A High Note

A High Note

Ant Clemons’ musical journey is exactly the kind of feel-good story 2020 needs.

It wasn’t that long ago that Ant Clemons was working shifts at a Red Lobster in South Jersey with visions of bigger things for his life. A self-described performer since a young age, the Willingboro native long had dreams of making it in the music industry. And so, he would save his paychecks until he had enough money to travel to Los Angeles in hopes of having his talents discovered by the right people. When the money ran out, he’d fly back home and head back to work at the restaurant. The process continued until his mother interceded and gave him an ultimatum.
 
Fed up with him being “late on the rent,” Clemons’ mother told him it was time for him reach for the stars. She encouraged him to spend a year in Los Angeles to try launch his career.
 
“My mom and my dad have always been my biggest advocates,” says Clemons. “But my mom was at a point in our relationship where she was like, ‘What I need you to do for you, and for me, is to get up and go live your dream and try to make it happen. I don’t have a million dollars, but whatever I can give to help you, I’m here to be your mom. You have one year; if nothing happens, you come home and we’ll figure out another plan.’”
 
Clemons spent the next several months trying to carve out a lane in the business and did much of it couch surfing. During that time, he linked up with three friends from Philadelphia who had a production group and were willing to let him crash at their house rent free under the condition that he write at least one new song every day. 
 
From there, further connections were made as Clemons began to work with other notable producers and see his songwriting prowess and distinct falsetto propel him forward. Eventually he landed a publishing deal with Universal and multiple projects he’s had an imprint on have gone on to be Grammy nominated. And just a few years later, he already has several impressive credits to his name, having worked with star-studded hitmakers like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. In late February, he released his debut solo EP, Happy 2 Be Here, and the soulful songs, including the very personal “Mamma I Made It,” served as an appetizer for what’s to come.
 
Speaking by phone during a break from one of his marathon studio sessions—Clemons claims to have written 500 songs during the pandemic—he is excited to talk about his journey, the things he misses about home and how his upbringing helped shape his career. The one thing he can’t tell me is what he’s working on next.
 
“I have albums ready and have been working with every artist I had on my vision board. Everybody,” he says proudly, before divulging that he’s bound by non-disclosure agreements. “I can’t give you any names as bad as I want to!”
 
How are you doing today, how have things been lately?
Honestly, I really can’t complain. Within the last 48 hours, I’ve been analyzing what is worth my time, what is worth my energy, and the only thing that is really important is family, and making sure everyone is of sound mind and everyone is in good health. I am very appreciative right now that none of my family members are struggling or sick with this disease.
 
Tell me a little bit about your journey from South Jersey to LA and what the experience was like for you.
With my mom’s blessing, I got a one-way [ticket] to LA and never looked back. It’s been a hell of a ride. I came out to LA and initially, I was supposed to transfer my job. But Red Lobster never transferred the job over. So, I got to California with no job and no place to stay outside of some friends I met. The opened up their house to me and say I could stay there as long as I wanted, the only thing was that I had to write a song a day.
 
Being at that house, it was a two-bedroom apartment with four guys living in there, so you can already imagine how that played out. I would pick up a lot of different sessions and just get in the studio as much as I possibly could just so I didn’t have to come back to their house and sleep on the floor. I figured if I worked overnight and kept my session going, I’d be able to overwork who was sleeping on the couch and then it would match up where I would be coming home and he’d be leaving for whatever he had going on for the day and so I’d be able to at least sleep on the couch instead of the floor.
 
In the midst of all that, I was introduced me to [singer] Jeremih and we worked on record called “All Mine” together which wound up on Kanye West’s Ye album. And literally my life went from no one knows who I am to you’re the guy on that song in a matter of a day. I honestly can’t stress enough the importance of due diligence. I’ve been working at this dream of mine for 10-plus years, from Willingboro to Pennsauken to LA. I’ve been working super hard to become an overnight success. The way it panned out; it was so perfect.
 
Did you feel at that point that you were moving in the right direction?
It’s weird, I had to learn being content within myself outside of the achievements. Milestones for me weren’t really the accolades, they were personal goals I was hitting every other chance I was going at them. So as opposed to saying, “Oh, I just got with Kanye, so now I’m at this level,” it was, I’m standing next to Kanye and I still don’t know how I got here, this is nuts. [But], I was supposed to be there. I still remained super excited about being in the room with someone I always looked up to, but I was there to do a job and knock it all the way out.
 
