Ant Clemons goes into detail about his extensive work with Kanye West, his songwriting process, his first Grammy award, upcoming new music, and more.
Ant Clemons’ name rings bells around the music industry. He’s got friends in very high places, and his signature bright red beanie can be spotted in the corner of some of the most exciting collaborative studio sessions. He’s one of music’s most gifted songwriters, working with a who’s who of A-list artists, including Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Ty Dolla $ign, and more. His path was always clear to fans of his work, who always knew that his time would eventually come. Following the nomination of his debut project Happy 2 Be Here as Best R&B Album at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, as well as his first-ever Grammy win for his work on Kanye’s Jesus Is King album (Ant has the most guest credits on the project, providing vocals for “Water” and “Everything We Need”), the 30-year-old New Jersey native has officially arrived and he’s more than prepared for his next chapter.
It was only three years ago that Ant Clemons’ life changed forever. On June 1, 2018, the singer/songwriter found out that he had earned a spot on Kanye West’s album ye, singing on the track “All Mine.” Ever since then, Ant has been reaping the benefits of his hard work over the years, finally receiving the recognition that he has long deserved.
This year, he has been focusing on his solo music, aiming to follow up his Grammy-nominated debut with another critically acclaimed project. Through his single releases, including the beautiful-written and wildly introspective “Story of my Life,” Ant is opening up like never before, letting his fans know what he’s all about and un-peeling layers of his being for us all to learn more about. He's also collaborated with Kehlani, 2 Chainz, Ty Dolla $ign, and others on recent singles.
With more new music on the way soon, we caught up with Ant Clemons on a Zoom call earlier this year to discuss his favorite memories with Kanye West and the Sunday Service Choir, his songwriting process, his reaction to being nominated at the Grammys, and more.
Read the unabridged editorial copy of our interview below and catch Ant Clemons performing this week in Philadelphia and New York.
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HNHH: Hey Ant! I wanted to start off by congratulating you on your Grammy nomination for Happy 2 Be Here. That’s your debut project and it got a Grammy nomination, how do you feel?
Ant Clemons: I feel amazing, I feel honored. First and foremost, thank you for taking the time out to even interview me, this is like a dream come true. It sounds cliche and shit, but I’m really happy to be here. I’m on HotNewHipHop — every day for about 3 hours, HNHH is my go-to. Outside of Instagram, I’m on HotNewHipHop all the time. It was the thing that me and my boys would do, back in the crib, we’d watch the Joe Budden Podcast and then be like, “yo did you see this on HotNewHipHop.” So to be talking with y’all means the world to me, plus you having a Jesus Is King shirt on is fire. This is all great!
The vibes are right today. I’ve been a big fan of yours as well so I’m excited to get a chance to talk to you today!
It’s nice to meet you, man.
You’ve always got your hands in some major project, it seems. What are you working on right now?
What am I not working on right now is a better question? I feel like I’m working on the best music I’ve ever worked on in my life. I have so many NDAs that I don’t even know what I can and can’t talk about, but as far as my own music, I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I’m a solid 80% done with this next project. We’re wrapping it up right now, I’m really excited, it’s coming very very very soon. [Ed. note: this interview was done back in May 2021, so it's likely that Ant is even further along now!]
Do you feel pressure at all to follow up on a Grammy-nominated project?
I feel like y’all messed up giving me a Grammy nomination on my first project out. I honestly feel, as far as pressure, no. I would love to say yes but I’ve waited and prepared for this my entire life. I literally have albums of music ready to go, so it’s like, what version of me am I willing to share with the audience? I want to grow my audience before I give them all the music that I have. Pressure is the fun part for me. I like looking at challenges like they’re adventures, kind of like Peter Pan. To die is the greatest adventure, it’s a crazy perspective, like, wow, death is terrifying. If you have the perspective of it being the greatest adventure it’s like, oh wow. I like shifting perspectives, so it’s a little challenging but it’s not anything I don’t think I’m not prepared for.
Over the years you’ve worked with a long list of extremely prolific artists; you’ve worked with Kanye West, Kirk Franklin, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and so many more. Do you ever feel starstruck being in rooms with some of music’s greatest?
