Jake Jackson has newly emerged onto the Australian country music scene with the single ‘Hired Hand’ and an album due for release in January 2013. But while he may be new to country audiences, he’s a richly accomplished musician with a great story, as I found out when I spoke to him recently.
I’m going to start off by asking you what is the story behind the song ‘Hired Hand’?
The story behind ‘Hired Hand’ was a really simple little story. It was basically I got to the age of about 15 and the family had a pretty tough time. We’d come back from England without any money and been living in a boarding house; my brother and I and my mum. I figured it was time to leave and take some pressure off her and do something else and try and make a way for myself. So I left home very early, at 15, and headed out on the road and worked on farms and made a life for myself for that part of my life. I never went back, of course, but I did basically just create my own life and had a fantastic time in the process. That time is about exactly that moment, heading out and going up to — I think the first place I worked at was this place up in Lake Bolac, which is in the western district of Victoria. Worked out on a farm there for a good, I don’t know, eight, nine months and had a ball. I guess I found out who I was and worked out how it was going to go forward from there.
It’s a really extraordinary thing to make a decision at such a young age to do that. Did you feel that you were older than your years? That you’d kind of experienced enough by then that it was a fairly natural decision in that you felt old enough to make it?
Look, I must say looking at kids now at 15, I think to myself how on earth did I do that? But now, looking back, I had at the age of nine gone to the UK. My mother was English, my father had died and we ended up going back there to see her family and then lived in London for four years. Went to school in London and out of London and experienced a lot. Did a lot of travelling — well, not travelling but holidays with her in Europe at the time and we went to Spain and France and all that sort of stuff until, of course, the money ran out. We had a stroke of bad luck there. I guess I had a certain level of experience at that point in my life that made me feel that I was capable of doing that. I think the difference, too, is going into the country at that age and probably still now; it was a reasonably safe place to go. I think if it was the other way around, if I was in the country going into the city, I think if I was my parents I’d be concerned. But when it’s the other way around, if you’re going into the country people in the country are so accommodating and so friendly that it didn’t really matter.
Given that you were a hired hand, does that mean you were just doing whatever was available? You just turned up and said what have you got?
Jackarooing, you know? Fixing fences, I did some shearing, I did everything — all the farm jobs. All the farm jobs that the farmers usually end up not wanting to do, so I did a lot of that sort of stuff and it was fabulous. There were a lot of great times there and a lot of physical work. I’d always been very mechanically clever, I guess is the right word, and I could fix anything and had a go at everything. So I had a lot of fun. I was a fit fella and it was just a lot of fun. It was pretty easy for me to slot in there and assimilate and adapt to that lifestyle. It was a pretty easy transition. I know this sounds odd, coming from London and then Melbourne and then out bush. I’d always been into horses; I’d always done a lot of riding. As a kid, I’d ridden horses a lot and so getting out in the country and doing all that sort of stuff is not a big transition in some ways.
And you’ve never been tempted to have a property of your own?
Oh, many times. I’d love to have a little place, but farming now is a pretty serious business. I don’t think anybody is going into farming now with a romantic vision. I think it’s a very serious business with lots and lots of money involved. So at the moment I think it might be a bit complicated for me [laughs].
[Laughs] Well, I think it’s complicated for everyone by the sound of it. But I was reading something about the song — I think you first wrote it several years ago. Possibly even around the time you were working as a hired hand, is that correct?
I think I wrote that song when I was in my teens and it existed as a song that was in my head and lived there and I sang it a lot of times and never bothered recording it. Everybody always said what a great song, you’ve got to get that down and do something with it. It wasn’t until now that I’ve really done that. I guess I always felt the song was missing something and the producer I was working with last year, Robyn Payne, and I sat down and looked at the song very carefully. She came up with something that changed the character of the song a little bit. Basically gave it another lift mid-song and away it went. It seemed to make the song come to life. Previous to that, it was always a good song and hopefully now it’s an even better song [laughs]. But I definitely had that in my repertoire for a very long time.
It’s a great song and a very solidly constructed song. I think the amount of care you’ve put into it shows. But not in a forced way — it’s not an overproduced song as sometimes country music songs from other countries, in particular, can sound overproduced. I’m curious that you wrote it in your teens because you weren’t a musician in your teens. You were working doing other things but clearly there was a spark in you that wanted to write songs and ultimately to play music. So had you learnt music as a child?
