Jay Clifford of Jump, Little Children

by Nicole Roberge

On closing the door on the band's 30-year career with their final album, Foundering, the dynamic of a grassroots fanbase, and the story behind their most popular song, "Cathedrals."

Jay CliffordJay Clifford
Jump, Little Children have called it quits before. Only then, it was a hiatus. Now, the band of 30 years is saying goodbye for good, and they're doing so with a final album and farewell tour. With musical ingenuity, the band fuses together instrumentation from their classical background mixed with their Southern roots and Irish aspirations. The quintet of Jay Clifford (vocals, acoustic guitar), Ward Williams (cello), Jonathan Gray (upright bass), Evan Bivins (drums), and Matt Bivins (accordion, mandolin, harmonica, tin whistle) used their background as a driving force in their career, never veering from their true sound and musicianship. Their energetic live shows and genuine demeanor gave them a solid fanbase, and the group toured relentlessly for years, further building upon their dedicated audience.

Jump's major label release came in the form of Magazine on Hootie And The Blowfish's Breaking Records, a division of Atlantic, in 1998. The label disbanded shortly after that album, and Jump was left to discover their own path as musicians. Their second album, Vertigo, recorded while at the label, was released on their own imprint, EZ Chief Records, and ranked #44 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums Chart. Following on that momentum, Jump collaborated with producer Rick Beato on the mystical Between The Dim And The Dark, featuring the song "Mexico," which Zach Braff used in his film Wish I Was Here. After a hiatus to work on other projects, they regrouped and released Sparrow, with overwhelming fan support - completely crowd-funded.

But when brothers Matt and Evan launched into another career, it became evident that would be their sole focus, and as the band embarked on a new album, Foundering, they found that the "new" became their final. With this last album now in place, the band says farewell with members Clifford, Williams, and Gray, along with guests Cary Ann Hearst (Shovels & Rope), Ruby Amanfu, Christina Cone (Frances Cone) and Travis McNabb (Better Than Ezra, Sugarland) rounding out the musical guests on the album.

It's a rare occurrence for music to take on a life, uplift, and educate at the same time, all creating an atmosphere of fun and beauty - but that is what Jump, Little Children did. Jump is a symphony meets rock, at times soothing like a lullaby. Fans were exposed to music and instrumentation not heard on mainstream radio, and more so, they appreciated and rallied behind it. They became a driving force behind the band that is now saying goodbye, but not without one last rally.

Ending the reign of their 30-year career, with their farewell tour set to take place this December, we caught up with lead singer and songwriter Jay Clifford to see what this band has meant to him and why he knows it's time to close this chapter. A lyrical craftsman with incredible melodic instincts, Clifford has lent his his talents to multiple songwriting partnerships throughout the years including Howie Day and Missy Higgins. During the band's hiatus in 2005, Clifford went on to have a solo career, with Braff directing the music video for his single "Know When To Walk Away" from his album Driving Blind. With his distinct and melodic voice, and the band's theatrical arrangements, it's no surprise they have had an enduring career with devoted fans. As the curtain sets on Jump, Little Children, there's nothing left to do but enjoy the show.
Nicole Roberge (Songfacts): Jump, Little Children is releasing its last album. Your farewell tour starts in December. How are you feeling about that?

Jay Clifford: As you might imagine, it's a complex kind of mosaic of emotions. It's sort of like looking at the sunset and the sunrise at the same time. It's the end of a 30-year journey. It does feel good to have something that has that kind of longevity, but it's hard to let it go and move on. I'm excited about what the next year looks like.

Songfacts: 30 years is a big accomplishment. That's a long time to have that commitment.

Clifford: I've known these guys for longer than I've known my wife. My son is 16 years old, so they're some of the longest relationships I've ever had. Ward, I went to high school with. Matt and Evan also but I didn't know them as well then. I got to know Ward in high school a bit and then we went to college together at the North Carolina School of the Arts and that's when things got rolling.

Songfacts: You have a very cultured sound. When you first started the band, you were performing Irish music and went to Ireland to hone your craft.  What was the allure there musically, and how did you develop your sound as a band?

