When compiling a list of the most talented young singer-songwriters currently performing on the acoustic/roots scene, it’s never too long before Luke Jackson’s name appears.
After grabbing the attention of the music press with his 2012 debut album ‘More Than Boys’, Jackson’s 2014 follow up ‘Fumes and Faith’ showcased a maturing singer/songwriter with the potential to give the old guard a serious run for their money. Throw in a couple of R2 Folk Award nominations, a dash of youthful charm, a passion for touring, and a stage presence that many established artists would gladly exchange a major organ for…it’s not difficult to see why Luke Jackson seems to attract an ever-growing audience.
I met with Luke ahead of his performance at the Midlands ‘Folk On The Water’ festival. Since we’d last spoken there had been a number of notable developments in the Luke Jackson story, not least of which was a support tour with prog-rock legends Marillion. I was keen to find out how a solo acoustic singer-songwriter had faired in front of a potentially very different audience…
“It was insane!” he laughs, “Every night it was in huge venues in front of about 4,000 people, it was daunting. Regardless of the size of the crowd I never usually get nervous, but I was bricking it before those shows!”
“I was saying before I even did the tour” he continues, “the fact that they’re asking a singer-songwriter to open for a prog-rock band…I just thought it was bizarre. But what became clear to me quite quickly was that they were just music lovers…the band and the audience…they just love music. So if they thought the quality of the stuff was good then they didn’t really care what genre it was, what style it was, they just seemed to get on and enjoy it. So yeah the crowds were fantastic. We did a load of stuff around the UK and then we did a few over in Europe. The highlight was probably in Germany…it was just insane. A really fun few weeks.”
At the beginning of this year Luke toured with Amy Wadge, a prolific songwriter best know for co-writing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’. “That was December running through until the start of this year” Luke recalls, “And that was nuts as well. It was great to be involved with Amy at that point because that’s when ‘Thinking Out Loud’ just blew up. We had to change a few of the dates around because she had to go to the Grammys and the Brits. I think it was weird for her…one day we’d be doing a gig in Bath and then she’d fly over to LA…three days later she’d come back and gig with me in Windsor! Amy is fantastic as a person to tour with, honestly she’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had. The shows went down really well, the crowds were great…every night we were getting a really good crowd in. We were doing a lot of songs together and it seemed to go down really well.”
Earlier this year Luke released a seven track EP entitled ‘This Family Tree’. Recorded as a trio with Connor Downs on Drums and Andy Sharps on Bass, the EP represented a notable shift towards an electric sound that Folk Radio UK’s Mike Davies summarised as “Short but perfectly formed, sharply and sympathetically observed and emotionally involving.” I asked Luke what prompted the change in sound for the EP?
“A few things. The idea of it being an EP was that I’d recently left a little indie label I was signed to and went completely under my own…’rules’ I suppose, just doing it all myself. I wanted more of a product to sell myself to labels and promoters, something current and relevant, but I felt it was too early to release a whole new album. That was the first thing that set my mind on doing the EP. The second thing was I bought myself a semi-acoustic godin guitar…just on the off chance really and just to treat myself. It’s an arch-top…beautiful looking thing. I run that through a Fender Blues deluxe. I was just playing on that all that time and naturally doing the bluesier, slightly rockier stuff…and off the back of that I ended up writing about fifteen songs. A lot of them were loosely connected within the storytelling, the topics, names of the characters within the songs. I thought ‘Well if I do this then I can use it for the EP, almost like a little concept EP.’”
“At that point I’d done two Scottish tours with Andy who’s the bass player, just me and him as a duo, and I’d literally just come off the road with Connor who’s the drummer and we did two weeks in Europe together. During soundchecks I was mucking around playing songs from the EP and Connor was drumming along to them…I thought this sounds great! At first I thought I’d do a completely solo thing, a bit like my first album, just me and my guitar. Then the more I thought about it…the songs lend themselves to a band, I’m doing tours with both of these boys, they’ve played with each other and I’ve played with both of them…so let’s just do a trio thing.”
“When I came to that decision, me and Connor had time to rehearse the tracks whereas with Andy he was doing a placement year in France. So basically I sent him all the songs, rough demos. Andy’s one of these guys…you give him any song and he’ll put a fantastic bass line to it, so I trusted him. But then when we got into the studio we realised that although we all knew the songs, Andy and Connor had never played them together. So it was like ‘This might actually flop, none of it might work.’, but fortunately it all gelled together and came out really well. I’m really proud of what we managed to do. I really like it. It’s definitely a different sound, it’s got that band sound…maybe more commercial sound. Bit it wasn’t like a conscious thing, I think it was little things like having the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to…as well as the new guitar.”
Luke went to college with Connor and Andy and he believes that relationship is what makes the collaboration work. “We’re all really good close mates, and I think that shows on stage. I think sometimes you see guys on stage and it’s obvious they’re playing with session musicians, there’s no connection, whereas I think we all vibe off each other. When you see your mates feeding off something that you’ve written, that’s great. You think ‘they actually like this song…they’re not being forced to play it, they’re getting into it themselves.’ Also you can ‘get into it’ more with a band. You don’t feel like so much of a weirdo if you’re rocking out when you’ve got a band behind you!”
In person Luke is friendly, polite and suitably laid back. But he oozes confidence…not in a precocious or arrogant way…just in the way someone ‘is’ when they know their craft. And ‘craft’ is exactly how Luke sees his profession. He’s been performing since he was eleven years old. Now at the ripe old age of twenty-one, having spent ten years practicing his stagecraft and observing the best in the field (he’s opened for Steve Knightley, Martyn Joseph and Karine Polwart amongst others), he projects the artistic maturity of someone beyond his years.
