Talking Fear & Love with Jake Clemons
January 11, 2017

It's a big week for Jake Clemons. Tonight, he'll celebrate his Uncle Clarence's 75th birthday at the big Light of Day NYC show, part of a bill for the occasion that also includes Willie Nile, J.T. Bowen with the Sensational Soul Cruisers, LOD stalwart Joe D'Urso & Stone Caravan, and more.

This Friday, January 13, brings Fear & Love, Jake's first full-length album (the follow-up to his 2013 Embracing Light EP) and his first release since signing with BMG.

Saturday night, he'll play for Light of Day again, this time for the "Bob's Birthday Bash" main event in Asbury Park.

Tonight's LOD concert at The Cutting Room, "Celebrating the Life and Birthday of Clarence Clemons," will be Jake's first date in support of Fear & Love, but not his last. "We're still kind of getting ideas as to what the best way to do that is," he tells Backstreets, given a trip to Australia with Bruce Springsteen is on the agenda later this month, "but there will absolutely be a tour for this at some point."

Jake spoke with Backstreets editor Christopher Phillips about the forthcoming Fear & Love, about the communal experience of music, from living rooms to stadiums, and about both literally and figuratively stepping into his uncle's shoes.

Congratulations on the new album, it sounds great — I assume you're pleased with how things came out?

Yeah, absolutely. I was super excited to finally put it together, and I'm extremely happy with it. It's been a record that's been in the back of my head for a little while.

Right. Last time we talked was around the time of your Embracing Light, and my impression is that you already had seeds for Fear & Love at that time, while you were working on that EP. How connected is the material, and how did you choose to separate songs out for this record as opposed to Embracing Light?

That's a good question, it's certainly true — there are definitely songs that had been developing at the same time. Embracing Light was largely about looking at the world around you, looking at the circumstances that you were in, and taking a hold of hope in that moment. Reminding yourself that things are going to immediately get different once your perspective changes, and carrying hope from one moment to the next.

Fear & Love is a lot different, because it's not about external circumstances. Embracing Light was something I intended to be more of a community experience — you would think about the people around you and you'd think about the community around you — whereas this is a very intensely internal record. This one goes to the depths of the psyche.

Your new bio that accompanies it mentions the death of your father — which I knew about, and of course was sorry to hear about — and also a divorce, which I guess I didn't know about. How much did those events in your life inform Fear & Love?

Those both had tremendous effects on this record — hugely significant for this record. As well as Clarence's passing.

It's hard to believe it's been more than five years now. In some ways, it doesn't seem like it's been that long at all.

I know — that number doesn't make sense to me. It doesn't correlate. It's as immediate and infinite as… as it will always be, I suppose.

For me, the core of this record is about dealing with the reality of the fears that you can inherit. And a lot those fears, for me, came from my father's relationship with relationships. And Clarence's, too. It's a very, very personal record for me in that sense. Holding those fears too closely for too long is what resulted in a poor relationship for me, as well.

So this record tells the story of working desperately to reconcile those fears, and then deciding that they don't belong to you, so you need to let them go. And the moment of freedom that is experienced with that, being able to see life through a different lens —that's the story of this record. The joy of being able to let go of those fears and be my own person fully.

That reminds me of some things that Bruce talked about regarding The River on this tour, during the full album performance, in terms of where he was coming from on that record as a young man striving to make connections, wrestling with how to build relationships as an adult and make them work. Are there correlations there? Did what Bruce was talking about with The River resonate with you in that sense?

Yeah. I mean, I recorded the record more than a year ago, and it's been a process of arranging and mixing since then — a very slow process because I've on the road so much. But honestly, yeah, I was absolutely shocked to find, through the experience of playing those songs on this tour, that it feels like the same kind of journey at a similar time of my life. It's certainly interesting that way.

- photograph by Joseph Quever

We definitely get the sense of a journey on this record. You start off with storm warnings and hurricane warnings — literally — and the journey goes from there.  From storm to safety, from darkness to light — or to joy, as you put it. The record takes us from a dark place out of it.