Ward WilliamsWard Williams
Clifford: We were all at the North Carolina School of the Arts studying classical music. I was there for classic guitar, Ward for cello. Evan was there for visual arts and Matt was there for oboe and clarinet. We hadn't met Johnny at this point. One of the guys who was a founding member of the band, Christopher Pollen, was from Dundrum, which is a suburb of Dublin. He had moved to the States when he was a kid and was really interested in traditional Irish music. In the movie Fame in the art school cafeteria, where people are dancing on the tables, that actually happened at our school. Some kid was rocking an upright piano while I'm having a tuna sandwich.

We started playing Irish music in the cafeteria to get us started, to have fun in between these rigorous practice sessions and performances. It was our way to be rebellious against the classical music scene. We're 18 years old at the time. Christopher had a wooden flute and banjo, and Matt was playing tin whistle. I tuned my acoustic guitar to a traditional Irish tuning called DADGAD. We started playing Irish music and decided to go to Ireland to study it. We were there for a few weeks playing a bunch of pubs and went to festivals, then moved to Boston for six months because the saying was, "There's more Irish people in Boston than there are in Ireland."

Christopher suddenly took this hard turn away from society and joined a cult. We decided to move away from Boston and back to Charleston, and started playing music on the street, becoming buskers. We lived in the same house and every night went to Market Street and played Irish music and sang songs for three or four hours. We started writing new material, ballads that were in the Irish tradition, and from there started expanding out. The melodic tradition in Irish music is maybe some of the more advanced, interesting, and haunting shapes within the popular and folk music world. It was a great way to learn.

Songfacts: What really sets you guys apart is your musical talent and dynamic live performances. Being able to engage audiences and introduce people to instruments (cello, accordion, mandolin) they may not really have listened to before. How important was it to stay true to yourselves as musicians through your career, and as you advanced, was it important not to lose that?

Clifford: Yes. It was always interesting, when talking to journalists, they would ask, "What type of genre do you apply to yourselves?" And we wouldn't know what to say. We're playing energetic folk-rock songs with all these different instruments. We started, instead of describing the music, describing the instrumentation. Upright bass. Cello. Accordion. Tin whistle. Drums. I think it was a way to get around the effort to categorize exactly what type of music we're playing. Sometimes it doesn't give the right impression. But we've held on to that musical format the whole time.

Songfacts: Your band name comes from a song you were playing when you got your start, one that seemed fitting for you guys?

Jonathan GrayJonathan Gray
Clifford: That's right. There's a blues duo by the name of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee who are from where we're from in North Carolina. They'd play a lot of the tobacco barns back in the early part of the 20th century. It's amazing stuff. Acoustic guitar, blues, and harmonica. And they have a song called "Jump, Little Children." The central idea is that mama and papa are gone, so let's just have fun.

Songfacts: You went on to release your major label debut, Magazine, under Breaking Records. Was that hard for you guys to find a home with a label and was that something you had been seeking?

Clifford: That's an interesting question because the guy who was running the label at the time, John Caldwell, eventually became our manager. We made some solid friendships within this small, boutique label. JC was really good at letting us do our thing and not getting too involved in the creative side of things. We developed within that. They kind of just left us alone, let us do what we do. We did two records with them. The second one got a little complicated because they let us go at that point, gave us the record after we finished it, and then we had to move on from there.

There wasn't a lot of label interference. When you look back on it now, you can see the context of how records are made really matters. In reflecting backwards, we've been doing the Patreon thing for the past three years, and it is a starkly different experience from making a record within a record label. Even if you're not hyper-aware of the boundaries and the walls that labels have to set up in order to put out a product that can sell, you can feel yourself bump into them sometimes. With making a record independently and through the Patreon process, none of those boundaries or hurdles are there. It becomes much more of a confessional thing between the songwriter and the listener. That was a really creative time for us and that was largely a positive experience.

Songfacts: On that album, you had a lot of success with the single "Cathedrals." It's such a moving and emotional song. Lyrically there are opposing elements to it (cathedrals, electric fence, home, head of state). Where did the idea for this song come from and is there a specific meaning behind it?

Clifford: I mentioned Christopher Pollen, one of the founding members was from Ireland. When we moved to Boston, he left to join the cult. "Cathedrals" is about that experience. He was Catholic. He had some real difficulties functioning within normal society. He had a very unhealthy relationship with himself, and a shattered relationship with his friends and his parents. Watching him devolve out of society into this smaller world of a cult is where the song "Cathedrals" comes from. The idea that you can walk through these gothic cathedrals and feel a sense of awe but also feel intimidation, an institutional ominousness that makes you want to figure out where you fit in.

