Jake Clemons gigging with his band over the summer in Vienna, VA, July 23, 2022 - photograph by Jerry Frishman
E Street saxophonist for a decade and a dedicated performer for much longer than that, Jake Clemons has entertained and moved audiences from living rooms (at intimate house parties) to massive stadiums (with the E Street Band), and venues of every size in between.
Monmouth Arts, a non-profit based in Red Bank, New Jersey, has taken notice: at its "Cheers to 50 Years of Art" Golden Celebration later this month, the Monmouth County arts advocacy organization will be honoring Jake with the Artistic Achievement Award in Musical Arts.
Backstreets caught up with Jake to discuss this incredible honor, his plans for the rest of 2022, and the 2023 Tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Backstreets: The Monmouth Arts Gala, Cheers to 50 Years of Art, is a big honor coming up this fall. When you look at the people who are being honored, it's pretty broad: yourself, obviously, plus an actor [Vincent Pastore], a humanitarian, a chef.…
Jake Clemons: To see the amount of talent that comes out of that region is just insane. It took me a long time to kind of catch on, but at some point you turn the TV, and you start to [notice]: "That guy's from that area. He's from that area. She's from that area. That person's from that area.…" It's pretty amazing.
In Virginia Beach there's a saying that there's something in the water. Maybe it's just the Atlantic in general, but it's definitely true for that part of New Jersey as well.
They have described you as "a magnet for positive energy and emotion, consistently sharing stories and thoughts about life, his beliefs, and his experience through music." What does it mean to you to be recognized by an organization that is trying to spread the same ideals that you are?
It's enormously humbling. I still feel pretty young, and to be recognized after the comparatively short career that I've had is pretty special. Monmouth Arts is an amazing organization — I've done work with them in the past — and Monmouth is a pretty amazing community. What they're able to develop, the way that they invest in the community there, is pretty spectacular. For me it's just an honor to be on the same platform as these other amazing people.
As you look back on your career, do you have something that you can point to and say, "This is my biggest accomplishment," or "This is what I'm most proud of"?
Wow, that's not something I've ever thought of. Biggest accomplishment? Most proud? Honestly, I think that the biggest thing right now would be just knowing that there's something authentic enough in the moments that I get to share on stage that brings the same faces out. I get to see the same people at lots of different shows. That, I think, the is biggest accomplishment at this point in my brief career.
I could make mention of some of the bigger rooms I've played, or stages I've played, but when you boil it all down, just knowing that there is something authentic enough to connect to for the people gathered in the room each night, that keeps people coming back — that's amazing to me.
Are there boxes that you want to tick as you move along in your career, things you still want to accomplish?
If you're speaking to my vanity, I would love to be able to just take that living room experience — it's the same energy in every room that I'm playing, and that's very intentional — to be able to take that connection and be able to somehow grow it to a place where there's an 80,000 person community in front of me that I'm able to share that with. That's the hope, over the course of the next 30 to 40 years.
Outside of that ultimate dream, there aren't a lot of mile markers I'm looking at up ahead. I want to keep delivering the same experience and the same connection, but just keep growing: as a creative, as a performer, and as a conduit with an audience to be growing together. That's the dream.
You've said that the best piece of advice you received from Bruce Springsteen was: "You haven't earned it… you're still earning it." And I think that comes across pretty clearly to those who see you live.
The last time you were out for a full tour was in 2021. Can you can tell our readers a bit about what you've been up to since then?
I've been recording a lot and grateful to be playing shows again now, fairly steadily. And fortunately, my kids are all potty-trained now, so I'm not changing any diapers, which is nice! [laughs] That's kind of the whole thing: I've been recording and happy to be playing out again.
Vienna, VA, July 23, 2022 - photograph by Jerry Frishman
What's it like to be playing live again, in the "new normal"? You can finally jump in the crowd again — that's something I know you're big on.
