Jake Clemons on 'Historical' Bruce Springsteen Gigs, Emotional New Solo LP

Saxophonist talks marathon E Street Band shows, playing solo in living rooms, Clarence Clemons' legacy and more

E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons discusses touring the world with Bruce Springsteen and his new solo album 'Fear & Love.' Credit: Rex/ZUMA

It's 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, but Jake Clemons has only been out of bed for an hour. That would be quite the lazy day for most people, but the previous night the saxophonist played a three-hour-and-59-minute concert with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. On a rare period of downtime from the epic River tour, Clemons visited Rolling Stone headquarters to chat about his new solo album Fear & Love – in stores January 13th – along with his crazy year on the road with Springsteen.

How do you feel the morning after a show like that?
It's pretty spectacular to realize that these are moments in history. These are historical moments, and it seems appropriate considering all the history that's happening around us as well. I'm very appreciative that there's historical moments happening in rock & roll alongside historical moments in global affairs.

Are you guys aware that these shows have been extra long?
No. We're never aware of it. I'm never even aware of it until after the show when someone tells me. For me, it's like tapping into some other space and then you wake up.

I heard Max Weinberg say he had no idea there would even be a tour this year until last Thanksgiving. Was that the case with you?
Yeah. I had no idea about anything.

When did you first learn about it?
I honestly don't even remember. I remember telling people there was not going to be a tour. I was in Europe when I found out. The first thing I heard was that there was going to be a show at SNL. I was in Europe, so I had to fly directly over for that.

One TV appearance turned into nearly a year of touring?
Yeah. It's been an interesting ride, man. I recorded a record last July and spent time working on it pretty heavily over the next several months with mixing and everything. I was going to release it in January and then I got a heads-up about the tour. I thought, "Well, we should postpone that a little bit, push it to March." Then I found out the tour was being extended, so I decided to push it a bit more and etc., etc. [Laughs] It's been a really interesting ride.

Is that frustrating or is this a good problem to have?
I don't know. That's an impossible question to answer. As I grow older, I learn that time typically has our best interest in mind. I could be frustrated, but ultimately I trust that the best things are going to happen. And in the end, had I released this record earlier, it wouldn't have ended up getting the exposure that we're hoping to get for it now. We weren't shopping for labels and then suddenly BMG chimed in and made us an offer. So the tour getting extended changed the fate for Fear & Love.

Tell me about the record.
It's a concept record. It's a story that encompasses the last few years of my life. It starts off with the weight of tragedy and heartbreak and trauma and finds itself recovering from that and exploring a new fearless ability to live.

What's the tragedy it begins with?
I came to the end of a long relationship several years ago and it was really difficult. I didn't understand how much the fears I inherited affected the way I was living my life and the way I approached relationships and the way I approached love. Reconciling and recovering from those things was a really big thing for me over the past few years. So this is a very personal record.

On your last tour, you did a lot of special shows in the living rooms of fans. Are you going to do that again?
I'm not really sure. We'll see. Those were some of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. I didn't really expect it to be as amazing as it was. In a sense, those moments in those shows transcended what you find in most large production shows these days. There's a connection and this rawness.

There's a weird dichotomy in your career that you're either playing enormous arenas and stadiums or tiny clubs and living rooms.
The thing that shocked me was how similar they were. One thing that matters to me, no matter where I'm playing or who I'm playing with, is that there is a sense of intimacy that's created as quickly as possible with everyone in the room. I'm so grateful I got to do those [living-room] shows, but I don't know if I'll do them again because they were so special. The tour for this record is going to be a club tour.

I think many Bruce fans don't even realize you're a singer-songwriter that plays guitar. You're just seen as a saxophonist. Is it a struggle to get over that perception?
It's not a struggle. When I'm with the E Street Band, I am there as an extension of a voice that's been there for 40 years. I don't feel like that's my place to showcase Jake Clemons, per se, as it is to channel the essence of E Street. When it comes to my shows, sure, there's plenty of people that don't know all those other things. But for me, that's exciting. It's a treasure to give them something they weren't expecting and to share something on an intimate level. They're connecting with it and getting more than what they anticipated, which is awesome.