Without question. The record is a lifetime's worth of consequences summarized in a flash of a moment of revelation that happens in a small distance between your ears.

What was that revelation?

I guess, after dealing with this lifetime of fears, this moment where you start to realize — and it's a very quick moment — "Something's off here. And I don't want it to be off. I want to be free. I want to be the person that I was intended to be."

Did you have a particular moment like that?

In my life? Yeah. I mean, it's been years and years of pondering. But yeah. I don't remember where I was, but I do remember a very quick flash of, like, "Wait a second. Those aren't mine." A very quick moment, just a revelation: "Those aren't mine. I'm not gonna keep those. "

And that's reflected on the record, which is structured with a Side A and a Side B. There's the moment, if you have a tangible record, of the flip, where that happens, and it represents the same thing that I felt: Okay, it's time to let… well, I wouldn't even say let the healing begin, because it's just like, I'm letting those things go.

I love that kind of storytelling, that kind of attention to the format of the record. So then "Sick, Broke & Broken" starts Side B?

That's right.

That's a song that I wanted to bring up — your vocals. At the end of that song you go for that killer high note, and you crush it. It was pretty chilling the first time I heard it — I assume you know the part I'm talking about.

Absolutely. Thank you, man. I appreciate that. That song was born out of a conversation with a really close friend of mine that started with the biblical context: knock and doors will be opened, seek and ye will find, ask it and it will be given." That's the inspiration there.

Sonically, the record is really rich, too. Not having the credits yet, I'm curious about the sound of the record and how much you played yourself. I mean, obviously, you're a multi-instrumentalist, but were the guys in your touring band a big part of this record?

Yeah, they really were. I've been tempted on several occasions to record on my own, playing all the instruments. But at this point in my life, I just don't feel like it's necessary. If I had done something like that previously, it would've felt more gimmicky than honest. And the reality is, I've got phenomenal musicians — some of the greatest musicians that I've ever known — alongside me. So why shortchange the experience?

As somebody who plays piano, plays guitar, plays sax, did you write on one primarily?

I think they were all predominantly guitar. One of them was written ukulele.

Inspired by Eddie Vedder?

No, I had just gotten one and was starting to learn how to play it, and in doing so, I wrote a song [laughs].That was "Just Stay." And then "Janine" was a song that was written on the piano. The rest of them, I think, were written on the guitar.

And for this record specifically, I really wanted the sound to be as indicative of the feelings I was going for as the lyrics were. I wanted it communicated as clearly as possible — in HD, if you will.

The news clips at the beginning, on "Hold Tight" [listen on Spotify] made me think of Little Steven's remix of "57 Channels." Was that a touchstone at all?
No, there was no intentional connection with that. Warning signs just seemed really appropriate at the beginning of the record, with that song. And being on the eastern seaboard, that's something I've very familiar with.

Yeah, here North Carolina, our coast seems to gets hit every other year.

Absolutely. I'm in Virginia Beach, which is right above it, so it's a big part of the surf culture. And as exciting as these things seem from a distance, the closer they get, the closer that their reality gets. Sometimes those storms go back off into the sea, and you don't know them any more intimately than the waves. And sometimes they come all the way to your home, and the reckless reality is devastating. So beginning the record with that seemed really appropriate.

- photograph by Joseph Quever

The idea of a record having a theme and a concept — last time we talked, you told me how Bruce really impressed the importance of that onto you. You said at the time that you'd been ready to make a record, and then the Wrecking Ball tour happened. I think that your experience obviously echoes the experience of other guys in the band — Nils Lofgren, or anyone else — who are balancing their own work with the call to the E Street Band, and I know sometimes that can be a challenge. But you said the Wrecking Ball tour actually helped your own work, because it allowed you more time to get that advice from Bruce and let things percolate a little bit.

