Rob Clearfield grew up steeped in music. His mother is a professional musician—church music director and music teacher—and so the idea of making a living with one’s instrument was always second nature in the Clearfield household. By the time he was three years old, Clearfield knew Paul Simon’s Graceland backwards and forwards. By five, he’d started taking piano lessons, spurred in part by a competitive streak against his piano-playing older sister. But if he had to identify the moment he became a musician—if something like that can ever be identified—it was age 13, when a broken-down, nylon-string guitar materialized at his house.
The odd instrument had been discovered in a neighbor’s attic and given to his mother (“People were always unloading instruments onto her…”), and when Clearfield got his hands on it, it immediately re-unlocked his childhood fascination with music. He began teaching himself how to play the guitar, which led to an increased interest in the piano, a renewed dedication to his private lessons, and his first paying gig at age 14: accompanying the gospel choir at the church where his mother worked. “I really fell in love with gospel music,” he says, citing this gig as a particularly foundational one. “Both the music of it, but also the big picture—how everyone involved is really serving the whole, and even a soloist is in the service of the collective experience.”
As Clearfield grew into adulthood, the pattern continued: an education built on formative gigs. He studied privately with Jim Trompeter at Roosevelt University from 2003-2005, during his days as an undergraduate jazz studies major, but chose to leave college when he realized that he was attending school to “grow as a musician and be able to work,” but that he was already working as a musician, which was in turn “facilitating a lot of growth itself.” The switch from working musician/college student to working musician, period, was facilitated by the narrative he’d been handed from birth: “There was never really a question about whether I would go for a life in music or not, and I never really entertained the idea of ‘not making it.’ When I say making it, I don’t mean fame or fortune, but that I’d seen throughout my life how it was possible to support oneself in music—and I knew I could do that.”
After leaving Roosevelt, Clearfield received a call from guitarist Fareed Haque, who asked him to play a weekend of gigs in Colorado. It was Clearfield’s first experience on the road, and marked a new step in his career: playing regularly and collaboratively with someone on a high professional and artistic level. Back from Colorado, he increased his presence on the Chicago scene, playing original music, church gigs, jazz standards, wedding bands, and everything in between.
From 2004-2011, his band Information Superhighway played Clearfield’s original compositions and released two albums; he also continued to play with the Fareed Haque group, talked his way onto Grazyna Auguscik’s band and began to tour internationally with her, played with an impressive roster of Chicago’s finest musicians (a quick partial list: Matt Ulery, Marquis Hill, Makaya McCraven, Greg Ward, Howard Levy, Patricia Barber, Chris Siebold, Melvin Butler, Ernest Dawkins); played with prog-rock band District 97 from 2006 to 2015, which involved collaborations with John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia); and was a founding member of the R&B/soul group Hood Smoke as well as the folk/rock group Outertown (to this day, he continues to work with both groups).
But it’s not just the impressive gigs that Clearfield credits for helping him develop his musical identity. It’s every gig. “There are very few artists who get to support themselves doing their own work on their own terms. In the face of that reality, I feel like my craft is better when I’m in the music game all the time, even if the game is sometimes ridiculous or hilarious,” he says. “(Almost) every situation has something to teach you. It’s important to be able to function in different situations, and to be influenced by varied things, even if you’re going for something very specific.” A brief history of these “different situations” includes but is not limited to: an 8th grade graduation where parents were arrested, a gig playing jazz standards at an open-casket wake, a gig in a Walgreens pharmacy (“The only place where there was enough room for the drum set was in the cosmetics aisle”), and a corporate holiday party where the table ornaments were accidentally set on fire.
During his decade-plus on the scene, Clearfield has developed a reputation for lyrical, emotive compositions that contain the kernel of an oxymoron: a sound that is somehow both sad and redemptively positive. For inspiration, he turns to gospel music, Brahms, blues, Radiohead (especially Johnny Greenwood!), and modern jazz artists like Kneebody, Marilyn Crispell, Ben Monder, and Kurt Rosenwinkel—but also to other art forms, like the films of Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski, work that embodies the sad/redemptive dichotomy he loves.
In addition to performing and composing, Clearfield has received grants to compose for churches (Grace Commons), stage productions (Purdue North Central University), and film (The Lost Remake of Beau-Geste). These days, Clearfield is focused on a new solo piano record, coming in Fall 2017.