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In Conversation with Jess from Jess and The Bandits

Jess and The Bandits first came to my attention at last year's SummerTyne festival, when they shared a stage with Callaghan. I was immediately blown away; more so when they delivered the festival's closing performance. Recently, I saw their headline performance in the NorthEast at the Live Theatre and am eagerly awaiting their next headline performance at Sage Gateshead in May.
Last week I had the great pleasure of a telephone chat with Jess. She is every bit as charming, genuine and funny over the phone as in person. We talked about a variety of subjects and laughed several times! I also got the lowdown in her upcoming UK tour.

J: Hi Helen, it's Jess from Jess and the Bandits.

H: Lovely to hear from you Jess. Thanks so much for agreeing to the call.

J: My pleasure, thank you!

H: How are you?

J: I'm good, how are you?

H: Good yeah.

J: Good.

H: How long have you been back from Nashville?

J: um, gosh about a week. I got back in the UK about a week ago, actually a week ago exactly.

H: how long were you out there?

J: I was in Nashville for ten days and then I went back home to Houston where my family lives and spent about two weeks there (laughs) and then came back to the UK. I'm never in one place for too long! (laughs)

H: it seems that way, you're always coming and going! (laughs)

J: Yeah (laughs)

H: You must be racking up the air miles are you?

J: Oh yeah! It's really exciting. The other day I looked at it and I've got like a hundred and fifty thousand miles so I was really excited. (laughs)

H: Wow!

J: I know, right?!

H: how many flights will that buy you I wonder?

J: (Laughs) You know how airlines are. Probably only about two!

H: So Nashville was music related. Was it recording, or....?

J: Yeah it was, we're actually...well..ummm...we haven't officially announced it yet, but we are putting together a deluxe editition of the current album. So we actually have been working on that and recording some new songs and writing and recording for the next album which is hopefully going to be out near the end of the year.

H: Oh that's soon. I didn't think we'd get a new one until next year. That's exciting.

J: Well, that could be what ends up happening but we are keeping our goal as the end of this year. We'll see what happens, but we want to make sure we get it right, we're not rushing, so it..you know, we're gonna take our time on it; well as much time as we can.

H: I guess it's better you take the time and know you released what you wanted.

J: Exactly! So, that's one of the reasons we wanted to get some new music out there, the fans and everyone have been living with the songs that we've had on the current album for a little under a year, it'll be a year in April, so we wanted to make sure that we could get some new music out there. We've been working on new material. We definitely wanna keep things fresh.

H: What's the plan for the deluxe then? Will that be tour only or iTunes, or general release?

J: Um we haven't decided, potentially both. Definitely iTunes but we've been talking bout releasing it in time for the tour, so yeah it's another one of those things we wanna get right first. We've got a couple of really great songs, we might even throw in some acoustic versions of some of everyone's favourites. So yeah, I think it's gonna be really great and definitely something new in time for Country to Country and the tour.

H: Oh yeah, you're doing C2C again this year.

J: Correct, yes. That was a late addition. We knew we were going to playing it but it's on the new stage for Bob Harris and the Under The Apple Tree Sessions. He's gonna be in building 6 there at the 02, which is gonna be a fantastic stage and venue and we kinda had to keep very hush hush about it but we're really excited to be an addition to their stage and it's gonna be a really great year at C2C this year I think.

H: I think it's safe to say that Bob Harris is a fan.

J: Yeah, he really is. He's been so supportive of us from doing several Under The Apple Tree Sessions. I even did a songwriter session with him when he was in Austin, Texas and did Under The Apple Tree from Austin.

H: Wow. I bet that was fun.

J: Yeah, so he'll probably getting something together from that soon and everyone will be able to see it . It's so great being a part of Texas songwriters and to be considered someone he wanted to bring along and part of it, so it was great.

H: So who else was involved, then?

J: Oh gosh, so many amazing Texas songwriters. There's one named Sunny Sweeney...

H: I saw her here years ago at Sage, she's great.

J: She and I were in the same songwriters' round together, so she played next to me. Kimmie Rhodes....she's another amazing writer that's written with Emmylou Harris and so many other great writers.