I’ve always been involved in music. There’s always been music in the family and we were a family that would always sing songs. Part of my life at that early age was definitely singing and playing and mucking around. It was never very serious and it was always very low key. We never thought much of it. Then I guess when I came back from the country the first time to Melbourne, the first thing I did was buy another guitar — my first electric guitar — and sort of got stuck into it. I was really writing a lot through that time. So, very simple songs but the beautiful thing about that song is that it is so simple and anybody that’s just started on the guitar, or has been playing guitar for a couple of months, should be able to pick it up. It’s only two or three chords and the melody is not hard to sing. It’s an anthemic sort of thing that you can pick up pretty easily and I think that’s such an essential part of any song, really. If you’re starting to get too esoteric and too complicated you’re losing the whole idea of what songs are about. They really should be songs that can communicate feelings and a simple song like that — just to hear somebody sing. I’ve heard other people sing the song, and I’ve played with people that have helped me sing it, and it’s always nice to hear it because it’s such a simple little tune. But it’s a lovely tune.
You said songs can communicate feelings and when I’m talking about country music or trying to persuade other people to listen to country music, I tend to say it’s a storytelling genre. Much more, I think, than any other genre that we have in contemporary music in Australia. It’s the genre that tells Australian stories. Rock and pop don’t tend to. But I can hear that in your music as well. You’re telling stories.
I think rock and pop tend to get stuck a little bit on very simple, simple concepts. Country music — it generally spans on concepts and opens up, sometimes, long stories about people’s lives. And that’s what it is, it is storytelling and it’s our folk music. If you go to Europe and listen to folk music in any country, you’ll find that the songs are about stories about the place. Australian country music is our folk music. Good Australian country songs have got stories about Australian country life and about Australian life in general, not just the country, the city too.
One thing I find really interesting about your story is that you went to the Conservatorium of Music and you were classically trained and you gravitated towards country music. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that. I think if you love music, you love pretty much all types of music, but it does seem an interesting trajectory to go from such classical training into a genre that a lot of people would think is very distant from classical training.
I think it’s like those people that go off on those boat cruises. They cruise all around the world and they see all the different colours of the planet and they see what other people are doing and they get a feel for lots of different things. They end up coming back and probably loving where they came from more. I think it’s an interesting simile but it’s true. I played a lot of classical music and enjoyed it and enjoyed the exercise and enjoyed the work and loved the dedication. It was a fabulous thing to be doing in my late teens, to be at the Conservatorium and enjoying the whole musical experience. It took me onto some really interesting musical journeys. When the album comes out in January next year, you’ll hear some of those emphases. I went and spent some time in Spain playing flamenco music and all these sorts of things and they all add up and they all go into the pot. So when it comes to playing, it affects how you play and how you think. But like you say, after all that music and after all that education, I guess to be — and I don’t want to use the words ‘coming back’ to country music because it’s not right. I’ve ended up where my heart is and it’s a lovely genre to work in. Especially as a singer, you know? As a guitar player, if I just purely focused on the instrument; a lot of people, they seem to spend a lot of time getting very intellectual about guitar playing. But as a singer, to sing country songs and tell stories and to write stories is really, to me, the joy of it all, absolutely.
So do you find that with your singing voice, it feels like your natural singing voice? I guess when singers sing in different genres, they have to adapt sometimes. But is this where you feel your voice belongs?
It’s funny that you say that, because there was a time there when I was trying to push my voice in all sorts of directions and I think I went through a period of about — I think it was about the same time I went to Spain, I decided I wasn’t going to sing like that any more. When I came back, I was just going to start from the ground up again and just singing with my natural voice and not bother with any more than that, and never try and sing out of my range too much, and always basically be comfortable. Because the reality is you can’t get the emotion into your voice if you’re trying to sing things that you’re voice isn’t capable of doing or isn’t designed to do. And everybody’s voice is so different. So for me, I started — well, I haven’t started — I’ve taken the voice to a degree where I’m only going to sing things that I’m going to be comfortable singing now, in my own natural singing voice. You’re absolutely right that you’ve heard that because it is exactly what I’m doing nowadays. I’m not trying to do anything too technical with my voice. I’m just trying to sing the words and make them mean something.