Watching him go through this desperate journey to find where he fits into this world is where that song came from. It was a strange kind of reverse metamorphosis to watch him sort of drink this poison. This ideology that backed him out of relationships and a healthy life in the normal world. It was a really difficult thing to watch.

Songfacts: You left Breaking Records and put out Vertigo on your own imprint and did so successfully. How had you grown as a band since Magazine and were you more confident?

Clifford: Those were shifting sands in the music industry as well. It was right around the time of Magazine coming out that we started checking out Napster and LimeWire. It started changing the musical landscape so drastically. It was very difficult to put that record out. The fans were there, they were behind us and supporting us. But the infrastructure that was there had completely changed between Magazine and Vertigo. The only way to support ourselves as a band was to go out and tour. We did a lot of touring those years between 1998 and 2003. We were doing 200-250 shows a year. We had a real sense of confidence because we had a real grassroots fanbase that we knew we could go back to. We didn't need to depend on the label. It's not like if the label drops you, you're done. Luckily, we were in that position, but it did take a lot of work to ensure that we moved forward.

The musical community around us is one of the most unique I've ever come across. The fans are enthusiastic and curious and just love music. We feel extremely lucky and owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They're the reason we've been able to keep going. Not just the touring days, but the reunion and the PledgeMusic campaign for Sparrow and Patreon, which we've done for the last three years. They've supported us all the way through that journey.

Songfacts: How have units like PledgeMusic and Patreon changed the way you write songs and put out music?

Clifford: PledgeMusic was for Sparrow with the idea, we're gonna make this record and you can buy it ahead of time. If you have a little extra money, we can send you handwritten lyrics or a few extras. That campaign went really well, paid for the record and we put out Sparrow. PledgeMusic was going through a slow collapse at the time that we weren't aware of until right at the end. They didn't give us all the money they were supposed to, and then went bankrupt.

Patreon takes that quite a bit further. We offer a whole series of different content and tiers. You put up $5 or $10 a month and we do a podcast - we've put out B-sides and rare live shows. All kinds of different content in addition to the new songs. I wrote a bunch of new songs for this record, Foundering. Last January, they voted for their favorite 12 songs out of the 18 new songs and then we made that record.

Songfacts: Were the songs they voted on the 12 you would've picked?

Clifford: They voted on the songs and then we considered their votes like they're a member of the band. I had my favorites, the producer had his favorites, the members of the band had their favorites, and the collection of fans had their favorites. Then we made a larger decision based on that information. They definitely changed our minds on which songs to use. There's a song called "Feather And Bow" that's on the record that wouldn't have been on the record without them, and they made some really insightful comments about why it should be on the record.

Songfacts: That's great to have that feedback because, most often, you put the record out, and then get all the critiques, which I'm sure can have you second-guessing yourself.

Clifford: That's right. It's this unbelievable experience, this really useful tool. I'm still marveling at how it worked. Usually everyone listens to it after and talks about it after. We live in this age where you have access to every record ever made essentially for free. It's a whole different experience to buy a record and to own that record. That experience of going to the store and purchasing the record and taking it home with you and listening to it. Having a sense of ownership about the record. You take that meaningful experience and one up that so that you're a part of the making of the record from the beginning. You hear the demos, vote on demos, make comments on the demos. We show you behind the scenes of making a record. Their feedback has been invaluable. You end up with this record that you helped build.

Songfacts: Like having your own music critics. It must be more meaningful because you know it's the fans who know and appreciate your music.

Clifford: It's interesting because the borders of the band, who's in the band, those lines have blurred over the last few years. It used to just be the five of us. Whenever an A&R person or management person would make a comment, we would take it with a grain of salt. Now, we listen to what the fans are asking to do, and it becomes a whole part of the development of a record. The only analogous thing is back in the early years when we were touring, we would play new songs before we'd put them on the record and get feedback that way. It's much more different to get the idea of what a song is going to sound like on a record if you just hear it in a club.

Songfacts: Did you know when you wrote and recorded this album, Foundering, that it was going to be your last as a band?

