Jake Clemons: No Springs attached
Sax maestro Jake Clemons (nephew of the late Clarence) is looking forward to his solo trek around Ireland. He might even get a bit of surfing in, he tells Jim Carroll
Jake Clemons is coming back to town. Over the summer, you may have seen him onstage playing saxophone with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band during their five- gig Irish run. This time around, Clemons is snaking his way around the country with his own band under his own steam without the Springsteen hullabaloo
But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Springsteen connection means more people will be paying attention to Clemons compared to on his last Irish tour in 2011. An 18 month stint on the Wrecking Ball tour as a paid-up member of the E Street Band does enhance a musician’s profile.
Clemons inherited the gig from his late uncle Clarence, an E Street Band mainstay from day one. His uncle’s death in 2011 meant there was a spot in the ranks for the younger player but he was a little hesitant when the call came.
“My hesitation was never about the playing per se,” he says. “It was an awareness of the weight of that spot, the weight of what has been lost. That’s what I was bearing. There are many musicians who are phenomenal players who can play notes, but it’s a different matter when the notes carry so much heart and soul and meaning.
“For me, it was about honouring and respecting Clarence and what he meant to the band. In no way whatsoever have I replaced Clarence. That’s not a word that I would ever use.”
His uncle’s role in his musical life should not be under-estimated. Clemons remembers going to see him play a show as a kid. “That was my first moment of knowing that I wanted to do music with my life. There was something about that show that was just phenomenal. That was the inspiration for me.”
Clemons began to play whenever and wherever he could around Virginia Beach. “I was studying in school but I was also playing professionally around town from a young age and pushing that end of things. My education was a combination of school and the streets.”
The schooling served him well. “There was a specialist programme in Virginia called the Governor’s School for the Arts where you would do a few high school courses and then move onto university, where you’d have five hours of music study a day and I did that.”
But Clemons’s real studying was done on the streets. “At the same time, I was also out looking for gigs for me and my band wherever I could get them.
“We did a classic routine of going to a club or coffeeshop on a Tuesday and saying ‘you have no business here tonight so how about me and my friends come here and play a show for free and you can pay us the next time when people come back to have a good time’. And it worked!
“So, absolutely, I was a hustler. We played seven nights a week and learned the business side of things and how to put a value on your own effort.”
At the start, Clemons was reluctant to lean on his famous name and played shows as Jake Christian, using his mother’s name.
“You hear the stories of people with famous parents and relatives, and trying to forge your way with that name is often harder.
“I was concerned about that. I really wanted to make my own way, I wanted to be proven as a musician, I wanted to live off my own merits. I wanted to work hard and enjoy the fruits of my labour and not of my name.”
What did uncle make of that? “I had a conversation with Clarence about it. I think he respected where I was coming from, but at the same time, he was like ‘what do you think I do all this for? This is for you’. But I wanted to be my own man and come out the other side and embrace the rest of it. If I could be accepted as and prove myself as a musician, I’d be ready for anything.”
By the time the step-up to the E Street Band came along, Clemons was earning his keep with tours and gigs with Glen Hansard, The Swell Season and Eddie Vedder, amongst others. When the offer came, Clemons knew he could do this in his own stead and not because he was related to someone who was part of Springsteen lore and legend.
He enjoyed the Springsteen tour immensely. “The relationship with the band and tour was a very romantic one. It started out with a really deep emotional connection because of Clarence. At first, it was a courtship because I was new but the relationship just grew and grew and grew so that by the end of the tour, we were very familiar and comfortable with each other. We had become family.”
On tour, it’s a case of proving his worth night after night after night. “That’s something that Bruce said to me when I started. You’re always earning it, you’ve never earned it. Even after 40 years of doing it, he feels he’s still earning it every night. Clarence said something similar to me a long time ago and I often remind myself of this before I go onstage: remember who you are. That’s a very present phrase, it’s not about who you were or going to be. That has stayed with me.”
Clemons is looking forward to the upcoming shows in Ireland, but he also hopes to find the time to take in some surfing. “When I was a really young kid, we lived in Hawaii for a long time and I really got into surfing”, he says. “We moved to Virginia when I was around nine and surfing was a much different thing there. Eventually, I learned to embrace the Atlantic and it became a vital part of my life and remains so today. On the last tour, I surfed in France and Spain. When there’s an opportunity, I take advantage. I’ve seen so many photos and videos of the beautiful waves you guys get there in Ireland. I was going to check it out when I was there, but it got blown out. Man, I’ve got to get there.”