Jake Clemons Talks Growing Up and Learning on E Street

Jake Clemons performs in 2016
Francesco Castaldo\Archivio Francesco Castaldo\Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Jake Clemons performs at San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy on July 3, 2016. 

On January 11, at New York City’s Cutting Room, E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons will join others in paying tribute to his late uncle Clarence. “The Big Man,” as he was affectionately known to millions of E Street fans, will be honored at the Light Of Day Big Man Show. For Jake, it’s a special chance to honor family.

“Considering how Clarence always loved performing on his birthday, and my aunt (his sister) recently passed away with ALS, I think this is exactly how he'd be celebrating his 75th, and I'm thrilled to be paying tribute to his incredible legacy while also honoring the loss in my family with this show."

The show comes two days before the younger Clemons releases his new solo album, Fear & Love. Clemons spoke with Billboard about his dream life as a musician, where he balances his solo career and the intimacy of small shows with touring in Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band at stadiums around the world. Clemons also revealed the secret Springsteen shared with him prior to the 2012 Wrecking Ball tour on to how connect with audiences.

Was there one song that made you realize this was an album?

The title track. It’s the song that kind of sums up the whole story in a lot of ways. I’m a guy who writes a lot, so I’ll write and write and write, and then when it comes time for me to put a record together, when I feel like there’s a theme or a message I really want to convey, then I’ll start collecting those songs.

Are there things you didn’t realize you learned until you started going through the writing?

Absolutely, one of the things that was really exciting for me is -- I had this record done and recorded over a year ago. But one of the things I got really excited about as we started to really nail down the sequencing was the journey of performing The River every night. I really enjoyed performing the album, and then reflecting on the record I had just put together alongside that. My record connected me with more after that experience. So yeah, there’s always learning going on in that regard.

Will you tour the album in 2017, and if so, would you do it from start to finish after being inspired by The River tour?

Absolutely, yes. But I’m not sure on doing the album in its entirety. I grew up under E Street and learned from that band throughout my career. So with my band, for the last seven years of touring, the audience is going to tell us what to play -- not literally, but we’re gonna read our vibe from the audience. With E Street I quickly saw the purpose and the power that was in telling the story from beginning to end. I’m also a person that really enjoys the idea of having recorded music and live music, and those being [such] separate vessels. A recorded album is like a text, and a live show is like a conversation.

At what point did you realize the different things you had picked up from E Street and were placing into your own music?

My initial response to that would be a matter of being dialed in, everyone being super present in the moment and everyone realizing the value of that and the significance of that, it makes the hugest difference. It ultamitely becomes extremely engaging, the sense that the band is as present as the biggest fan in the audience. Everybody in the band is fully aware of the moment, and reading into the next moment.

When did you become aware of that lesson?

The first rock show I ever saw, the first time I ever heard electric guitars, was when I was eight years old and I went to go see the E Street Band play. When I was able to look around the room and see that everybody in the room was connected, that there was this singular moment happening and the entire audience and the band were dialed in to that same singular moment, that’s what fascinated me. The music, to me, has always been a way to facilitate that.

Once you started playing to these massive audiences and seeing how certain songs connected how did that influence your own writing?

That’s where I consider my career to be a huge blessing for my life. I’ve been playing for a long time, and as a sax player I’ve been a sideman on a lot of stages for a lot of people, so being able to have the experience of performing, and of watching how different artists were able to sculpt sets, was huge. I can’t say enough about how much of a blessing that was, to have that background of learning while offstage. I’m not very shy, I’m definitely one to ask questions, so I’ll ask them a million questions. I sometimes worry about being the annoying nephew, but I learned a lot through the ranks.

What artist would you like to ask questions outside of E Street Band?

Sam Cooke, just given the time of his music and the journey for him. His songwriting is phenomenal and his voice is such a big influence on culture. And then being embraced by everybody -- he was really an open figure, even previous to Elvis. That would be my initial response, but I’ll talk to anybody. I’ll talk to Stevie Wonder at some point -- in terms of songwriting, the man is unearthly. It’s pretty amazing.

As a writer what is one song you wish you had written?

Songs In The Key Of Life, that whole record. For Stevie, you can go back to when he was 12 years old, and the music was [already] pretty stunning. “Uptight,” he was 16 when he wrote that.

Could you talk about the balance you get of getting to play in one of the biggest bands in the world while also doing your own stuff?

Oh man, it’s not just that I get to play in this great band and go and express myself, I am learning from the masters of the craft. Then alongside I’m building my own craft as a songwriter, as a frontman. Going from being in a private lesson with the dean and then being able to leave campus and be able to explore what I’ve learned on my own, and to be able to go back and forth with that, is insane.

Anyone that says they’re the luckiest musician is very lucky, but they can’t be as lucky as I am. Most people work hard to be able to get to a place where they can play in front of a hundred thousand people. The tragedy there is you can never go back. If you play for a hundred thousand people, you can’t [then] go play for a hundred people. So, for me, to get to go and play in front of these big crowds, and then go and have club experience, or even a living room experience still -- to be able to do that in a way that’s not exclusionary, but is also encapsulating the same essence that I’m growing and learning from in those big stadiums… what more can I possibly ask for?

To me, Springsteen is the best at maintaining that relationship with his fans. What is the secret?

He put it to me really simply and really directly. At the beginning of the Wrecking Ball tour, he pulled me aside and he said, “Listen, it’s important you understand this. You need to keep earning it, and just after 40 years of doing this, I’m going on that stage and still earning it.” That blew my mind. I can see the evidence of that in his career, and that’s the thing that engages the audience every night, and that’s where the fans are born.