Jake Clemons is a 36-year-old saxophonist, singer and songwriter likely to forever be known as not just the nephew of Clarence Clemons, the “big man” of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, but the “kid” who five years ago stepped into the big man’s big shoes in that band.
He’s ok with that. Even with a new solo album, a gentle and sometimes ruminative Fear & Love, out now as he tours the country with the E Street Band, the easy-going Clemons isn’t one for pushing himself too far forward.
Asked if he has mentioned to the boss, aka The Boss, that there might be a couple of songs available to slip into the set if they run out of ideas - like Move On from Fear & Love, for example, that wouldn’t sound out of place being played by the E Street Band – he chuckles self-deprecatingly.
“No, would never be so bold as to say that. He has plenty up his sleeve as it is,” says Clemons. “I’m lucky that he is not pulling more out actually that we have never heard before.”
True enough. Each Springsteen show regularly is reset as audience requests and sudden inspirations thrown at the band with no notice. There’s 45 years of recordings, and extra songs not released or covers played live only, that the band can be asked to jump to.
Has Clemons ever had a moment’s panic at the thought he might not remember a song suddenly thrown into the mix? He laughs outright this time.
“I wouldn’t call it panic. It goes back to being in the moment and you just go with that moment. There is also a certain amount of belief goes into it.
“If other people are believing that that you are going to be right in that moment and that you are present enough, in most cases it just happens.”
Having faith in those around you matters not just if you’re the new kid in town, or the man about to take the solo but also in being a front man.
The line between backing singer/backline musician and frontman is more than the “six feet from stardom” as the documentary on the great unsung backing singers put it. It can be a huge, unbridgeable distance to travel. But not necessarily for Clemons.
“I think it’s a defining characteristic of who you are. I’ve only been a vocalist – I wasn’t a singer or a frontman – for seven years now; I’ve been a musician most of my life. But the struggle I had is I always felt the front man inside me and I’ve been more or less trying to find a place for that.”
If there is a front man inside you, being side-by-side with one of the great front men for show after show can’t help but be “hugely influential”, he confesses. But actually articulating what those lessons are, explaining what it is that Springsteen does that makes him so good as that focal point, that “guide” for the audience, is not so easy.
“Ah man,” Clemons sighs after a long pause. “It’s so hard to say. I can say the things that I’ve noticed are, first off, from the very start he pulled me aside and related to me this notion of ‘you have not earned it yet; you are always earning it’. After 40 years of doing this he’s still ‘earning it’. And hearing him convey that to me was huge.”
What does that mean? “It’s being aware that you have to know who is in the room, no the sacrifices that they have gone through to get there and that you will hopefully be able to bring some sort of value to match their sacrifice. To make it worthy of their presence.”
But solo or as part of the E Street Band Clemons reckons there is one key rule: “The moment you feel like you’ve earned it, then you’ve lost it.” So even as he’s writing songs about the state of the world around him – a black man in America not the least of it – he’s keeping the example of his boss close at hand.
Just don’t ask him what song he wants to see on the setlist every night though: that’s too hard. Having grown up in a house where jazz was played, he was late to the music made by Springsteen and his uncle - “who I loved like a father”. Immersed in it now he says that “every note [Clarence] played is like sacred, they’re spiritual for me”.
Which means in his own way, Jake Clemons is not that different to vast numbers in the audiences he plays to.