If destiny didn’t bring Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers together, AmericanaFest indeed did. The two singer-songwriters took different routes to establish their roots as solo artists and achieved a modicum of success. But when Jackson watched Sellers perform at the Mercy Lounge during a 2019 AmericanaFest showcase in Nashville where she also played, there might as well have been visions of plus signs dancing in her head.
As in 1 + 1 can equal one fabulously fine duo. After doing the math, it only figured that Jackson+Sellers would finally emerge in 2021. Also on the verge of breaking out is Breaking Point, their foot-stomping, kick-ass debut album that’s one of my favorites of the year and was released to the world today (22 October). With songwriting talent, similar musical tastes, and warm, golden pipes to offer, Jackson and Sellers recorded ten songs for the album during the pandemic. The majority of them deserve the heavyweight medal of honor and were played in front of a spirited crowd on 23 September during Jackson+Sellers’ official AmericanaFest 2021 showcase at Cannery Ballroom. One of their first performances together was also one of my top five showcases of the festival.
“It was cool,” Jackson reports during a 45-minute sit-down interview for PopMatters as she and Sellers shared a booth at Falcon Coffee Bar in Nashville about 13 and a half hours after their set ended. “I really like playing with her, honestly. I’m very introverted. So getting to share the stage with someone else is really a joy for me.”
Enjoying an early afternoon in a comfortable setting and feeling good about the outcome of their showcase, both were relaxed, pleasant, and humble. With a second extended performance under their belts after playing the Foothills Festival in Jasper, Alabama, on 10 September, the pair could breathe a collective sigh of relief. The only visible hiccup during a 45-minute, 12-song set that featured all ten Breaking Point tracks — including a cover of Suzi Quatro’s hit “The Wild One” — was when each of them lost a piece of jewelry. Sellers was quick to announce in revelry, “We just rocked our earrings off.”
They had some help in that regard, receiving full support from a three-piece backing band of garage-rocking guys who shined behind the electric guitar artistry of Ethan Ballinger on explosive numbers from the new album like “The World Is Black”, “Waste Your Time” and “Wound Up”.
“Just going back to performing together onstage vs. when you go out there on your own, I feel like a lot less pressure going on stage with her,” reiterates Jackson, who cried out in jest for Sellers’ return to the mic the previous night while she took a brief solo turn. “We’re both really sensitive people, and we both suffer from anxiety, so sometimes anxiety can be crippling, paralyzing, and you feel like you can’t move. So knowing that if I get up there and I feel like I can’t move.”
“I can take over,” blurts Sellers, delivering the wisecrack with a laugh like a sidekick in a well-rehearsed comedy act.
Without missing a beat, Jackson completes her serious thought: “… I can go to somebody who has your back. And having somebody else’s back is a completely different animal.”
Before heading to the Wash at Eastside Bowl for a short gig as a true twosome in a lineup with other artists, subjects touched on during this lively conversation included their varied upbringing and why two heads are often better than one when trying to get ahead in the music business. Jackson and Sellers concluded the interview for the final article in this series by playing a Two for the (Game) Show Edition of Americana-Fast.
On the Plus Side
As a way to introduce Jackson+Sellers before getting to know them better, here’s the duo’s take on why a symbol belongs between their names:
Sellers: Jackson Sellers without a plus sign looks like a boy’s name. (laughs)
Jackson: Or a winery.
Sellers: But I like the way it looks. I think it’s cool, instead of coming up with a different name. One of the things we have in common, the reason why we like each other’s music so much, is because it’s singular. Jade writes by herself. She was kind of, in a way, isolated from the music industry, living in the place that she lived. And I did things differently than a lot of the people I was around here. Just having our names like that is like two singular artists coming together.
Jackson: Yeah, making something new.
Conducting a phone interview with Jade Jackson ahead of the May 2017 release of Gilded, her full-length album debut for ANTI- Records, I found her to be refreshing, candid, and surprisingly loquacious. Especially considering she was once a “painfully shy” child who grew up in a small Central California town (Santa Margarita) while waitressing for 17 years in her family’s restaurant. “I worked there full time during the pandemic and saved up enough to get my butt out here [to Nashville],” Jackson offers while Sellers laughs.
Besides the duo project, the major change in her career since then has been that recent move to the Music City, where Sellers has lived most of her life. Completing a cross-country drive from California, it took two tries to find a place to reside after the first one “was misrepresented online”, a dismayed Jackson states. The Nashville newcomer also found a waitressing job at a New Asian cuisine restaurant named Sunda, in a popular, active community south of downtown known as the Gulch. Her first day at work was less than a week before this interview.
Now 29, Jackson feels like there’s a lot more to learn about the music industry but believes she can celebrate more independence after pulling the trigger to move out of state. When one shift at Sunda was done, “I left work at work,” she proclaims. “I didn’t go home and have my mom call me about work. And I wrote a song. It allows me to be more creative,” leading Sellers to scream “Yay! More music!” while applauding her approval.