The entire new record is a concept album about your personal struggles?
Yeah, it's a Side One–Side Two record. Side One is dealing with heartbreak. It's dealing with the warning signs of a bad relationship and the struggle of having to figure out why the relationship is bad and do you want to live that life or not, then getting to the other side of it. And then it goes to Side Two, which is the freedom of being able to love fearlessly. I feel like it's getting outside after a long winter, and it's spring and the sun is on your skin again and it feels exciting. The record is a journey. Most people aren't making these kind of records anymore, but for me it was really important to tell the story and just for my own sense of dealing with life.

How has being a part of the E Street band changed your career?
If guess if I'm honest, it's probably changed every aspect of it. I mean, I grew up with E Street, so it's greatly affected my perception of what a show is. It's greatly affected my perception of what the goal is. The first concert I saw at eight years old was Bruce. The music was a tool to achieve something greater, and that's something I've carried with me ever since.

And you've gone from watching as a kid to actually being part of the band. That's a great way to really learn a craft.
Absolutely. And I've continued to take notes, without question. One of the things that's become significant over the last two or three years to me is the value of story. Music has been this conduit forever about how to express our culture and who we are as a community. It's about drawing people in who are strangers to where we are all the same. The importance of that is something that's been lost these past 50 or 60 years, since music became amplified. Back then, you had to be close enough to feel it. A great benefit from those living-room shows, and in terms of the River tour, was being able to delve into the characters of the record and really understand the story and be able to express that story line both physically and musically.

On the previous tour, you were part of a horn section. It's just you this time. How has it been different now that you have to carry all the weight of the horns yourself.
It hasn't been different in terms of carrying the weight of anything. It's just different. I always say that horn section was such a huge blessing for my musically. I'd never played in a horn section before, and those guys happen to be the greatest in the business. I have the highest respect for them. They taught me a ton and I'm so grateful for it. The power of a horn section is just unreal. This is just different. It's having the freedom to express myself more directly.

At the show last night, I saw you raise your hands in the "Hands Up/Don't Shoot" pose during "American Skin (41 Shots)."
I have not been in a place before to necessarily share my political voice, but the reality is if I get pulled over, my dad taught me to turn the lights on, put your hand on he steering wheel, roll down your window and have your driver's license ready. Now he wasn't telling me that to make sure I was a nice guy. The reality is that when my parents got married, their marriage was illegal. They were living in Virginia and could not get married there since it was against the law. So the realities of where we are in this country, I feel it, man.

I have an eight-year-old daughter. And I can only imagine what went through my dad's mind raising five kids and the realities of what America means. It's heavy. So that's not exactly theater when I put my hands up. I'm feeling it deeply emotionally.

Switching gears, Bruce often calls for songs that aren't on the set list. Is there any possible song he could call that you simply don't know?
I imagine there is a song I do not know [laughs], There's moments where things get pulled out that he had not played since the late 1960s. So the notion that I'd have confidence to say there's nothing that's gonna come I don't know would be ridiculous [laughs].

But if he calls for something really random like "Paradise by the C," you're ready?
Yeah, but there's a difference between knowing a song and knowing a song. Things come out that I may not have practiced in months.

Are you you still using the same saxophones as your uncle?
Yeah. Absolutely.

It must be emotional to hold the same physical sax he used to play.
Yeah. For me, it's an homage more than anything else. I don't think it's required, and I think I'd still feel the same connection to him either way, but I'm grateful have his sword when I go to war or wear his jacket when I'm handing out bread. It's special for me.

I'm always amazed by how your tone is just so similar to his. Is that natural?
I'm just trying to let my heart speak. I'm aware of him. I carry that connection with me and it's deeply spiritual. Outside of that, I'm just trying to open my heart and lungs.

What does your next year look like?
I'm looking forward to getting the record out and having people listen to it. I'm really looking forward to getting onstage again and conducting. It's always a cool thing because it's like I get to spend a semester in school and then take a semester abroad. I like to learn a ton, and then go out and apply it. It's exciting. It's exciting to be able to go on tour again with my own music and with my band. Hopefully I can convey to people an experience that is without fear and shine some light.