H: I know Kimmie well

J: Wow, well, it was at Kimmie's house there right outside of Austin, Texas. It was such an amazing experience, you know, she's such a legend in terms of Texas songwriters, it was incredible even to be invited along.

H: It sounds amazing, I can't wait to see the footage! Speaking of Bob Harris...Sir Terry Wogan...

J: (sighs) Ah, I tell you, that was....I think along with everyone else in the country, we were just devastated.

H: He had been a big supporter, hadn't he?

J: He was the very first one, on Radio 2, to ever support us, to play our music and he invited us on the show several times. We were fortunate enough to have gone on his show last summer and that's where we did Mama Told Me Not To Come and sang a couple other songs for him, but he was one of the most supportive people of Jess and The Bandits, so we are definitely gonna miss him, along with everyone else in this country, I think. The airwaves will never be the same.

H: I think when you look back, American music has a lot to thank him for, doesn't it really?

J: Oh absolutely, yeah, you know, he had such a great ear for something different, for music and he wasn't afraid to play what he liked. It helped of course that he was Terry Wogan, he could play whatever he wanted. (laughs) He was just one of those people that knew what he liked and if you were one of the people he liked, you considered yourself very blessed to be one of those musicians or artists that he got behind and he supported and we thank our lucky stars that we were one of the few that he championed over the last couple of years.

H: I think the amazing thing was, a bit like Bob Harris, in a way, he didn't pigeon hole music into genres, did he? He liked good music because it was good music. His attitude was more about 'I love this and I want you to hear it.'

J: Yeah, you're right, that's exactly it. He was definitely just like Bob Harris, you know, um, very unashamed in what he liked, like 'Hey, I love this, everyone needs to hear it.' (laughs) and I'm glad that we were one of those.

H: If only the world was more like that...

J: Yeah, absolutely, well, thank goodness for Terry Wogan and Bob Harris for that exact reason.

H: I think a lot of people, well, American artists, actually wouldn't have found a grounding over here if it hadn't been for them, certainly I don't think as many would have embarked on first tours over here, had they not had that airplay.

J: Absolutely, you're right, without a doubt, I mean, it's important to have support from a lot of people, but when you have that extra support, from people like Terry and Bob, it changes the game, it changes everything for you.

H: I guess when you think how many people it reaches...

J: that being said, radio play is absolutely important, but more than radio is getting out there and performing live. You look at some of the artists who are the biggest selling artists, I'm gonna go with someone like Celine Dion, for instance, never got played on the radio, no one ever wanted to play her except in the nineties, early nineties, when her songs were on movies, but she never stopped being on tour and people always went out and saw her. It shows the power of being able to get out there and see the artist that you love Nd word of mouth is massive and sometimes because of that it can also help you get on radio. A lot of times you go in and pitch to radio and the first thing they wanna know is what's their live schedule like? What are people saying on social media? It's a funny thing but it really does just all work together now, so it's such an import t thing to have a really great team behind you and for us we are really really fortunate to have, well, if you ask me, one of the best teams you could have in this country!

H: Do you think part of it for you for with the live performances is being able to connect with people and you're giving them a chance to see who you are?

J: Yeah, I think, I'm sure you've probably experienced the same thing, where you listen to a song and you're like, yeah that's good, but you don't really think much about it the next day, but then if you see that person live something changes. I know, I've done that, Hunter Hayes was one of 'em for me, I was like yeah, okay, his songs are catchy, then I saw him open up for Lady Antebellum and I was like, I love this kid, he's amazing. (Laughs) He was so good that I instantly became a fan. You're exactly right, making the connection with the audience that can completely transform every thing, from it just being a song, to it being a story and an experience and that's what you want it to be.

H: Especially when you get an artists who puts a bit of emotion, something real into the song, then it becomes not just the song but life.

J: exactly, for me, I know there's a lot of artists, that make a song, and they don't necessarily emote when they sing, but I'm definitely one of those people, because for the most part they are songs that I've written, songs that I've experienced, but I can't hide it, you know, it's all out there, laid out on the stage, for everyone to say. That's something that I think an audience appreciates, is seeing someone be vulnerable on stage, because in turn, that helps them be vulnerable and feel what you want them to feel when they listen to those songs.

