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South Africa's Jesse Clegg using Hotel Cafe-Hollywood residency to incubate new sounds, songs

South Africa's Jesse Clegg using Hotel Cafe-Hollywood residency to incubate new sounds, songs
Musician Jesse Clegg is wrapping a month-long residency at Hotel Cafe in Hollywood on Tuesday. (Brett Rubin)

You might say that South African musician Jesse Clegg is using his month-long residency at the Hotel Café in Hollywood as an opportunity to apply the scientific method to his evolving career in pop music.

The singer and songwriter is a bona fide star at home, but is still looking to establish himself in the U.S., where he’s toured several times both as a solo act and in tandem with his father, musician Johnny Clegg.

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Besides playing weekly at the Hollywood club that’s an incubator for burgeoning talent, Clegg is also using his time stateside to write new material in collaboration with other songwriters and producers, including Tim Pagnotta and Nick Furlong, with the goal of creating enough songs for a new album he plans to record next year.

The scientific method part?

“It’s interesting to see how my music translates here,” Clegg, 30, told The Times recently. “I have all these songs that have kind of shaped my career over the years, but for a lot of people here, they’re hearing them for the first time. I’ve found that some songs that were hits in South Africa, U.S. audiences are not responding to. Some that were hits there, are also hits with audiences here.”

In fact, back home he’s charted 10 Top 10 singles off his three studio albums — “When I Wake Up” in 2008,” “Life on Mars” in 2011” and “Things Unseen” in 2016 — and his first two albums yielded platinum singles, which in South Africa is awarded for sales of 20,000 copies.

While his father broke ground with the first integrated band in their home country in the 1970s during the era of apartheid, and marries elements of Zulu culture and Western rock, Jesse’s music would fit comfortably on the radio dial with contemporary pop acts such as Ed Sheeran.

Musician Jesse Clegge, left, on tour with his father, groundbreaking South African singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg.
Musician Jesse Clegge, left, on tour with his father, groundbreaking South African singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg. (Jina Min)

“It’s interesting playing my music live and then going into writing sessions” over the succeeding days, he said. “I’m looking at melodic and creative choices from my previous work is having an impact here, and I’m taking that into the writing sessions. I’m taking a good look at what it is about these songs — where my voice is, my writing — and trying to distill that into something unique.

“It’s very informative to be doing live shows and the creative stuff as well,” he said.

His final show of the current residency is Tuesday. He plans to return to the U.S. again next year for an extended stay to write, perform and work on the successor to “Things Unseen.” Before that, though, he’ll be the main support act for “American Idol” alum Chris Daughtry’s tour of South Africa.

“It’s been cool,” he said. “It’s a grind, though, and it can be quite stressful. In South Africa, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t have to sell myself, but here, I’m back on the treadmill again. It’s exciting and stimulating challenge.

“It’s funny,” he said of his time in the U.S. “It’s also made me aware of how conservative South African radio is, whereas in America, you have free rein to push the envelope as much as you can. I’d never be able to push my music this far in South Africa without losing the audience’s attention. In America, it seems like you have free rein, which is exciting.”

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