That was a few years ago. Then the Wrecking Ball tour went into the High Hopes Tour, and I know you already had some of this Fear & Love material ready to go. Did that extra time — did that continue to be a good thing?

Without question. I don't usually second-guess the past. I try to see it for what it is and recognize its value. And without question, it's been a good thing.

Well, I specifically mean for your work. I'm sure being out on the road with the E Street Band has plenty of its own rewards. But when it comes to the crafting a new record, giving ideas time to gel, whatever it might be, I'm wondering if that extra time actually becomes part of the process.

Yeah. Absolutely, it does. Call it fate or coincidence or what have you, but the timeline for the last couple years has been very beneficial to me in terms of what my crafting experience is gonna be, and my writing experience and my recording experience.

We recorded this record in July 2015, with hopes to release it that November [laughs]. And because I had become so busy with living room shows and other tours, I actually didn't have the time to sit down with the engineer to mix it. Time carried on and carried on, and then it became, "Okay, well, let's see if we can get it done by January." And then before you knew it, the River Tour was happening. So everything got pushed back. But as you suggest, I'm actually enormously thankful for the reality of that. This record being so personal for me, I'd hate to not be able to share it on a personal level because of other commitments. Having it come out now is perfect. It's the end of this tour, and I'll be able to really dedicate my time and focus and energy to making sure that the story isn't lost or muddled.

Speaking of your living room tour, we heard from a lot fans who were lucky enough to have you in their home, or to be in somebody else's home when you performed there. That living room tour seemed pretty special.

It was enormously special, one of the most amazing things I've ever done musically. And I didn't expect it. I expected it to be something cool for the fans, but the experience turned into something that would teach me an enormous amount about music itself. Music, at its core, has been a tool of storytelling in a way that enables a community to have a symbiotic feeling.

For thousands of years, right?

Since we lived in caves! Since the first sounds were created, that's what it's been. And the experience for me of the rawness of it: of being in someone's home, a sacred space, and with other guests, strangers that may not have known the host or didn't know each other, all gathered together in a sacred space and then sharing that moment that was raw…. There were no microphones, no amplifications. It was just wood and steel and spit and air. That was it.

A pretty vulnerable place to be, for you, I have to think.

Oh, man, without question. And it was one of those things where I didn't really think about what that meant until it was too late [laughs]. That was really fortunate for me. I didn't get to plan around those fears or concerns. So walking into those moments became extremely liberating.

There's no reverb to hide behind, no security guards, no rails. It's as raw of an experience as you can have. And again, that reality is what's allowed music to maintain its dominant significance to human culture for so long. You don't really start to see a distance in that until, like, 60 years ago, when amplification was born and our relationship with music as a global community largely changed.

Right. In the scheme of things, it was not that long ago that a concert or music experience was, well, you roll up the rug and your aunt gets out the fiddle and you're dancing the Saturday night away.

That's so important. And we've lost that in so many places. I know in the States, there's a tremendous fear of vulnerability: "What if my voice doesn't sound good, or what if I mess up in front of these people? Are they gonna judge me?"

"Can I bring my Auto-Tune into each of those living rooms?"

Exactly. Music is a cultural experience. It's a communal experience. And I really feel like that's what it's intended to be. And that aspect is what drew me into music in the first place.

The sound is the tool for creating the most important aspect of it, to me, which is everyone living in that same moment, leaning into that same moment, that interconnectedness. That's what it's about, for me. And that's why being able to experience it in that raw of a setting is a tremendous gift. I'll never forget those moments.

It's pretty remarkable, too, that you were able to have those moments in living rooms, but also to be able to be part of those moments, I have to think, in enormous stadiums — that Bruce and you guys are able to find that interconnectivity with 70,000 people. There are plenty of artists who perform in a variety of venues. Maybe they go from a club to an arena and back. But I don't know how many get to play both living rooms and 75,000-seat stadiums. What do you learn from each of those as far as making connections with people as a performer?

