Coming Full Circle
Written By Chrissy Mauck
When Fender bassist Annie Clements first received a phone call and audition invite from Kristian Bush of Sugarland back in February 2006, the only song the former member of the southern blues rock band Son of Williams had for a reference point was Jennifer Nettles’ “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” duet with Bon Jovi.
|Clements (with her Reggie Hamilton Standard Jazz Bass®)
and Kristian Bush onstage.
Photo by Becky Fluke
Not much of a country music listener, yet armed with a vague sense that the audition could lead to something big, Clements headed to Best Buy to pick up Sugarland’s album and figure out the three songs Bush had requested she learn.
In the kitchen of an overcrowded post-Katrina apartment in New Orleans, Clements went to work, quickly perfecting the Sugarland material and then heading off to Nashville where she joined drummer J.J. Johnson and guitarist Thad Beaty for a three-way audition.
“Following our first run-through of ‘Something More,’ the musical director turned to everyone and said, ‘Well that’s all I need to hear. Sounds good to me, can we go home now?’” recalls Clements. “That made me think I had a good chance to get the gig!”
Two Sugarland callbacks later, Clements landed her biggest role to date. Even more than three years later, her voice still climbs with excitement as she recalls the job offer.
“I was hobbling my way on a donut tire to Walmart so that I could replace a flat tire when the manager called and told me if I wanted the gig, it was mine to take,” Clements says. “I screamed and screamed! I didn’t really have a grasp yet on how huge the opportunity would be. I was simply relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about finding work for a little while.”
Q: At what point did it really hit you that it was in fact a huge opportunity?
A: I showed up for rehearsals a couple of weeks after I got the gig and they weren’t happy with my rig. It just wasn’t going to cut it. So they took me over to Fender and they hooked me up with all of this gear and it was like, “Oh, you are playing with Sugarland, that’s awesome, you can have all of this stuff.” That was one of the first indicators that this might be a big deal.
Q: For someone who wasn’t really a fan of country music, has it grown on you, particularly since you live in Nashville now?
A: Yes. I never thought that this would happen to me, but I really enjoy country music now. Originally, this was largely due to the fact that I personally knew many of the bands I’d hear on the radio. If you have an opportunity to watch Kenny Chesney’s show from the side of the stage, you will become a fan too. But I was always listening to country radio, hoping to hear Sugarland, and the music just got under my skin somehow. Now I appreciate the genius it takes to write a seemingly simple, heartfelt song.
Q: What is it like to sing with Jennifer Nettles, who has such a unique voice? You also often provide background vocals for various artists at the Sorted Noise studio in Nashville, so is providing background vocals for Nettles different than other people you’ve worked with?
A: I love singing with Jen. I love singing background vocals in general, but it’s very triumphant to sing with her. She has such a powerful voice and there are a couple of moments in the show where I feel a strong, sisterly connection to her as we’re singing our hearts out together. She loves for everyone to really sing out and always encourages us to do that, in turn giving us confidence. When I sing backgrounds in the studio, many times I’m required to make my voice sound as much like the lead singer’s as possible. You can hear me on many recordings and I may sound like a completely different singer on each of them. Because I sing with Jen so much, I don’t really have to think about what I’m doing to make my voice blend with hers anymore. There are a couple of the more “countryfied” songs in our set where I do make an effort to sound more twangy and piercing than I would naturally sing, but that exercise is a fun challenge. Trying to keep up with Jen’s power and energy is a full-time job, but one that is extremely rewarding night after night.
Q: What are some of the career highlights you’ve had since joining Sugarland, and what’s been the ultimate wow moment?
A: That’s hard to say. There have been so many unbelievable moments. Playing with Beyonce’ was pretty spectacular. Playing sold-out stadiums with Kenny Chesney is insane. Hearing myself on the radio or seeing myself in a video is mind blowing. Every night after our show I walk off the stage thinking, “I can’t believe this is my job. I just went to work. This is what I do for work.” That’s a pretty big WOW moment night after night.
Q: Do you have a favorite Sugarland song to perform?
A: Growing up, I spent a lot of time working on walking bass lines with my dad. When I’d sit in with him, we’d play a blues or a shuffle and I find it’s one of my favorite styles to play. Sugarland has a song called “Down in Mississippi,” which has a great, driving, walking bass line and it’s one of my favorite songs to play with them. I feel most “in-the-pocket” when I’m playing those sorts of lines.
Q: Your father Cranston is actually a world-class guitarist who toured for years with Doctor John, Bozz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, etcetera… As the daughter of a professional musician, did your musical career begin pretty early?