It was all about perspective. I’m not sleeping on the floor every single night, so that’s successful to me. I’m waking up every day and making my own schedule as far as working and crafting my career; that’s successful to me. Yes, I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of the big artists that I wanted to work with, but I don’t use that as a measure of success. It’s truly how I view accomplishments—what is it that you’re excited about that wakes you up in the morning that makes you feel proud? I love making music, so I feel accomplished every time I’m able to listen back to a completed song. Everything else that comes after that is an added bonus.
 
You are doing all this hard work to get your music out there and you get the chance to release your own project earlier this year and then the pandemic hits. What’s it been like for you creatively during these past few months?
I’m not trying to be insensitive to what’s been going on, but it has forced creatives to be creative. When things are well and everything is fine, you’re not exercising the creative muscle as much, I believe. I became super creative when I was trying to get off the floor. I found creative ways to make sure I was never back in that position. So, with the world being in this pandemic and us forced to be uncomfortable—I honestly believe that sometimes in life God forces us to be uncomfortable so that we are able to be comfortable the right way, the way we always wanted to be.
 
During the pandemic, the world has shut down, but it forced me to go back to being in a basement somewhere in South Jersey recording myself. I fell in love with the process all over again and I have written over 500 songs during the pandemic.
 
Your sound is unique but also fits right in with the times. Who are some of the artists that inspired your sound because there’s definitely a bit of the old and new represented there?
I grew up as and still to this today am the world’s biggest Michael Jackson fan. Kanye West, Stevie Wonder … I’ve been influenced by Jay-Z, Drake; anyone and anybody that is great. Jeremih; all the people I’ve had the chance to work with now. Everyone has influenced my style in some way.
 
And you grew up in a pretty musical household, right?
Absolutely. My sisters can sing; my youngest sister is the best singer out of all us, I just got lucky to get kicked out first. My mom is a phenomenal dancer and so I get my rhythm from her. My dad is amazing, he was singing our entire life growing up. My dad would be singing a record and my mom would be dancing around the room and I just wanted to perform and be a part of it.
 
So now you are making your way in LA, but what about South Jersey, do you miss home?
I absolutely miss home every single day. I try to come back to Jersey as much as I possibly can. I feel that I have a lot of things left I need to do [in my career] and I want to come back to Jersey with something [to show]. Not just come back to celebrate, but to show what I learned over here in my craft and this is the information I’m trying to pass along to anybody that wants to follow my path.
 
Everyone has a starting point, did this area help shape your career?
It did 100,000 percent. I believe that where you’re from is such an indicator of where you’re going to go. It was my motivation to make it. I felt like if I could make it out of South Jersey, I could make it anywhere in the world. The lessons I learned in Jersey shaped the person I am today.
 
There are some amazing artists with ties to South Jersey and, of course, Philadelphia. What does it mean to you to be the latest to represent this area?
It’s one of the biggest honors. I feel like I still have a lot of work to do to be mentioned with those people. We have a lot of great, talented people from our area and just to contribute any piece of music to be brought into the world, I’m honored. That feels better than walking on stage and winning a Grammy to me.
 
You have worked with so many big names, who else is out there that you would love to collaborate with?
I’d love to work with Drake, he may be the only person that I’ve been dying to work with. I would love that opportunity.
 
Despite being around so many notables in the music industry, are you ever taken back by where your career has taken you so far?
I love that you asked me this question. Before I started obtaining a certain level of success, I was just focused on what’s next. In conversations and studying, to get to where I want to get to, I have to appreciate the blessing God is giving me. I want to cherish this moment while I have it. I have goals and things I want to accomplish in my career, but I’m aware that where I am now was never promised.
 
There’s a lot of great musical artists out there, both known and unknown. What do you think it is about you that has helped you rise to the top?
I think authenticity might have played a role into it. I can tell you I’m very religious and I believe God is the reason for a lot of my blessings. I can’t tell you what exactly gets me into the rooms that I’ve gotten into. Maybe it’s likability and the wanting to complete the task; but I love singing and seeing things completed from start to finish.
 
You’re very secretive about your new project. Is there anything you can share with us about it or will we just have to wait and see?
It’s coming very soon. Definitely sooner than later.

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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 6 (September 2020).

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Author: Peter Proko

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