Jake Jackson’s moving Anzac anthem

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Melbourne singer-songwriter Jake Jackson recently released ‘I Will March for You’, a song inspired by his experiences marching on Anzac Day in place of his father, who died many years ago. The song has become a favourite with his audiences and, now, has been released to the public. It has a rich history and great personal resonance – not just for Jake but for the people who hear it. Recently I spoke to Jake and found out more about his story, and the story of the song. 
What does Anzac Day mean to you?
It’s really simple: it’s an opportunity for me to involve my father in my life. He died when I was very young so I really had no connection with him and no time with him. So as I got to know what he’d done and where he’d been in his life I started to realise how important it was for me to connect. So I’m, I guess, using Anzac Day in a funny sort of way to reconnect with my father and, in turn, realising how important it was to remember all the things that he’d done. So that’s what it means to me.
And that’s a hugely resonant thing in anyone’s life. Is this something you’ve felt since childhood or is it only recently that Anzac Day has come to mean that for you?
I think it’s been the last ten years, it’s becoming more and more part of my life. You know, what happens to a bloke – a man – as he goes through life without a father, and you don’t really think about it that much – it’s not as though you take on the victim role and consider yourself short-changed because I wasn’t in any way, shape or form. I had a great childhood and a great life. So I guess when I got to my forties I started realising how important it was to understand how my father was, and when I started digging I realised he was quite a guy. So I kept digging further and further and felt more and more association with the Anzac movement and the recognition of what all those guys had done all those years ago – guys and girls, by the way. My mum was in the RAAF, so I’m not going to be too gender specific here. Certainly all those who served did a phenomenal job for us, and the freedom we enjoy today as a result of their sacrifice – it sounds very serious but it’s true, you know.
When you consider the generational impact of those world wars, in particular, and the Vietnam War as well – and we’ll probably see down the track Iraq and Afghanistan having generational impact – it’s certainly part of our national story but also it’s clear that researching your father is part of your own story but also having the opportunity to tell his story.
It’s opened up this incredible labyrinth of stories. I’ve got this metal box that I’ve been going through and I’ve been putting together all these documents and letters and, you know, you find these things. A week ago I found a letter – a very small letter, handwritten letter – written from the front in the 14-18 war, of my great uncle who was killed at Passchendaele. And it’s just a small handwritten note with a cutting from a British newspaper showing where the battle was and where the action was. And, obviously ‘it’s with great regret that we inform you of the loss of your son’. It was addressed to his mother. And there’s a whole treasure trove of incredible stuff there and I think a lot of Australians have a similar history. And if it wasn’t for that one letter I doubt if the poor fellow would even have been thought of again. It’s an amazing thing and it does give us a chance to recollect and think about those who have done so much. And the song is that – the song is an ode to all those, and it’s not necessarily just for my father, it certainly strikes a chord with anyone that has any empathy with people that have gone away to serve their country.
And you started writing this song after marching in last year’s Anzac Day parade – was that your first time marching?
No, I’ve marched probably ten times now. I march with the 2/12th in Melbourne. I’ve watched that grow, too – that’s quite an amazing thing. I was a bit sceptical about it in the beginning. I wasn’t entirely sure or entirely comfortable about marching as a son of a serviceman – and servicewoman, I’ll go there again. It is often so gender specific. People are always directing it to the fact that it’s the men who went to war, but there’s a lot of women who went to war too and they may not necessarily have been on the front but a lot were too – they were in field hospitals and so on. Anyway, I’ve done quite a few [marches] now and I guess I was wondering if it would ever go away, but the intense emotion that you feel when you march with the group, and in Melbourne the march ends at the Shrine [of Remembrance], and that moment when you turn the corner into the Shrine and the Shrine’s standing before you with a couple of Australian soldiers there literally guarding the Shrine of Remembrance, it’s a very, very moving thing. [Afterwards] I always go and have a cup of tea with my mum, who’s still alive, and talk about my dad, and then go home. I sat on the couch and started writing and this song came out, and I was very, very moved by the song itself. I was unable to actually believe the thing because it was just so moving, and I didn’t know what to do with it, and it was one of those funny songs where I didn’t even know if I wanted to play it to anybody. I kept it to myself. Then I found myself playing it more and more, and I recorded it at home just on my iPad and started to realise that I had something pretty serious. Then I remember playing it at a gig and talking about it to the audience, then playing it, and the reaction was sort of dumbfounding, really. I looked around and almost everybody had tears in their eyes. While when you’re performing it’s not the ambition to have everybody burst into tears …
It’s not a bad result, I have to say.
No. It’s about reaching into people’s hearts, you know, and the song carried so much weight that people were so moved by it. And you could physically see the people who had a real connection to it and they were immensely moved by it, and I understood that I had something very special there. As I’ve gone into recording the song I’ve tried to maintain that simplicity and that emotion. I hope I’ve captured it. I feel I have. Certainly the reactions I’m getting from people about the song indicate that I’ve managed to maintain that.
Given that you have marched several times before, what was different about last year, or did you notice anything different in yourself last year that flicked that switch, I guess – because it sounds very much like the song just came to you or came through you. So something changed.