Every time. I am not too cool for school. I literally wear my fandom on my sleeve, so if I walk in somewhere and I meet somebody I’ve been a fan of, they’ll know I’m a fan of them. I’m so excited all the time, I try not to lose the part of me that’s a fan because that’s the 7-year-old in me that was watching Madison Square Garden videos of *NSYNC performing, or me at 14-15 trying to figure out what clothes to wear, looking at Kanye for inspiration and confidence. To be in rooms with these men and having conversations with them and they know who I am is an insane feeling and I feel honored. I thank God every chance I get that this is even my reality. I always get starstruck, but I feel a sense of purpose in the rooms after that subsides a bit, cause I feel like God wanted me to be exactly where I am, he placed me at every chance, at every location he dropped me off to, so I just need to make sure I’m present for what God’s doing in the midst of his presence if you will.
With everything you’ve achieved in the last three years, what would you consider your biggest accomplishment at this point?
There have been so many. I think my biggest accomplishment was showing my sisters and my family that me quitting my job was the best decision I ever made and coming out to California and really betting on myself. I think that was the biggest accomplishment, I know it wasn’t a singular thing, it’s not like, “oh this Grammy award”, although I am very honored to have won my very first Grammy with Jesus Is King. I think that’s one of the amazing accomplishments I’ve been going for but the real win was when I decided what I wanted to do. Everything else after that one win has been feeling like wins. Even the losses feel like wins when I’m in the middle of living the best life I’ve always wanted to live. So I think the best accomplishment was absolutely deciding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and staying with it, talking to God but deciding what I wanted to do and sticking with it.
That’s a blessing, at what age did you figure everything out for yourself?
It happened gradually. In 2009 my parents got divorced, and as an outlet, I was able to write songs and just figure out I like telling stories. I like talking about things that are going on in the midst of my life and others. I try to connect with people with those stories, those are my favorite parts of the songs. Just thinking about the journey right now, I just feel so grateful, because if you would have told me 4 years ago working at Red Lobster, “hey, you’ll be sitting in an interview in a Zoom call with Alex with a Jesus is King shirt on, speaking about the album you worked on, which you got your first Grammy from...” Man, God is the greatest, like the greatest.
You’ve got me thinking about my own journey now. I appreciate that! Seeing everything you’ve accomplished in the last few years, it’s so inspiring. Let’s go back in time real quick. When you were four years old, I read that you were a Michael Jackson impersonator. Can we please talk about this?
Listen, these ages get crazier and crazier. At four years old, you’re not impersonating anybody. At four years old, you’re just loving what you like. Yes, I absolutely impersonated Michael Jackson as a kid, but I probably was like seven or eight. Even that is still super young, but at four I just knew I liked rhythm and I liked the music and I knew I didn’t understand how he was walking backward but I wanted to do that if I can remember back to being four.
There are a few lyrics I’d to unpack from your single “Story of My Life.” First off, it’s beautifully written. You really dug deep for this one.
“I’m a son, I’m a king, I’m a best friend.” Would you say those are your three main defining qualities as a person?
Absolutely. I strive to be Christ-like so to start the song describing me, I also wanted to do a linear between myself and God. I believe that Jesus is a king, Jesus is a son and Jesus is a best friend so if I could be Christ-like, I want to be a king, a son, and a best friend just like God. It definitely describes me but it also speaks to the relationship I have with the Lord.
A lot of people didn’t pick up on that. I'm pretty sure until this interview, they’ll be like, “wait, you’re talking about God?” Yeah, I’m talking about God the first three lines of this song. I was talking about God on “4 Letter Word,” I love talking about the Lord.
God is an inspiration for a lot of people, I’m not surprised to hear the Lord is an inspiration for you as well. Let’s talk about your parents— how much of an impact have they had on your life, especially as an artist?
Immense, an immense impact. My parents are my biggest supporters and my biggest inspirations. Growing up, we could do whatever we wanted to do as long as we believed and they never made us feel like any dream was too big at all so I owe all of this to my parents. The way their love story went, me sitting outside watching it from afar, I got a chance to learn what love was and what love wasn’t for my life and transcribe it in a song and work through it, writing music getting through their divorce and writing music and coping with different assets of their relationship with music. They were super proud and that’s what makes me happy, so as long as they’re happy, I’m happy.
How long did it take you to write a song this introspective that really goes through so many different events in your life?
I don’t want to sound arrogant, I was just furious that day in the studio. I had just came from a meeting with one of my boys, Justice, he was one of the catalysts for this song. As far as the inspiration, we had a conversation and he was like, “bro I love you, we all love you, but I don't think we know who you are. I think what we have here is a collection of cool songs but we don't know who you are. If you just dropped in the middle of nowhere and someone was like, who's Ant Clemons, what's the song that you’d play for them to understand who you were?” So I went into the studio right after that meeting pissed off. I was like, “Imma show him who I am.”
