Since moving to Charlottesville from Northern Virginia in 2008, Michael Clem has become a staple of the city’s music scene. Having played bass and sung harmony and lead vocals for nearly two decades for the nationally acclaimed Washington, D.C.,-based quintet Eddie from Ohio, whose shows and records frequently featured world-class players such as Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas, for Clem, getting integrated wasn’t too tough.
Fresh off his 2006 solo album 1st and 40, and with Eddie from Ohio’s touring schedule basically halted (lead singer Julie Murphy Wells battled, defeated and has recovered from breast cancer), Clem dove in headfirst, establishing himself as a local presence by falling in with many well-known players and acts.
“Early on, I was introduced to Jason Pollock (formerly of Seven Mary Three) and had the great pleasure of jumping into his band, The Pollocks,” Clem writes on his website. “Additionally, my neighbor Ned Oldham [brother of Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy] pulled me into his [and Matty Metcalfe’s] project, Old Calf.”
The latter of these collaborations resulted in Borrow a Horse, an album recorded under the No Quarter label at the Dave Matthews Band studio, Haunted Hollow.
Not one to squander forward momentum, Clem then formed an eponymous trio, and began playing with The Gladstones—a group that he says “includes the two godfathers of Charlottesville’s bar band scene, Charlie Pastorfield (of The Skip Castro Band) and Bob Girard (of The Casuals)”—Gallatin Canyon, The Get Rights, The Deputies and award-winning singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. Additionally, he took up hosting The Local’s C’ville Songwriter Night, a weekly open-mic event providing area artists the opportunity to test-drive their original music live with the help of a backing band.
Now, exactly a decade after the release of 1st and 40, Clem has put together a new album, titled, in the spirit of his patent tongue-in-cheek humor, 50 Clementines.
“I released my first solo album when I turned 40,” says Clem. “At that time I told myself, ‘I’ll do another one for my next landmark birthday.’ And here I am, 10 years later. So while maybe I’m not the most prolific artist in the world, I work great with a deadline.”
Like all of Clem’s projects, including the nine albums he wrote the bulk of and recorded with Eddie from Ohio, 50 Clementines was produced independently, without the assistance—or, as Clem phrases it, “the encumbrance”—of a record label.
“This time around I decided to go with Kickstarter to fund the record,” says Clem. “While a lot of artists from the older generation view the crowdsourcing model with stigma, the younger generation doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, they view this as the new norm, as a way of engaging and extending your fan base.”
Put another way: If an artist opts to avoid having to surrender a vast percentage of the control over his work, he has to find an alternative means of funding the recording process.
“If you’re going to avoid the entangling alliance of a record contract, unless you want to go around calling in favors [from] everyone you know or have a boatload of capital lying around, it’s going to be tough,” says Clem. “So I was floored by the overwhelming response we got. We were able to raise enough money to get and pay for great musicians to come in and collaborate and do their thing.”
Clem was serious about bringing in additional collaborators: The album features more than 30 musician friends, including Paul, Terri Allard, Kathryn Caine and Rusty Speidel.
“With guests from all over Virginia contributing, this is a lovely local byproduct,” says Clem. “Just about everybody that came in dazzled me with their aptitude on their various instruments—the playing was top-notch, and they did what I couldn’t do for myself. The music took shape instantaneously from the basic tracks to the eventual embellishments. From Butch Taylor on piano, to Nate Leaf on fiddle, to Will Evans on trumpet, I was delighted with all the layers that went into this thing. I think we made something really special.”
The critics seem to agree.
“A songwriter, a guitarist and observational comedian,” read a recent Washington Post review. “Think Blink-182 with words by Todd Snider and you get an idea of what Clem does within the confines of folk-rock.”
Asked about this strong critical reception, Clem shrugs, smiles and responds with the kind of cool humility that makes the man impossible not to like: “Above all the record is a celebration of all the musical connections I’ve made through the years and a tribute to the past seven and a half years I’ve spent living and making music in the beautiful city of Charlottesville.”
–Eric J. Wallace