First of all, I in no way take for granted that I may be the luckiest musician in the world, that I get to be a conduit for those experiences. I'm so blessed. It's surreal. Most people who are playing on those massive stages wish they could go back to the experience of playing intimately in front of strangers, the rawness of an acoustic setting. And a lot of people in an acoustic setting might wish that they could be sharing that experience with thousands of people in stadiums. I would imagine it's extremely difficult for one to do the other and be able to switch back and forth. That's very, very rare.

So I learn an enormous amount through both. But I guess what surprised me the most… When I saw my first concert in 1988, I was dumbstruck — not by the music. I can't remember what it sounded like. I just remember the feeling, the feeling of that interconnectedness. And that is what's drawn me to music ever since then. That has been the focal point of a live experience for me since then.

So the part that surprised the most is that being in that raw of an intimate setting, it doesn't feel different than a stadium show. It feels the same [laughs]. My approach, personally, is the same. I'm able to tell more stories, and I can see everyone's face a bit more clearly, in a living room. But aside from that, the approach to it is the exact same, for me.

That's interesting — I do imagine differences that may be just superficial when it comes down to it. I remember when I was a kid and a big Springsteen fan, people making fun of the way he moved on stage, his exaggerated movements. And it's like, "He's playing to 60,000 people — he's gotta move like that, or the people in the back can't see him!" So there's the physical element of the performance, to make sure that people who are half a mile away can tell what's going on. But it's interesting that it doesn’t feel different to you in terms of connecting with people.

I think that you couched it perfectly right there — when you're in an intimate setting, everyone can see your facial expressions with their own eyes. They don't need a camera to do that. But you don't want to sacrifice that in a stadium, so absolutely, the expression might become larger. But it is for the sole purpose of reaching every individual in that room with the same measure.

So in terms of the large concert experience versus the small concert experience, like I said, I approach it in the same way. But the living room shows themselves reinforced the importance of the storyline. In each show that I did, there was a specific story that I would feel connected with that audience. And that was enormously helpful in terms of putting a sequence together for the record. Those learning experiences that I had in those living room shows, in terms of how to tell a story, became of intrinsic value as to how to put the record together.

- photograph by Joseph Quever

On the big stage, the big change in your work with E Street Band since last time we talked has been the change from being part of the horn section to being the horn player on stage, on the River Tour.

Yeah. I mean, that's obviously a very, very different experience. One of the biggest things for me is: that was the first time I'd ever been in a horn section before. So learning how to play in that way was exciting and new. It was a very, very big change for me from what I was familiar with.

Those guys are the best horn section players in the world. So I couldn't ask for a better introduction to that experience. And it was just awesome to be able to learn how to play that way. And this is obviously way different now, for lots of different reasons. But I can always appreciate that, in my experience, the tours have had something significant that would be different, to allow each tour to feel a little bit different than the last one. And so, no exception here — that's obviously a huge difference in that sense.

Not only your personal graduation in that way, from the horn section to what you're doing now, but the structure of the whole E Street Band, stripping back down from the E Street Orchestra. How different is that for you as an experience on stage?

Well, I wouldn't call it a graduation. I don't think of it that way. I don't feel like it's necessarily an edifying change for me, per se, directly. For me, what's transpired over the last several years is that, due to a lot of hard work and a lot of intense care and a lot of emotional vulnerability and connection, the audience and the music and myself, we've all been able to be equally invested in filling in the void that Clarence left. I think that the audience has been very, very integral and even, for me personally, allowing the nature of this tour to take place and the role that I am facilitating.

I love the idea that it's a communal effort, and I can only imagine the emotional layers. But maybe what I'm most curious about is… as of 2016, with you being the sax player on stage with the E Street Band, it's been interesting to watch how that developed, and I wonder what the experience has been like.

