Hello, friends. I’m excited to be starting this blog to process the journey that I’m on and to connect with all of you.
My name is Jackie, I am 28 years old, I am a musician (singer/songwriter) signed to Blue Elan Records in LA, I live in northern NY on 10 acres of land with my partner Shawn, a small dog, two small children, and some big dreams. Roan Yellowthorn is my alter ego and am working hard to bring that alter-ego into the light. With the help of many supportive people, I have started that journey.
Where did this journey start? Did it start in the small coastal town where I grew up, when I was eight years old and in my first community theater production? Did it start, then, when I realized that being part of a production with other people, being on stage, singing, performing, made me feel alive? Did it start earlier? Did it start when I was even smaller, watching rapturously as Judy Garland sang ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and envisioning myself a performer someday, too? Or did it start later? Did it start when I was in college and feeling like I was just killing time, fulfilling my filial duty to please my parents and get a degree, knowing in my heart that my life was going to start when I graduated and I was finally going to start living the life of a performer? A dreamer? An artist?
Or did it start after that? Did it start when I had just graduated from college and found myself married, isolated, in a commuter city, with a little baby, unsure of how I was going to get where I needed to go but sure that I would die trying? Let’s start the story there. At the place in my life where I felt, for the first time, like I had to be self-sufficient in order to chase after my dreams and make them into reality.
I’d like to tell you a little bit about this part of the journey.
Come with me back to 2014. I was living in Connecticut with my partner, Shawn. I had just graduated from college, had recently become a parent, and felt very lonely and far away from a community or friends. I was feeling more depressed and isolated than I ever had before. The closest person I knew lived hours away. I went weeks without leaving my house. The town we lived in was a commuter town for NYC and did not have any sort of community to be part of. Our house was on the side of a busy highway.
We were in Connecticut because Shawn had gotten a job there as a high school teacher, and I, with a fresh BA in Language and Literature, was trying to find myself. But that was a hard task. With each day, I felt more and more like I was losing touch with myself. Like I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was 25.
I was desperate to feel better. More like myself. In my desperation, I kept coming back to the idea of singing. I had always been ‘the singer’ growing up, and now I had no avenue or audience. I felt severely limited because I didn’t know how to play any instruments, and I didn’t know anybody. But I knew that if I could find a way to sing, I would feel like myself again. I had always relied on a community of theater groups, choruses, and my brother’s guitar skills when I wanted to make music, but now I didn’t have any of those things. Now, it was up to me to find a way to make it happen.
Something about the idea of singing in a choir, especially, was really appealing; I longed to be surrounded by other voices, but I didn’t know of any choirs, at least not for adults. So I had the idea to reach out to a Baptist church choir an hour away (even though I had never before even been in a church). The choral coordinator emailed me a rehearsal schedule, and I held onto it like a life raft.
I drove to the church the next week and walked through the long dark hallways until I found a large group singing in a big, well-lit room. I was very nervous to walk in without knowing anything about church or anyone there, but the congregation was warm and welcoming (and didn’t ask me if I was a Baptist.) I was thrilled. I attended rehearsals and even sang at one of the church services.
Singing with that group kicked me into gear. The voices around me dwarfed mine and put hope back into my heart. I had always been told I had a ‘big’ voice, but my voice didn’t feel big here. It was among the softest. Being in the middle of so many strong, beautiful voices was a balm to my soul- I felt truly uplifted. It was one of the most energizing singing experiences of my life to be surrounded by so much passion and power, to feel it going through my entire body while I sang, connecting me to every other voice. I was revitalized and suddenly inspired to learn an instrument. That way, I could sing any time I wanted.
I decided to try to learn to play the piano. It was an easy decision- I had always wanted to learn piano but never knew how to start. But now things were different. Now, I had that magic of Youtube. So, hunched on the living room floor, over an old Yamaha keyboard I’d had since childhood and dragged from place to place but never learned to play, I watched YouTube videos. One after another.
Little by little, I found my footing. I found a YouTube piano lesson series and started from the beginning. The videos were working! I watched them every day and dutifully followed the instructions, learning to play scales and basic chords. I also started to learn ‘Annie Waits’ by Ben Folds and, after a few weeks, I had gained a little bit of confidence and was becoming a little more familiar with the configuration of the keys.
For the first time, I could imagine what it would be like to play well enough to accompany myself. I had a long way to go, but it felt like that goal was somewhere within reach. It was exhilarating. The more I learned, the more it felt like I had a grasp on a new language. Or like I’d finally become friends with someone I’d admired from afar for years and years.
My goal was to learn how to play cover songs so that I could sing alone in my house and maybe (if I really practiced a lot) at an open mic or two. I never planned to write songs. But one night I was feeling really upset and depressed and I started to write a poem about my feelings.
I’ve always been a writer of poetry etc. and, I think because I was learning the language of the piano, the poem came out as a song.
It felt like I had unlocked years and years of influences and genetic memories. The songwriting came so easily. When I was done, I had a country song called ‘Drinkin.’ I was ecstatic. It felt like I had a superpower. I played the song for Shawn and wondered what I should do next. Was this going to be a one-time thing? Could I even do it again?
As it turned out, I could. After that, it was like a gate had opened into a secret place. I kept writing songs in my living room. One after another. It felt cleansing. Cathartic. Magical. For my birthday, in February, Shawn gave me a newer piano and also a stool and stand so that I wouldn’t have to play crouched on the carpet anymore. I set it up by the window and played every day.