The whole thing for me about a live show is the interaction: that interplay between the audience and myself. You tell a narrative together. It's been extremely exciting to be out again, to be playing some of these new songs live and diving into this narrative with the audience again.
When shows did open up again, it was a little bit awkward for a while — with the masks and, for me, not be able to jump out and get engaged with the audience as much. For the sake of safety: for myself and my family, and also for the audience. It was a bigger hurdle, in some ways. It was awkward and a little bit weird.
I'm really grateful to be beyond that now, for the most part. The audiences that are really engaging are doing so in a way that I haven't seen in a long time, to be honest with you. There's a different element there. Not every show is the same, but in certain areas, it kind of feels like 1999: people are just ecstatic, and they're eager for that connection as well. They don't take it for granted. That part of it has been really incredible, and it feels like a different tone right now, in terms of the live experience.
It feels a little more real for us, because we're less worried about people being too close. We can actually recapture that feeling that we had in the "before times."
Vienna, VA, July 23, 2022 - photograph by Jerry Frishman
Looking at your tour dates, it seems you're doing a bunch of festivals these days. Can you tell us how that came about, and whether there's a difference for you playing a festival, where it's not just your fans? Do you prepare differently for that? Or what process do you go through?
It's a whole different element, for sure. You asked three questions there, and I'll try to make sure I get them all.
We've definitely opened ourselves up to the festival market a lot more. It's a different entity in itself. It's an exciting thing to do. You get exposed to a lot of different faces, a lot of new people, and in general, people are looking for new experiences when they go to festivals. So that's been really cool.
I do prepare differently. I do have it in mind that there's going to be a lot of people who are experiencing [my performance] for the first time. So with that in mind, I lean more towards a broader sound, I guess I'd say.
But when you do a festival show, you don't have the liberty to stretch it to two hours or more. So it's a whole different setlist that comes together for that.
Like Empire Rock Fest — we were playing with full-on rock bands, so it was a different setlist than we'd played in the past. We even put a new song on that that had never been performed, which was pretty exciting. It was just a very heavy, heavy rock show [laughs].
Whereas when you come to a Jake Clemons show, I go on the whole journey of the ups and the downs, and I'm able to change the sound up as we go. So they're very different, but I love them both. I think they're both beneficial and exciting.
That's one thing I really love about the live show experience: depending on the audience and the feel of the room, it can easily go from an alternative country to full rocking to a soul experience throughout the night.
One date that stood out to me as cool was in the Yukon Territory. What was it like for you to go to this really remote and sparsely populated area of Canada?
That's one of my favorite things to do, just to be able to go somewhere that is not easy to get to, somewhere in the outer reaches — somewhere that people don't know, where most bands won't go. I often say if you can book a gig and at least cover the expenses getting there, I'll play. I'll go. It doesn't matter where it is.
Across the board, that was a really exciting experience for me, because it's been almost 25 years that I've been waiting to check off one last state on my list of states I've been to — and often played in — in the United States. Almost 25 years ago, I'd been to 49 states at that point. So now we were up in Yukon, and it was two hours from Alaska — the final state on my list — so it made sense to just take a little jaunt over. I didn't get to play in Alaska this time, but at least I got to go there and check it off my list.
That trip was full of a lot of amazing experiences. The engagement of the First Nations people there. Working with some of the kids there, really phenomenal. And then to top it all off, we took a little flight and got to walk around on this glacier that's on the second-highest peak in North America, Mount Logan. Just standing on top of 1,500 feet of ice, this giant frozen river… just the majesty of it.
And the realization of being imminent danger! If I were just up there alone, that would be it. That would be the end of Jake Clemons. Feeling safe in that environment — the notion that you're in imminent danger but you're also totally safe — it was euphoric. An extremely special experience that I never anticipated having. All around, that trip to Yukon was pretty dynamic.
I read about it, and I was fascinated that you were working with kids there, teaching them, ages 12 to 14. How did that come about, and can you describe that experience?
