Johannesburg, South Africa, is not immediately associated with rock music, at least in the United States. However, there is a 25-year-old rocker, born and raised in the African music scene, looking to change the way we view music in the African culture.
Jesse Clegg is currently on his first North American tour, which comes to the Mesa Arts Center on Tuesday, May 6, to promote his second album, Life on Mars, and to offer a taste of his heritage. He will be opening for his father, the iconic South African rocker Johnny Clegg.
"I think there are a lot of similarities," Clegg explains, "between the really intense Zulu music and certain rock chord-changes and melodic ideas."
No doubt and interesting comparison, but it does make sense when listening to the progressive and experimental tracks of Life on Mars. Otherworldly sounds and influences dot the album while still holding true to a softer and enchanting rock 'n' roll feel.
"When I started writing," says Clegg, describing his musical background, "it just happened that it came out as rock 'n' roll. It was never a conscious decision; it just made sense to me."
Johnny Clegg played a key role in developing the musical mind of his son, Jesse. Over twenty albums into a lengthy career, Johnny certainly knows the key to success, even though the elder Clegg has his own musical style far removed from rock and roll. The length of time that Jesse spent on tour with his father at such a young age has left an impression that shaped his own musical goals.
Up on the Sun caught up with Jesse Clegg midway through his North American tour and discussed his plans to record the next album in America, his role as an ambassador in the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and his journey through the United States, which included his first frat party experience on the Dartmouth campus.This is your first tour in America, correct? How's it going so far?
Correct, yeah. It's been really good, man. I've done a lot of shows in New York and other major cities, but this is my first time really traveling across the country and getting to expose people to my stuff on a more widespread level.
A lot of the shows that I'm playing are unplugged shows, which is a great way of showcasing my songwriting. I'm a songwriter at heart. So, a lot of these shows have been really intimate and the audiences have been really responsive. Plus, we've been selling a ton of merch, so that's a good sign [laughs].
It's been better than I could have imagined, to be honest. I was a little bit nervous going in, and now I feel totally excited about the States. This is the first time I've put together a really long, two-month tour here.
What can we expect from your show here in Arizona?
Well, we're doing an unplugged show on that one. It's going to basically be a very stripped down and intimate version of the songs on the albums. It's a very musical show, and I get to talk to the audience about the songwriting, why certain songs are written, how I came up with certain things, and what they're about. It's a nice, intimate and connected experience.
I really enjoy that, especially for a new audience who doesn't really know my music. I can ease them into it with explanations and they can hear the song in its raw acoustic form and see whether it speaks to them or not.
I recently listened to your latest album, Life on Mars, and I thought it was great. I'll be honest; it was not what I was expecting. When I heard that I would be talking to a rocker from South Africa, I didn't know what to expect at all, but I was impressed. What are your thoughts on the fan and critical reception?
Yeah man, it's been great. Life on Mars was a very exciting album for me because I got to work with Dave Bottrill. He has worked with some of my favorite bands like Muse and Tool, and all these amazing bands that he's produced albums for. So, to work with him was a privilege, and I kind of got to experience the legacy of that music through his eyes. Being able to bring my own stuff and have him work on it was inspiring.
So, from a personal perspective, it was a very exciting experience. It is a slightly more alternative album to my first album. For me, it's more stylized and so I think that when the album came out people got a sense of who I wanted to be as an artist and what my style was. I was getting more alternative and more experimental, and people heard that. It opened up a whole new market for me in a way.
It's funny because rock music in South Africa is an emerging genre -- it's not mainstream at all. It's interesting to see how it's progressing. As we all get more courageous and become more experimental, we're kind of forging our own way in South Africa.
Interesting, I did want to ask you about that--specifically the culture of rock music in South Africa. So, it's not a mainstream thing, you say?
No, it's a very niche genre. There are not a lot of rock platforms, and not a lot of rock radio stations. The festivals and the live scenes are building up. It's more of a live genre than anything. You know, its Western music ultimately, and Africa has got its own music, but it's definitely growing. It's great to see these rock festivals that are getting thirty or forty-thousand people in South Africa. It's building up, and it's an exciting time.
You are from Johannesburg, and you mentioned earlier that bands like Tool and Muse are some of your favorites. What kind of musical influences are you working with in Johannesburg, and how do you fuse that with the Western music?
