After years as a fixture in San Luis Obispo County coffee shops and performance spaces, Santa Margarita’s Jade Jackson is hitting her stride.
The 25-year-old released her first full-length album, “Gilded,” in May and is about to go on her second tour with punk band Social Distortion. She’s garnered national attention from publications like Rolling Stone magazine and Huffington Post.
Yet, despite her growing fame, Jackson still lives on the Central Coast and waitresses at The Range, her parents’ steakhouse in Santa Margarita.
“It doesn’t feel real,” she said of her rising stardom.
Jackson’s family moved from Los Osos to Santa Margarita when she was 13, which was around the time her interest in becoming a performer blossomed.
“Both my parents aren’t into technology, so ...we don’t have TV, don’t have Internet. I don’t have any friends. I’m not 16 so I can’t drive anywhere, and it’s 118 degrees,” she said, adding that a lack of air conditioning made the summertime move especially miserable. “I kind of picked up the guitar out of being bored and also being pissed off and needing somewhere to channel it.”
When Jackson started performing, “I would sit down with my guitar and my hair like this,” she said, covering her face with her hair, “and all my lyrics on the floor. I was so shy.”
During one such gig, a woman scrawled a note on a dollar bill and dropped it in Jackson’s tip jar. “She wrote ‘Jade Jackson is a star’ in blue Sharpie and put a big star on it and it’s in my room hanging up,” Jackson recalled. “It was the first time somebody outside my parents believed in me.”
Once Jackson decided she wanted to be a musician, “It’s honestly been tunnel vision,” she said. “I’ve tailored everything in my life around getting to this point.”
But her dreams were nearly derailed when she was studying musical arts and performance at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
During her first semester of college, Jackson fell off a rope swing, broke her back and spent the following 18 months recovering.
“When I first got in the hospital, they thought maybe I was paralyzed,” she said. “Even when I was recovered, it was like, it hurts my back to sit down so how am I supposed to tour in a van? It was just like taking my dreams and crumpling them.”
But Jackson persevered, though she struggled with a deep depression that lasted several years.
“I was honestly hanging on. That’s the feeling I’m thinking of right now,” she said. During that time, she continued to work on her music because, she said, “I didn’t want to quit even though I was broken, you know?”
Jackson’s lucky break came during her junior year when she was home on winter break. She performed with some friends at an open mike night at Kreuzberg Coffee Co. in San Luis Obispo. The wife of Social Distortion lead singer Mike Ness was in the audience and sent Ness a video of Jackson performing.
Since then, Ness has served as Jackson’s mentor, helping produce her album and taking her on tour.
“Isn’t it weird that he’s the one who called me 10 years later?” asked Jackson, noting that it was a Social Distortion concert that inspired her to pursue music.
“Gilded,” Jackson’s first album, was released May 19, and it’s clear how much she has matured. Her husky vocals and the sad, sentimental quality of her deeply personal songs evoke Taylor Swift-level emotions — especially when she sings, as she does in “Back When,” about lost love and the ache of growing up.
Jackson said her inspiration comes less from real-life events and more from her role as observer and storyteller.
“Being in a small town really opened up my imagination,” she said. “Say you see someone cross the street or at the bus station, you empathize with them. You put yourself in their shoes... Most of my songs are telling somebody else’s story, or my idea of what their story would be.”
Although Jackson is billed as “unapologetically country rock,” by her record label, Anti Records, “I don’t know what genre I am,” Jackson said. “I never write songs with the intention to fit into a specific genre. I just write.”
On Sunday, Jackson performed a concert in New York with country star Jason Aldean. Her tour with Social Distortion kicks off on July 22 in Salt Lake City, Utah. And Jackson couldn’t be happier.
“Being on the road is what I feel like I’m meant to do and it makes the in-between times okay,” said Jackson, a self-described “homebody” who serves food to customers at The Range whenever she’s not touring or making music. “In my heart, I know I’m supposed to travel and be on the road. It’s good to have a backup plan, but I don’t even think about it like that. I’m going to keep trying for this plan until I die.”
She said she hopes that, five years from now, she’ll have tours lined up and a second or third album out.
“I want the Willie Nelson career. I want to be touring and writing music and playing for audiences and sharing my songs with the world for as long as possible,” she said.
And to everyone on the Central Coast who has supported Jackson and her career since the beginning, she just has one thing to say:
“Thank you. I couldn’t have done this without you. No way.”