The words literally just flew, wanting to make sure that every listener, the first time they put on this song, when they left the song they knew a little bit more about who I was. That was the goal. I played it for him the next day and he was like, “Oh, you listened.” It was really cool to have the challenge to spark one of the songs that I love, but also to feel like, “wow I’ve actually done what I sought out to.” I wanted to bring the listener a little closer in, that’s what my favorite part about Drake is. He makes you feel like you’re in a room with him, having a conversation, he’s very linear and he doesn’t even say your name. So I want to make sure that when I’m attacking songs or when I’m presenting my stories that the listener doesn’t feel bombarded, but they’re not feeling offended, but they feel a part of whatever it is that we’re talking about and it’s a conversation as opposed to a monologue.
I love that. With this song, in particular, you say that your father asked you when you were gonna stop making music. When did that conversation happen? Was that before or after you won the Grammy?
That was right before I moved to California. I had a conversation with my dad in the car and it was all about perspective. It was one of those father-son talks that was like, “I don't know what you're going after cause I haven't been in these waters before so as a concerned parent, I’m asking when are you going to do the things that I did that made me feel secure. At least set up the life that I'm living and provided for y'all, when are you going to step into that?” It wasn't a space that I took it like, “when are you going to quit that little music thing, when are you going to decide not to go after your dreams and then settle for whatever your life is requiring,” and I just kind of had to let him know, there was no plan B, this was going to be it. If this wasn't going to happen, then who knows where my life would be, but I knew that I was putting my life in the hands of God and that I was going to be okay. So I was having a conversation with my dad and I understood his concerns but I was able to talk to him as an adult, as opposed to just being his son, but as a man and say, “hey trust me on this, I'm going to be all right.” After the conversation, he was like, “my fears are gone, the fears I had of my son leaving and not knowing what he wants to do, my fears are gone.” So although it may seem like a jab, it wasn't that at all. It was really just like a perspective check like, “what's going on? Is your head on straight?” and it's like I’m trusting God, my head hasn’t been on any straighter than this in my entire life.
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What was his reaction to you winning the Grammy?
Man, we all jumped from joy, screaming, losing our minds. I couldn’t believe that Jesus is King, the album that I worked on with one of my favorite artists of all time, is the one I’d get my very first Grammy for. You couldn’t write a better storybook ending to an amazing chapter of my life.
Back to “Story of my Life,” you say you “Wrote a song, got a hit off a mistake.” Which song was the mistake? Take me through that.
“All Mine." It wasn't a mistake, I think everything is ordained the way it's supposed to, but the way it was supposed to come out... Like, Jeremih was supposed to sing the song, so for Kanye to have left me on the record and for Jeremih to have left me on the song, like, “oh no bro, that's you, this is your song.” It's amazing that what looks like a mistake to us was just always a part of God's plan the entire time. It was one of those moments where I was able to write how I felt but then also what it really was, it wasn't a mistake at all.
Kanye gave you your big opportunity to break. How did you meet him and enter his world? Was that around the Ye era?
This was all during Ye. Jeremih got a call to go work with Ye. Me, my brother Bongo By The Way, and Jeremih, we’re like the three amigos. We were going everywhere together, working on songs, just trying to figure it out at the top of 2018. He gets a call from Kanye to come down to Wyoming, goes out there, plays him a song that would inevitably turn into "All Mine."
It was crazy. I got 3 FaceTime calls from Jeremih about me working on a song and Kanye liking a song, but I had no clue what was going on. I sent them the files and I didn’t really hear anything back, so then next Friday, I woke up and saw on The Shade Room that Kanye was dancing to my voice. I lost my mind and I realized at that moment I wasn’t going to have to be sleeping on the floor I’d been sleeping on anymore. I called my mom up and just told her how excited I was that I made it, I felt like my big break had happened and that everything was getting ready to change, but the song was out for about two weeks before I ever physically met Kanye.
"It was crazy. I got 3 FaceTime calls from Jeremih about me working on a song and Kanye liking a song, but I had no clue what was going on. I sent them the files and I didn’t really hear anything back, so then next Friday, I woke up and saw that Kanye was dancing to my voice."
My first time meeting Ye was in the studio working on Teyana Taylor's album and we were wrapping up the song "Hurry" and he just laid out his verse. Then he called me to the studio like, “yo, what you think about this?” Then I'm losing my mind that Kanye’s asking me what I think about him and it was a surreal moment. From there I got invited to Chicago. He was working on Chance’s album in September and that turned into Yandhi, which turned into a whole tour around the world, traveling to Africa, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, we were going everywhere and it was amazing.