I guess this is why I used the word graduation: just on a very basic level, it seemed to me that playing with the band as part of a horn section at first might have been a slightly more comfortable way to ease into what seemed like an impossible task, with not all the pressure on just one set of shoulders. And then — having spent some time getting used to that as a player, as a performer, as somebody with a relationship with the audience — then maybe it was easier with that under your belt to then be the one guy with the horn. Is that true? Is that how it felt, or am I wrong?

I guess I'll answer it like this: from where I come from, from where my heart is with the whole scenario, I don't really see it in that same light. It's more like, rather than dealing with the idea of a replacement, the first thing that had to be reconciled was the loss. Again, this is for me personally, as somebody who both deeply loved Clarence and deeply appreciated his role on E Street — for me, it's like the horn section being there, including myself, it was just that the music would be played. The notes would be played. And it would all be a way of continually honoring the importance and the value of Clarence's presence, but more so in terms of dealing with the healing process and allowing the reality of not being able to visibly see him on stage to settle in. In no way attempting to replace him.

I'd written some thoughts recently just about how — and I've said this before, in the past — how people have asked, "What's it like to fill Clarence's shoes?" And my answer has been consistent: the irony is that I've been filling Clarence's shoes for a long time. Literally: he used to retire his old shoes to me. Fortunately for me, we have the same size feet. It's hard to find decent looking shoes; they're expensive and hard to come by. So I was always grateful to be given his shoes. And even more so in this role, I'm grateful to be able to fill his shoes. But the reality is that it's not his shoe size that was ever significant. It was the size of his footprint. And that would be felt by anybody who cared about his presence and his sound and everyone he impacted. That was unearthly. The shoes were large, without question — enormously large shoes. But his footprint was unearthly.

So for me, the Wrecking Ball tour was a way of recognizing the massive footprint. While we collectively were able to maintain those shoes, the footprint was gonna be there. And we learned how to celebrate that.

The River Tour has just been an extension of that. I continue to wear my uncle's shoes, as I have for a very long time, be it metaphorical or literal. And I'm grateful for that. But as an audience — as a fan, for myself, even — the awareness of the footprint was there in the last tour. And I think that it's continually something that we can celebrate, collectively celebrate the footprint instead of mourn it. It's a way we can say how grateful we are and to continually walk in.

I would also say that for me, I enjoy that you're your own man up there. You're constantly honoring Clarence and what he did and his sound; at the same time, as an audience member, I'm having a relationship with somebody new. I think of moments like when you and Bruce came downstage on the last tour for "Sprit in the Night," and you sat down to hear his story, and he said, "That was all before you were born." I've appreciated that it wasn't just somebody up there trying to replicate anything; this is a separate person making this music and being part of this new thing.

Absolutely. And that is without question one of the most beautiful parts of this for me. In filling those shoes, I'm not being asked to fill the footprint. The audience has been enormously gracious and wonderful in accepting me for who I am and allowing me to be honest to myself and true to who I am, be it as a nephew or as a saxophone player or as a musician. That aspect of it has been incredible. And I'm constantly reminded to be grateful for that.

Well, I'm glad you feel that, too. Because I love that all those things can all exist at the same time. That you're appreciated as a player and as a part of the band as much as much as you're appreciated as part of Clarence's legacy. When you play the "Drive All Night" solo, I'm not getting goosebumps because, "Hey, he sounds just like Clarence!" I'm getting goosebumps because you killed that "Drive All Night" solo.

Oh, thanks, man. I appreciate that. Yeah, for me, it's kind of like what I was saying earlier: my hope is to allow the music to be interpreted in a way that will convey that communal experience. I'm grateful that the audience has allowed that focus of the music and the experience not to be convoluted or distracted, I guess. You know, I have my own experiences, and my own stories, and my own life journeys that connect to the songs as well. Some of those are related to Clarence, and some of them are related to other situations that I've had. And as a musician, our hope, my hope is that we're able to be part of a conduit for translating those things.

Visit Jake's website at jakeclemons.com for more news, tour dates, social media, merch, and to pre-order Fear & Love.

- interview by Christopher Phillips - concert photographs by Joseph Quever

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