Lee Clarke's musical bridge from the past to the present - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Part of the magic of sampling is that it allows us to maintain a living connection to the past. In a world marked by accelerated news cycles, ephemeral social media feeds and ever-shortening attention spans, culture is changing and moving at an unprecedented pace. Ironically, sampling — the product of a cultural shift caused by a rapid change in technological capacities — exists as a tool to preserve the things that might’ve otherwise been lost to time or the algorithm.

Producer and multi-instrumentalist Lee Clarke’s latest project, Genes, is a testament to the magic of sampling as a tool for building a bridge between the past and the present. With samples sourced from home recordings of his grandmother, pianist, Ahvagene Bond Clarke and her family, Genes places memories of the past in the center of Clarke’s dreamy instrumentals.

Dig into the album with the newly-released visualizer, below, and read on for our conversation with Clarke about the project, his past and his family history.

Lee Clarke - I Was Solid

John Morrison: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from, and how’d you get in music? All of that stuff.

Lee Clarke: Yeah, sure. I grew up in Upper Bucks County, kind of in the woods. I was introduced to music really, really early by my grandmother, and my dad plays music too. My grandma was this amazing musician. She just had this ear, she could hear and play anything. She was always bringing people together to sing and play. She just had such a fun vibe about her and about the way that she interacted with music. I think that kind of affected me at a really young age. So, as long as I can remember, I was always kind of felt like music is what I want to do.

JM: What instruments did your grandma play and what did your dad play?

LC: So, my grandma played piano. I think when she was really little, they realized she had perfect pitch or whatever, So she was the youngest of six sisters and they all played piano and sang together and stuff. I think she became the leader even though she was the youngest Then she ended up going to NYU to study music for, I’m not sure, I think maybe three years before she dropped out. I think she played organ in church in harpsichord too and my dad plays guitar and sings.

JM: What was music making like for you as a kid? Was it just jamming? Were you doing like the home recording thing?

LC: Both of those things for sure. I just always wanted to play. I think when I was really little, I thought I wanted to play drums. I got really obsessed with MTV at a young age and rock music, and was like, “I wanna be a drummer.” So, as soon as I could play drums in school, I did that. I begged my parents for drum lessons and did that for a little bit. But then I was like, “no, I wanna play guitar.” So, I got really into guitar. One regret I have is that I didn’t take lessons much until I went to college. And so I kept just like hopping around teaching myself different instruments and somewhere in there also I got really into recording.  saved up my money for a four track, started just recording like experiments on that with guitars and bass.

JM: Where did you go to school and what did you study?

LC: I went to college at UArts and studied jazz bass performance.

JM: Nice. If I’m hearing you correctly, you didn’t really have a formal, background and training in music and then you came to UArts and dove right into jazz performance? What was that like for you?

LC: It was intense but I loved it though. I had played bass in the school orchestra and jazz band for years, but like I said, never had lessons. I really just kind of like learned what I needed to learn to play in the school bands. When I got to college I was like, whoa, all these people know so much more than me. I’m so behind. And then I just immediately was like, I need to practice and study. And I loved that. It was really exciting and also like scary. I was just going so hard trying to practice and learn as fast as I could that I overdid it and injured my hand. So, that was a real game changer because then I physically couldn’t practice and keep going at that rate. And so that’s when I started to think about other things that I wanted to do. Like, maybe I want to start making beats and playing other instruments.

Lee Clarke | photo by Esso | courtesy of the artist

JM: I’m very curious because I do not come from the world of playing in bands and that sort of thing. I come from the hip hop world, but I’m, I’m very curious about what the repertoire is like in a jazz program like that. What kind of stuff were y’all playing?

LC: I mean, it was like learning a lot of standards for sure. I was getting really into Stevie Wonder and, D’Angelo,  all kinds of soul music, like neo soul as well, I was like learning that kind of stuff, but in school it was it was like learning standards. And then also, as a bass player, I was able to get a lot of gigs really, really early on in school too, because people just always need bass players. So I was just learning a ton of standards to play gigs and stuff.

JM: Ok, so you had this injury and you’re rethinking your approach to music. Tell me a little bit about how you made the transition into production.

LC: Yeah, it was not not a smooth transition at all. There were many years where I was very distraught about not being able to play. For a long time I thought that I was gonna be a bass player. Like that’s what I was gonna do with my life. I think I first hurt my hand when I was 19 and then it wasn’t until I was like 25, 26 when I was like, this is not gonna happen for me. I need to find another path forward. That’s around the time that I was like “I like making beats.” I don’t think I really knew what a producer was at that time, per se. I had considered not doing music for a career anymore.

JM: I want to talk a bit about Genes. You’re calling on all these memories of your family and all that. What inspired you and made you want to do that?

LC: I think the initial ambition I had was just to make a beat tape. When I first started putting it together, I really didn’t have any idea that I was gonna like, tie in samples from my family or make a story around it. I started putting different beats and sounds together that I had been laying around for years. I was listening to some of J Dilla and Madlib’s beat tapes and kind of  realizing the way that they use samples of people talking and stuff in between songs to kind of tie things together. And then I started looking through my sample collections for stuff I could use. And I was like, well, wait a minute. I have all these amazing recordings of my family. Let me try throwing those in there. That’s really the way it happened. So to be honest, it wasn’t like I had this great idea at the beginning that I was gonna make a piece of art about my family lineage or anything. The story came together like at the last part of the project.

JM: Where the recordings of your family of your phone, were they from old cassettes or what?

LC: Yeah. I’m so lucky that my aunt, my dad’s sister is a great family historian. She had the the great idea to record my grandma playing piano in the 80s. And then also like in the late 90s and early 2000s when she was like, at the end of her life and had Alzheimer’s. There’s these amazing recordings of her not even being able to hold a conversation. You can hear on the tape sometimes, but then my aunt will ask her to play a song and, and she’ll be like, “oh, I don’t know that song.” And then just play the whole thing, like start playing it.

JM: Wow.

LC: It’s amazing. So my aunt had sent me some cassettes and one of them was of actually my grandma’s sister just talking for like 20 or 30 minutes about their childhood. I used that a lot in the project.

JM: Have you played Genes for any of your family members? Have they heard it?

LC: Yeah, for sure. I sent it around to tons of family members. It was really fun too. I think people really, really thought it was fun to hear those voices of people that they haven’t heard in decades. It was a sweet way to connect with family.

Lee Clarke performs with Kingsley Ibeneche at World Cafe Live on February 16th for Multitudes: Music and Poetry Inspired by Making American Artists. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at WXPN’s Concerts and Events page.

Lee Clarke - Genes
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