Clifford: No, we did not know that. It started to become clear after the record was written that Matt and Evan were going to bow out after this last chapter. We found ourselves in a very difficult position, which is wanting to respect Matt and Evan and what they wanted to do with their lives. We're all in our 50s, and it's a lot to go out on tour for a month and leave everything you're working on. We wanted to respect that decision, but at the same time we had this obligation to the fans who had been supporting the making of a Jump, Little Children record for two years. We had already written that record at that point. We decided to make the record as Jump, Little Children, do the tour as Jump, Little Children, and make it our last tour. That was the best path forward that respected Matt and Evan's decision and respected the fans and what they were promised.

Songfacts: A lot of the album seems to have the theme of endings ("Foundering") and new beginnings ("New Life"). Did you go into the album with a theme in mind or did a lot of that come together organically?

Clifford: It kind of did. The song "Foundering" I wrote after I took this sailing trip with my dad, brother and son - the four of us went to Virginia to the Rappahannock River. When I was a kid, growing up, my grandfather had this little two-bedroom shack. We'd vacation there in the summers and spend about a month there. I spent my childhood there.

Before my dad's 80th birthday, we decided to sail up to the house and do the same sailing trip that we did every year, which was from this little town Simonson, all the way down to Tangier Island, which is out in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. We sailed up to the house and walked down the road, and the road was under water. That never happened when I was a kid. No matter how high the tide was. It was about six to eight inches deep and it was a beautiful sunny day. It wasn't like there had been a storm. We took our shoes off and walked barefoot to the house and sure enough, the backyard where I played as a kid was under water. It really struck me. Obviously, I've been following climate change and how the world is changing, and I try to stay aware and do what I can to play my part. To see it so viscerally real was shocking. My dad was also going through some failing health issues. There was a unique connection there between how the nature of life is unstoppable and moves on. It was this pretty profound moment. That's what that song is about.

Songfacts: That's interesting how it came together organically. Thematically, the album seemed to tell a story.

Clifford: It did become a theme of the record, but it wasn't intentional. "New Life" is about artificial intelligence, how we might in our lifetime see a new version of consciousness. That would be incredible and also pretty ominous. That fits quite nicely in the larger theme.

Songfacts: "Taken To The Wild" is a beautiful song. With the horns in the beginning, musically it's rhythmic, and lyrically it's thought-provoking with the lines:

They've taken the dreams from your head...
They've taken the music straight from your ears

Can you tell me a little more behind that song? Are they someone specific?

Clifford: Yes. They, if I want to put a fine point on it, would be the trappings of social media. I have kids and I watch what social media has done, especially to younger girls - it has this tendency to make you hate yourself, which is never good. And it does it to a series of attention captures so it sort of robs you of the beautiful world you live in. The idea of "they've taken the picture but left you the frame." You have this frame in your hand that you're focused on the whole time but the picture of yourself is gone.

I wouldn't categorize myself as a Luddite or that I'm being grumpy about the modern world because I love the modern world. We live in some amazing times and I'm excited about the future. I'm an optimist at heart. Social media, like any other technology, it's sort of like nuclear power. You can power a city with it, or it can destroy us. I think we'll get this whole game dialed in so it's good for us as a whole. The last 10 years though, it's been largely negative for the world. I think it needs some restructuring.

Songfacts: "Young Again" (featuring Cary Ann Hearst) is a very powerful song. With the lyrics, "He had one last chance to sing the old songs, once last verse of 'remember me.'" It's very emotive. Was this a personal song for you?

Clifford: It's a very personal song. My goal is for all the songs to be extremely personal. This is what I was talking about with Patreon, it allows a very confessional style of writing. You don't see those record label hurdles off in the distance. "Young Again" is about my father-in-law who was passing away, almost three years ago. The two weeks before he passed away, he spent most of his time singing. He loved Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton, so he would sing all these old country songs. He would sing hymns and Christmas carols from his childhood. Hearing him sing in the background, it was like, "Oh, he's feeling what it feels like to be young again." He has that last chance to feel that way. It's an amazing thing that even in the face of the end, he was able to find a real sense of joy and boyhood.

Songfacts: "Shelter Here" seems to have a distinctly Jump, Little Children sound.  Would you say you have a distinct sound and is there a formula you use when you write songs?

Clifford: That's a hard question to answer. Maybe the simple answer is that we don't attempt to fit the formulaic Jump sound. It sort of happens naturally. We'll find ourselves in the studio listening back to a performance and we'll go, "Oh yeah, that sounds like us." It's not by design. Have you ever heard the saying, "Write drunk, edit sober?" It's in those sober moments, where you go, "That's us, right there."

