
Jake: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big fan of that music in general. That message just needed a straightforward delivery.
Ayuda means “help” in Spanish. I decided to put that song on the record after the whole Puerto Rico thing; after the big storm had happened and the US had kind of turned their back on this territory. It was heartbreaking.
And then to see how things have continued to transpire with the US’s treatment of our Latin American family and neighbors…it has been really frustrating.
That song has very much of a punk rock feel across the board.
VEER: A perfect genre choice for protesting.
Jake: Right, right. Exactly.
VEER: With “Nothing Left” and “Mom Deserves Better” you shift gears in a very ballad direction. Did you sit down at the piano or with guitar to compose these?
Jake: Ha. Here’s a funny story for you.
“Mom Deserves Better” was originally written to be a really aggressive punk song. The original version has a really heavy distorted bass guitar and it’s pumpin’.
I enjoy that, but I really wanted to be digested and not overlooked, especially with the lyrical content. Jake Hull, who worked with me on the record, we figured out a way to scale it down, and slow it down.
He ended up doing this whole scoring and having this Hungarian Symphony recording out. It was really incredible what he did.
VEER: In terms of sequence of songs on the album, did you decide the order of songs?
Jake: Yeah, absolutely. I kept control over everything in terms of what happens with the record.
Like I said there’s a bit of a storyline. I think long and hard about sequencing. It morphed a few times but it ended up exactly where I wanted.
A lot of the sounds of the songs are so different so it allows it to get away with more dramatic shifts.
VEER: I like the dynamics and they way you did it. “Regression (Wasted in London)” is another slow tempo song, but it’s more dreamy, and you sing in falsetto a little. The entire feel is different than anything else on the record.
Jake: When I was working with Jake Hull on this record, one of the things that I wanted to have was a real soundscape.
He does a lot of scoring for film and stuff.
As we were putting it together I really had a lot of visuals that I wanted to see in my imagination. That’s why “Nothing Left”….I want it to feel dry and barren. That song was written to be my ode to America in a lot of ways.
“Regression” takes place in London so there’s a certain dreariness to it that I wanted to be able to see in my imagination when I’m listening to it.
That fog, slight cold rain…that dull sense.
VEER: You definitely captured the London fogginess of the environment.
“Democracy” is a great song Leonard Cohen once made famous, and you give it your own spin. “We, the People” follows on your album. Did you have the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election on your mind when including these tracks? Perhaps a musical reminder of what’s at stake next year?
Jake: Yeah, for sure.
It’s not necessarily the reason for the record. It’s more about where we are right now, today.
Every 4th of July I go back and read the Declaration of Independence. I’m a big fan of the Constitution. There’s just so many things — for whatever reason — I feel like a lot of people just aren’t aware of.
I don’t think we carry the same awareness that our forefathers did.
So, yeah, it’s definitely a reminder — a reminder of how united we should be and what it means to be an American.
We’re supposed to be one people, a family.
And, obviously, we’re extremely divided right now.
VEER: And that ties-in with the lyrical content of “Consumption Town.”
Jake: Yeah, the theme of the album overall…I was thinking about this yesterday. The best way to describe it is it’s kind of like a lighthouse. It’s a beacon that’s showing and making very visible where the problems are.
From my perspective, where are the big issues? Where are the rocks that are going to wreck the ship?
VEER: The song “Eyes on the Horizon,” to me, has a very West African pop music vibe, and again decidedly different for the rest of the material. How did this piece come together and why you selected a more World Music-y sound to include in the album mix?
Jake: There are a couple of answers for that.
First of all, I wanted to leave the record with some hope. It’s one thing to recognize the faults and look in the mirror and see all the worts, but to walk away from that mirror I feel like there should be the notion of hope to improve. I really wanted to convey that in a light way.
There’s a lot of heavy content on the record.
The percussion and vibe from traditional African music is so jubilant and exciting, I just felt like it’d be a cool thing to have on that track. It also has a lot to say about just embracing the rest of the world.
I tend to be more of a global citizen.
VEER: Since we do have a lot of Bruce Springsteen fans in Hampton Roads, I think people might be curious to know if he has ever weighed-in and provided advice to you in terms of your solo material, or is that crossing a line that you don’t do when employed as a member of the E Street Band?
Jake: Ah, man, you know he’s been incredibly encouraging. I think it’s one of the benefits as well.
At this point in his career…he’s 70 this year and he’s still one of the biggest acts in the world.
He’s in a place where he’s extra excited to give me some direction, and I’m always happy to receive it.
I sat with him many, many times. Leading up to my EP “Embracing Light” that came out in 2013, I spent so much time with him talking about how to make records, and direction, perspective.
Even with this record I sat down with him many times and played him the songs, and just discussed the content. He’s really encouraging. It’s very humbling to say the least.
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Brewed to Read
Featuring Jake Clemons
Back Bay’s Farm House Brewing Company