If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to hold and play one of John Lennon’s old guitars, Jay Clifford can tell you what it feels like.
A Charleston singer/songwriter, Clifford was in New York collaborating on a tune with Lennon’s son, Sean. “I was playing an acoustic guitar, it was a 1940s Martin, I think, at (Sean’s) house, and I asked him about the guitar and he said, ‘Yeah, that was my dad’s.’ It was a pretty unique moment.” Also on hand that day: Paul Simon’s son Harper and Bijou Phillips, the daughter of the now-late Mamas & The Papas frontman John Phillips. “It was the rock royalty party, for sure.”
Clifford, who first gained notoriety in eclectic pop band Jump, Little Children, has also co-written tracks with jam king Robert Randolph and Peter from indie act Peter, Bjorn and John. In 2007, Clifford’s debut solo album “Driving Blind” included the Jeff Buckley-esque single “Know When To Walk Away.” Actor Zach Braff directed a video for the song.
Recently, in addition to new co-writing work, Clifford has been crafting string arrangements for major labels at his Charleston studio Hello, Telescope. After Clifford gets the facility fully outfitted, he plans to complete work on his next solo album. He’s already cut some songs. But first he’ll probably release a new disc with his side project, Rosebud. “It’s personal, moody stuff,” Clifford says. “A lot of acoustic guitar, doubled vocals, guilty-pleasure drum beats and string stuff. That feel is becoming a little bit more in my wheelhouse.” His favorite of the forthcoming crop is a song called “Still So Far Away.” For his upcoming shows, Clifford will be joined by multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaler on pedal steel, as a record player spins looped drum tracks on vinyl.
When you take a break at your studio and walk outside, what do you see?
We’re half a block off of King Street, like a block-and-a-half from the Music Farm. Right across the street is an old church and graveyard, and we have to stop session because of the bells. (Laughs.) The bells get pretty loud.
What’s the last song you heard on the radio that knocked you out?
I’m a big fan of Bon Iver right now.
In your opinion, what rock or pop songs have the most evocative string arrangements?
One of my favorite string arrangements of the last few years is on that song “Paper Tiger” by Beck. It’s off of the album “Sea Change.” His dad, David Campbell, did the arrangement on that.
What separates a string arrangement that heightens a song from one that just adds more commotion to the mix?
I think a great string arrangement is a combination of two things: One being countermelodies that compliment the vocal. Obviously the vocal is the center of attention in a pop song. A string arrangement has this power to add melodic content. The second one is texture and that’s what most people end up doing, adding to the luxuriousness of the track and glossing it up. They don’t risk the melody part of it. But if you combine those two qualities in the right way, you can make a killer track.
When Elton John called you a few years back to express his admiration for the Jump, Little Children track “Cathedrals,” how long did it take you to determine you weren’t being “punked?”
(Laughs.) The way that actually happened was he talked about “Cathedrals” on (a radio station) before we made the connection, and said it was one of the most beautiful songs he’d ever heard. I think that’s the best compliment I’ve ever received and probably ever will. But later, Jump was recording at Tree Sound in Atlanta in the B studio and Elton was in the A studio.
He had one of his minions come over and say, “Sir Elton will be making a visit,” so we all waited for his arrival. Then he came over and was so gracious and cool and relaxed, just told us how he loved the song. He invited us over to his studio to listen to some of the tracks. He’s one of those extremely prolific writers, and I think that day he had written and recorded seven songs. One of the rare talents.
How often do you get asked about the possibility of Jump, Little Children reforming? Is a reunion ever going to happen?
I get asked it a lot. Pretty much anyone who’s ever seen the band before asks me that question and that’s a lot of people. It’s incredibly hard to predict. I actually thought that by now we might warm up to one a little bit more. I know it will happen at some point, and it should probably happen sooner than later. But at this point, everybody’s real into what they’re doing, so there’s no drive to make it happen.
Jay Clifford plays an 8 p.m. show (with Andy Lehman and Haley Dreis) April 14 at The Handlebar. Tickets are $11. For more information, call 864-233-6173 or visit www.jayclifford.com.