Jess and The Bandits have been making quite an impact on the country music scene since their debut album Here We Go Again was released earlier this year. Listening to the band you'd be forgiven for thinking that they were 100% pure American country artists. You'd be wrong! What makes the band unique and very exciting is that all the members apart from lead singer Jess (who's from Texas) are British born and bred. Photogroupie caught up with the fabulous Jess at Ramblin' Man Fair and had a great chat about her music – even with Blue Oyster Cult playing in the background!
PHOTOGROUPIE: (PG) You met The Bandits on tour with The Overtones and bonded over your love of country – how did you end up forming a band together?
JESS CLEMMONS: (JC) We were starting to work together. We did a few tours like we supported Boyzone on their 20th Anniversary tour and it was just me, Jessica Clemmons. Then we started to do more gigs – we did Country 2 Country together and by about June of last year we sat in this restaurant and Laura (her manager) and I already had the idea. I was a bit nervous because I wasn't sure if they were gonna be up for becoming a proper band but they had the same idea!
PG: So it was like serendipity!
JC: It is serendipity – it was the weirdest thing – after we did a gig together I told Laura this is something different. Before we knew it I was starting to get back to my roots of Texas country music. We decided to go ahead and go for it, take the plunge and become a band and it was one of the best decisions I think all of us have ever made. We're doing so much and so much excitement is happening around the band, it's great! I wouldn't have expected it in a million years being from Texas I would have met British guys that loved country music.
PG: Listening to your music it really is hard to believe you don't all come from Nashville!
JC: That was the weird thing, they all grew up playing country music.
PG: That is really fluky, considering it's not a big part of our music culture in the same way.
JC: Yeah I would never ever guessed it. Of course I grew up listening to country music and singing it. Once we started to play music together I thought this is really cool because here I am the Texan – the authentic country part of it all - and then we have these British guys who are bringing this British country feel to the music. I don't think that truly there are many other bands like us who have this truly international feel.
PG: Louis (the steel player) has a great feel for the genre and a really traditional sound with his guitar licks.
JC: Yeah his country licks are incredible. I have worked with some of the best musicians in Nashville and Louis is probably one of the best I have ever worked with. The fact that he has this natural country ability considering he didn't grow up with it in his face is something special.
PG: Who are your influences, there are some great country artists out there. Mary Chapin-Carpenter for example, who I saw recently.
JC: Oh yeah she's incredible, she's amazing! She was definitely one of the ones I grew up listening to. My influences are a bit all over the place – I went from listening to Motown artists like Aretha Franklin and The Temptations.
PG: I can detect that soul power in your voice.
JC: I do think it comes across. My grandparents listened to Dolly Parton, Tammy Waynette, Waylon Jennings – good old country music – Johnny Cash and all of that. As as a teenager I listened to a lot of rock music. I think it has somehow made it's way into the kind of music I sing now. I love it, I love what we're doing. For the first time in a long time I finally feel at home in the music I'm doing. I was doing pop music before and it was fun but it never felt right and for the first time in years I feel I'm actually doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
PG: Your debut album 'Here We Go Again' has been getting a lot of good press in the UK, you must be really pleased that it's all happening.
JC: Absolutely! We're so excited because we spent a lot of time on this album. It took almost a year to make then just as we thought it was finished, I was like it's not done, let's keep working on it. So we did and now it's a little daunting because it's done so well and we've got such great reviews and - oh gosh we've got another album we're gonna have to make!
PG: So, you're already thinking about another album?
JC: We're gonna start writing for the next one soon but we're not in any rush. The great thing about being a new band is that people are constantly discovering us. There's gonna be someone everyday that it's a brand new album for. So we'll live with this album for a bit and start the process of at least writing and getting ready, but we want to make sure that when we release the second album it is as good or better than the first.
PG: They say the second one's the most difficult one, so it has to be better doesn't it?
JC: Oh gosh it has to be. (laughs) We may have set the standard way too high for ourselves.
PG: What was the recording process like for Here We Go Again?
JC: It was great you know. I love recording but not as much as performing live. When we usually record you get all the musicians together in different rooms and they all play together and then we all go over the instrumentation with our vocal tracks. It's fantastic, but then there are times when we like to be in a room altogether and do it it old school, Motown style.
PG: One mike in the middle of a room.
JC: Exactly. It has that really live feel about it.
PG: There's something about that isn't there, a different energy?
JC: It's because you are all together – that connection is there and you're just singing to the music. When you have cans on your ears and you're in a booth you can lose that performance you get live. So when you're all together all that comes back. You're all jumping around together and having fun, it's contagious.
PG: What inspired you to record which Wichita Lineman? It's a tough call for a girl to do that. You do a great version by the way.