Songfacts: What's next for you guys? What are your plans after you tour on this album?

Clifford: The tour ends in December. This will be the last Jump album of new material. We might put out some retrospective albums that focus on some of the previous songs in different ways. We worked with the Czech Studio Orchestra in Prague with the strings for this album, which was an amazing experience. We zoomed in to the studio and listened in while they performed. It was a full string section. They're an incredible ensemble. At some point next year, I'd love to do a full album of Jump favorites with the Czech Studio Orchestra.

I'd also like to do a solo record or Rosebud record - I'm in another band called Rosebud. And I need to get back into the cowriting world. I did a bunch of co-writing in 2000-2005 with bands like Peter Bjorn and John, Howie Day, Missy Higgins and Sean Lennon. I'd love to get back to that. I've been very Jump-focused the past few years.

Songfacts: What a wonderful experience with the orchestra.

Clifford: I had a great time in the hiatus. Jump was off between 2005-2015 and during those years I worked with the Colorado Symphony arranging charts for bands that played with the symphony. I did that for 10 years and worked with people like Gregory Alan Isakov and Amos Lee and many amazing singer-songwriters. I really learned how to work with an orchestra, so it would be a natural progression for me to do a Jump orchestral record.

Songfacts: You co-wrote the very popular "Brace Yourself" on Howie Day's Stop All The World Now as well as some of the more intricate ("Come Lay Down," "You & A Promise"). How did you get involved writing with Day?

Clifford: Howie opened for Jump when we were promoting our album Vertigo in 2001. He was an incredible performer and phenomenal at looping and creating soundscapes through his pedal boards but didn't have much experience writing. When he signed his record deal, he needed more songs, so he reached out to me. I would fly up to Bangor, Maine, and we would write and make demos.

Songfacts: You co-wrote "Ten Days" with Australian artist Missy Higgins, which was certified gold in Australia and nominated for an APRA(Australasian Performing Right Association) for Song of the Year. It was a personal song for her about an ending relationship. How do you immerse yourself into that songwriting process to give it another element and make it so successful?

Clifford: Co-writing with someone as talented as Missy, I just try not to get in the way, to stand back and offer perspective and ideas when needed, and to make sure whatever I bring to the table supports her initial intent.

Songfacts: Zach Braff used your song "Mexico" in his film Wish I Was Here. Braff also directed your video for "Know When To Walk Away" from your solo album Driving Blind. It was a unique idea for a video. How did you guys decide to collaborate on that and why did you want to do that for this song?

Clifford: In 2004 Zach Braff featured "Mexico" on his Myspace page, which at the time, was probably more influential than most radio stations. Then in 2007 I was in West Hollywood making my first solo record, Driving Blind, and he called me out of the blue. I invited him to come down to the studio and he hung out for a while and listened to some of the songs we were working on. When the record came out, he had this great idea for a video - asking people around the world to send in videos of themselves singing along to the opening track, "Know When To Walk Away." The result was this dynamic collage of people singing in their bedrooms, on a tractor out in a field, or signing the lyrics in a Berlin subway.

Songfacts: What have you learned about music in 30 years - from your bandmates, music, or fans - and what thought are you leaving with?

Clifford: I think the thing that I've learned about our music is we're kind of a unicorn, galloping across the South in a way. There's something about what we did that was unique. That has positive and negative effects. It's not for everyone - that's the thing that we learned. But it's very meaningful to certain people which is something I'm extremely proud of.

Songfacts: Is there anything you didn't do as a band that you wish you had?

Clifford: There's a few things, but they're not that big of a deal. I got to play with Howie Day on some of the late-night shows - The Tonight Show and Letterman. That was a great experience and I wish Jump had that experience. That would've been fun. I would've loved to have done more touring in Europe. But those are just extras. I love what we accomplished and what we've been through, and it's just been an incredible adventure. There's certainly regrets and certainly achievements that we're proud of, but it's a beautiful mix of those things. It's a very satisfying feeling.

October 24, 2022

Get tour dates and news at jumplittlechildren.com

More interviews:
Loreena McKennitt
Sunniva Bondesson of Baskery
Steven Gustafson of 10,000 Maniacs

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Comments: 1

  • Kelli from FloridaThank you for writing a beautiful summation of this amazing band's work. Your intro was so on point. Spoken like a TRUE fan! Much love!
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