Real

Jesse Clegg

In the space of two short years, Jesse Clegg has streaked into the top of the radio charts and into the hearts of music fans throughout South Africa.

The vehicle for this has been the 22-year-old's debut album, 'When I Wake Up' which was released in 2008 and has, so far, produced an enviable five radio singles. It's also sold gold (20 000) and is heading for platinum status – a not inconsiderable feat for an out-and-out pop-rock album in a market where these genres have to fight for media attention and airtime space.

The success of 'When I Wake Up' is also no small achievement for a singer and songwriter who only revealed his work to close friends and family when the album was virtually done. "I was very tentative in those early days," the Johannesburg born-and-raised artist now reveals.

Listening to Jesse's debut, however, there is no trace of that initial hesitation when the Wits University law student first pushed his creative work out into the public. The first single - the elegant ballad "Today" - rapidly established Jesse as a fan's favourite: on its release to radio mid-August 2008 it debuted at number one on Joburg radio station, Highveld's "Homebrew" Chart, a considerable feat for a debut artist with a debut single and an historical first for this popular, public-voted chart.

From there on in, Jesse's initial strong showing on radio proved no fluke and three more chart-topping singles - "Girl Lost In The City"; "Heartbreak Street" and "End of the Rainbow" - followed. Between them, these self-penned songs more than showcased Jesse's ability to move with ease between more rock-orientated material to pop, as well as his innate feel for a memorable hook. 'When I Wake Up' was supported an increasing number of live shows – including sell-out shows at the Joburg Theatre in both 2009 and 2010, and a slot at the 2009 Mandela Day concert in New York City, featuring Steve Wonder, Alicia Keys, Baaba Maal, Black Eyed Peas and many others.

Against this background, it was no surprise when Jesse earned two prestigious South African Music Award nominations in 2009 – for Record Of The Year and Music Video Of The Year, both for his supercharged debut single, "Today". This was followed by another Record of the Year nomination in 2010 – this time for "Heartbreak Street".

It took a while for the initially reclusive music talent but, late 2010, Jesse has accepted that music is the only career he craves and he's looking ahead to the coming years as a time to cement his signature sound. In pursuit of this, Jesse took time out in 2010 and early 2011 to record songs for his second album in Canada with Grammy Award-winning producer, David Bottrill (Muse, Tool, Staind, Silverchair, Placebo).

The new material is everything you would expect from someone whose debut made a mark right out of the gate – confident, and increasingly sure-footed. Still, for fans of this genuine talent, there are plenty of surprises awaiting when Jesse Clegg again steps into the public spotlight with his second solo offering sometime in 2011.

Album biography

With his second solo record, platinum-selling artist Jesse Clegg takes a bold step forward to create a rock 'n roll record that is as true to the genre's roots as it is visionary.

Titled 'Life On Mars', the album sees Clegg make a pretty astonishing leap from his 2008 debut, "When I Wake Up" – which, in spite of the substantial sales, radioplay and nominations it earned, was now clearly only a first step into an exciting music career for the 22-year-old.

"If I can point to one thing that has changed in-between 'When I Wake Up' to 'Life On Mars' is that I now know that, no matter how hard or challenging the journey may be, my life lies in music," confides Clegg.

It's understandable that Clegg's initial foray into music may have been tentative: a deep thinker, Clegg left school, with the idea of immersing himself in law. He's still intent on completing his LLB at the University of Witswatersrand in Joburg, but over the past year he has poured his heart and soul into recording "Life On Mars".

There's also no doubt that holding Clegg back in the early stages of his music career was the not inconsequential matter of his lineage. As the son of one of South Africa's most prolific and highly regarded musicians, Johnny Clegg, it wasn't easy to present his own gifts without the context of his father's enormously successful career.

Still, one listen to the track 'Life On Mars' and it's clear that Clegg's talent is genuine. And large. The leaps he's made in songwriting, singing and performing are nothing short of huge – and the album displays a remarkable confidence and vision.

Indeed, it's the latter – Clegg's ability to calibrate each of songs with utmost care to the vision he has for it – that's the most striking aspect of 'Life On Mars'. It's also what lends it a deeply satisfying diversity. Gone is the attachment to rock-lite ballads and instead, Clegg's sense of lyrical drama, with music to match, is on superb display throughout his second record.

Aiding him in executing this is Grammy Award-winning producer, David Bottrill (Muse, Tool, Staind, Silverchair, Placebo) – with whom Clegg found a "meeting of the minds" during the recording process in Canada that took place late 2010 and again, in early 2011.

"What I loved about working with Dave is his commitment to starting the songs with the kind-of organic recording process that you just don't see much of these days," says Clegg. So whether it meant recording guitars through six different amps, each miked three times to capture different elements of guitar sounds, or recording the snare drum in a myriad of different ways, there was a primal rawness to the production of 'Life On Mars' that Bottrill then used to create the sonic expanse of each song.

Clegg also responded instantly to Bottrill's insistence that the production always serve the purpose of enhancing the emotional core of each song. "Dave believes that no matter what the style of the song, the production must always bring out the core emotional touchpoint, or else you are in danger of losing your listeners."

Clegg says that Bottrill challenged him in the studio in a way that's had a real impact on how he approaches his music now. "He would push me to motivate why I wanted certain things in a song and if I wasn't able to offer a good enough explanation he would move on. It was challenging at times but I am incredibly pleased with the outcome that you can hear on the album and the creative growth that Dave encouraged in me."

Clegg's creative growth during 'Life On Mar's recording is a thing to marvel at.

Whether it's the classic ballad, "In Black and White", or the album's first single, the super-charged rock 'n roll number, "Clarity", the songs Clegg offers up on his second record hold little secrets and hidden treasures to be discovered through many listens. That nothing here can be taken at surface level is understandable for an individual who's in love with the philosophy course that he's taken as part of his studies and who, when asked to create something as part of a study on George Orwell's 1984 came up with the first half of the album standout "Winston (Another Time)". For fans who came to love Clegg through the set of songs on 'When I Wake Up', the latter song is likely to be one of the biggest surprises on 'Life on Mars'. Comprised mostly of minor chords and showcasing the enormous growth in Clegg's voice, the song delivers a mesmerising soundscape that flicks between different tempos, a reflection of how it was written. "I wrote the first part as a response to a creative challenge given to us at varsity around the book, 1984, and then left it at that," Clegg reveals. "Already it was experimental but the second part I wrote later to complete the song makes it one of my most complex track I think."

Clegg's spot on, in the way he sees "Winston (Another Time)". But it's not the only dense track on 'Life On Mars'. The album is replete with intriguing songs – like "Slow Burn", a scorching number that keeps delivering meanings, with each listen. Another is 'Disappearing Act", a dark, cynical look at love that's reflected in the claustrophobic, sludgy treatment given to the song. Indeed, love is recurring lyrical theme for Clegg and yet he manages to avoid clichés about this well-worn subject on songs like the quite gorgeous "Black and White", undoubtedly a radio single in-waiting.

For Clegg, the heart and soul he's poured into 'Life On Mars' is about creating something unprecedented; something that rolls back the barriers we take for granted – like exploring Mars and finding life there. "I wanted to make a real statement about where I am in my musical life – and the contribution I feel I can make to the rock 'n roll canon," Clegg says. "From the moment we started work on the record and all through the recording process, I was fully aware of wanting to be able to add something to this amazing plethora of music that's been produced over the decades."

In 'Life On Mars', Clegg has done just that by staking a dark-edged, complex yet intrinsically organic and, yes heartfelt, claim in the musical expanse that is rock 'n roll.

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