Meet her in person or watch her perform on stage and you can’t help sensing that Jackie Bristow is a happy person. She has an honest, ready smile and the kind of genuine and delightful laugh that you’d probably make money from if you could just bottle it. It’s a surprise then that her just-released album ‘Shot Of Gold’ starts and ends in such a rather melancholy frame of mind – with the middle hardly challenging the sombre mood. Richard Thorne caught up with a tired but happy Jackie ahead of her NZ tour supporting the album’s arrival.
Last time she talked to NZM, six years ago, Jackie Bristow was living in Austin, the home of SXSW and both the capital and music capital of Texas. She’d moved there from LA, following her ‘musical journey and dream’ as she wrote in the liner notes of her 2010 album.
Austin did seem an odd choice, as a place to live, why not Nashville for example? Among the positives cited she was singing and playing five nights a week, which she certainly couldn’t do in LA.
Another very good result from her time in Austin was her then new album ‘Freedom’, the title of which certainly indicated she was probably very happy with where she found herself. Indeed the liner notes further talked about the city ‘healing and inspiring’ and giving her the energy to make the album.
Produced by herself and her long time musical bestie, Australian guitarist Mark Punch, it was recorded mostly in Austin and featured the full sound of a rockin’ band, most notably drummer J.J Johnson. Six years on Jackie is back with a follow up, her fourth album, released first here in NZ in early February, and supported with a 16-date tour. For someone who has lately been playing 2000-seat theatre support slots in the States for another legendary Aussie guitarist, Tommy Emmanuel, the venue list is really quite unusual – mainly provincial towns and holiday spots.
There are a couple of good reasons. Firstly that she booked it herself from the States, and secondly that she has brought her American boyfriend with her, and shaped the tour to show him the tourist sights of her homeland, on a kind of musician’s working holiday.
Although she only flew into Auckland late last night and is clearly tired from travelling, her enchanting laughter is as present as ever, and kicking off her sandals Jackie comfortably tucks herself into her chair to talk. She’s been living back in LA for a few years and is very happy there. Her new album was recorded 18 months ago and, she says, the melancholy mood reflects more the coming down stage of her Austin experiment. The live music scene was great for her, but around the time ‘Freedom’ was released she started really missing California and the ocean, as well as her LA-based friends.
“I went to Austin 100% for the music and I met so many nice people, but I felt a little bit isolated there. I don’t know if it was being land locked, or just being in Texas…”
Needing to move on, in 2012 Jackie took a road trip from Austin to northern California, playing a run of small shows that went so well they became a blueprint she still follows. The trip’s success gave her the confidence to return to LA where she now lives on the fringes of Hollywood.
That blueprint for continuing life as a working musician revolves increasingly around playing house concerts, typically at US$20 a head.
“It’s easier now. I don’t do that [five nights a week] kind of work now, I do tours. I play a lot of house concerts and love them – that’s how I make a living. Or I play venues, like a winery or like the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. I go out for a month or six weeks, or maybe a weekend in Arizona and play four shows. I did some opening slots for Tommy Emmanuel just recently. In May I play the Norfolk Island Country Music Festival and then in June/July I am touring California.”
Playing house concerts her audience sizes mostly range from 40 to about double that – 120 people is these days a big crowd for her. Jackie books all her gigs herself, saying she would love to have a label behind her but it’s hard to get one without an agent. It does have some distinct lifestyle advantages though.
“I like it too because you are in control. You’re not anxious thinking, ‘Oh I need work’, you just go and book it. But to get into the festival circuit, that next level, you need an agent – so hopefully one will come along.”
Clearly that’s not high on her priority (or expectation) list though, and she admits she hasn’t been looking for label support.
“I‘ve been thinking about shopping around again, for the release of this record in the States. I have some people in Europe, who came to me, but I just forget about labels because no one was signing for so long. I just started doing my own thing and haven’t gone back to that route since. But yeah, it would be nice, with the right people.”
