As the mighty Jess and the Bandits prepare to hit the road on a major UK tour which comes to Manchester on February 15, Michael Green talks to Texan-born lead singer Jessica Clemmons about why she decided to launch a country music career in Britain.
Any young woman looking for a role model to inspire them should look no further than Jessica Clemmons, lead singer of UK based country outfit Jess and the Bandits.
The Texan-born powerhouse singer has bravely spoken out about her emotional and physical struggles with the little known condition polycystic ovary syndrome, has become a fashion ambassador for the Evans brand and, back in 2014, spotted a gap in the UK music market when the notion of a British country band was faintly ridiculous.
She also demonstrated how family should come before career when, last September, just as she was about to launch the band’s second album Smoke and Mirrors and embark on a headline UK tour, she put everything on hold to rush back to Houston to help her family cope with the devastating floods that were threatening to make them homeless.
On a happier note, just before Christmas, she got married to American photographer Chris Peavey but then immediately threw herself into planning the rescheduled UK tour which starts next month but which has prevented her and her new husband from being able to fit in a honeymoon.
Speaking to The Chronicle as she puts the finishing touches to the tour plans, Jess said of married life: “It’s just wonderful. We have just had our one month anniversary and we are still together so it’s going well!
“We’ve not had had a honeymoon yet - we got married 10 days before Christmas - although we did get away to New Orleans for a short time. But between the touring we will fit in a honeymoon which will be nice as he will be able to come over to see some of the gigs.”
She admits postponing the tour was one of the toughest decisions she has ever had to make but she has no doubts it was the right thing to do.
“I have never had to cancel a show before, even when I have been sick I have still performed. But when I saw what was happening in the city itself and that my family’s home had been devastated, I knew I had to go back. I’m glad I did it because there was so much work to do.
“My family’s home still isn’t finished but they have walls and a bedroom while some people in Houston are still barely able to live in their homes so there is still a long way to go.”
But in typical Jess style, she has managed to turn this setback into a positive: “It has been great to have the extra time to plan everything for the tour. We do have a rough set list - we want to make sure we include some of the songs from the first album and we are also working on some covers so it’s going to be great.
“Since the album came out, we haven’t really had a chance to perform it live although we did some of the new songs at festivals last summer. At least the delay will have given fans a chance to learn the songs on Smoke and Mirrors.”
In 2014, Jessica Clemmons was a UK-based solo artist trying to make her way in the competitive pop market, releasing two albums, gaining some BBC Radio 2 airplay and supporting the likes of The Overtones and Boyzone on tour.
A trip to Nashville for songwriting sessions with the likes of Jeff Cohen and Sherrie Austin helped Jess reconnect with her musical roots which produced the country flavoured EP What If just as she encountered a bunch of British musicians with whom she formed Jess and the Bandits.
But if you were a singer born and raised in Texas who grew up listening to country music, you would think the UK was the last place you would consider to build a career especially at a time when the British country scene was virtually non-existent.
“When we first started, there was no Ward Thomas, it was before The Shires. But I had been in the UK since 2006 and I just had this feeling that, as a fan of country music, it had to get popular in the UK at some point. That’s why I made the EP What If when I was still a solo artist but just before we formed Jess and the Bandits and we thought ‘why not give it a go’.
“It is great to know we were among those who opened that door which soon led to events like Country 2 Country as all those other groups were breaking through. We could have done it in the US but that kind of music has always been around in America. It was tough at first when you could barely get 25 people to come along to a gig but we kept pushing and pushing and now it has become really established in the UK.”
The band’s debut album Here We Go Again made an instant impact with its distinctive brand of catchy, anthemic country songs such as Wanted Man, Ready Set, My Name is Trouble and the exhilarating celebration of individuality Nitty Gritty. It also contained a cover of Wichita Lineman which led the legendary Terry Wogan to say it surpassed the quality of Glen Campbell’s original.
It is a cliche to describe a second album as ‘difficult’ but not surprisingly, Jess had very definite ideas about what she wanted to do when it came to the follow up.
“With the first album, I wanted to get back to my roots. I had been doing a lot of pop music and wanted to return to country music. But with the second album, what I didn’t want to do was just Here We Go Again 2.
“I wanted to bring in elements of other kinds of music I had grown up with which included a lot of gospel music and show another side to Jess and the Bandits.
“At the same time, there are still songs that will appeal to those who liked the first album such as Line of Fire, songs that are fun and a little edgy. But I think this new album also shows a softer, more vulnerable side to the band.
“I didn’t want people to go to one of our concerts and feel it was like one long run-on sentence with the same kind of songs all the way through, I wanted to keep that diversity.”
Ironically, as female artists like Jess are currently struggling to get their music heard on country radio in the States, women are leading the way on the UK country music scene thanks to the likes of the Ward Thomas sisters, Chrissie Rhodes of The Shires, rising stars like Laura Oakes and Catherine McGrath and, of course, Jess herself.
She said: “It’s interesting it is the complete opposite in the UK to the way things are in the States. You look at the country charts in America and you’ve got Miranda Lambert and Carly Pearce but there’s just a handful of women and the charts are dominated by men, all of them great artists with great songs. But I do wish there was room for more women in American country and I just love the fact that country is so female driven in the UK.
“Hopefully, its popularity here will encourage more groups and more men to get involved - there’s room for all of that. That was the reason I went from being solo, I wanted to be in a band and there are not a lot of country bands fronted by women in the way there are in rock or alternative music. What happens in UK country is everyone seems to work together which is really empowering.”
Jess is also comfortable with being referred to as a role model both personally and professionally.
“I remember when I was a teenager dreaming about having a career in music and I said to my Mom I wanted to be a role model.
“The artists who were successful then seemed to be all about selling sex and it seemed this was the only way you could make it in the music industry.
“I knew I wanted to spend my career being a role model for young girls especially, but also women in general and those who may have health issues which no one was talking about. I felt that if I was going to have that platform I didn’t want to express political views - that doesn’t matter as much as your health.”