Over the past two years, Jake Clemons has been winning fans over a few thousand at a time, as one of the saxophone players in Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band. In the wake of the Clarence Clemons’ 2011 passing, anyone playing a sax on Springsteen’s stage is walking on hallowed ground. In Jake’s case, it’s a bit deeper than filling in for an icon, as Clemons was his uncle. When he plays the burned-in-0ur-memory solos in classics like “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road,” he’s both paying tribute to his uncle’s legacy and keeping it alive.
But Clemons is also forging his own musical path: on his downtime from the E Street Band, he began work on his debut EP, Embracing Light, released earlier this month. The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist tells Radio.com that he started working on his own music in 2010, but had to put his own project on hold when E Street came calling.
“Picking up again with my band this year was really exciting, we hadn’t been together for two years,” Clemons said. “I had been recording songs in hotels all over the world and sending them back to the guys in the states.”
Despite being the nephew of a legend, his career in rock and roll was far from a guaranteed thing. Though Clarence was a legend, Jake’s musician father actually frowned on rock music in a big way.
“My father, being in the Marine Corp Band, so I was into [marching] band music,” he explained. “John Philip Sousa, that was my first introduction to music. Classical music was what we’d listen to in the car a lot, and then gospel — Shirley Caesar and Andraé Crouch. We weren’t allowed to listen to rock and roll. I was taught as a young person that it was noise, and it was bad. My first experience with rock and roll was [going to see the] E Street. Seeing that as an 8-year-old, it blew my mind, I remember it being really loud, I had never been exposed to distorted guitars before. The communal experience of it was what really blew my mind. That’s what stuck with me.”
A few years later came another revelation, courtesy of another family member.
“He [my brother] is seven years older than me, and I was in his car and he was blasting [Nirvana’s] Nevermind over and over again, and I decided that I needed to find some value in this,” Clemons explained. “And I found that thing, and by the time I got out of the car, I was in love with that record. Hearing Kurt Cobain sing was the realest thing you could hear. That just opened up my world completely. Even my understanding of how to enjoy music, I would go out of my way to find things that I didn’t love initially, because people like it! Somebody likes it! What is it that they’re really finding? The ’90s, for sure, was a really big influence on me. It was my first love for rock music.”
But it was another vocalist who convinced Clemons that he, too, could get on the mic.
“I didn’t become a singer until I heard Glen Hansard in the movie Once,“ he said. “That blew my mind. Glen Hansard has an amazing voice, it’s an expression of: ‘I’m going to be vulnerable and honest and this is real.’ That’s also what stuck with me about Kurt Cobain.”
In a bit of cosmic coincidence, it was one of Cobain’s bandmates who gave Jake the encouragement he needed to stick with songwriting. Shortly after he began writing songs, singing and playing guitar, he was performing some of his originals at a wedding that Dave Grohl happened to be attending. “He heard me play a few of my songs, and came and approached me afterwards and said, ‘You’re a great songwriter.’ That changed my whole world.”
As if his personal rock history could go more full circle, it was yet another Seattle legend — alongside Hansard — that helped Clemons get through his darkest hour.
“I had a hard time coming out of my bedroom after Clarence passed away, it was a really difficult time, and I certainly wasn’t looking at playing my saxophone,” he said. “Through the kindness of their hearts and their care for me, Glen Hansard and Eddie Vedder [they toured together in 2011] gave me a call and asked me to come out of my room and bring my sax. There was a moment on stage when I played with them in Philadelphia where… I always understood the saxophone as an extension of myself and a communication device, but that night it became something enormously bigger than that. I was able to have this euphoric sense of being with my uncle again [they all covered Springsteen’s “Drive All Night” together that night], and that sense of healing was something I was desperate for.”
In 2014, Jake will be balancing time between his commitments to the E Street Band and his solo career. (This interview took place the day after Springsteen announced his new album High Hopes and before the cameras started rolling he said, “I think it’s fair to tell you now: I know nothing about it.”) He says that for his solo career and his own band, he “plans to be with these guys for a long time.” He adds, in Springsteen-ian way, “Hopefully in 40 years, we’re still pushing the envelope that still has letters from the past.”
For now, he’ll still work for The Boss than as one. It’s a job that comes with some of rock and roll’s best mentoring.
“There are words that he gave me very early on that stuck with me. He pulled me into the dressing room — I believe it was our second show — and he said, ‘Listen, this is really important: you haven’t earned it. You haven’t earned it. You won’t earn it. You’re still earning it. After 40 years, I’m still earning it.’ Every night he goes on that stage, he’s aware. Everyone there has an expectation. Just like it was on day one. Just like it will be on the last day. And you have to earn it and fulfill that expectation. That was huge. What a beautiful nugget that you can hold on to, and really apply it to everything. The moment you think you’ve earned it, you’ve lost it.”