Having also recorded a second solo record (2019’s Wilderness) in a three-album contract with ANTI- while Social Distortion’s Mike Ness served as her producer and musical guru, Jackson works to improve her skills and confidence. “Every time I would leave AmericanaFest [performing most years since her record deal], I would lock myself in my room and practice guitar because I realized how shitty I was compared to others,” confides Jackson, who played acoustic during the showcase but plans to add electric to her repertoire.
“You know, Santa Margarita is 1,100 people,” she adds. “So, of course, I was in my town’s eyes a great musician. And then I come out here, and I’m like, ‘Ha-ha, I suck! I better go home and practice.’… We’re hard on ourselves, but I should be way better at guitar. (Sellers disagrees, saying Jackson’s a great player, before her partner proceeds.)
“So it’s just like, ‘Ugh! Go practice!’ It’s a good inspiration because I feel like a very little fish in a huge pond. I might have felt like a big fish in a small pond, and that can cause stagnation and [you] just ride on your laurels.”
Her record contract probably didn’t help matters, she discloses. “Having that deal, I froze up,” Jackson contends. “I didn’t understand the business. I didn’t grow up in it, and I thought I had to do everything in a certain way or I could lose this opportunity. So my voice got really small, and I was much more like a student, and I didn’t enforce any of my creativity. Working with Mike Ness in the studio, I kind of just sat there and let him — he would suggest something — and if my heart said no, I would just nod my head.”
Gaining additional experience and knowledge, Jackson hopes to voice her opinions more often in the studio while looking forward to making her last record for ANTI- and Ness, one which was pushed back from August to possibly next April. “I feel like it’s gonna be so much more fun because it’s not that Mike or ANTI- or anybody made me feel that way,” she expresses. “I did that to myself. You don’t know until you know that you can do certain things. Until you learn certain lessons, you don’t know that the world can work that way. I didn’t know that I could record something and have fun and give these wild, weird suggestions and have them take hold and have it become something beautiful. I didn’t know that was a possibility. And I know that now.”
Jumping in immediately, Sellers adds, “I think there’s a bigger lesson. It’s not just for musicians. It’s for anyone that when you’re surrounded by people who are supposed experts in your field, you can easily feel like, ‘Oh, I need to listen to what they’ve done because they’re successful.’ But you have to listen to what you want and who you are as a person.”
The daughter of popular country music singer-songwriter Lee Ann Womack and country and bluegrass artist Jason Sellers, who played bass and toured for various bands while also developing as a songwriter, Aubrie Sellers grew up surrounded by the business.
“It wasn’t so much [my parents] were training me to be in the music industry or anything as much as I was observing it,” points out Sellers, whose stepfather is record producer Frank Liddell. “So I have a lot of influences from bluegrass to country. And traditional country is what my mom loves. I love George Jones and all that stuff. And then I had my rebellious teenager days, and when I listened to rock, I was like, ‘This is my life!’ (laughs) So everything’s a combination of that, and I also love Robert Johnson and old blues music. I think all that music has an emotional depth, not necessarily sadness but just a realness to it that I really connected with.
“I didn’t start [songwriting professionally] until I was like 21 because I knew music was going to be a part of my life. I just didn’t know how. There’s a lot of pressure, probably internally, to live up to my three successful parents. So I was a little scared.”
Now 30, Sellers also has released two full-length solo albums (2016’s New City Blues; 2020’s Far From Home, which includes “My Love Will Not Change”, a potent romp that featured Steve Earle). She gained some “Song of the Year” attention in 2020 with that one while earning the first two Americana Music Award nominations of her career.
Unfortunately, since the pandemic throttled the world of music, there was no Ryman Auditorium ceremony to attend or no rubbing-elbows-with-legends moments to remember. At least she can laugh about it today. “I didn’t win [in either category], but I would have liked to have gone just to hear your name,” exclaims the outgoing Sellers, who was among the nominees edged by Black Pumas for Emerging Act of the Year and the Highwomen’s “Crowded Table” for Song of the Year.
Though that non-event turned out to be a disappointment, Sellers still appreciates being associated with an Americana genre she considers to be “such a big umbrella. It’s kind of a catch-all for people that don’t belong in a box.”
With the pandemic an impetus for her return to Nashville after three years in Los Angeles, Sellers — stating “I don’t think I’m going back” — is ready to take a break. A Jackson+Sellers tour supporting Tanya Tucker got canceled as the 63-year-old country star cited on social media her “increasing concerns” with the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and her recovery from July surgery on a fractured hip that’s “healing slowly but surely.”
So some rest for Sellers following the 24 October album release livestream and their 26 October appearance at the Ryman opening for Kevin Costner and Modern West seems to make sense. Breaking Point is her third record since February 2020 if the three-song EP World on Fire, she put out that August is included. This May, she collaborated on Texan native Ryan Culwell’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole”. And if that’s not enough, there’s her ongoing role in keeping Jackson abreast of all things Nashville.
“I feel like she really stands her own ground and has paved her own way,” Jackson says of her new studio and stage partner. “First of all, she’s so humble. And second of all, she’s just her own person, her own force. She’s teaching me a lot, having grown up with a musical background and me just having dreams about it. Explaining things, like things that I have imagined. She’s like, ‘Well, actually, here’s my experience,’ and I feel like I’m learning a lot from her.”