For many people living in big city apartments, the onset of the pandemic suddenly reduced life to a few rooms. That kind of shift induced many to stop and reflect. But what New York-based bluegrass musician J.M. Clifford needed to parse was darker — the death of his mother and his divorce.
He began writing his way through those losses, ultimately crafting his debut album, On a Saturday Night, which he recorded with some of the major players in the thriving bluegrass scene of Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood.
Getting to the album had been a long time coming for Clifford, who teaches elementary school music. Across a collection of ten songs, he traces pain alongside beauty — how making it through something devastating can reinforce your appreciation for life and all that's still unlived.
Listen to the hopeful 'Georgia Stars' below. The song closes Clifford's album, and follows a star-speckled road trip made all the better by music.
On a Saturday Night arrives on Oct. 1 via Brooklyn Basement Records. Ahead of its release, Clifford spoke with Holler about his day job as a school music teacher, hopefully one day collaborating with Julian Lage and what he has planned next.
Where are you from and has that influenced the type of artist you are?
I’m from Northern New Jersey, but I wouldn’t say that particular region has had a direct influence on me. My friends there certainly did. We were in bands together starting in the 5th grade.
When I got to college in New York I had this awesome roommate who really opened up my musical world. He was like, "Here, this is Robert Johnson. Now check out Nina Simone. And here’s some Van Morrison and Ray Charles for good measure". I was never the same after that. Living in the city gave me access to the best of every kind of live music you can imagine.
Speaking of influences, what were you listening to growing up?
When I was in elementary and middle school it was all heavy metal all the time. Metallica, Alice n’ Chains, White Zombie. Then a friend of mine put on a Dave Matthews CD. A week later all my black jeans and ripped t-shirts were in the trash. It was hemp necklaces and cargo shorts for a few years.
Did you ever want to do something other than music?
I’m actually an elementary school music teacher and I LOVE my job. Before that I taught first grade for eight years. I really enjoyed working with emerging readers. My last name is Clifford, so of course we would read a healthy amount of those books. The kids thought it was hysterical. Mr. Clifford is reading a book about himself!
Are you more creative when you're happy or sad?
I think different emotions come into play during different parts of the creative process. While writing this last record I was dealing with a lot of difficult issues. The lyrics to those tunes came out of a lot of darker moments. But I think the editing process, which for me is such a big part of it, often involved a lot of excitement. By the time I got the band involved and started arranging the tunes for a traditional bluegrass quintet it was about as much fun as I’ve ever had.
What drives you the most?
I love to connect with people. Whether it's through teaching, playing music or just chatting with my neighbors, I love relating to other humans.
In general which comes first for you, the title or the song?
I WISH I was the type of writer who could think of a snappy title and write a song around that; I don't think it's ever worked for me that way. The title almost always emerges as I’m working through lyrics. Sometimes I’ll grab a line from a song I tossed months or even years ago and that ends up containing the title. So I guess in a sense the title came first there. Song writing is such a weird Sudoku puzzle at times.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
I’d say Julian Lage. He did a record with Chris Eldridge, a guitar duet record, that absolutely blows my mind. He has a way of playing such intricate, technically astounding lines that never step on a melody but manage to embellish it in such a beautiful way. He's endlessly creative. I know it's cheesy to say someone is “the best” at something, but I think with Julian Lage that might apply.
My record, On A Saturday Night, is out Oct. 1. I’m really curious to see how it’s received, of course. I’d love to keep pushing it with live shows, but, with COVID and the colder months coming up, that might not be an option. I think a lot of artists are going to continue to have to find different, creative ways to stay in touch with their audience.
Other than that, it’s back to school with all the kids in person. I’ve got a room full of drums, keyboards, ukuleles and guitars. Over the summer I worked really hard to develop a safe, hopefully super fun curriculum for the kids to get them rocking. I’m really looking forward to getting the band back together again.