Well, I come from a very musically eclectic background. My dad is world musician [Afro-pop musical legend Johnny Clegg], so I listen to a huge amount of African music, whether it's local South African music or West African or North African. That local vibe is melodically unique, and it's definitely inspiring for me.
Funny enough, I think there are a lot of similarities between the really intense Zulu music and certain rock chord changes and melodic ideas. It's ultimately where blues started, you know? Blues started from African music, and it evolved into blues, and blues evolved into rock. I think there are interesting links to all these genres, and it kind of filters through.
As you said, your father was a successful musician, and still is. How has that relationship shaped you?
Yeah, he's built up a career over 30 years, and he's working on his 24th album at the moment. He's a mentor for me, and someone that I look up to and respect as a person who has dedicated their life to music and made it work.
I grew up in the music industry, man. I grew up on tours and on buses, airports, and hotel rooms. It's been my life. For the first six years of my life, I pretty much toured the world so it gave me a dis-envisioned view of the music industry to see all the unglamorous things that happened, as well as the glamorous.
You also get to see the power of music, especially at such a young age. Seeing the power of music to communicate and move people means a lot to me, and when I started writing music myself, it became the thing that I wanted to do. When you began writing your own music, were you targeting a specific audience?
Not at all, man, in fact, when I was in South Africa, everyone expected me to make music similar to my dad's, which is sort of African Afro-pop kind of stuff. It wasn't the kind of music that I was excited about in terms of my own expression. I'd always listened to rock. It wasn't the only thing I listened to, but I always listened to it as part of my musical understanding.
When I started writing, it just happened that it came out as rock and roll. It was never a conscious decision; it just made sense to me. Initially, people were kind of put-off because it was so different to what my dad does, but you just have to stick to your guns and believe in it.
Tell me something that every fan and potential fan of Jesse Clegg needs to know. Oh man, I don't know. For me, I really like music that has a sincerity or honesty to it, and kind of reveals a truth about life. I hope that's what my music does -- I hope that when people listen to it they can relate to it on a personal level or a philosophical level. That's really what I aspire for as an artist.
Back to what we were discussing earlier about your North American tour -- was there one destination you were most excited to visit?
We played Seattle last night, and that is an amazing music town. I was psyched to be there and play there. It's hard to choose; the whole of the States is a very interesting and eclectic place. I'm just enjoying the diversity of it.
What's the weirdest or craziest thing that's happened to you in America on this tour so far?
[Laughs] It's been pretty chill, man... I don't know... We're doing acoustic chilled shows, it's not like we're doing heavy rock and roll...
Don't hold back on me. You can't go through America for two months without running into some weirdos along the way.
[Laughs] I don't know, man... Oh! You know what was quite crazy -- we ended up driving through Dartmouth, that college town, and I was just curious to see what the whole college experience is like in America. So, these people showed us around the campus and we ended up at all these very strange frat parties and sorority parties with these kids getting completely wasted in these basements. They were having these ultimate parties and I was like, "Wow, kids in the States. I don't know how they actually study, because this is so intense."
I was completely overwhelmed, but that was pretty cool. I got to see a different culture, which is completely non-existent in South Africa. There are no frat parties or anything like that.
Uh oh, so were you subjected to all of their ridiculous electronic music?
Yeah, dude, full on electronic and hip-hop. It was like these kids had literally just discovered alcohol and they were so excited about it.
Tell me about the Nelson Mandela Foundation and your role as an ambassador within it.
Yeah. I was selected to perform at one of the annual events. It's a foundation for AIDS and AIDS awareness. It provides people in underprivileged areas with AIDS treatment. As an ambassador, I performed at the show and did a whole lot of charity events around the show. We work with them on things like the Mandela Children's Foundation, the Smile Foundation, and a couple of others that are all associated.
I work with those guys on certain things, and really just try to raise awareness with fundraising events. It's a long term relationship you have with the charity to raise awareness and be a spokesperson in a way. It's an absolute privilege to be able to give back and help out in South Africa, because it's a very complicated place. We've got a lot of challenges, but if we all chip in, I think we'll be fine. It's just a matter of prioritizing.
Jesse Clegg is scheduled to play the Mesa Arts Center on Tuesday, May 6.
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