When working in large groups, a clearly stated mission helps align everyone. According to Clinton Clegg, the mission for soulful Pittsburgh octet the Commonheart is two-fold yet simple: “To entertain, and to provide whatever it is that a listener may need at any given time. That’s what I’ve always relied on music for.”
Music has served the singer and songwriter well. His mother’s job playing church organ, third grade cello lessons, and an early fascination with B.B. King nourished his spirit as a boy in Monongahela, PA. Playing school dances in garage bands got him through college, when his CD player shuffled between Dr. Dre, Green Day, and Al Green.
“Music is a positive force that brings people together,” says Clegg. “It can give you a friend and something worth living for.” It is, quite simply, his life’s foundation. Since forming the Commonheart in 2014, it has given him more strength with each passing year.
So what do you do when the music stops? That is the story of For Work or Love.
The band started 2020 with plenty of promise. They’d improved upon their 2016 debut, Grown, with the 2019 follow-up Pressure. Audiences for their energetic live shows continued to grow. “We were working hard and on a nice trajectory,” Clegg recalls. When the Covid-19 pandemic brought things to a screeching halt, he found himself cut off from human interaction, daily routines… and his muse.
Though he’d previously been working on new songs, for the first few months of the public health crisis, Clegg’s guitar sat silent. He missed band practice and live audiences, but with eight members the Commonheart’s options for playing together safely were nearly nonexistent. “I felt so jealous of trios who could just get together, stand six feet apart, and play,” he admits.
But once Clegg recognized that his discomfort and anger with the pandemic’s challenges were rooted in his love for the people in his life, his spirit returned. “That frustration was a driving force and I tried to use it positively. That was hard. The only thing that gave me strength through all that crap was I knew we had the band and the people around us, and that when things did come back, we’d be stronger.”
Fortunately, album producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) had already provided Clegg with creative direction for his new songs. “He’d listened to some demos, works in progress, and said to focus on narrative.” Clegg had great titles, hooks, and characters, but this went deeper. Berlin urged him to think about the middle and end of each of his stories, too.
“I took that advice to heart,” says the singer. “My songwriting has always been about the live moment, but a song needs to come full circle for the listener. Since I’ve started focusing on narratives, I’ve found my songs have become a lot more personal – and more listenable.”
The low-slung, guitar-driven “Hustler” is one of the best examples of Berlin’s advice in action, featuring a conflicted narrator who does what he feels he must to care for his family. It isn’t autobiographical, but it did come naturally according to Clegg. “I grew up watching old gangster movies, idolizing bad men, the Tony Sopranos of the world. That’s always fascinated me.”
Elsewhere, the exuberance of the band’s live shows and their affinity for classic R&B and soul is instantly audible in new selections like “Trying to Get Over,” “All I Ever Wanted,” and “Half At Home In Love,” any of which might honestly be mistaken for a Stax or Hi Records deep cut. Yet these succinct songs also showcase complicated relationships and different points of view: “Josephine” imagines the joys and challenges of fatherhood, while the barstool romance “Never Say Goodbye” delicately balances extramarital desire with maturity’s hard-won wisdom.
The redemptive power of music resonates clearly on album opener “How Do I Do This.” Feeling lonely and isolated by the pandemic, Clegg leaned into his deep appreciation for the most important people in his life: his friends, band mates, and family. As if to underscore that message, the Commonheart was working on that very song when Clegg was confronted with unexpected bad news.
“The night we tracked that one, my dad died.” Time stopped again, but only for a moment. Clegg was back in the studio four days later, singing through his grief. “I was so grateful to have music at that moment. It saved me and gave me a place to focus my energy and escape. I don’t know how I did it, but I’m proud, and I know my Dad would be, too.”
Good craftsmanship never goes out of style, yet these ten tunes feel like classics already because their sentiments are universal and imbued with emotion. And in the manner of classics that have come before, the ones by Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers that nurtured the Commonheart, it is easy to imagine any or all of these songs as your pocket-sized soundtrack for a special memory. Drop the needle on For Work or Love and start making some today.
Abby Gross- Saxophone
Mariko Reid - Vocals
Anton DeFade - Bass
Cole Insko- Drums
Mike Minda- Guitar
Lucas Bowman- Keyboards
Nate Insko- Trumpet
Clinton Clegg- Vocals