It was a hot summer afternoon the day I sat down with Jillian Jacqueline, one of the most buzzed-about artists on the scene, to discuss her new music and her inspiring journey.
Dressed sharply in a red, floral print blouse and a pair of killer metallic Topshop boots, Jacqueline’s warmth and kindness entered the room before she did. But what began as a perfectly delightful chat quickly morphed into something of a master class with one of Nashville’s brightest rising stars.
Jacqueline’s road to this breaking moment in her career has been a long one — both rewarding and at times a little bumpy, but chock full of teachable moments that have made her arguably one of the wisest and most self-aware women on Music Row.
“I thought about it the other day, the timeline of my career,” Jacqueline told CMT.com. “It’s been twenty years that I’ve been doing this. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a singer. I’ve been doing this since I was seven years old. And sometimes I feel like what is taken as confidence is simply just me not knowing how to be anything else. It’s just who I am.”
But getting to that place of ownership doesn’t happen overnight. For Jacqueline, there was a lot of growing and growing up to do, and some of that has continued in her recent years on the Row.
“I think a lot of us have to try different things and in the last several years in Nashville I have,” she said. “You just have to keep doing what you do until eventually that energy begins to work in your favor and that window opens for you.
“I was just trying to be completely honest with myself during that time because I’m naturally pretty bad at doing things I don’t want to do.”
And there is a peace in taking ownership of who you are, and it reads all over Jacqueline’s face and in her body language. She has a very calming presence. She’s bright, real, honest, conversational — qualities all perfectly mirrored in her lyrics.
“I attribute a lot of what I do lyrically to how much I read as a child,” she said of her songwriting. “I read a lot of different types of books and I kept a lot of journals and diaries, because I was obsessed with words. So for me, when I approach songs, I want every single line to make me feel like, ’Oh, that’s so weird, I’ve never heard that before.’ And sometimes in writing groups that gets me into trouble, because they’re like, ’Nobody would say that!’ and I’m like, ’I would say that. So let’s say it.'”
And that right there is the essence of Jacqueline.
“I think I maybe just have a knack for wanting to be different. I think my mom encouraged that a lot.”
From day one Jacqueline’s mother has been incredibly supportive of her daughter’s talents and career, always encouraging her to be her own person.
“She would say, ’Do your thing. Do it differently than everyone else.’ And I felt that was really accepted.”
So it’s no surprise that the acceptance and celebration of individuality is at the core of everything Jacqueline does. From her style to her music, she truly marches to the beat of her own drum.
“I get the question a lot: ’What makes you different?’ I’m thinking to myself, ’I am just me.’ I think if everyone really sat down with themselves and did something that felt purely them 100%, it’s different.”
But individuality has universal appeal. As we talked about the songs on her new project, transparency became the word and theme du jour, because for Jacqueline, pure honesty will always translate.
“It’s your take on those bigger themes — love, loss, family, celebration — your take on those things is what makes you unique,” she said. “We’re all going to write songs about love, but you’re going to have a very specific experience that I want to hear about. What time of night was it? What was his name? What were you wearing? How did you feel?”
Painting a picture — that’s what Jacqueline does best. Songs like “Sugar and Salt,” “Reasons,” “Sad Girls” — they all paint visuals so vivid you can practically see the story playing out in your head as the song plays.
The same goes for “Bleachers” a song about just being where you are and blooming where you’re planted.
“It’s a little bit more anthemic than what I’ve done in the past,” she admitted. ’Prime’ was kind of that, too. And I wanted to write something that was just fun and easy to sing to. I’m not really good at the happy-go-lucky songs to be honest, that song was a quirky way to say something universal and fun.”
But at the heart of Jacqueline’s style in life and in music is the desire to get straight to the heart of the matter.
“A friend of mine describes it as the juice — she says ’I just want to find the juice in the room.’ Me too! I gotta feel the guts here, what’s really going on,” she said. “I think the reason music can be so powerful is because you’re sharing something that is so naked.”
Enter her song “God Bless This Mess,” her brand new single and possibly the most vulnerable tune Jacqueline has ever recorded. It’s another departure for her, but a different type of moment that changed and impacted her for the better.
The song began when her collaborator and producer Tofer Brown took a turn on her childhood piano, the only thing her father saved from her childhood home. Brown had the title in mind, and as soon as he began to play, Jacqueline just began to sing.
“We wrote the chorus write before we sat down to eat dinner. And we thought, ’That felt really cool and interesting. Wow, that just fell out.'”
Some songs just happen like that, like magic — they knew it was special. And even when they hit a lyrical stumbling block, they didn’t give up. Instead they turned to the one person they knew would understand the humanness of the song better than anyone else: Grammy-winner Lori McKenna.
“We took it to her and just she started talking for a while, and she just said, ’Here’s to the brokens.’ And I was like, ’What did you just say?’ And she said, ’Here’s to the brokens, the misfits and wannabes.’ She simplified what we were trying to complicate, and that’s why she’s Lori McKenna,” Jacqueline said confidently.
“She captures what I like to call ’the kitchen sink moments,'” Jacqueline added. “Every woman in every part of the world can relate to where you’re standing over the kitchen sink and just feeling all the feelings. And she writes about them. She was the perfect person to take that idea to.”
But the song didn’t originally land in the stack designated for Jacqueline herself. It was actually on hold for a year with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. When they didn’t cut it, her label moved quickly to convince Jacqueline to do so.
“I just hadn’t thought about it for myself,” she recalled. “I took several more listens and when we brought it into the studio with the band, they loved it. And now, it’s one of my favorite ones to play. I think it sticks with the audience more than I even realized it would.”
Sometimes, she admitted, the songs really do pick you.
“It really was the catalyst for me to realize that the album was creating me and I wasn’t creating the album.”
And it’s a beautiful creation, the artist and message birthed throughout this whole process, one the entire world can learn a thing or two from Jacqueline as she takes her show on the road with the legendary Dwight Yoakam, another force in music driven by individuality and realness.
“I did not want to be disappointed [and] it’s everything I’d dreamed of,” she said of touring with Yoakam. “His voice sounds so great. His melodic sense growing up for me, when I would hear ’Fast As You,’ or ’A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,’ I thought that was unbelievable. I’d never heard anyone else in country sing quite like that.”
For Jacqueline, coming into your own, releasing music that is authentic and playing that music for fans feels like a dream.
“Growing up listening to the radio and always wanting to be on the radio, just hearing those voices come through and the stories they were telling — to know that someone is hearing my songs somewhere in their bedroom or their car and they’re feeling it enough to tweet me or replay or save the song — it’s overwhelming,” she said with a smile.
“That’s all you can hope for,” she added, “the chance to say something honest and have it resonate with other people.”