Annie Clements: Commence the Music

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Annie Clements, bass player and vocalist hailing from New Orleans, attributes her love of music to her early exposure to many notable musicians in the French Quarter by her father, Cranston Clements, a well-known musician in the area.  She was fortunate enough to have met and played with so many talented musicians from an early age that she knew a career in music was in her future.

A pianist turned bass player, Annie’s father gave her a Fender bass when she was 13 years old that he custom fitted especially for her.  After high school, Annie attended the Berklee College of Music where she majored in Bass Performance with Voice as a doubling instrument.  This experience prepared Annie for what she would encounter in securing a future as a professional musician.

Now living in Nashville and the bass player for Sugarland, the American Country music duo of singer–songwriters Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, Annie shares with us how her family inspired her to become a musician, her gear, touring with Sugarland, her time spent when not touring, and some great advice on skills necessary to make it as a professional musician.

GGM:  You started playing piano at the age of four.  How old were you when you started playing bass and what made you decide to transition to bass?

Annie:  I got a bass from my Dad for my 13th birthday.  I was burnt out on piano by then.  I had tried to play guitar but really struggled with it.  Once I got the bass and saw how quickly I could learn songs and play them with other people, it just stuck.  All I’ve ever wanted was to play with other people and with the bass, that’s kind of your only option. So it suits me well.

GGM:  You grew up in a musical family, can you tell us about your family’s musical background and the support you received from them?

Annie:  My Dad is my hero.  He’s one of, if not my favorite, guitar player in the whole world.  Right from the get-go, I had the green light and all the encouragement in the world to pursue a career in music.  And I had an incredible living example right in front of me.  So it was never even really a question in my mind as to what I would do when I grew up.  Dad took me out on gigs and gave me so many opportunities.  He was always willing to take a chance on me and let me get up on stage and prove myself.  He’s like that in life, and every time I meet someone who knows my Dad, one of the first things they say is “Oh man, your Dad is Cranston Clements?  That guy is my hero.  He was there for me when no one else was.”  That’s just who my Dad is.  Extremely supportive and encouraging and a believer.  So, I kinda hit the jackpot on that deal.

GGM:  Growing up in New Orleans where music is such a major part of the City’s culture, who were some of the local musicians that inspired you the most and who were your biggest musical influences growing up?

Annie:  Again, my Dad introduced me to all of them.  I’m a huge Meters fan and George Porter is one of my favorite bassists.  I ended up nannying for the daughter of Peter Holsapple and Susan Cowsill so I got really into all of their music, which isn’t “New Orleans music” per se, but it was emanating from the city where they now live.  So I got really into all of the ‘60s power-pop, and of course my parents are huge Beatles freaks, and so am I.  I spent all of my teenagedom with the local musicians and all of their influences greatly affected me.  But I was firmly entrenched in this group of power-pop muzo-types, not so much the “hanging out at Preservation Hall trying to catch some authentic jazz” type of scene.  But I think my background in that, particularly because that music is so laden with lush vocal harmonies and melodic bass lines, is what has translated so well into the Country/Americana world.

GGM: You studied at Berklee College of Music.  What did you major in and how did that education prepare you for the “real world” of music.

Annie:  I strongly believe in going to college and getting your degree.  I majored in Bass Performance with Voice as a doubling instrument.  As far as real world stuff, my education made me a more well-rounded person.  It gave me a chance to take that step and learn how to prepare myself in a safe and controlled environment.  And I met my best friends at Berklee.  I made some of the best musical discoveries and some of the most important friendships of my life in college.

Berklee’s process with auditions, juries, performance opportunities, and opportunities to network is very much like the real-world music community and auditioning process.  You meet people, you play for them, you trade gigs, you sub out your post in your ensemble if you have to go out of town, you network, you audition for ensembles and other bands, it all works together to prepare you for what’s out there.

GGM:  You have been touring with the country music duo Sugarland for the past seven years.  How did you get that break and what is it like touring with them? 

Annie:  There is a long answer and a short answer.  The long answer is that being born into a musical family set the stage for me to meet the musicians that I toured with for many years who ultimately put me in front of the person who recommended me to audition for Sugarland, and I was the right person for the gig at the time of that audition.  My entire life and all of the decisions I’ve made is what culminated in my getting on that gig.  I can look back in time and recognize that now.

The technical answer to how I got that break is that I was playing with a phenomenal band called the Sons of William and we started opening for Mark Broussard, who is one of my all-time favorite artists; and Dave LaBruyere, John Mayer’s bass player for many years, sees me with the opening band for Mark Broussard, and we start talking after the show.  It turns out we both live in the same neighborhood.  So we just became friends.

When Kristian called LaBruyere and said, “Hey, I’m looking for a bass player, can you recommend somebody,” he recommended me.  So I wasn’t out pounding the pavement or cold calling.  I was just playing the music that I loved, and people saw me and took notice and that is how it happened.

GGM:  What level of collaboration do you have in the writing of songs for Sugarland and what about your own work…do you write any of your own songs and can we expect to hear any of your original music on any upcoming albums? 

Annie:  I am not a songwriter, so no.  I don’t collaborate on Sugarland’s songs.  I get requests all the time from people, to pitch songs to Jennifer and Kristian.  I never do.  I have never once in seven years presented them with anything.  That type of thing has to happen organically.

My husband, Thad, and Scott, the guitar player, have been brought in to write on a couple songs.  But it has to be appropriate and organic.  You have to have some level of social intelligence to know what’s appropriate.  And every situation is different.

