“I focus, keep going, keep pushing, keep creating, because that’s my main thing. Everything else is all bonus points.”
Growing up, Justin Clancy just wanted to be understood.
Now, the 28-year-old singer says he is putting out music in hopes of giving other people the kind of support that he once needed.
Originally from Peabody, Clancy had a tumultuous last few years, including the death of his father in 2018 and a relocation to Los Angeles that left him feeling like he was “falling apart.” He returned to the North Shore and released his second EP, Broken Parts, last year. Following two shows in Cambridge this week, he will take off for a tour of the US and Canada.
As a kid, Clancy’s father let him pick out albums he wanted from the music catalogs and, because he had no background knowledge, he selected CDs with the coolest art. That’s how he began appreciating artists such as Busta Rhymes, N.W.A., Ben Folds, and Rage Against the Machine—all of whom would later serve as his intro to songwriting, which he has used as therapy for years.
“I had a hard time confiding in people and talking to people,” Clancy said in a recent interview. “A lot of that just translated to me writing down my feelings, and venting and journaling and things like that.”
When Clancy first began putting out music, his friends and family didn’t always take him seriously as a creative.
“When I started out, it was really hard to get people to rally around me because they just thought it was like this silly little hobby of mine,” he recalled. “I can remember as far back as being a kid, bringing my mixtapes to school, and a lot of the other kids would make fun of me or bully me for it, or they’d take my CDs and they’d throw them in the trash.”
Nevertheless, Clancy kept writing and recording, even through a heroin addiction that he jokingly admits was not “conducive” to being a good musician. These days, he recognizes that music saved his life.
“I feel like if I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t still be in recovery,” Clancy said. “I’m lucky and I’m blessed enough to where I have that thing that I cling on to for dear life—it holds me accountable. I know that I won’t be able to do the things that I need to, creatively, or performatively if I go in, get high, or drink, or … start to party.”
Though Clancy has been clean for nearly a decade, he doesn’t want to be labeled as a person in recovery who makes music. He is an artist who just happens to be in recovery, and his experience with addiction is separate from his art.
“It’s not necessarily something that I want to use as like, a way to rope [people] in, because I feel like it’s kind of a low-hanging fruit,” Clancy said. “I don’t want to be just that—I feel like the art that I make should speak for itself.”
Behind Clancy’s fiery motivation to chase his dreams is the support he’s received from his family and friends, including some people who have passed.
“I can’t for one second not chase my dream, because when I’m not, then everybody that’s believing in me, you know, what would they say?” Clancy said. “What would they think if I stopped? What would they think if I didn’t try as hard as I possibly could? You know, all of my people that aren’t with me anymore—all my loved ones that died. I’ve dealt with a lot of loss in my life … a lot of loss. I’m a firm believer that they’re rooting for me.”
Despite racking up various accolades including Boston Music Awards nominations and having fans tattoo his lyrics on their bodies, Clancy still struggles with imposter syndrome.
“My friends think it’s hilarious,” he said. “I’ll do shows and I won’t think anybody’s going to show up. I don’t think too deep into it—I just focus on the goal. You know, I focus on, keep going, keep pushing, keep creating, because that’s my main thing. Everything else is all bonus points.”
For Clancy, the safest space he can be in is on stage; he thrives off his connection with the audience. He describes it as an “energy exchange,” where he feeds the crowd and they energize him in return as well.
“I have complete control over the situation and how it goes and how it sounds and how I’m received,” Clancy said. “I feel the energy from all the people in the room and they’re excited, and they’re having a good time. … They give me that and I give them mine and I feel safe. Because in that moment, I know I’m okay.”
Clancy’s producer, 35-year-old Brian “Nox” Eisner, has witnessed Clancy’s musical growth. The two have worked together for nearly a decade.
“Life can mold you—it shapes who you are in music, you know. If you go through a lot of traumatic experiences, it molds your whole entire creative process,” Eisner said. “With Justin, he’s gone through so many experiences and losses—that has molded a brand new sound out of him.”
Clancy and Eisner support each other both professionally and personally—Clancy was at Eisner’s wedding, while Eisner was at Clancy’s father’s funeral. The experience has forged a unique and valuable bond.
“We were just there for each other during the biggest moments of our life,” Eisner said. “Justin has been someone that I’ve even been able to call on, whenever I’m going through anxiety or problems in my life, I can always rely on him, to text him and talk to him about these issues.”
The feeling is mutual.
“The only thing that I can really say is [when] you find something that you love … you hold on to it tight,” Clancy said. “You’ll start to see, like, the twinkle in the eyes of your peers start to wither away. You’ll start to see the dreams die … the child [in] them will just evaporate.
“That’s like, the saddest shit. You can’t let that happen. You got to always wake up and approach life as if you still were five years old in some aspects. And be ready to learn and be ready to love.”
Justin Clancy performs in Cambridge on Feb. 24 and 25 before leaving for his tour