8 p.m. Thu., Sept. 1. Club Café. 56 S. 12th St., South Side. $15. 412-431-4950 or clubcafelive.com
Jeremiah Clark didn’t plan on being a political singer-songwriter. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a passionate tenor voice that fills a room with just a few notes, he’s able to reach listeners through his introspective songs. But his songs began looking outward in 2008 when California passed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative and state constitutional amendment that eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry. “When that happened I thought, I’ve been given this opportunity to say something that can actually make a difference,” he says. “It’s not just a post on Facebook or Instagram. This song can actually make a difference.”
With its strong blend of melody and lyrical punch, “Understood?” proudly declares: “I don’t need to be understood / and I don’t care if you think I should / because I can’t be contained in this box / you’ve placed around me: the walls that are surrounding.” Live, it typically generates a singalong, when the final chorus changes “I” to “we,” and the impact is nothing short of moving.
Clark, who spends a great deal of time on the road, plays “Understood?” almost every night. But the most memorable performance likely came in his hometown, outside of Memphis. “I played that song in the backyard of the house that I grew up in, and my mother — who was raised Southern Baptist — was standing in the back of a huge crowd, smoking a cigarette, with her arms in the air,” Clark recalls. “At the end of this song, she starts saying, ‘That’s my boy! That’s my boy, y’all!’ Who knew that I’d sing a song about gay rights and my Southern Baptist mother would be in the background cheering me on? Wow. Things are good.”
Speaking on the phone from the Northwest, Clark made Pittsburgh his homebase in the mid-’00s. He eventually headed to Portland, before settling in Palm Springs earlier this year. The California desert town, known as a place that was once the home of Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, might not seem like the ideal locale for a singer-songwriter, but Clark says otherwise. “It’s small, around 50,000 people, which is smaller than my hometown. There’s a really interesting appreciation for art and culture in a town that is so small. You’d never expect that,” he says. “Because it’s so close to L.A., and so many people who live there, either part time or full time, are part of the entertainment industry in some way, there’s great theaters, there’s great live shows. At the same time, the level and the quality [people are] expecting is higher than what you’d find in any city that size.”
At this point, Clark has logged more than 500 performances across the country, everywhere from bars to listening rooms to house parties. The experience shows in his onstage rapport. Like the best acts one might find in Palm Springs, he tells stories between songs with skilled timing, keeping an audience engaged. (Many of those stories include recreations of phone calls back home to his mother.) “I don’t get nervous until I walk off the stage,” he says. “I don’t know what to do after the show. I’m a mess afterward. When I’m on stage, it feels like these people are all my friends and I want to talk to them and communicate with them.”
But unlike a stage performer who adopts a persona, Clark wants the audience to relate to him, rather than seeing him simply as an entertainer. “I want people to realize that I’m a real person. I’m fucked up like other people are fucked up. I have real issues,” he says. “I don’t want there to be any sort of barrier, division or separation between me and them. I want them to feel like the songs that I sing are words that they could’ve written. I feel like, the more I perform, the more I strive for that.”
His recent, self-titled CD includes a number of tracks that were originally recorded when he lived in Pittsburgh and released as Just Another Sad Song. The new package remasters the early tracks and adds two new ones, the rowdy “Ten Feet Tall on Tequila” and “United States Dividing,” the latter another foray into politics that shows “Understood?” wasn’t a lucky fluke.
During his phone conversation, Clark admits he won’t see Palm Springs again for nearly two months, due to constant traveling. After a decade of performances, he sees no plans to chuck the music life for something like graduate school or a desk job anytime soon. “Honestly, it’s more exciting than it’s ever been, and I hope I can keep saying that,” he says. “I want to keep at this because I know what I have to say, and the music that I have to play is important. I know it’s not just something I could ever do as a hobby anymore. There’s no going back.”