I made a conscious decision after graduating from Berklee that I was going to focus on being a side person and do that really well.  People ask me all the time, “Do you write?”  I probably should pick it up again and get back into it, but it’s just not my passion.  So it hasn’t been too much a part of my career or on my radar.

My husband was recently selected to be the spokesperson for Ironman Kona and along with that, we’ll make a little EP of Hawaiian music, which is music that I love.  I will sing on that, so keep an eye out for that!  But as far as making a big push to be an artist per se, that’s not really me, I like being in a band and working with a team.

GGM:  When you’re not touring, you work with a company in Nashville called Sorted Noise making records and building artist’s brands.  What sort of projects do you work on?

Annie:  Sorted Noise also builds artist brands and creates a lot of custom content for television shows and movies.  It’s my husband’s full time job when we’re not on the road.  I do a lot of work over there as backing vocalist and as a music marketer.  We help artists define their values and then their goals so they’re working toward something much more real than “I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.”  We help them refine their sound and develop through the film and TV custom creation process.  It’s a lot of fun!

GGM:  Tell us about your Fender P bass.  What made you decide to play Fender and why the P bass?

Annie:  I actually play a Jazz neck on a P bass body.  This was kind of by default because the jazz neck is smaller and easier to handle than the P.  But I really like the combination of both so I play several of these hybrids.  That was just what Dad had lying around the house and whipped up for me and it always felt right.  He’s kind of a mad scientist with that stuff and is perpetually dissecting and reconstructing instruments so that first bass was one of his creations.  I now play Fender’s Road Worn Series Jazz as well as their Reggie Hamilton, which is the J/P hybrid.  I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about tone or gear, I feel like the bulk of my tone comes from my hands and my approach, and a Fender always feels good in my hands.

GGM:  You do a lot of work with Fender and Girl Rock Nation in encouraging and promoting young girls to play music.  What advice would you give a young girl wanting to learn to play guitar or bass and would you recommend any particular brand of instrument? 

Annie:  Well, like I said, that jazz neck is just easier to handle so I always steer people there.  I always encourage my female students to sing and try to build their ear training skills first and foremost so they can really start learning songs quickly and enjoy the process of making music.  I want them to feel empowered and like they’re making progress and not get hung up on a lot of technical stuff.  If it feels good and sounds good AND they can sing background vocals, they’re going to have some kind of a career, at least as a hobbyist with opportunities to play live.  I teach lessons via Skype as well as in Nashville, so people can always reach out to me for a hands-on lesson at any point!

GGM:  Besides music, what other hobbies or interests do you have?

Annie:  I like to read, I like to walk in my neighborhood with the other women who live there, I like to teach music, I like to make dinner at home with my husband and watch our favorite TV shows, I like vintage clothes, I like organizing things in my home, home decorating, blogging, pretty low key stuff!  Nothing crazy!

GGM:  The music industry has become so competitive and yet there are so many young people aspiring to make it.  What advice would you give to our readers who are trying to make it now and is there any path or  angle that you might suggest they take rather than the traditional “get discovered” approach? 

Annie:  This is a question I get all the time.  This question could be answered a couple of different ways.  I knew enough about myself to know that I wanted to “make it” as a sideman, not a frontman, so I worked to pursue that angle.

So to answer the questions in terms of “how do you make it as a successful sideman,” the honest answer is that every band is different.  And therefore they all have different needs and different requirements.  So it’s just as important in asking yourself “is this what I’m looking for?”

In my opinion, the number one way to get and maintain work is to have a really great attitude.  So you need to know enough about yourself going in, and enough about the band to make an educated decision as to whether or not it’s going to make you happy.  Because if you have a bad attitude, you aren’t going to last on the gig.

So if it’s an organization that has certain faiths and beliefs and you don’t share those beliefs, that can be a conflict.  That can be a conflict for everybody right down to lifestyle choices.  If you are somebody who has drug and alcohol problems and that’s not allowed on a particular gig, that’s not going to work.  And a band is really like a family.  They are people that you are going to be working with and living with, and you are going to be eating meals together, sharing bathrooms.  It’s very intimate.

The starting point is that you can play the music.  Everybody at the audition can play the music.  And the question is what’s different about YOU.  That’s where these other components come into place.

I think the most important thing is being able to get along with people.  It doesn’t really matter how great of a player you are if you are difficult to work with and you have problems with addiction, or you make things hard for people.  You are just really not going to succeed in the long run.  So likeability is definitely a huge factor.

Another factor is bringing in an additional skill set.  I can play bass and also cover harmony parts, so that sets me apart.  So ask yourself, “What other skills can I bring to a band?”

Can you help build tracks?  Can you arrange parts for a string section or a horn section?  Can you help with social media?  I’ve been playing with a bunch of different bands and when I go out, I make mini movies about the tour.  That means a lot to people.

So what can you do that sets you apart?  I know guys who have their truck driver’s license just so they can re-park the tour bus in the parking lot if they have to move the bus and the driver’s asleep in the hotel.  All these things add value to your career.

Now if your question is “I’m a talented artist, how do I make it?”  The best response I can give you is to just put it out there.  I’m a firm believer that the artists I’ve worked with are just so damned talented, that it was inevitable that people would find them.  So make yourself easy to find, with tons of unique, interesting content on all the important social media outlets.

You’ll be found, believe me.


For more on Annie, please visit her official website by clicking here.

Cover Photo credits:  Bradley Spitzer

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