H: As someone for who will admit Live music is my favourite thing, I love that connection, but do you think it can happen with people who don't go to gigs so often, then they come back

J: Yeah you're absolutely right, that's definitely what we hope.

H: Speaking of live...festivals...you did a lot last summer.

J: Yeah, we were very busy over the summer, so we are hoping to be busy this summer as well,where in the process now of confirming a lot of things and it looks like it's going to be another busy year for Jess and The Bandits, But we wouldn't have it any other way.

H: Do you enjoy festivals as much as the more intimate gigs?

J: I Love festivals. The cool thing about festivals, is it really is a ready-made audience,they're there, they're ready to just have fun and The difficult thing about today is you really have to work hard, you have to win people over, but I've always really enjoy that aspect of performing, is winning of the audience knowing that as soon as you're finished they want to come and buy an album all they want to come and say hello. For me, getting feedback, that's the best thing ever.
You can get great feedback at festivals. You get great feedback at your own gigs, but everyone is there to see you, you know, so when they come to the festivals, they don't necessarily know you. It's great to be able to introduce yourself to someone new. So I love that aspect of it.

H: How do you know, in the middle of a gig, when you've won people over?

J: you can really see it, you can tell when it's all of a sudden clicked and we're very careful when we put together our set list, especially for a festival, that we put together that set list in a way to where the audience is going to be able to engage, even if they've never heard our music before. There's a lot goes into, or should do into creating that experience for the listener. You can see it on their faces, you can see the fact that they're still standing there three songs later (both laugh) is a good thing. You can suddenly start swaying along and getting more relaxed, they're not looking at you with these really confused faces (both laugh) and it's great, you know, amazing, here we go, this is what we want, we just left with a few new fans. Even if we leave with one new fan, that's been mission accomplished. That's one other person is going to come to the shows when we go out on tour.

H: More if they've spread the word.

J: (laughs) Yeah, we always try to find people who have a lot of friends! (both laugh)

H: Do you think many people who come across you know that you had a solo career first?

J: No, I think the longer that they're fans, they figure it out, I thanks for the most part, which is actually okay with me (laughs) but people think that this is a new thing, it kind of came out of nowhere, you know, they don't realise there was 10 years of work prior to that of blood sweat and tears getting to this point but you know that's okay, it's something that they learn as we go along and it's kind of cool that I see tweets from people who say "Hey I love this song from your solo album" and I'm like, "Oh gosh, that's still out there?!" It's great to be able to see people get involved with what you've done, even if it's from the past.

H: Do you find a big difference between being solo and part of the band?

J: Well, obviously the style of music is different. Before I was doing pop soul with a little bit of a rock edge to it. Who knows what I was doing back then? I was finding myself, definitely, as an artist. Now, doing it with the band, I much prefer it how it is now. It's got its pros and the cons but I love being able to have that, cameraderie on stage and us working together to create music, is such an amazing experience that this is definitely the piece of the puzzle that was missing the 10 years prior.

H: I guess a lot of people won't know your band aren't American, either?

J: yeah we get that a lot. It was funny, we won UK group of the year from W21 music at the end of last year and someone tweeted to say wait a minute, shouldn't it be a UK band, this is an American band, so of course I giggles and told them that actually I'm the only American, I'm in the minority. But yeah, the guys are all from the UK, everywhere from Bristol to Bournemouth area to London and I'm the adopted British one, who has spent the last few years in the UK. It's fun seeing people's reactions when they expect to talk to some drummer from Texas, then he speaks in his London accent. We told the boys they were doing absolutely terrible American accents so they should work their English accents.

H: Work the English charm?

J: You got it, exactly.

H: Didnt you poach them from another band you were opening for?

J: The Overtones, yeah, I was doing my solo thing opening for them, so as you do when you're on tour for twenty some odd dates, you become really good friends. For us it was like second day in and we all just...something just clicked, we became really fast friends. Shortly thereafter, we just kept in touch and started working together and then we were kind of inseparable and before we knew it we were deciding whether to just still be Jessica Clemmons and this band or to just do this and become an actual band and make it official. So we did! It's a great story and I would never have expected to be the front woman for an all Bristish band!

