Jess Clemmons first came to the attention of British music fans a couple of years ago with the release of Here We Go Again, her debut album with The Bandits and one of the most exciting country rock albums we’ve heard in recent years. Many of the people who now count themselves fans first heard of her when her version of “Wichita Lineman” was played by DJ Terry Wogan, who afterwards declared it to have been even better than the Glen Campbell original. Praise indeed.
Since then she’s been a regular visitor to the U.K., touring all over the country and winning a large following. Last year her second album, Smoke and Mirrors was released. It was selected as one of the highlights of 2017 by Country Magazine and the lead single “Sister” received extensive airplay from the BBC.
She’s back on tour in the U.K. in February, kicking off at Fruit in Hull on February 6th and if you’re a fan of top notch country music then we’d highly recommend a trip to the north bank to catch the show. We got to talk to Clemmons about music, marriage and the perspicacity of small dogs, and we started by asking about the distinctive change of sound on the material on the new album.
idp: Let me start by congratulating you on Smoke And Mirrors. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and it’s an excellent thing. It has a distinctly different sound to Here We Go Again. A little less country rock, a little more pop and gospel. Was this a deliberate decision or did it just happen, like a natural progression?
Jess Clemons: It was absolutely deliberate. The last thing that we ever want to do is to try to recreate something we’ve already done. There’s a kind of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix” it trap and some performers and bands fall right into it. It’s easier but it also means that you don’t grow as an artist and you don’t give the audience something new. Making a big change to your sound involves taking a chance and that’s why we spent a whole year working on the songs for the new album to try to get the best of both worlds – still recognizably the established Jess And The Bandits sound but with plenty of the new in there as well.
idp: Did it feel like a risk?
JC: Well there were certainly lots of times when I was in panic mode because much of this was so different from anything we’d done before but that was mostly before I’d really started living with these songs, sharing them with friends and colleagues. Gradually it came to feel less strange. I would take the old album and choose a song to play at random, and then I’d play one of the new ones and I came to realize that there was a coherence between the songs – a big similarity in the body of work, which is exactly what you want. I wanted to find a way to tie all the songs together because when you’re in a club playing live you don’t want it to sound like you’re performing songs that don’t belong together. So I’m really glad that I went with my gut and that my management team supported me and I decided to take a risk and go for it.
idp: There’s a lot of gospel influence on the album. Is that something that you grew up with? You seem to drop into the groove very easily.
JC: I did grow up singing in the choir and the gospel feel as always been a part of me. It used to hurt that whenever I would get a solo in church I was always given the gospel part and I used to say, “I want to sing the pretty little songs,” but soon I decided that I’d embrace it. When I decided to use the gospel sound on the new album it felt really good because I felt I was getting back touch with the gospel tradition within myself that I had not made use of for a long time. It was like I was going back to my roots and to being a little girl again.
idp: There’s an extensive list of writers who contributed to the album, many of them working with you as co-writers. Do you enjoy collaboration?
JC: I love it and I got to work with some fantastic writers on Smoke and Mirrors. Femke Weidema, who co-wrote “Sister”, is actually the producer of the album and it’s great to work with a producer who is also a songwriter because you can see a song go from it’s very beginnings to being almost complete in just a few hours. Having her as a producer with such gave me such an advantage. And there’s Emily Shackleton as well. She wrote “Every Little Thing”, which was a big hit for Carly Pearce and she’s fantastic to work with.
idp: So you work in Nashville but you live in Houston?
JC: I’m in Houston now and I think I have been here for longer than I’ve ever been but I’ve taken full advantage of the downtime including getting married. I’m Mrs Peavey now. I’m getting used to that but it still feels a bit weird writing it down. I’ll get used to that soon.
idp: I understand that your dog told you that he was the right one.
JC: Unfortunately my puppy died a couple of months ago but he was always very protective about who was around me. He was just a little dog but he was one of those little dogs who think they’re very big dogs. But when Chris was around he would just cuddle right up and I thought that if I hadn’t already figured out that he was the one then maybe I should just pay attention to the dog.
idp: I think you were also hit by hurricane Harvey.
JC: Oh yes that was precisely why we had to postpone the U.K. tour last year. It was scheduled and I had been in the U.K. for a month getting ready and everything was all set and then I got the word that my parents home and been severely affected. It was the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed especially from thousands of miles away. I spoke to my mum and she said, “Do what you have to do,” but I could have hear the pain in her voice so I asked, “Do you want me to come home?” and she just burst into tears and said “Yes.” I said, “Right I’m going home, people will understand.” She’s okay now. She’s back in the house and it’s coming together slowly. They don’t have a kitchen yet but they do have a bedroom and a bathroom.
idp: You also issued an old fashioned Christmas CD which has lots of U.K. country performers on it and a song by Gary Quinn. What do you think of the current U.K. country scene?
JC: I’m a big fan. I’ve been touring the U.K. since 2016 and I’ve seen the country scene develop so fast. I love the way a lot of U.K. country artists are using their own heritage to make authentic British country music. It’s not just a question of copying the U.S. music anymore.
idp: Are we expecting a mixture of new material and old when the tour comes round?
JC: Absolutely. It’s good to be starting in Hull because Fruit is an excellent venue and we’re hoping for a good crowd. I’ll try and put in the songs that people really love plus some from the new album and hopefully people will have had time to get to learn some of them and sing along.
idp: I’m sure they will. Have a great tour and we’ll look forward to seeing you in Hull.