Then we ended up in Miami and after we left Miami, I met Timbaland. I got a call at the top of January when I was in California and they're like, “Ye's working on just like a jam session, he wants a couple of people to come by. He has a choir, we really don't know what we're doing, we're just kind of repurposing some songs and he wants you to come by.” The next few weeks, every Sunday I was hanging out with Kanye in a jam session, which inevitably morphed into Sunday Service. Literally, I was just obedient with God as far as going to California and not knowing that I was going to meet any of these people and I felt like after my obedience all the blessings just kept coming.
I went to a few different Sunday Services. All of them were so unique and beautiful. It was such a nice experience for me to really just capture the energy that was in the room. What was it like being on the inside?
When Kanye speaks, it's hard for you not to believe him. One of our first conversations in person, he talked about doing something like a Sunday Service, where we would be on tour for a whole year and people would come in and out whenever they felt like they wanted to. So it was super cool to see his vision come into full fruition, but for me, it was the best training ground to hone my performance skills. I got the chance to perform next to one of my idols and I’m singing praises to Jesus-- you can’t ask for a better way to spend every Sunday. I would do that literally for free for the rest of my life, singing songs to God with Kanye West, and wait, you want to pay me for this? All of it is such a blessing, I can’t do anything else but be super appreciative and thankful that this is the life God allowed me to live.
At this point, you’ve done so much work with Kanye. You’ve worked with him on a few different albums, you’ve done Sunday Service... What’s your favorite memory with him?
That’s a cool one. On my birthday, the first year I met him in 2018, we were on our way to New York for SNL and he takes off his Yeezy basketball shoes, they were his prototypes and he gave me his prototypes for my birthday. I couldn’t believe it, I went from never being able to afford Yeezys to finally having a little bit of money. The only sneakers I bought were Yeezys to Kanye giving me the Yeezys that weren’t even out yet, they weren’t for another 2 years. That’s one of 100,000 great memories but that was one of the coolest ones that was like, “oh wow, this so cool, this is my life path."
That’s so cool! On top of it all, you've worked with another legend, Pharrell. How are you making these connections?
I’m not making any of these connections, I believe all of this is through God. Every single time, it’s never been, “Hey Christian, I wanna work with Kanye West,” and he’s like, “alright give me a second." Christian is my manager. It’s normally, “Hey Christian, I wanna do this,” and he’s like, “uh, no.” I’m joking, my manager is the best. He gets all the shit done. I’m only saying this cause he’s right here. But it’s all been ordained, God has been the focal point of a lot of these moves.
"I met Pharrell through G-Eazy. In a million years, you would never have told me that working with my brother G-Eazy would get me working with one of my favorite people in the world, Pharrell. I’m so thankful that G called me to the studio. He’s like, 'bro, I’m working with Pharrell in the Neptunes and I would love for you to come with me, I love working with you.'"
I met Pharrell through G-Eazy. In a million years, you would never have told me that working with my brother G-Eazy would get me working with one of my favorite people in the world, Pharrell. I’m so thankful that G called me to the studio. He’s like, “bro, I’m working with Pharrell in the Neptunes and I would love for you to come with me, I love working with you.” I’m like, “what?!” and I went out there with G and worked with P and I never left, I stayed with Pharrell for like an entire month in 2020, I think it was the end of January, all of February, just out there working on music. It was the coolest time in the world, cause we instantly clicked and we probably got 40 songs done or something like that.
Wow! I’m excited to hear some of these!
How often do you practice prayer and manifestation? Do you speak to God every day?
Well, I love the phrasing “practice prayer,” but I believe prayer is a conversation. I talk to God every day, daily, I feel like I talk to God more than myself. It’s a conscious decision to do daily, I try to set the morning aside for the Lord, I don’t open social media, I don’t really open anything until I’ve talked to God or had my moment with the Lord. Then I usually go box, do some type of workout, hike, and then it’s meditation time. I like to give myself 5-10 minutes of just nothingness where I try to listen, because, at least my idea is, if I’m having a conversation with you, I want you to talk back, so I wanna give you room to listen to the things that I’m asking for.
A lot of times I feel like a lot of people just talk to God, put in their demands, and then just keep going about their day, and if you don’t have room to receive the things you’re asking for, then you might not even know if you’re asking for the right things. It’s very imperative the time I spend with the Lord and I make sure I do that every day. I’m not perfect, there are days where that doesn’t happen, but any day where I feel like I’m not spending it with God is a day where I feel like I cheated because every day is a blessing. As soon as we forget that, we get arrogant and we feel entitled. One of my close friends just lost their cousin, none of this shit is promised. So I’m very appreciative of every opportunity, every blessing I get to give glory to God.