A: Yes, being that my dad was a musician, I was always interested in music. There are tons of pictures of me sitting at the piano in diapers just having fun. My mom is a talented pianist and I studied piano for several years. I also messed around on guitar, but it never took. Dad bought me a short-scale bass on my 13th birthday and it was a much more natural fit for me. I always knew I was going to be some type of artist, but when I got my bass it became clear that this is what I’m going to do.
|When forced to evacuate for Katrina, Clements made
sure to take her bass (pictured above) – a sunburst
Precision Bass® with a jazz neck, inherited from David Lee
Watson – and journal. The journal still accompanies her on
the road, but Clements retired her beloved “Excalibur” from
touring, saying “I fear for its life!” Instead she travels with
a new Fender Road Worn Jazz Bass®. “It’s perfect, the exact
feel that I love, the tone that I’m looking for, and it looks
awesome. It captures so much of the energy of my old bass.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to have it.”
Photo by Bradley Spitzer
Q: You gigged with your father in New Orleans throughout high school. Did you play on school nights or just weekends, and what was that like to juggle everything?
A: I played any night of the week, including regular residencies at two clubs in town on Sundays and Wednesdays. So, Monday and Thursday mornings at school were sometimes rough. The thing that was hardest to juggle was my social life. I didn’t really fit in with kids my own age. I spent a lot of time with my dad’s friends. I never went to parties or school dances. I actually bailed on the Sweet 16 that all the girls at school had together at a fancy hotel and instead had my own party at a bar. I was escorted up to the stage on the back of a motorcycle and performed with the band I had with my dad, which was (at the time) called Fear of Bunnies.
Q: All of those shows apparently paid off because you earned a scholarship to Berklee, where you majored in Bass Performance with Voice as a doubling instrument. What were your experiences like there?
A: It was so exciting to finally be in an environment with like-minded people. Everybody there was a bit of an oddball like me. I played in dozens of ensembles and bands, and gained some very valuable musical knowledge. I just soaked it all up; it was a dream come true. I made all of my best friends at Berklee.
Q: After so much time touring together and living on a bus in very close quarters, it seems like you’ve become pretty close to the Sugarland band, too?
A: They are like a second family. We’re all a bunch of band geeks and Star Wars’ fanatics. We have so much fun hanging out on the road. I have friends in lots of different bands and when they come off the road, they scatter and do their own thing. These guys are my best friends and I love spending time with them, on and off the road. It’s very unique.
Q: Speaking of family, you have younger brothers who also look to be following in you and your dad’s footsteps?
A: Yes, I have two half brothers from my dad who are 15-year-old twins, and they are just tearing it up. Tyler plays drums and Austin plays bass. They both play piano and guitar as well and are way into jazz right now. Now dad has a full-blown rhythm section at his disposal. They were just accepted to NOCCA, a very prestigious music school in New Orleans and they’re little prodigies. Keep an eye on them!
Q: In your online journals you’ve written about how close you are with your family, and having to share a bedroom with your mom and then-boyfriend in an apartment with four others in Baton Rouge after Katrina flooded her house. What was it like to experience that kind of devastation and turbulence?
A: We were on top of each other after the hurricane, but I’m very close to my family so I didn’t really mind living like that. Being able to come together as a family is what carried me through.
When we were finally allowed back in the city, mom and I drove to her house and were scared to go inside, thinking there might be looters or squatters. No one had been inside for months. Everything was rotting. It was heartbreaking, but my mom really took charge and barreled full-steam ahead in getting the renovations underway. There really wasn’t time to sit around and dwell on the sadness. Everyone just went into let’s fix this mode and dove in. My mom’s house looks better than ever now, and most of my friends who were dispersed have moved back. But I don’t think it’ll ever be the same though, and I still think I need more time to grieve. I haven’t let myself really fully accept the loss down there. It’s hard to talk about.
There was no mourning however this past April when Clements enjoyed a triumphant return to the city she loves. She opened the big stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with her dad’s band in the afternoon and then saw her musical career come full circle hours later when she closed out the day with Sugarland, taking the lead ironically on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.”
“It was one of the best days of my life,” recalls Clements. “Coming up, people would be skeptical about me, being a teenage girl showing up on the gig, but they’d always give me a chance because my dad said I could play, and so I heavily identified myself with him and his career. To be able to stand on my own is very rewarding for me and for my family. I don’t really know how to describe it other than it’s just exciting. I never really thought about having a measure of success that would equal my dad’s. I just wanted to work as a musician and make a living. So to be part of something that is so well known and successful, it’s just a great blessing.”
Clements’ bass playing and backing vocals are featured on Sugarland’s fourth record— Live on the Inside— due out on Aug. 4. The CD/DVD offers over an hour of live performance footage from Sugarland’s “Love on the Inside” tour, and includes all five of their #1 hits as well as covers of songs by Beyonce’, the B-52’s, Pearl Jam, and Kings of Leon.