JC: Thank you. It was Terry Wogan actually who inspired the recording. We heard he was a fan of Glen Campbell. The band and I got together and the radio team were throwing around ideas to do a cover. They said you should do Rhinestone Cowboy and I was like no I'm not doing Rhinestone Cowboy! Even the boys were like no she's not doing Rhinestone Cowboy. Steve the keys player and Ricky the drummer and musical director for the band said we think Jessica would do an amazing job of Wichita Lineman. I was a bit nervous because I thought it's a classic.
PG: Always a challenge to do a classic.
JC: Absolutely, but I think the boys are both so brilliant musically they were really able to take that song and give it its own spin and keep the integrity of the original there and I was able to go in on top of that and give my own feel to it.
PG: I love the guitar sound that Louis got. It's so similar.
JC: Oh we had to do that. The original guitar we could not touch. That is a staple, you have to keep the guitar. And Louis thought the same way, you don't mess with that. If it ain't broke don't fix it!
PG: What is your favourite track on the album and why?
JC: That's a tough one, it's like asking what is your favourite child! Ok, I'm gonna choose a couple, actually, I'm going to choose three because that gives you an idea of the diversity on the album. One of the favourites I have is Wanted Man. Wanted Man is sassy, upbeat, sexy and one of those songs you can't help but get into. It's almost got that old fashioned country bluesy feel which I love. The second one would be a ballad called What If. Every country album needs a really good ballad. What If is probably one of the most personal and emotional songs I've ever written and every time I sing it, it tugs at my heart and the audience feels that and they love it. The third would be Nitty Gritty, which is the new single. It's a song that is empowering to women in a day where there's body shaming constantly. If you turn on This Morning or Lorraine or look in the papers there's a new body shaming story out. It's either you're too thin, you're too curvy you're too this and that. As women we tear each other down constantly, we'll see someone and be like 'she should not wear that' or whatever. So I wanted to write a song that brought women together and the chorus says 'don't matter if you're fat, don't matter if you're skinny, it ain't about that, you gotta know you're pretty, when it comes down, down to the nitty gritty, we're all the same.' It's like the most truthful words, it's putting it simple. We didn't sugar coat it, we didn't think of pretty ways of wording anything. You know fat, skinny, let's put it in a song, so we did and it's become a fan favourite and a personal favourite.
PG: Do You find it difficult playing to fans that aren't particularly country orientated?
JC: No. I actually really like it because I've always been a fan of a challenge and knowing that I'm introducing a new genre to somebody is really exciting and challenging. Coming from where I come from, country music is like part of our DNA. We hear it from the time we're born. Doing something over here, the music is actually new to somebody. It's an interesting thing to be a reason why somebody is being introduced to a new genre that's been around forever. But for some people it really is new!
PG: People don't always realise new country music has a very different dynamic. People still think it's going to be country and western. It has evolved so much!
JC: I think that's the amazing thing about music in general, but especially country music, you never want to put music in a box. There's always going to be people that say ' I don't' like Jess and The Bandits, they're not country enough' or ' I don't like them they're too country' you can't win. But what you can do is what we've done, which is believe in what we do. We've packed an album full of different styles of country music that all ties together. If you're looking for new country or for traditional country it's on there.
PG: I can pick up some of the modern influences like Carrie Underwood and Shania Twain.
JC: Yeah definitely Shania. But also current stuff like Lady Antebellum through to the cool fun rock influenced country. Then we have Texas country like Single Tonight and Wichita Lineman which are more traditional country songs with that beautiful steel guitar just ringing out.
PC: You've said you love Country Music because it tells a story...
JC: Yeah it's like my wife left me, my dog died and somebody stole my pick up truck (laughs)
PG: Do you have a favourite country story song?
JC: Jolene actually. I love Jolene. What I love about country music is that they all have similar stories but you can always find a different way to tell them. There's this song by Little Big Town called Girl Crush, its probably one of the most well written songs in the last 20 or 30 years and it's a different take on the two women that love the same man. It's a typical country song you've heard a million times before but with a twist. This song takes it to a totally different level. It's songs like that which inspire me to be really creative with my writing.
PG: Are the British country fans different to the American country fans?
JC: I would say they're more excited, they are back to the whole thing of it being a new genre for some people. They are anxious and excited to get the music. Especially for people who have been country fans, they are finally getting the music they've been wanting to hear and the bands they've been wanting to see are finally coming to the UK. It's a great moment to be on the ground floor of.
PG : What's next? Do you have any more solo plans?
JC: I'm focussing everything on the band, solo stuff I'm not even thinking about. I'm fortunate that I can do a lot of the writing and I have that outlet with Jess and the Bandits. We have a tour coming up in October, we're really exited about it, it's our first headline tour!
So are we! If your a country fan you'll love them. If you're not you'll be converted. Check out the album too, definitely worth a listen.