Jake Clemons has spent the last two years touring the world with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. Now he’s coming back to Brisbane with his own band to show us what he’s learned from The Boss.
It’d be an understatement to say that musical ability runs in Jake’s family. His uncle — the late, great Clarence Clemons — served in The E Street Band for 40 years before his death, and played some of the most memorable saxophone parts in the history of popular music. His father, Bill Clemons, was a Marine Corps bandleader. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find Jake.
“I guess they were equally influential,” Jake says. “I grew up in a very strict household, and I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything outside marching band music, classical music and gospel music. But I learned a lot through those things! I learned what a regimented, organised group sounds like. I learned the concept of working hard and practicing and rehearsing. Growing up in that environment was huge for me.
“At the same time, growing up and watching Clarence do what he was doing… his relationship with music was very different, but equally as powerful. It was a great gift to have both of those very different influences coming from fatherly figures and members of my family. It was really two different worlds, and I found myself caught in the middle while I was developing as a young musician.”
While both men had an influence on Jake’s development, it was obvious from an early age that he wasn’t going to follow his father’s career path. “I always respected what my father did,” Jake qualifies, “and he was highly celebrated and extremely well recognised in his own right. But I was never going to be a member of a marching band, you know? That was what brought Clarence and I so close together.”
Eventually, Jake’s dad made an exception to his strict musical rules and took him to see his first rock concert. But it wasn’t just any rock concert. “When I was eight years old, I went to my very first E Street Band concert,” Jake remembers. “I’d never seen rock & roll before. I watched my uncle get this massive response from the audience… I thought, ‘Wow, they love the saxophone the most!’
“I didn’t put two and two together that they liked Clarence in particular, because he was just my uncle, you know? So I thought it was all about the saxophone. I thought, ‘These people just love that sax!’ So I walked out of the arena, and I told my dad right then, that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to play that saxophone.”
That dream would come true in a more literal way than Jake could ever have imagined — 24 years after that concert, he was actually touring the world with The E Street Band, playing saxophones handed down to him by his uncle. But it didn’t feel like a celebration, at least not at first, because it didn’t happen the way anyone would have wanted it to. Jake was only able to join The E Street Band after his uncle died of complications from a stroke, leaving a gaping hole in the world’s greatest rock band and in the hearts of its fans.
“Clarence and I were extremely close, so when he passed away, it was a very heavy thing for me. I had a hard time coming out of my bedroom for a couple of weeks. But there was a moment when some friends [Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard] invited me to play a show with them, and it was a powerful moment of healing for me. It was the first time I’d played saxophone since Clarence passed away.
“You know, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play the saxophone again. I wasn’t excited about picking it up anymore — it was like staring into the depth of my sorrow. But when I got back on stage and started playing, I just felt this connection to Clarence that was different than the connection I’d normally had with him. Clarence and I were very, very close, but all of a sudden I felt him with me in a way I had never felt before. It just began to channel this huge sense of healing for me.
“So as the conversation with Bruce about joining The E Street Band progressed, it became a lot more natural for me, and became something that I understood… other people needed to experience that healing. He affected so many people with his music, even my eight-year-old self. Sure, I was Clarence’s nephew, but there were millions of people around the world who had felt that same sensation, and who needed healing from that loss. I realised that I couldn’t be selfish with that healing. I needed to play more and share it.”
You’d think that delving into The E Street Band’s catalogue and learning to play hundreds of their songs, and then going out on a world tour that included an emotional tribute to Clarence Clemons at every show, would make it harder for Jake to accept his uncle’s death and move on. You’d be wrong.
“Oh, it absolutely made it easier,” Jake insists. “Absolutely. I remember talking to some of Clarence’s dear friends that were reluctant to come to the shows because they had those same concerns. I told them about my own experience of having that same concern initially, and then just discovering how connected I felt to Clarence. Just by being in that environment, and hearing those songs, and knowing that Clarence was with me.
“I mean, I was playing his mouthpieces on his saxophones. That was my way of keeping him physically present, I suppose. I felt him with me every single time I picked up that horn. Yeah, it might initially feel like a burden the first time you pick it up, but the longer you carry it, the stronger you get. That was something I expressed to his dear friends, and they could then experience it themselves when they came to the shows. By the end of the night, and by the end of the tour, this thing that was a burden… you’re holding it high and celebrating it.”
Now that he’s wrapped up his duties on The E Street Band’s Wrecking Ball and High Hopes tours, which included three rapturously received shows in Brisbane, Jake is devoting his attention to his solo project. His Embracing Light EP — a record about “accepting the hope that’s in front of you right now, and accepting the love that’s in front of you right now” — was released late last year, and the world tour to promote it will include a stop in Brisbane.
Although he was already an accomplished musician before he joined The E Street Band, Clemons believes the experience has made him a better bandleader, primarily because of three lessons he learned from Bruce Springsteen.
“The best teachers lead by example, and he’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever known,” Jake says. “I’m able to apply a lot of things I learned from him to my own band. The first thing is that you have to be excellent yourself. You have to be as excellent as you can, and you have to work the hardest out of everybody in the band.
“Another thing I learned from him, and this was something he told me one night that changed a lot of aspects of my life, is that you’re always earning it. You’re always earning it. He said he hadn’t earned it yet. And that meant a lot to me, because as I understood it, the moment you think you’ve earned it, you’ll lose it. So this has become a mantra for my life, and something I’ve applied to my own personal experience.
“Another thing I’ve been able to apply to my own band is to expect the best out of people. If you expect the best, and you project that, you’re going to get the best out of them. It might seem challenging, it might seem like a lot to ask, but they’re going to perform. They’re going to learn how to play 250 songs on tour, you know? You’re going to make the whole experience more honest, more present, more real. So those are the sort of sentiments I’ve shared with my band in action.”
Naturally, Clemons is playing much smaller rooms on his solo tour than the arenas he’s grown used to playing with Springsteen, but when it comes to the audience at a rock show, he insists size doesn’t matter.
“The size of the crowd does not make as big of a difference as you would imagine,” Clemons says. “Bruce does a great job of taking a stadium and making it feel like a barroom, you know? There are no bad seats in the house at an E Street show. They do an amazing job of getting everyone involved, so it doesn’t feel so different when I go from that environment to a small room.”
Jake Clemons plays The Old Museum (480 Gregory Terrace, Bowen Hills) on Friday 16 August and Byron Theatre (69 Jonson St, Byron Bay) on Sunday 17 August. Embracing Light is available now.