Johnny, Jesse, and Here & Now musical reflection
He may be the son of South Africa’s favourite “white Zulu”, but Jesse Clegg is a musician and a showman in his own right.
The singer and songwriter will make this clear next month at the Teatro in Montecasino, when he takes audiences on a journey through his solo music career, which has spanned more than a decade.
“It’s a chance to establish where I’m at right now, and also a way to look to the future,” Clegg told the SA Jewish Report. “There’s a combination of past, present, and future in the show.”
Here & Now will include many of Clegg’s hit songs, including Use Me, Today, Breathing, Let It Burn, Speed of Light and his latest single, Waiting on the Outcome.
The latter is a song about family and loss. Clegg’s famous father, Johnny, the award-winning singer known as le Zoulou blanc (the white Zulu) passed away in July 2019.
“I wrote the song towards the end of my father’s life,” says Clegg. “I was processing a world without someone I was very close to, someone who had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember, and suddenly having to confront reality without that person.
“For me, the song was a moment to be vulnerable, to find strength in that vulnerability, and to see the hard reality of what was unfolding, but also not to lose faith and optimism. That’s the beauty of the power of music, to find a way to observe moments in life that are sometimes challenging, but in a way that can bring hope and allow people to connect to the experience.”
Clegg spent the first six years of his life on tour with his father, who wanted to have his family with him. “By the time I was six, I had probably travelled to half the world,” says Clegg. “It allowed me to experience what it was like to be a career musician – hotels, backstage, airports, and music festivals. It showed me the power of music to convey ideas, move people, and connect. It also showed me the other side – the hardship of being a musician, the constant travelling, the potential for your family to be split up for many months. That gave me respect for the craft because it’s a difficult lifestyle and it requires a lot of discipline and focus to maintain.”
Although Clegg’s family was never very religious, they respected all religions and occasionally did Shabbos. Clegg and his brother, Jaron, both had Barmitzvahs.
“Coming from the Zulu culture, there was always this deep respect of age-old wisdom and age-old tradition,” says Clegg. “It helps you understand what it means to be alive, what we’re here to do as human beings on the earth.”
Being the son of a famous South African wasn’t complicated, Clegg says, “I didn’t have anything else to compare it to. For me, it was just my family. We were a close family. My parents were conscious of giving us a grounding and a moral outlook.”
Clegg never felt pressured to follow his father’s footsteps into the music industry.
“When I started playing the guitar and piano and started to write music for myself, it was a profound moment for me. I realised this wasn’t just a technical act of playing an instrument. I could actually speak my truth and had a way to communicate my confusion, troubles, stress, and joy. That’s what I fell in love with about music. I still studied a degree. Even in my twenties, I still had backup plans.”
Clegg matriculated from Crawford College with six distinctions in 2006, before obtaining a Bachelor of Arts Law degree and an honours degree in English literature at the University of the Witwatersrand.
His break in the music industry came when, at the age of 19, his 2008 debut album, When I Wake Up, achieved platinum status in South Africa. “I wrote those first songs basically just in my bedroom on my acoustic guitar,” says Clegg. “I recorded some basic demos, which eventually got signed by David Gresham Records. The album was a big success. For me, it was less about the success than it was about the realisation that what I had to offer was connecting with people.”
Since then, he has released two more albums, had 15 number-one radio hits, been nominated for multiple awards, and has performed in different countries. “I’ve always worked hard to try and make the best music I can and constantly change myself. That’s why I’m still here.”
He’s now recording his new album in Los Angeles.
It usually takes him two to three years to write a full album. “The album may end up with 10 songs, but in that time, I probably write about 70 songs. As an artist, you’re always on the journey towards something. The journey is so rewarding because you experiment and try to push your boundaries.”
Stories he hears, movies he watches, books he reads, and current affairs all give him inspiration to create music.
“There’s also just your own story and relationships. My music is very personal, so there were moments in my life when I needed to revaluate something or overcome a challenging experience. My new song is a great example of this.”
Over the years, he’s developed a comradeship and special bond with many fellow local and international artists. “As an artist, there are artists who inspire you. Those artists are often older than you like Arno Carstens, my father, and Hugh Masekela. Then there are artists who are your age, and you are in the same sort of place. You inspire each other in a different way. You teach them about their music, and they teach you about your music.”
Nicholas Petricca from the critically acclaimed band Walk The Moon will be joining Clegg for his performance at the Teatro. “We’ve had a deep friendship for many years. He’s someone who I look up to and collaborate with fairly often. He’ll join me on stage for a couple of songs, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate that relationship a little bit.”
Clegg’s advice to aspirant musicians is: “Focus on the songs, stay true to yourself, and be patient.”
- His show, “Here & Now”, will be at the Teatro at Montecasino on 22 and 23 April.