For musicians working in the country music genre, I think the audience and performer interplay is really interesting and supportive, in that you’re allowed to be vulnerable as a country performer. You are allowed to sing what you feel and the audience will support that. And I think part of the reason is that the audience — no-one who goes to a country music show is trying to be cool. They’re not trying to impress anyone. They’re there because they genuinely love the music and Tamworth is like that on steroids really. But I guess as a musician, it must be really satisfying to know that you’re appearing before an audience that is completely open and they’re there to receive you.
Hundred percent. I’ve played all those rock venues and I’ve played all those sorts of venues. I’ve played jazz and I’ve played all sorts of music and I can tell you, it can be daunting at times because you know that everybody’s there — as you say, trying to be cool and trying to make an impression on everybody else — and they’re not really there for the right reasons in some ways. But country music audiences are fantastic. They love to hear it, they love to listen to it and they’re very generous with their appreciation too. They go beyond – they’re a listening audience as opposed to a beer-drinking audience — of course, they can be beer audiences too — but as opposed to an audience that there for a whole lot of other reasons apart from the music. As a musician, as a singer, as an entertainer, there’s nothing nicer than to be working to a room where people are interested in what you’re saying and what you’re doing and what you’re singing and what you’re playing. As opposed to just standing around looking cool [laughs].
[Laughs] You don’t get a lot of band T-shirts in a country music audience.
No, no, no it’s probably uncool. It’s funny, every genre has uncool things to do and country music band T-shirts are not the go. That’s right. But, hey, it’s a great genre to work with and the musicians too, there’s a real family-orientated feel about it. I played some jazz music for a while and I used to play standards and sing, and it was a very loaded environment where people were very much into how you stand technically and where you sit with your taste, and you’ve got to like this guy and you’ve got to like that. And if you don’t like Charlie Parker, you don’t know what you’re talking about sort of thing. Whereas country music audiences and country music lovers are really just interested in the songs. They’re really just interested in the things in the songs and also the other great thing about them, too, is they are prepared to judge. They’re prepared to say yes, I like that, and that is a really good thing, because you’ll find in a lot of audiences or a lot of genres where the music is so similar and so stereotypical that nobody’s prepared to like anything new because it doesn’t have a big brand attached to it or something like that.
It’s an audience that’s super supportive of new artists, regardless of age or sex, actually. You can be an 18-year-old young woman starting out and you’ll have 70 year olds sitting there saying, ‘Good on ya, love.’ And turning up for the gig.
Australia’s full of that. Pretty much.
And also it’s an educated audience, in that a lot of country music people know the history of the genre. They know about Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and they can talk you through any number of things. But they will embrace new artists. If a reference is there, they’ll hear it. So do you have any references in your own music. If there’s any historical country music that you really like or that you refer to in your songwriting?
I can tell you a story that’ll make you smile. When I was at the Conservatorium, I was teaching in the evening, teaching guitar because I was getting pretty good at the instrument and so I was able to make a few dollars teaching. And I ended up teaching a blind guy. I went around to his place. He’d called me up. I went around to his place and there were a lot of funny stories associated with his story. And he’s an amazing guy. He just lost his sight, very unfortunately, a lovely fella and he decided he was going to learn to play guitar. He was totally into Hank Williams and so we spent a lot of time learning Hank Williams songs and me teaching him those. Teaching him the words and teaching him the guitar parts and was fantastic fun. The first time I went there, there wasn’t a light operating in the place and it was a stark reminder of what blind people have to deal with. Of course, he never changed the globes because they were of no use to him [laughs]. So second time I came back, I brought two or three globes with me and put some globes into his lights and then I could see what I was doing as well. He didn’t need them of course, he had the other sense. But, look, my influences go back a long way and of course, people like Hank Williams are pretty important to me. Of course, it’s all there. But I moved through that period when I was listening to guys like John Hiatt and Steve Earle and those sorts of midwest American players and really enjoyed what they were doing. I think John Hiatt played a big role in my lyric growing and my songsmithing. He’s an amazing songsmith, amazing wordsmith. He was a big inspiration to me and still is, funnily enough. I still listen to that Stolen Moments album, it’s pretty amazing … It’s funny because I think when Dixie Chicks started coming out, everybody said to me what’s that playing [laughs]. This is crazy. You’ve got to get onto this. And I still have those albums. I’ve had a couple of kids and of course, they ended up putting up with my eclectic country music taste. Occasionally I’d be listening to things that could be quite obscure and then I’d be straight into the mainstream because somebody came out with a song that just had everything. And of course, that’s when I think about country music, you can dip it into the mainstream and nobody is going to say to you, ‘Oh that’s uncool’, because they’re all great songs. There’s lots of great music around at the moment. A lot of good artists coming through too. People like Jasmine Rae and those sorts of people; they’re really playing some lovely music.
