Jillian Jacqueline moved to Nashville 12 years ago to pursue a career as a country artist. Today, she releases her debut album, Honestly.
An independent artist, Jacqueline partnered with Virgin Music for distribution. Previously signed to Big Loud Records, Jacqueline left her label deal in 2019 and says it was important to own her music. She paid for the record on her own and sees a shift in the industry where artists no longer need a label to release music.
“Your power as an artist, it’s all there at your fingertips now,” she tells me. “The power is in social media and TikTok and you building your brand on your own. When you sign with [a label] you’re giving away percentages but you’re not really getting anything in return and that’s just not good business. It doesn’t make sense anymore to do that in my opinion.”
As an independent artist, Jacqueline says it’s important to build your brand and connection to your fans while continuing to release music. She says she has so much freedom in knowing that she can release more music on her own terms with her partnership with Virgin.
“It just felt very right,” she says of the partnership. “I looked at their business model and I felt like it really makes sense for where I am now. They really want to be true partners. They want to be there for what you need and to allow you to breathe and release music the way that you want to release music. It has to be fluid like that now.”
For Jacqueline, the journey to making Honestly wasn’t easy. She had finished mixing another album around January 2020 with the songs she had been writing since departing Big Loud. As she was about to shop the project, the pandemic put everything on hold, so she began reworking the songs to make them feel more exciting. She teamed with longtime producer Tofer Brown and the pair then enlisted her husband, guitarist and Tofer’s brother Bryan Brown, to co-produce.
“I thought, ‘What can we do to really make a record that stands up and holds up without needing anything else except four instruments and vocals?’” she says. “That was exciting to me. I was listening at Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile and thought, ‘That really appeals to me.’”
Jacqueline says Bryan challenged her and Tofer’s musical instincts in the studio. She says he forced her to get out of her comfort zone in so many ways that the new music still surprises her when she listens to it. She also opens up more on her songwriting and wrote things that scared her.
“There was a lot of simplicity,” she says. “A lot of the lyrics I didn’t overthink or second guess. I trusted, ‘This is my first instinct’ and I didn’t manipulate or try to go back in and make something sound a little bit more edgy or interesting.
“I felt very stripped. With the pandemic, we were removed from all of the things that make us feel productive and important and seen and validated and with all that being taken away you’re sitting with yourself and you’re saying, ‘OK why am I here? What am I doing? What is valuable for me to say about myself and to share?’ It became much more of an introspective situation for me where instead of trying to tell people who I was, I was trying to tell myself who I was and that is a very harrowing journey when you don’t ever look that inward.”
Songs like the vulnerable title track, candid “Sure” about the relationship with her husband and “Hummingbird,” which talks about her parents and her own insecurities, showcase Jacqueline’s honesty and adept songwriting.
After she wrote “Sure,” she played the demo for her husband and left the room while he was listening to the track. She admits to crying in the other room because she was scared of being so vulnerable in the song.
“It’s so funny to be scared of saying something like that but it really did terrify me to be so vulnerable,” she says. “What a lesson. You think that you’re an open and evolved adult and then you realize, ‘Whoa, I have a lot of growing to do.’ I love the simplicity of that song so much.
“There’s a lot of tenderness there and I think that that tenderness was something I was afraid to show and now I’m learning it and saying, ‘It’s OK. You can be sensitive and tender. You can let people know that you’re fragile and that’s part of being human.”
Jacqueline bought back the master of “God Bless This Mess,” initially featured on her 2017 Side A EP, when she negotiated out of her label deal with Big Loud. A new version of the song will be included on the vinyl of Honestly featuring Lucius. She says she always felt the song had the potential to be bigger than it was.
“That was the song people were getting tattoos of lyrics on their bodies and that means a lot to me,” she says. “Someone put the lyrics on their body — that’s a really big commitment and I felt like that means something. It’s my way of taking something back and saying this really meant a lot to me and it should have another life. If I had my way, it would have been a single. It would have had a shot to really go somewhere bigger.”
Over the past three years, Jacqueline has learned about herself as a creative, independent artist and businesswoman. So, what’s the best business lesson she’s learned?
“The best business advice, hands down which I have had to learn the very hard way, is trust your own instincts from day one,” she says. “It’s so hard when you’re first starting out to not look at other people for input and advice, but there is something to be said for someone that follows their gut and understands that at the end of the day they are the biggest advocate for their career. Nobody else is going to go die at the stake for you the way that you will, and I think some of the most powerful artists do that.”