H: I bet when they signed you up to open they didn't expect you to leave with their band!

J: (laughing) No, I expect not! We're on good terms though and I've said I'll share if I need to, as long as I'm not busy!

H: something that really interested me was the Evans campaign...

J: Yeah that was a little out of left field. I've always been really keen on fashion and especially to try to be a role model for younger girls, but I wasn't sure if I would ever get the opportunity to do it in the fashion world. Basically, we had a chat with them, more or less about me wearing their clothes on tour, then they heard Nitty Gritty and they loved it. They were about do do a brand new campaign, the #StyleHasNoSize campaign and from there we ended up building a relationship to where they used the song, we made a music video, I became their ambassador for that campaign and it really opened a lot of doors in a relationship with them so there should be some exciting things in the future with myself and Evans. It looks like there could be more in the pipeline, I'm not at liberty to say but I can say some things will be happening and I do love working with them.

H: On that subject you do have an amazing self confidence that I think all women wish we had. Is that just who you are, or can you give any advice?

J: (laughs) I definitely could give advice. It is not easy, confidence, at all. I think, you know, look at the model ASHLEY Graham, who is all over as the first plus size, sports illustrated size swimsuit model. She is so confident she was looking to self every day and say she's gorgeous, that is absolutely what she must do because you have to work on it. I mean, I went through a lot of depression and not feeling good about myself and looking in the mirror and hating what I looked at. Then I thought why am I doing this to myself, no one old hate themselves or their bodies. All of our bodies can do amazing things. We can lift things, you know, we can do so much with our bodies and I think because of that you have to take pride in that. When you start to take pride in who you are, and start to find those things about yourself that you do love, whether it be, some women have amazing legs, or arms, or waist or butts, the list goes on and on, you find those things about yourself that you love, then you just focus on those things and before you know it, you start to find confidence about things you didn't used to love. So it is a catching sort of thing that spreads once you start to feel good about yourself, but you really do have to work at it, it's not something that just comes. There's a phrase people use for different things but I always used it for confidence, ' fake it til you make it.' I'd be about to walk into a room full of people who intimate me and I'd fake it and walk in like I'm the hottest thing in the room. I did and it worked until I started to believe it. It really works.

H: So what music are you listening to right now?

J: Right now I'm listening to a lot of different artists. I love Sam Hunt, I am a huge fan of his, Ashley Munroe, Maren Morris, loving her right now, and I'm kind of stuck on a country music kick right now. Interestingly enough, I've been listening to old older girls Broo interestingly enough, I've been listening to old older and like to old, well, older, Garth Brooks. Early early Garth Brooks.

H: What's your favourite Garth Brooks song?

J: It would have to be Thunder Rolls, hands down, Thunder Rolls for the pure fact of that is the ultimate country music story. Man cheats on his wife, woman kills him.

H: I've always said I want The Dance played at my funeral.

J: Ah, such amazing songs. You know, I went and saw him live last year, it was one of the best shows I've ever seen and he said he was told by so many people do not release that song, he decided he wanted to and it immediately went to number one and became one of his biggest hits.

H: Okay, which song do you wish you'd written?

J: Oh, there's a lot of songs, it would probably have to be either Jolene or I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton because they're epic.

H: Have you seen her live?

J: No but I heard. Lot about it.

H: I'm going to get you back here for Garth Brooks and tell you she is amazing. See her if you get a chance.

J: I will!

H: Who would you like to do a duet with?

J: Gosh...let's go back a few years and let's say Dolly Parton and then let's say for someone current....oh that's so tough....maybe Sam Hunt for the pure fact that he does not stay inside of the box, he loves to innovate. It would be really incredible to work with someone who their mind works that way, to create a song together then perform it together.

H: Then you could go out together and perform it on stage.

J: Oh yeah, that'd be cool, that's the goal, let's see what happens this year!

H: Have you asked him yet?

J: Not yet, I think I'll have my people call his people and see if they answer! (laughs)

H: How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

J: Oh, um, outgoing, let's see, sassy and emotional. I am an artist after all so I guess it's a prerequisite.