Oh, there are a lot of good Victorians I found this year. Lachlan Bryan and Jed Rowe. I think there’s something in the water down there with you guys [laughs].
We’re working on it [laughs]. We’re trying to make an impression on the country. Well, it’s so cold down here; we’ve got sit around and write songs. There’s all there is to do [laughs].
We’re always hearing about how good Melbourne is for the arts. But it does seem to be the case with country music.
Oh, look, there’s no doubt about it. Melbourne has got a really nice live music feel about it. But I think Sydney is the same, if you know where to go. I think you can find — but I think it may just be a little bit more obvious here, that’s all.
Smaller and more parochial, Jake, that’s the way we think of it [laughs].
You’ve obviously been doing a lot of different things but you arrived at this point of your life where you’re going to put out a country music album. So how did you come to the decision of doing it now?
Oh, it’s straightforward — did my job with the kids. Kids have left home. Personally, I love them to bits, they’re fantastic kids. I lost my father early so I was determined to do a job for them. I tried to give them all the things that I missed out on and I was determined that they didn’t leave home at 15 [laughs]. And of course they didn’t. So in some ways — well, I’m really proud of them and really pleased with how it all turned out. It’s a bit of my time now. I struggled to keep playing music all those years, bringing up the kids. I went into all sorts of bits and pieces with my music. I was producing and playing and gigging but never really putting my heart and soul into it. I just couldn’t with the children, but now I’m free of that. I can certainly put a lot more time into it. You know what they say about difference between a musician and a pizza: a pizza can feed a family of five and a musician can’t [laughs].
[Laughs] I’ve never heard that.
It’s a good one, isn’t it? I often think about it [laughs]. But now I’m free of the kids, I’m able to focus back on the music. And I’m really enjoying it. It’s great. I’ve rekindled a lot of friendships that I had years and years ago and some of those people have gone on and reached amazing heights in their musicality. Others have stopped playing and come back to playing. A couple of guys that I haven’t played with for a few years that I jam with now and again. Every couple of weeks. They both stopped playing and now that I’m back into it, they’ve sort of jumped back in a bit too. So it’s a nice journey to be back and doing it as ferociously as I’m doing at the moment. And I did the album and I came away from the album thinking I really like this album. I know that sounds odd, and I probably shouldn’t say these things about my own things, but I really am proud of it and I’m really, really enjoying it, and what’s nice about it is I play it for people and they enjoy it too. And that is a wonderful feeling; it’s a wonderful thing to be doing.
There actually wouldn’t be too many artists who can say that the album has happened at the right pace, at the right time of their lives. It’s really unusual for someone to put their artistic ambitions on hold or artistic dreams on hold, to raise a family. I think the cultural imperative is to get out there and do it as young as possible and as quickly as possible. But, of course, then you’re vulnerable to doing things when you’re not ready. But you’ve had time to let it marinate, so to speak. And to put it in the oven when you wanted to [laughs].
And obviously that’s what you’re feeling, that it’s the right time.
Oh definitely. The nice thing about doing it a little bit later in life is that you don’t have the same inhibitions that you do when you’re younger. I remember I played hundreds and hundreds of gigs when I was younger and I never thought I was a good enough guitar player. I never thought I was a good enough singer. I was always trying to get better and I was always working on it hard. And, of course, you always do try and get better, but there comes a certain point in your life where you think to yourself well, that’s what I am and that’s what I’ve got and this is how I play and this is how I sing and I’m just going to work with that and work with what I’ve got rather than the continual push to try and make it happen in some sort of a way. The other nice thing too is that now I am doing it at my own pace. I’m not under any pressure. I’m not going crazy to get signed by some major record label or anything like that. I’m an independent artist and I’m basically just cruising along and doing it at my own rate. That’s the only way you can really be creative. If somebody says, ‘Sit down here and write a song in the next half an hour’, it’s pretty hard to do, but if you’ve got the time and you take your time, things just seem to happen anyway. So it’s all good.