What would you say is left to accomplish in the story of your life?
I feel like there’s a whole bunch of things I really want to do, but I feel like I’m in constant search of my purpose, once I have an idea of what my purpose is, which I kind of do. I feel like it’s just to get on any platform and every palace I can and just talk about how great God is, but if I can be remembered for passing a good message of what God's done, then I feel like my purpose has been fulfilled.
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You said it took fifteen minutes to write "Story of My Life." What’s your process when you're writing songs? Do you sit down and jam with instruments? Are you fine-tuning melodies? Are you writing everything down or freestyling?
Every song is different, I used to write a lot of the songs on my phone, I used to just sit and write write write, then I used to get up and try to do the melody first and lay down ideas and try to master things. My thing now is, I’ve gotten to a point where it’s like shooting a jump shot. Once you got the fundamentals of who, what, where, when, and why; that’s me loading up the jump shot. My follow-through, for me, is the why, so you loaded up the who, what, where, and when; shoot that shot, the why of whatever you’re talking about, is that finger point, make sure the ball goes through that hoop. As long as you get that jump shot, you can get to a point where time doesn’t even matter, you just pop in the things that you need for the story and you can just get to that why faster and you get right to that shot every single time. So it’s like, now I’m in this space where it’s more of a freestyle because I know what I want to say, I might not know what I want to say, but I know what I want to feel. I want the feel to come across, I’m really more about the feeling of music than the punctuality of music, but I’m very careful of the words and the space I use in the music. I feel like a conversation in music is lyrics and melody, and if you have too much lyric or too much melody, it’s just a lot of noise. Charles Darwin actually said that music is the space in between the notes. Justin Timberlake told me that and I’ll literally never forget it. So if you don’t have space in between the notes, you just have noise. That was the Ant Clemons adaptation today. I feel like I love music that is space in between the noise, so I like to leave spaces in between the notes and the phases and the words, so you’re able to understand what I’m trying to deliver.
"Charles Darwin actually said that music is the space in between the notes. Justin Timberlake told me that and I’ll literally never forget it. So if you don’t have space in between the notes, you just have noise. That was the Ant Clemons adaptation today. I feel like I love music that is space in between the noise"
Do you find that there is a time of the day where you generally write best?
It’s interesting studying Michael Jackson because he’s one of my biggest inspirations. He talks about the alpha state a lot, being around people like Quincy Jones, they talk about the alpha state a lot. From dawn to dusk is when the alpha is most creative. I feel like I’m most creative 24 hours out of the day, I can find inspiration in anything but, around your alpha state mind, that’s either dawn or dusk. Normally, a lot of creatives are super zoned in when the sun is going up or the sun is getting ready to go down, for me, it’s when the inspiration strikes.
How do you keep your work-life balance? Through our conversation, I can tell you’re very self-aware. You think a lot. How do you keep from getting overwhelmed or stressed out?
Honestly, time management is something I've struggled with the majority of my life before I ever decided what I wanted to do as far as music. So when I became available to what I felt like my calling was, it just amplified what I needed to work on even more. Time management of course was a portion of it. It’s not been an easy ride, I can easily call my manager over here, he can attest that time management is not my strong suit, but I feel like when I’m in a location I want to give the best version of me at all times so I try to be as present as I possibly can be, wherever I’m at. I love to work, so work for me is never work. I can go days, like 3 or 4 days, being up and at it, with a couple of hours of naps in between, just because I’m so excited that I want to get this thing out of my head. I don’t think it’s the best way so I’ve recently been practicing rest and that’s been giving me such a great clear-minded space to create in. The world is moving constantly, life is moving constantly and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon, but we can slow ourselves down by deciding what we allow to affect us. There are things that come and go all the time, there are things that you have no control over, but you do have control over how you feel and how you react to things you don’t have control over.
What's next for you? What should your fans be excited about? You said you were 80% done with the project?
Ok I lied... I’m like 90% done. This thing is done-done, we are at the finish line y’all, if there are any Ant Clemons fans reading this, checking this out on HotNewHipHop, just know it’s coming. It’s on the way.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you want to go over?
Honestly, I hate to be cliché again but I’m really happy to be here, dog. This is like the coolest shit for me, this is so cool. Thank you for taking the time out to even ask me any questions about my life, I think this is so cool.
I appreciate you, man. Thank you for taking the time!
Thank you, have a blessed one.