I guess there were a few years there where I was questioning my right to be part of that movement, as the son of an Australian army person. While some took that role quite lightly and they just enjoyed the day and saw it almost as an opportunity to be part of something, I was always questioning it. And I guess last year I realised that I really was part of this thing, and it took a few years for me to get to that point. I really embraced it and felt that I had a responsibility to it, which up until then I was just sort of going along. And I was very private about it too – I wouldn’t tell too many people … What I noticed last year was the sheer weight of the movement now and the number of people who are moved by what we’ve done over the years. The streets were lined five, six deep this time, as opposed to some years when there’d be – obviously many thousands turn out but now it feels like its fivefold on what it used to be. Tenfold what it used to be. There’s a lot of people standing on St Kilda Road now jostling for a front-row spot to be able to see people walk past wearing the medals of those who have served. My father had an OBE, New Guinea, and he served in North Africa, so consequently I feel very much part of it now. So it gave me a position where I felt like I had a right to write an anthem and this came out. That’s how I view it – as an anthem. It’s a melody that reflects an emotion that’s saying ‘I will march for you, I will remember you, I won’t forget’.
Does it take a toll on you to perform it?
Massively, yes. It’s a massively emotional song. Some songs I’ve written over the years, they’ve all got emotional content, they’ve all got feelings and they take you back to times gone by. But this one is something else, it just seems to awaken a real sense of responsibility to those who have gone.
Just in terms of performance, if you know you have a song like that which is going to take a toll, how do you manage your energy output so by the end of the night you’re not completely depleted?
The nice thing about it is that people come on board with it. At my shows I always sit down and talk about the songs and introduce the songs and tell a story of the songs, so that I’ve got a preamble that people can grab onto and so they can understand what I’m trying to say, rather than just blasting through a set without any regard for what people think. And the nice thing about that song is that you know when you get to the end of it that 80 or 90 per cent of the audience are completely with you, so you have this sense of empathy with them, so it makes it easy to move on, to keep going. So in some ways you draw energy of the crowd that’s with you. When they understand and they hear the emotions you’re portraying, then it doesn’t drain – it sort of adds. It’s uplifting to realise that people are on the same page.
From a creative point of view, to have a song like that which you wrote and then you wrestled with it for a while, did it have an impact on writing other songs?
Definitely. It created a writer’s block, for sure, because it stood up above everything else I’ve done so dramatically, like a shining light. It became my whole focus in terms of where I was going. In some ways I’m really looking forward to how it goes over the next few weeks because it will really give me an opportunity to move on. It’s been a big part of my life, this song, for quite a long time. And I’ve been writing – I was away again last year, I’ve been writing for another album – and it’s not been easy to get past this because of the effect it has on people. When you sit down and you sing a song in front of somebody and they burst into tears, it’s, like, ‘Oh, okay – this is pretty serious.’
And it would feel like a responsibility.
It is absolutely a responsibility, because you know that what they’re doing is recollecting their past or their thoughts about their loved ones, and you know how serious that is for you, so all of a sudden you’re just lighting this candle for everyone and they all light up. I do have a responsibility with this song, I really do. And you know what, it’s difficult because there is a back story, there is a reality about this song – it’s not something I’ve sat down and manufactured, it’s not something I’ve sat down and tried to write, tried to force out, or got a group of people together and tried to do an Anzac Day song. I’m not being cynical there. That’s what it’s not. It’s a song about my experience and my family and my experiences with having servicemen in the family, and an opportunity to remember that and respect it.
I think Lee Kernaghan’s done a really good job with Spirit of the Anzacs but your song is a really good balance to that project, because the stories and  songs on that album are mostly completely impersonal, because they’re letters that were found in the Australian War Memorial archive. It’s actually not that common to have the sort of story you’re telling in relation to war, I think. I don’t know whether it’s because there aren’t that many people with experiences of either marching or in war who write songs.
Yes, I think it’s unusual. Lee’s done a great job. He’s certainly got in there and done what he set out to do and done a beautiful job with it – there’s no question about it. But, you know, I’ve got that box of letters at home that are all from my family – they’re all my uncles and their mothers. So it’s a very personal thing for me.
I do want to ask you about the production on the song, which is relatively simple – I say ‘relatively’ because it has a big sound especially building towards the end, but the dominant instrument apart from your voice really is the cello and it’s used to great effect. How did you come to choose the cello for this track?
I’m going to lighten up the conversation here. I went to the Conservatorium of Music when I was young and did a degree in music, and we used to do these lunchtime concerts, and the girls playing the cello always stole my heart [laughs]. There was a very beautiful cellist at the Conservatorium who used to always get up and play the Bach Cello Suites every few months and that place was packed – everybody wanted to hear her play. So the cello left a big impression. And I did the Bach Cello Suites as well as one of my exam pieces, so the suites were pretty important to me – I spent six months of my life working on that one piece of music. But the cello’s a lovely thing. If any of the stringed instruments encapsulate the human voice, it’s the cello. It’s a very similar range. That instrument speaks to you. So for me it was the only choice. I could have gone to the fiddle, as I normally do, but I chose the cello. Caroline came in and did a lovely job for us. And, of course, the Australian Girls Choir was lovely too – that youthful sound of those girls singing, it’s just so special. It sort of juxtaposes with the sincerity and antiquity of the song’s message, and then we had eighteen late-teenagers singing these beautiful parts, and they were amazing. Sally Gawley is the musical director of the choir. We wanted to keep [the production] really simple. Robyn Paine did production for me again and she did a lovely job. She’s such a talented player and producer. The agenda was to keep it really nice and simple. Even the mastering that Martin did – just keeping it really simple, not trying to take it to some other place. Try to keep the purity of the message there and not disguise it with a whole lot of other instrument and other sounds and heavy arrangements.

Watch the video for ‘I Will March for You’ on

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