Soon, I had enough songs that it seemed like the next logical step was to do something with them. But what was that something? Shawn decided to learn how to play the drums so that we could play the songs together and give them a fuller sound. He was excited to have an excuse to learn and bought a cheap kit at Guitar Center an hour from our house. He set it up in the basement and practiced at night after work, while I thought about what the next step could be.
I knew that one of our friends had worked at a recording studio while we were in college, so, one day, I looked up the studio name and called the number, not really even knowing what I was going to say. A man named John answered and was very kind and accommodating, explaining what he did and how the recording process worked. I decided I just wanted to have a recording of what I’d done. Proof of the songs. I didn’t know the step beyond that but I built the plane as I flew it, not even knowing I was building a plane at all, but just trying to stay aloft.
We set a date with John and took 5 of my songs to the studio to record scratch tracks. The day of the recording, we showed up with our kid in tow and met John in the parking lot behind the studio. He was kind and welcoming. I was very nervous. He showed us in and I went to the keyboard, stumbling across the keys to record the piano parts. Shawn whispered to him so that I couldn’t hear ‘don’t worry, she’s better at singing.’ Then it was time to go into the vocal booth. I started singing the first line of ‘Drinkin.’ I saw John’s face mouth the word ‘wow.’
When I came out of the booth, the energy in the room had shifted. I knew I had nailed it and I felt great about it. ‘Woah,’ he said ‘that was fuckin hot. You can really sing! Did you write that song?’ I told him I had. He couldn’t believe that it was my first. I was bursting with pride and confidence. From that moment on, John became our ally and advocate, guiding us and encouraging me.
After we had the tracks recorded, we realized that the next step would be to record an EP. Our money was limited but John offered to do it for free if he could set up a deal with his producer friend. He believed in me and my abilities that much. And that meant the world. Scheduling intervened with that plan but we ended up recording the EP a few months later.
In the time between, I struggled, feeling like I needed a pseudonym to sing under so that I could feel like the freest version of myself. Shawn suggested I use the name I’d come up with as an alter-ego in a revelation of reinvention in college (a name that he had made fun of at the time), Roan Yellowthorn. We went back to John’s studio in September and recorded a whole EP in two days without any preparation beyond a list of songs. The experience was energizing and gratifying, but I didn’t feel like I had control over the sound and the process felt rushed.
We got the tracks back and then realized that the next step would be to release the EP. I did not know how to do that.
You would think, because my dad is a singer, that I’d have a knowledge of this stuff or that I’d know lots of people in the industry. Not true on both counts. What ended up happening is that Shawn’s parents were incredibly proud of what we’d done (by now we were in the process of moving to the town where they lived in order to be closer to family) and they had told all of their close friends about my songs. One friend of theirs had a son who lived in Brooklyn and knew a woman who worked for a PR firm. Shawn’s Dad gave the guy’s father a burned copy of our CD and he gave it to his son and the son passed it onto his friend and she called me. And, before we knew it, we were represented by a respected PR firm and a plan for the EP release was being put into into action. It felt predestined.
Our new friend helped us build up all of the basics from nothing- we created a Facebook page, made a Bandcamp account, got pictures taken, created a Twitter page. All of that stuff. She made a timeline for a release of the EP and gave me a deadline for album art. I painted the cover in the basement of Shawn’s parents house over the course of a month. It was a portrait of me surrounded by spirits and gold leaf, wearing my favorite boyscout shirt.
I started giving interviews and writing guest pieces in online publications per the publicity agreement. Something was building. It was the first step.
We coordinated with a small printing company to create a run of physical CDs and launched a radio campaign, making an assembly line at Shawn’s parents kitchen table to assemble the packages we’d mail out to the stations.
And then, on April 8th, 2016, my EP, ‘Roan Yellowthorn’ was released.
We booked our first show in NYC for the release. A photographer was there. And a journalist. That night, my aunts and cousins came from Montreal to see us play. My mother, Shawn’s family, our friends from college, even the friend who had once worked at Nada Recording studio, where we had made the EP, were all there. The room was full of family and friends. The show was a success, and it felt like it was meant to be. Like it was all part of the master plan. It was the first step. And it felt like it was leading me in the right direction.
That was a little over two years ago. Since then, even more has happened. The rest is another story, but this was the beginning. Since then, Shawn and I have officially become a duo (although I still consider Roan Yellowthorn to be my own personal alter-ego); he plays drums when we perform, and he produced our debut album. We have toured from coast to coast- California, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Maine, and many more places in between. Most significantly, we’ve been signed by a record label (a story in itself), and have released our first full-length album, a very personal work called ‘Indigo.’
I’m writing this, my first blog post, from our hotel room. In LA. The hotel that our record label, Blue Elan, booked for us so that we could attend the label’s annual holiday party.
When I started this journey, two years ago, or maybe twenty-eight years ago, being in this place that I am in right now was a prayer. But I always knew I’d to get here. I was determined. What I didn’t know was how I’d do it. That’s been a surprise every step of the way. It all feels like some cosmic combination of tenacity and fate. But that’s another story in itself, as well. We’ve come a long way since we started and, in some ways, it feels like where I am right now is just the beginning.