In most musical careers, the debut album tends to lay bare the soul of the artist as she introduces herself to the world, its songs created from a real life still pure and unencumbered by any spotlight or harsh exposure. Jade Jackson, however, has chosen to flip that notion on its head, and with her second full-length, Wilderness, she casts a light more focused on her own life than ever before—due in part to an inspiration from finally coming to terms with a traumatic event in her own journey.
Her first album, 2017’s Gilded, was a masterful, critically acclaimed introduction to her strong soulful stylings as told through the eyes of characters and storytelling, with Jackson keeping any hyper-personal glimpses at arm’s length. But for its follow-up, the singer-songwriter from the Central Coast of California decided to embrace the concept of “writing what you know” and build her songs from an autobiographical perspective. And while the subject matter of Wilderness isn’t necessarily directly drawn from it, Jackson found that revisiting some of the darkness surrounding an accident she experienced in 2012 and its aftermath helped open the door to further self-reflection.
Two days after her 20th birthday, while a first-semester student at CalArts college in Santa Clarita, Jackson was hiking in nearby Sand Canyon when she leaped from a rope swing and fell 15 feet onto a rock. She sustained serious injuries, from shattered vertebrae and slipped discs to a ruptured coccyx, and was told by doctors that she may never walk again. An allergy to medication in the hospital gave her seizures, and when she was eventually discharged, she was forced to live in a hotel while wearing a back brace and using a wheelchair due to her dormitory’s inability to accommodate her needs. She realized she was depending more and more on the painkillers she was prescribed and after stopping cold turkey by destroying her prescription refills and flushing the remaining pills, her body and brain spiraled into depression. She also developed a control-related eating disorder that would haunt her for several years following. Jackson refers to her mind state during that time as “suicidal.”
“Needless to say, for the first time since I had written my very first song, I didn’t believe in my music anymore,” Jackson says. “Because of my depression I didn’t like myself, so I couldn’t possibly imagine someone else liking what I created. But even that couldn’t stop me from writing, and songwriting remained my therapy through it all.”
Jackson began jamming with some musicians in her home neighborhood in Santa Margarita while on a break from school about a year later. She felt comfortable, as she had already built a small following and familiarity with the area’s venues in years prior, and slowly regained her musical confidence. The story from here and through the release of Gilded is better known, but Jackson has never before spoken in detail about her accident. In doing so, she hopes to inspire others with her story, and takes particular courage from the way she learned to navigate through those unknown, murky days and nights.
The theme of her new work deals heavily with those attitudes and feelings while focusing largely on other true encounters and relationships in her real life. Wilderness is a powerhouse of a record about the in-betweens and stepping stones we dwell in and leap across while coming to terms with our senses of self, and how melancholy can be a powerful weapon to wield—especially in the form of a roots-rock or country song. While some tunes are less hopeful than others and some contain brighter glimmers of light, Jackson has chosen to heal herself through this raw, pure approach, finding comfort in her own skin and spending less time in the observational spaces of her past work. In doing so, she is able to share and connect even more directly with her audience and in turn feels that therapeutic relief like a reward, similar to the lifting of a burden when shared or a secret when told. And all the while her compass needle remains pointed straight ahead, empowered by the means through which she has climbed, grown, and changed.
Having filled notebooks with her words since as long as she can remember being able to hold a pencil, Jackson’s writing style is more akin to a never-dry fount than a measured bolt-from-the-blue, and the hardest part of the album’s early process was in selecting the best tunes to record from her mountain of material. As the touring cycle for Gilded ended in the fall of 2018, she and Ness were given the chance to enter the studio sooner than expected, a prospect they relished in order to help them maintain creative momentum. Although already armed with a grip of near-finished songs, Ness encouraged Jackson to keep pushing herself. The result was the last-minute addition of a few lightning-strike inspirations, something Jackson had never experienced.
There is another integral Ness in the picture as well, as Mike’s son Julian Ness recently joined Jackson’s band as lead guitarist where he plays alongside her longtime rhythm section of Jake Vukovich and Tyler Miller. She credits this constant swarm of male energy with helping to thicken her skin, and she has learned to shuck any shame or sensitivity that used to accompany her strong sense of empathy while recognizing the freedom that comes from maintaining healthy self-care and a singular focus on what she is trying to accomplish with her songs.
Whether holding down the buoy of your feelings or holding up a mirror to your life, self-examination and reflection is no easy undertaking, especially when mining your darkest moments for material to put into song. With Wilderness, Jade Jackson has braved the depths of her soul and figured out a course for survival—though she will be the first to admit that her journey still has miles to go.