H: How do you think the band would describe you?

J: (laughs) emotional, bossy (laughs ) and they would probably say sassy.

H: interesting, bossy. In a good way?

J: (laughs) In a good way, though I never win. I'm the only girl with two brothers so I can't help but be, you know, the mothering bossy.

H: Funnily enough a friend shared a meme the other day which said "Don't ever tell a girl she's bossy, tell her she has leadership skills."

J: I love it, then I have leadership skills! You can put that in parentheses; bossy/ leadership skills.(laughs)

H: Wichita Lineman...

J: That was Terry Wogan. All him. He was a big fan of Glen Campbell and always asked artists to do a cover. The boys, the bandits suggested it. I love the song but wasn't sure if I could do it justice. Fortunately, they're such amazing musicians that they really took the song and recreated it to become magical and it really changed so much for us. Now every time we sing it, there is no way that we won't think of Terry.

H: what I love about the song, which is more obvious life, is that you've kept some integrity of the original, but have somehow made it your own too.

J: that's exactly what we wanted to do. And when you have a song by Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, you have to be really careful you don't stray too far and that you still keep the integrity of the song. We tried really hard and I think we managed to do that.

H: does it feel intimidating when it's such a big well-known song?

J: exactly, that's why I was so nervous about it. But I'm glad that they pushed me to do it. It's one of the most special songs with ever done and probably will always continue to do.

(Call gets dropped, Jess calls back)

J: I lost ya!

H: (laughing) I thought you got bored answering questions!

J: (laughing) Not at all, that was weird.

H: When it cut off, I was telling you that my favourite on the CD is Love Like This...

J: Oh, thankyou so much. That actually is one that I wrote in Nashville. It was actually the first song I wrote on one of my first trips to Nashville. That one is actually about a friend of mine. She was going through a really difficult time in her marriage. Everyone could see, Honestly, what an amazing man she had, but for whatever reason nothing was ever good enough. She kept wanting more than you know and everyone was saying, you know, "Girl, look what you've got, you've got it, here he is." Eventually she realise that, but within that situation I took it and wrote a song about it and it's become one of our favourite songs to perform as a band.

H: Does she know it's about her?

J: Uh, uh, No.you know I think she might have an idea that it was but...sometimes I let people know if they have, I guess, inspired a song, but in this instance, you know, she loves the song but she's never asked if it was about her. You know, in all honesty, when you start writing a song it may start out about something or someone, but before you know it, especially when you're writing with someone else, it takes on a life of its own and becomes about a lot of people and a lot of stories. For that one it definitely started out as her story and then took on a life of its own.

H: Do you find that the idea for a song can come anywhere at any time?

J: It really can. I mean, literally can be set on the train watching a conversation happen between two people, this happened to me the other day, I was just looking at these people and saw them just having this conversation and I just immediately started thinking of a song so I started writing down random thoughts and lyrics and titles as you just never know when it could make something.

It may not it may be rubbish, but you never know that's why it's so important to write it down when inspiration strikes.

H: I wish my mind worked that way!

J: Well, mine didn't always but once you start writing you start looking and seeing that inspiration is everywhere. You can only go through so much yourself, you know?

H: Before I let you go, what can we expect from Jess and the Bandits coming up to this next tour?

J: Yeah, the tour is the end of April, beginning of May. You can definitely expect new music. New material and songs from the Deluxe album. We're going to throw in some new covers. We love to do covers. You can expect a show, a show full of energy. We don't want you just to come and see your show and he was saying, we want you to experience something and leave asking when is the next one? ( laughs)

H: Well I saw you at SummerTyne and the Live Theatre and asked that both times!

J: Thanks. I'm so glad.

H: I'll be at The Sage in May.

J: Well I'm looking forward to seeing you, come say hi.

H: I certainly will. I was in Houston several years ago so give it my regards when you go back. I love Texas.

J: I certainly will. It's time you made it back. Thankyou so much for taking the time to chat with me.

H: Thankyou, it's been lovely talking to you!

J: I'm looking forward to seeing you at the Sage!

H: Me too. Take care.

J: You too, bye.

Nitty Gritty


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