Hailing from Gore, where her career got its start playing with her little sister Katrina, Jackie remains very much a people person, warm and friendly. Outside of family, no one has been more important in her musical journey than her regular producer and playing partner Mark Punch.
The two have a very evident musical connection that has lasted 15 years and regularly play together in America. Punch – has himself moved to LA in the last year and more recently purchased a home in Nashville. He is a regular touring duo partner for Jackie and in her LA band, which also includes Nick Gaffaney on percussion.
“Nick’s an incredible percussion player. We rock out a bit more than the album,” she explains with laughter to my expression of surprise.
She clearly relishes the support and comraderie of fellow Australasian ex-pats and connections. Mark Tierney, another LA-based Kiwi, is responsible for the two simple but visually rich videos produced for the album to date, as well as the album artwork drawn from their I Don’t Want To Come Down video shoot.
Mark Punch is omni present on ‘Shot Of Gold’, which completely eschews the full band sound of her previous album in favour of a very simple, largely acoustic sound. He engineered, produced and mixed the album, and features on mandolin, Irish bouzouki, acoustic and electric guitars as well as adding bvs.
“We did this album completely the opposite way around. Me playing solo performances which Mark recorded with this new microphone he was excited about, and then added the music to it. So they are just live performances. I sang the songs three times then we chose the best take and then built the tracks around that.
“It’s the complete opposite to all my other albums, but the thing is that’s how I perform. I play live with my guitar, so I think it sounds more natural, and you hear the voice more than singing on top of the track.”
The recording was done in Sydney in Punch’s own home studio just before he moved to the States. Sydney-based Kiwi, Jonathan Zwartz, played double bass, friend Mark Collins played banjo and Mauricio Lewack, who plays with Jackson Browne, added some percussion.
“The I did a Pledge Music campaign to raise the money to master it, and do the artwork and the videos – it’s a process!”
She seems still a little surprised her crowd funding was successful, indeed it exceeded her target, raising nearly US$20,000.
“I was nervous about it. I’d watched a lot of my friends in the States do it and then I procrastinated. It’s confronting putting yourself out there like that! But it ended up being quite fun. People were checking in and a couple of major people waited until the end then asked how much more I needed to get to the target. It’s a great thing to do ’cos now everything has been paid for.”
She admits frankly to frustration that things haven’t progressed to deliver her a more established audience.
“But then at the same time, at a certain point I just came to terms with it. Because that’s where I used to get disappointed and depressed. A couple of years ago I just became more accepting and appreciative that I can just travel around, playing my own music, and have people listen – and continue to be creative and be more contented with it. Because who knows? You don’t know what’s around the corner. I am still doing music and I have a very healthy community of friends around me, really talented people, so that’s really nice.”
As much as her new album’s lyrical tone is largely reflective, it is far from a depressing listen. Her purity of voice, heartfelt lyrics and sense of hope lifts it well out of that territory, aided by Mark Punch’s lightness of touch on various stringed instruments. You’d have to label it country, but really, the album doesn’t help define exactly just what music it is that Jackie Bristow makes. Now into her 40s, she struggles with a definition of genre herself.
“I’ve always found it really hard trying to work out if I fit into something,” she says with sincerity and perhaps a hint of anguish. “I don’t think my music’s changed over the years really, just the production. I love country music, I love folk music, I love pop music, RnB and soul… I don’t just listen to one. I fit into that folk, alt country, Americana scene.”
She accepts that that genre-indifference has perhaps put hurdles in her way.
“I think so, yeah, but some of the greatest people don’t fit into one category either. I’ve stopped worrying about that as well. I’ve just been doing shows, this record, and I’m going to make another record later this year.
“I guess I’m just living life as a musician. I play, I do my shows, I write songs and record. When I first went to America I was trying to get the record deal, trying to do this and do that. I’ve forgotten about all that now – it’s just my life, it’s what I do. Does that make sense?”