The people that we were working with and doing the shows with are very engaged in the community up there. There's a museum [The MacBride Museum] celebrating its 70th birthday, which was the first show that we did there.
And then the second show was with the First Nations Community Center nearby. They just asked if it was something I'd be interested in. I was like, absolutely — I would love to engage the kids and work with the students there. That's just something that I've always loved doing.
I remember being a kid and getting a masterclass from people who were incredible at their craft. I can remember being 12 years old, and being in awe… and then that became something that I wanted to realize for myself. I try to do that as often as I can, honestly.
The kids were great. They're amazing. There's a thriving arts community there and some pretty impressive talent coming out of Yukon — you know, if they can manage to get out of Yukon.
Vienna, VA, July 23, 2022 - photograph by Jerry Frishman
You mentioned adding a new song for the festival, and you've dropped more new ones in the past couple shows — can you give us an idea of when we may see a new record? Or perhaps that record you recorded on your 40th birthday? Any idea when that will see the light of day?
I imagine the 40th birthday one will see the light of day eventually. I'm notorious for moving forward, and if I don't get on top of finishing something all the way before I'm moving on to something else, sometimes it will just sit for a while. The 40th birthday record, it'll come out eventually. I was hoping to put it out this year, actually.
And then I got started on this new project, which has a whole different feel. I'm really excited about it. So I can say, absolutely, there will be at least one if not two releases next year.
Are we looking at an EP and an LP?
Yeah, I guess you could say that. I think we'll probably put a couple songs out this year and then the full record probably at some point next year. I'd like to be on tour and perform it live with my band. You know, I've got a few other responsibilities before I can do that, early next year [laughs].
I think we know about some of those. Can you sum up just how stoked are you to be back with E Street in 2023?
I'm very stoked. Very stoked. I always hit a point where when I'm out with E Street… it's like I'm going away for school, you know? That's how I feel about it: "Alright, off to college! I'll see you guys later!" And then I spend the next two to who-knows-how-many years in school.
I love that experience, being able to learn that craft and connect with that broader audience. To hone that ultimate vision. It's an amazing experience. And all along, feeling Clarence's voice echo inside of me. It's a really, really powerful and beautiful thing.
Then, after that E Street tour, there comes a point when I go back out with my band, and it's really exhilarating to be able to apply all these things I've been learning, to hone my craft even more that way.
And then, after a couple years out with my own band, I hit a point where I need to go back to school! [Laughs] When I've got a few more things I need to learn. I'm ready to go back to school! It's been a long time at this point. Was it, like…
It was February 2017.
So it'll be six years when we go out.
Oakland, CA, 3/13/16 - photograph by Joseph Quever
What is it like rehearsing with E Street, compared with how you prepare for your own shows?
It's been a while.… But like I said, I always try to implement what I learned from E Street into my own experience. There's a little bit more of a budget on E Street, so the band can rehearse for a little bit longer, with a little bit more intensity than my band [laughs]. But the tone of it is the same. You want to make sure that you've got all the tools that you need, packed and ready.
You're going through as many songs as you can and then considering the stagecraft. One of the things I learned early on from Bruce was — and it kind of confused me at first — watching him work through the different aspects of what a live show is. The band's on stage and he's sitting out in the audience, just to see what it looks like and how it feels from that perspective. Where the lights are — "let's move that light over here." All these nuances, and he's in every single little detail.
I don't travel with the light person, but when we do at one point in the future, hopefully, that is an element that I do hope to be able to rehearse with.
You rehearse the show that you want to perform. That's the big take-home for me, to this day: figuring out what songs are going to be the best ones to convey a bigger story, figuring out how to help the band to stretch out a little bit, and making some certain moments more improvisational.
Neil Young said something — I got to watch when they were rehearsing, and they only rehearsed a certain song once. I'm not going to remember exactly what he said, so don't quote me on this, but he said something to the effect of: "Let's not waste it." We'll go through it, cool… but let's not waste it. Save the rest of it for later. There's certainly an element of that as well that I keep in mind.
