Jesse Clegg | Future Presenceby Claire Angelique / 27.09.2011
“You must understand, I’ve seen the hardships of touring since a young age, and maybe not what you’re thinking. I’m not talking about the great rock n’ roll clichés we all love but the physical hell of it. The constant living out of suitcases, missing your home, your routine, your family. Even though we traveled a lot with my dad, I knew how I felt when he wasn’t around and I’m sure he felt the same. It’s strange but since the beginning of the year since the new album, I feel I’m beginning to grasp what it means making a decision to be a full time professional musician. It’s like you have two personas. This exhibitionism of the outer person, when you’re on stage and then the inward one, which I think is important to protect, because that’s where your creativity comes from. It sounds corny, I know. I’m still trying to work it out. I think I’ve become more skeptical about the whole rock persona… I mean my dad, yeah, he was a rebel at the time but I wouldn’t even know how to be one if I tried.”
This is Jesse Clegg, mid-way through a Mojito, sitting in the sun, outside Pata Pata Restaurant downtown Jozi. A fresh, cute, cleanly shaven baby face of a boy, 22 years old, across town from lectures at Wits, on a Wednesday afternoon. He smiles and laughs when I remark, it’s normally me with the run on sentences and haphazard logic bouncing from subject to thought to emotion to what were we talking about again?
“I’m just looking forward to the future. It finally dawned on me; this is what I want to do. I want to be a full time musician. I look up to people like Arno Carstens. He’s amazing that guy, the sacrifices he’s made and his career has been really varied. He’s pretty inspiring. I mean, Springbok Nude Girls, they were part of South African rock history; you know, exploring and challenging the whole formula. That’s how I want to grow. I want to be bolder, more courageous. Guys like Thom Yorke, Nina Simone. You know both my grandmothers were jazz singers and both my grandfathers were jazz drummers, weird hey? I guess most people don’t know I’m Jewish, but we’re not practising. I mean I had a Bar mitzvah and everything, but it was more symbolic than anything. Hey, have you heard The Good, The Bad and The Clean?”
Clegg has an incredible vibrancy about him. He almost makes you feel old, jaded and well out of touch of that youthful energy that magically allows you to accomplish great, impossible dreams. But at the same time he’s got a bewildering innocence that cuts right through any bullshit irony that might start festering when he starts earnestly speaking about music being art.
Still it’s refreshing from someone so young, intent on searching for that indefinable muse rather than worrying about radio play or if MK has green lighted their new reality rock show.
But take a listen to Clegg’s latest release, Life On Mars and one can’t help wishing that maybe he could have taken those personal reveries and pushed them just a little bit further. Albeit a very slick, commercial playground, I can’t help but question why the references and insights he gives into his creative process were not a little bit more in the forefront of the product currently on offer. There’s no denying Clegg’s future presence on the music scene. It is still to be determined if his impact will be national or whether he’ll be able to crack that elusive international market. Either way, it will be interesting to see how he handles his career – who he decides to work with, which producers he chooses, what direction his next album takes, all choices obviously that will define Jesse Clegg as either a bold uncompromising artist dabbling in everything from world to blues music (both influences) or just another nice cool easy listening South African simulacra of a rock musician.
The intention of Life On Mars, according to his record label’s biography, involves Jesse Clegg taking a bold step forward, “to create a rock ‘n roll record that is as true to its genre’s roots as it is visionary”. OK, so most of that is corporate rhetoric written by intern AFDA graduates but it mirrors Clegg’s earnest intention of figuring himself out as an artist but it’s also a small clue into how carefully artists need to handle their careers from minute, almost laughable, press releases to the bigger buggery that inevitably comes into play when looking for an original sound while still trying to appease the 5FM playlist gods. It’s intriguing that Clegg doesn’t once hint at his father’s involvement in his career. We can assume that within the close circle of their family, that these kinds of business matters are discussed and advice and guidance must always be on offer, but Clegg junior is most definitely his own man, with what appears to be a bit of a professional conundrum on his hands. Multi-platinum his records may be, but there is a strange brooding depth, a pent up artistic rage that lurks behind his thoughts and conversation. The vision of who he is as an artist doesn’t always match the sounds on the CD.
Though Clegg alludes to the hybrid mix between the clean software and grungy mish mash of sound of Placebo’s Battle for the Sun, as the catalyst behind the sending of his demos for Life on Mars to superstar producer David Bottrill, it’s also obvious that Clegg’s conceptual understanding of the music he wants to make is closer to the anthemic orchestral sound cesspools Bottrill produced for Tool and Muse.
“Yeah, I love that almost unconscious feeling you get from bands who push the experience of hearing music. I can see myself doing that more and more. I’m really not interested in how much money an album costs, I mean look at Beck in his bedroom. Look at some garage bands or punk bands what they achieve with nothing. And making money is not my ultimate goal, though as soon as you’ve signed to a label that game changes a bit. But as long as they allow me the freedom to do what I think is true to me, I don’t care about all the other stuff. I want to work with people who understand my philosophy with what I’m trying to create and I’m so not into making local fashion statements or being part of some movement. I’ve always appreciated the outsider.”
There are prophetic hints at the real Jesse Clegg on Life on Mars. “Winston (Another Time)” has a beautiful discordant dissent in its structure lacking on his radio singles such as “Clarity” whilst “Disappearing Act” with its searching emotional depth is almost as difficult to listen to as anything by Mark Linkous. For songs like these, Life on Mars, if anything reinforces Clegg’s earlier comments about having to embody two personas. As the seasoned musician on a label, the compromise of at least two singles is a necessity, but the other Clegg lurks in the background of songs which most single downloaders will never get to experience and that as far as I can deduce, is a far more interesting and authentic voice of Jesse Clegg. One that I hope will grow louder and brighter with every album.