However the young Luke Jackson was more interested in playing football than playing the Blues. He explains that his passion for music was a later development. “My old man always played albums around the house…old Blues, folk stuff, the Beatles and all that kind of stuff. I always loved the storytelling and the lyrics. I always listened to the lyrics more than the music. My dad also played guitar. To him it was more like a past time…he never went out and gigged or anything, he just played around the house. One day he was playing and he just said ‘Do you want to learn a few chords…?’
“The memory of picking up the guitar is a lot clearer than when I started singing to be honest. I don’t really remember starting singing, but I remember the first time I ever got up and sung in front of anyone was at my year 6 leavers assembly, so I guess at that point I discovered that I could hold a note! After that, I was going to little open mic nights locally…then started gigging in London quite a lot, doing showcase nights where maybe five or six acts would play. Then it just went from there. I got involved in the folk singer-songwriter roots scene and the blues scene, the festival scene. Over the years it just progressed. I turned twenty one a few weeks ago and it’s scary to think I’ve been doing it for ten years which is just mad.”
Those ten years have seen Luke turn into a talented songwriter and storyteller. Always keen to explore the creative process, I quiz Luke on his songwriting process:
“It always varies to be honest, it’s not specifically like guitar or vocals first, or lyrics first. Without sounding clichéd it always starts with an idea…almost like a topic, a storyline. A lot of the time it can be about something I’ve read, something I’ve heard, something I’ve experienced. I find sometimes that if I can get the first two lines then I can open up the rest of the song. Other times I’ll have an idea and come up with a few lyrics that I won’t use, but it sets the tone for it…I have that down in the bank and keep that as an idea and then go searching for inspiration, think of things that maybe I could write about. So it’s almost like you’ve got your little bag of music and you’ve got your little bag of ideas and it’s just finding the ones that fit. But yeah, the main thing I like to do is paint a bit of a picture and make a bit of a story, whether it’s a true story or completely made up. I’ve recently written a song called ‘Leather and Chrome’ which tells the story of my father building a motorbike and wanting to ride to New York. Then unfortunately he gets ill and can’t ride his bike anymore, so then I go away and ride to New York…and I’ve never sat on a motorbike in my life so I wouldn’t know any of that! But that’s the whole thing…I can make it up and tell a story.”
Something that almost everyone comments on after seeing Luke perform is his remarkable stage presence, a skill he developed from observing others in his field. “I think getting with involved with artists like Steve Knightley, Martyn Joseph and a lot of the guys within the folk world. One thing they’re very good at is engaging with the audience, whether that be talking between songs, making them laugh, making them cry, making them sing along. You’ve got to keep an audience captivated. For a long time I was watching other artists do it and I think maybe naturally it rubbed off slightly…little tricks of the trade and that sort of thing. When I started I’d often just stare at my guitar…now I try to look at my guitar hardly ever and look at the audience. I write a lot of songs with stories behind them, so I want to explain that and give the audience a bit of an insight to the story. I’ve been doing it for a long time so it’s not as if it came overnight. I’ve been working at it for a while. The main thing is being comfortable on stage…I’ve been doing it a long time so I probably feel more comfortable on stage than I do anywhere else to be honest, because I feel like I know what I’m doing.”
Like any musician, Luke feels the pressure of making his career sustainable given the common challenge of encouraging UK audiences to get out and watch live music. However for the time being he has a strong enough fan-base to not let this be a distraction. “I think as long as I keep writing songs that people enjoy and keep it interesting…then fingers crossed. The reason why I started gigging live wasn’t because I had the vision of being full-time and making money out of it…I just wanted the comfort of seeing whether people enjoyed my songs or not. If I went out and they booed me I would have thought ‘Well obviously this is crap I’ll leave it be! ‘. But the fact that I’m able to do this full-time and the simple thing of just travelling around the UK…I’m forever meeting new people and definitely seeing a lot of things that people my age wouldn’t normally be seeing. I think at the moment it’s all going well and there’s certain things in the pipeline that are exciting.”
This leads our conversation nicely to the conclusion of what’s next for Luke. “I guess it’s the trio…basically just pushing that. It’s been great because I’ve started gigging over in Europe so that’s really kicking off. The thing over there that’s so obvious is that they come out regardless of who you are. I went over for a two-week tour with Connor, the drummer, and it was the first time he’s ever gone on the road with me. I said to him ‘Mate, honest I’ve never gigged over in Europe, we could be playing to a lot of empty rooms.’ He was like ‘Oh Ok we’ll see how it goes’. Every night…sell-out! Rammed every night. I was asking people ‘Why did you come when you don’t know who I am?’. They said ‘We saw a poster’ or ‘There’s music here every fortnight and we just come along’. The thing is out there they just love live music. Obviously we do over here but it’s one of those things where, unless you’re established…day by day it gets harder and harder to actually get people out. But over there they just love it…they come out regardless.”
“A lot of the promoters that were involved with that first tour are also doing festivals and stuff, so I’ve already done two festivals over in Holland and then in July I’m there again. Pretty much all the festivals I’m doing this Summer are over in Europe, which is crazy because it all came out of me going over there for two weeks. It’s great to be involved in that. The boys, all three of us are going on an official tour in October…we’ve got another Scottish tour. It’s always great fun in Scotland…we’ll do maybe three weeks and it’s solid gigging. I’m completely unsigned at the moment…I’m getting various interest from potential labels that are bigger which is exciting so I’m in the pipeline of working with those, but just seeing how that goes. So yeah…hopefully I’ll just keep progressing and be able to do what I do.”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos