Gillies Goes from ‘American Idol’ to Star of His Own Heart
No one could fault Santa Barbara singer-songwriter-guitarist Jackson Gillies for letting early success go to his head. After all, while still battling both Type 1 diabetes and a painful skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa, Gillies was a surprise winner of the 2016 local Teen Star competition at a sold-out Arlington Theatre at age 15, sang for thousands more onstage at 2018’s Kick Ash Bash in Carpinteria, and then parlayed his connections with Kenny Loggins and other local rock stars into a shot as a contestant on American Idol early last year before turning 20.
No one but Gillies himself, that is.
When he suddenly found himself eliminated early from the popular network TV show, Gillies was not only shocked but also bitterly disappointed. But rather than retreat into depression, he took the opportunity to re-examine not only his musical approach, but also his life.
“I just wasn’t bringing anything new to the table,” he admitted frankly over the phone last weekend. “I could perform entire albums note for note, but I wasn’t writing the songs. And you can’t really write great songs without having some experience in the world, having a personality that is outside of the box.”
Indeed, Gillies concluded, he’d let himself be “sheltered by music, latching onto my favorite artists, but not really have much experience” with himself because of his health issues. “There were spans of months where I was just in bed recovering from surgery or in a lot of pain, not really going out and living the life that I could and should have been for a teenager.”
Seeking a change of venue at the very least, in September 2019, Gillies moved to London with then-girlfriend Hana Aluna to study at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, but, he said, he was still trying to force his way to popularity.
“I was trying to impress everybody,” he said. “I was expecting some of the stuff that I’d had here. I was so used to doing those vocal acrobatics and having people tell me I was amazing. That was my only goal at first, just to make all of these people say, ‘Wow, you’re great!’ I was looking for short-term validation. It was such a shallow expectation but it was rooted from insecurity. So I just clung onto what I knew, which was playing or talking about music.”
After, in his own words, “failing spectacularly,” Gillies gave up on that angle and actually started making friends at the school, at first collaborating and eventually “almost letting go of music to just live. It turns out I went to music school and ignored the music for a minute to just be a person. I had to learn how to be Jackson.”
Clearly something clicked. Gillies is unveiling his new batch of songs that mark a sea change in his style along with a handful of heartfelt covers in a one-hour presentation that was produced as part of the Marjorie Luke Theatre’s new Virtual Concert Series that once again seems to have made him a voice that needs to be heard, but now one with a deeply personal vision. Love and loss permeate his half-dozen compositions that nearly invariably boast indelible memories and are delivered with both beauty and emotional nakedness in his vocal delivery. The lyrics evoke images of local landmarks as well as the often inaccessible far reaches of the heart.
“It’s become about prioritizing what I value the most,” he explained. “I had to figure out what my true voice was. That’s part of what I discovered in that inward journey – that I treasure moments of emotional openness.”
Gillies described his songs as ones that seem right for late at night, “around 2 am, when I’m in bed, missing the person that I want to talk to the most, something that is very vulnerable. These songs deal so heavily with the harder stuff of life, with being introspective and letting go of love.”
Indeed, Gillies said, they serve as a form of therapy.
“I think I cried when I wrote the last line of ‘Learning,’” he said. “I read it after I had written it then sung it and I started thinking, ‘God, I’ve got to give myself a break.’ There were things that were right in front of my face that I would have never known if I hadn’t written the song. Because these things can be so subtle and hidden.”
As befits the songs’ tone, the concert is a mostly spare affair, delivered acoustically with gentle accompaniment by veteran local musicians and friends Randy Tico and Brian Mann, among others. Gillies himself largely produced and mixed the music, decorated the Luke’s stage with furniture from his own home and designed the images that are projected behind him. The result is perhaps the best locally-produced video made during the pandemic, one that should reward repeat viewings well beyond the December 18 premiere on the website of the Marjorie Luke Theatre.
Not to sound boastful, but Gillies himself is grateful. “Being able to play on that stage and do it exactly how I wanted to do it and with the exact songs that I wanted to do, that’s a lifetime gift,” he said. “I am so blessed to be able to make a show like this and represent myself as clearly as I wanted.”