Your album’s coming out early next year but will you be touring ahead of that? One would imagine you’re touring around the time it’s released as well.
We’ll definitely be touring around the time it’s released and hopefully we can get to as many ports in as many storms as we can [laughs]. I will be taking a band on the road — I do a three-piece set-up with a singer and a fiddle player and just myself on guitar. That’s pretty nice too. So we may be doing a combination of ‘band gigs’ and three-piece gigs. So we’ll see how that rolls out, but that’s what I’m very much looking forward to getting the album out there on the road. It’ll be good fun.
As an independent artist, I guess, it’s great to have control over your own music but the flipside is you’ve got to organise everything yourself. So is it somewhat daunting to think, ‘I’ve got to organise a tour or I’ll find someone to organise a tour for me’?
It’s massive, it’s absolutely massive. I can’t deny it. I used to think it was just going to be a simple thing. Just putting together an album and away you go — the rest of it will all fall into place. Well, I can tell you it’s a big job and I tell you what, the stuff that I’ve been doing lately that I find to be an amazing job is putting those videos together. The videos for the songs are just a huge job and I guess I totally underestimated the work of the videographer. I have been very, very busy for the last six weeks now — five weeks putting together a couple of videos. One of them is up on YouTube for this song [‘Hired Hand’] now. It’s a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun filming it and we had a lot of fun producing it. That’s a hard process. It’s nearly as hard [laughs] as writing the music, dare I say it. In some ways it’s harder because it’s not my field of expertise. Music almost seems simple compared to the movies.
I almost would have thought that we could do away with videos these days. But they’re obviously still very useful because people are making them.
Oh look, people will have to. People have to put a name to a face and a face to a name. They need to see it on the screen and I think it helps tremendously in terms of relating the songs. The video we did, it’s a nice video and it’s cool. There’s a little bit of humour in there and it’s not too serious and we’re just having fun. You get to see the players and you get to see where we filmed it out in the country in Taggerty up in the north of the Divide here. It’s good stuff. It’s important, I think. If it helps people to relate to the songs and the next single which comes out in about another six or seven weeks, we’re working on that video at the moment.
And when you head out on the road, are you one of these writers who tends to collect stories from various places? Like you’ll keep an ear out for what’s going on and jot down a few ideas as you go? So if you’re on the road, will it be partly a story-collecting exercise?
My car has two books, two old books in it that I just keep writing words in. I’m writing stories down, reference points. I leave two books in there because if I take one out and lose it or I put it somewhere else, I leave it in the rehearsal room or something, then I’ve always got the other one to jot it down. I’ve always got a jotting book next to me. I learnt that from a guy called Mike Rudd years and years ago. When I was a kid, I played around with a band working. He wrote a song called ‘Someday I’ll Have Money, I’ll be Gone’ it’s called, I think. It was a great song, a huge song, huge international success. He taught me that. He said you always grab a little pad with you and write down words as they come. So yeah, definitely, as we’re on the road, we’ll be looking for — not necessarily looking for experiences. We’ll be noting experiences. There you go.
[Laughs] Well, I guess again the genre feeds into itself that way. To be a country music artist necessitates going out to remote places often or just going to regional centres and you do tend to see a lot more stories or hear a lot more stories that way.
Oh look, no question about it. You roll up in a new town; you have a lot of experiences. I was doing a radio interview the other day and it was up in Tenterfield — actually it was a day of radio interviews and I remember almost every town I’d been in, there was a story I could tell. Tenterfield, I came off a motorbike at 2 o’clock in the morning one night and spent the whole night in a ditch. I could’ve written a song about that but I don’t know if I did [laughs].
You could still write a song about that.
I still could, yeah. I still could. The New England Highway in the middle of the night.
I hope it wasn’t winter.
It was okay; I survived it [laughs].
[Laughs] That’s good. Will you be heading for Tamworth?
Look, that’s the plan at the moment. Things are happening very quickly for this, for me and this song at the moment. We’re getting an extremely positive response to everything so I guess we’ve got to be at Tamworth in some way, shape or form. I’m not sure quite how we’re going to get that sorted but I know we will and yeah, we’ll be there somewhere. So it’ll be good fun.
Visit http://www.jakejackson.com.au to listen to ‘Hired Hand’.