On the E Street stage, Oakland, CA, 3/13/16 - photograph by Joseph Quever
Are there songs from Letter to You that you're hoping will get played live?
I hope we play all of them! We'll see what happens. It's such an amazing record. It's a great record and I'm stoked to be ... well, hopefully we'll play it. And if we do, there's not a dud on it. It would be awesome to play that one in its entirety. But who knows? We shall see.
Does Bruce ever give you a sense [of what he'll play] prior to rehearsals? So you can use this time to run through any songs in advance?
No, I don't get a heads-up on anything like that. He's been enormously brave, in my opinion. He taught me a lot about what it means to believe in somebody. Because from the beginning, for the first time that I was out with him, I think we rehearsed around 30 songs.
That could be one show and that's it!
Yeah. So there was just a ton of music he'd never heard me play before. He'd just throw it out, and it's like, you're crazy! Really?!
"Spirit in the Night"? The first time Bruce heard me play that was live on stage. He'd never heard me play any of it — and there's a lot of saxophone! Like, really? Okay.…
Fortunately, I was ready. But it felt very brave. He believed that it was going to work, and that I'll be able to believe in myself as well. And it worked.
It's taught me a lot as a band member, to make sure that I'm doing my work at home, that I'm doing the homework. And I need to know as much as I can about everything I can. Because you never know when that shot may be called.
Vienna, VA, July 23, 2022 - photograph by Jerry Frishman
So are there lessons you've taken from him as a bandleader that you bring to your own band? Ways you try and work with the folks who play with you?
Yeah, for sure. I'm not shy about the song list, for example. With my band, it's like you step into a role. Here are 40 songs — learn these quickly, because I'd like to have the flexibility to give an audience a genuine experience that's there for that moment.
There's also a big element of keeping everyone on their toes, including myself and the audience. So if I need to shift things or change the dynamic in the moment, that's something that Bruce has been really amazing at. It's given me a bit of anxiety in the past. But it's such a powerful tool, because it keeps everything fresh. You've got to take some risks, which ideally are equal to the reward. Bruce being brave enough to just throw out a song that was not even considered on setlist before and put the band completely on our toes, and… alright, well, we need to be dialed-in and ready.
And there's the whole James Brown element, too — making sure everyone's paying attention. It adds to the excitement of the role.
What can we expect with the 2023 Tour?
I have no idea. [Laughs] That's an easy one for me to answer. Hopefully some great shows — that's all I've got.
So you're going on this as blind as the rest of us.
At this moment, that's absolutely true [laughs]. But, again, everyone in the band understands that you have to know everything and be ready for anything. That's the element that comes to the table. And again, that's what I hope to impart to my own band as well. That's what keeps things exciting.
In the meantime, good luck with your own stuff this fall, and congratulations on your Monmouth Arts award!
I'm really excited about it. I'm super humbled by it. I'm looking forward to meeting these other people that are being celebrated and being a part of that night. It's going to be pretty special; I'm pretty thrilled.
And stay tuned. I do have more shows on the horizon, more than are listed currently. Hopefully people will be hearing about that very soon, and some new music coming out very soon as well.
- interview by Anna Selden
Jake released a new single in August called "Born Like Me." In his own words, the song was "inspired by highly publicized tragic events that sparked a global conversation two years ago. This song was written as a way of acknowledging the underlying struggles and deep-seated fears that are the harsh realities of societal discrimination, yet choosing to lift each other above the hurt and into the hope of a truer sense of love and freedom.… We are a human family. Let us stand up for and alongside each other!" Check out "Born Like Me" on all platforms, including Spotify and Apple Music
Check out Jake's website, jakeclemons.com for upcoming tour dates, music, and all things Jake, or on the socials: Facebook, @jakeclemons on Twitter, and YouTube. For more information on Monmouth Arts, see the Monmouth County Arts Golden Celebration.