Meet Clerel, the Montrealer who went from a chemistry degree to performing on Stephen Colbert's The Late Show
The Cameroon-born musician's influences range from Stax Records soul to legends Manu Dibango and Francis Bebey
When Clerel was in university nearly a decade ago, he never thought music would become his life. The Cameroon-born, Montreal-based songwriter was a pre-med chemistry major at a liberal arts college in Ohio and, at the time, playing guitar was his escape.
"I sang and I played in my room after I got back from a long afternoon of labs, you know; failed experiments. So it was really more of a little mental health thing."
But a fateful spring break trip to Memphis in 2012 — part volunteer work, part education — led him to Stax Records, where he learned about the music and lives of soul legends Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Irma Thomas.
"I'd heard obviously about some of that music before," explained Clerel, who spent a bit of time in Montreal as a young child but mostly grew up in Douala, Cameroon, before moving to the States after high school with his family. "You can't really escape it. But there was something about being in the place that just made it real for me in a way that it hadn't been before."
Eight years later, Clerel would play his acoustic guitar for a virtual performance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. But in those early days, it was his therapy.
A childhood of singing, not playing
Music was ever-present in Clerel's home growing up, and as a kid of the early '90s he remembers hearing Michael Jackson and Bryan Adams often, along with formative Cameroonian musicians Manu Dibango, Richard Bona and Francis Bebey. While he didn't learn to play an instrument until his roommate taught him some guitar chords in college, Clerel's first memories of singing are of his grandmother.
"She was absolutely the reason I started singing," said Clerel. "Because when I was a kid, when I went back to Cameroon, we were staying with her and we'd have this little ritual, she and I, where she had this big book of French nursery rhymes that she knew and she would just teach them to me every night, you know? And so that kind of really was our little thing."
But while music was important to him, it didn't seem like a path. "My parents are both engineers," explained Clerel. "And so education in terms of the sciences was always extremely important to them. And growing up, that was really what I was brought up to look forward to and to work at."
I figured, you know what, it can't just be me and my plants, I have to go out and do something, you know? I have to try.- Clerel, on performing at an open mic for the first time
Following in a good family friend's footsteps, Clerel enrolled in a chemistry degree to potentially become a doctor. But once he learned to play the guitar, and visited Memphis, music's pull became greater. When Clerel moved to Montreal in 2013 post-graduation for a job in his field, science and music became a "day/night kind of thing" for him, and eventually he decided to give open mics a try to see if he could carry the music onstage.
"I figured, you know what, it can't just be me and my plants, I have to go out and do something, you know? I have to try," he remembered, laughing. Armed with "Billie Jean" and "Heard it Through the Grapevine," Clerel's first go at open mics introduced him to a whole new community of people, and he quickly turned into a musician for hire. Soon, music wasn't just for weeknights; it spilled into weekends, and then took over entirely.
'It's something that we can all connect to'
Performing great covers doesn't necessarily translate to writing great music, but Clerel has a knack for both words and mood. His honeyed, Sam Cooke-adjacent voice carries a melody easily, and his songs, originally built on acoustic guitar (his "workhorse as far as songwriting" goes), have beautiful flourishes and fills, be it harmonies or backup vocals, finger-snaps or whistling, or various other percussion instruments and guitars. The Stax influence is clear, particularly in the back half of his debut single, "Blackstone," which also captivated Stephen Colbert's audience when the late-night host featured Clerel on the pandemic-inspired series Late Night #PlayatHome in October 2020.
"Honestly, I mean, there isn't really like a Eureka moment," said Clerel, of his transition to songwriting. "It was just like, eventually, the idea sucked a little less, you know? And that's what it is."
It's definitely an understatement, as far as his songs go, but Clerel's humility and authenticity are part of his music's appeal. The way he deals with heartbreak on his debut EP, 2019's Songs From Under a Guava Tree ("Time will help us underline the happy chapters/ now I can't help but see the lie in you ever after," he sings on "Blackstone," with a deceptively upbeat note) and affirms love on 2020's "Talking About Love" ("This life will make you feel so small/ at a loss as to the point of it all/ but love will always clear the way through/ when you put some in everything you do"), it's impossible not to believe in a bright future. And on things sucking a little less.
"And I guess that's really what soul is about, right?" he asked. "It's something that we can all connect to."
Watch Clerel debut his unreleased song, "Twin Flames," below, and look out for new music from him in the near future.