From Punk Fan to Rising Star: Jade Jackson Delivers Formidable Country Rock
California country-rocker Jade Jackson tells PopMatters her story and talks about her debut album, Gilded, which was produced by Social Distortion's Mike Ness.
Singer-songwriter Jade Jackson remembers the moment that made a life-changing impact on her and paved the way for her musical future. When she was 13, Jackson attended a Social Distortion concert, the first time she ever went a show by herself. At the time, her family moved to the small town of Santa Margarita in California because her parents were launching a new restaurant there. By Jackson's account, she didn't know anybody and had no friends in her new surroundings.
"I just remember the crowd was so crazy ... it was so wild," recalls Jackson of that show. "Once [Social Distortion singer and founder] Mike [Ness] walked onto the stage, everyone just stopped and turned and looked up at him. I was in the back, and he was just fascinating his presence. [I thought] I want to be confident and maybe one day I can do what he's doing too. He really inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place."
Years later, Jackson would get to meet and work with her hero Ness on Gilded, her debut album for the ANTI- label. An arresting country-rock record with hard-bitten lyrics of heartbreak and yearning, Gilded, which was produced by Ness, sounds more like the work of an established veteran artist than a twenty-something ingenue. In the period leading up to Gilded's release, Jackson and her music have been generating buzz, including a mention in Rolling Stone as one 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know.
"It feels unreal," Jackson says of the recent attention that she's been getting. "Everyone keeps asking me, 'Aren't you so excited?' And I'm like, 'Of course!' It just seems like it's too good to be true." She adds that Gilded was completed over a year ago, but it was decided to hold off releasing the record until now. "So I went a year without really doing anything," she explains. "I've been in this waiting period for so long, and now all of a sudden, all these interviews and stuff are happening. It doesn't feel real. I feel so blessed, and it's amazing. I'm really grateful to people for wanting to talk about the album."
Jackson's sound on Gilded is rooted in country music with a punk edge, which is not that surprising since the music she was exposed to growing up included such artists as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Smiths, and the Cure. Whether Gilded's music takes the form of uptempo tunes or reflective ballads, the lyrics are from the perspective of the outsider or outcast ruminating about life's heartaches and the need to move and find an escape. Songs like "Bridges", "Back When", and the album's title track are unsentimental and bittersweet, further heightened by Jackson's soulful and husky voice.
"Most often I will put myself in somebody else's shoes and use my imagination to create their story," Jackson says of her songwriting process. "That's how I do most of my writing." But once in a while, she adds, is "a personal thing or some story that I want to tell that is actually true, something that I've experienced."
One of those few personal songs inspired by Jackson's real life is "Finish Line," with its sobering lyric in the choruses: "Waking up for the first time/Is when you don’t stop running at the finish line." "In a nutshell, I got my feelings hurt pretty badly," she says, "where you just don't want to eat, and you just want to curl up. For me, whenever I get that, I just reach for my guitar like it's a medicine, and I did. I wrote that song in less than 20 minutes. It just poured out of me. It was something inside of me that I wanted to say. That happens to me sometimes, with "Finish Line" in particular and the song "Gilded." I just took my pencil and wrote this stuff from a stream of consciousness or something."
On the other hand, the album's catchy yet edgy opening track "Aden" was a product of Jackson's imagination. "I heard the name Aden, and I thought it was a cool name. That one is just a story. I think I was smoking cigarettes [American Spirit] at the time, so that part's true. When I wrote that song I was in college, and there was a boy in one of my classes named Aden, so when I perform the song, everyone's like, 'Oh, so you wrote that about Aden?' I was like, 'Hmm, maybe I did, maybe I didn't.' It was just a song."
While a somber and melancholy tone pervades on several of Gilded's songs, the spunky and feisty "Motorcycle" offers a moment of strength and rebellion ("I gotta move /Like the waters in the river ... Boy, it's been fun/But my motorcycle only seats one" ). "That's one of the songs I wrote to feel empowered," Jackson says. "Everyone wants to feel strong, but the reality is there are these valleys and hills and all these twists and turns with life. Sometimes you need to feel strong, and you look around, and there's nobody around to affirm that. My brother and a lot of people I know have these friends, these social groups of people where they can talk about these things. But I was always such a lone wolf... so it made me feel very anti-social. My coping mechanism was writing about it, and "Motorcycle" helped me feel strong when I needed to feel strong."
As a producer on Gilded, Ness brought a lot to the table, according to Jackson, in terms of helping to select and shape the songs and the performances. "He's this really respected musician that's been in the industry for years and took an interest in believing in my songs and making other people believe in them," she says. So I'll always thank him for that. He believed in my songs, and for me, that was the biggest compliment and affirmation ever.
"He said, 'Send me some songs,'" she continues. "I think I sent to him a demo of 40 songs. He helped hand select the ones that he felt best fit the album. Once we had the songs we wanted to do, he had me write the lyrics and chord changes. When we went into the studio, the template we used was Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, something really raw and straightforward. Me having no experience, I kind of just trusted him ... and was really happy what we made."
To say Jackson is a prolific songwriter is somewhat of an understatement. For her, writing songs has been ingrained in her since youth. During high school, she had over 300 songs under her belt, and she further honed her performing chops by playing at a Santa Margarita cafe every Sunday. Her passion for music (she played the piano when she was in the first grade) was due to her parents' musical tastes that collectively included country and alternative rock. It was also born out of necessity since Jackson and her siblings were somewhat living off the grid.
"My mom and dad wanted to raise us without TV or internet, microwave, or [other] technologies," she says. "It wasn't like we lived in the middle of nowhere with no contact with humanity. My entertainment was my dad's record collection or the piano or play outside than my other friends whose parents would plop them in front of a screen. I kind of felt like an outcast at times, but I appreciate it now because it definitely got me addicted to music."
How Jackson ended up working with Ness since that moment, she saw him at the Social Distortion show is an example of truth being stranger than fiction. Reportedly, as Jackson was performing locally while still in college, Ness' wife (who attended the same high school with Jackson's mother) noticed her at a show. She brought Jackson's music to the attention of her musician husband, who then offered to work with the young singer.
"I've been performing locally before Mike contacted me," Because of that, [being in a small town], his wife heard of me, and she did go to high school with my mom. I never met Mike. It was really an insane thing when he called me and was like, 'This is Mike Ness.' It was just weird. It was crazy!"
Now it has gone full circle for Jackson, as she had been the opening act for Social Distortion on their tour. "If you go back to when I was 13 and watching him onstage and wanting to be onstage ... if you would've asked me, 'Hey, you're gonna open for them on tour in 13 years,' I probably would've have freaked out. The cool thing is I've put that intention out there towards this specific goal, and the universe just gave it back to me. I'm so happy and glad that I dreamed that big."
If her prolific songwriting during her teen years was any indication, Jackson is poised to have more music to offer in the future. "I write so much," she says. "Hopefully we'll have another album out and still be touring and traveling and performing and perfecting. Hopefully, I'll be doing the same thing but better at it and have some more material out there. I'm ready."