Two years ago, Sara Jackson-Holman was a classically trained pianist who resisted the idea of writing pop songs due to a lack of confidence.
Today, she's listening closely to the final tracks from her upcoming album for a celebrated Portland record label, with an eye toward touring next summer. She'll also play some of those songs today in Bend (see “If you go”) before heading back to college this weekend.
The story of how Jackson-Holman, 21, got from there to here is like some 21st-century fairy tale, one the 2007 Mountain View High School graduate calls “so weird.”
It revolves around MySpace, that ancient relic of social networking that's been left in the dust by Facebook and Twitter but still stands as the best way for musicians to get their music heard.
Just ask Jackson-Holman, who posted a comment on the MySpace profile of Blind Pilot, the Portland indie-folk band that shot from obscurity to stardom in 2008 and 2009. She saw the band earlier this year in Spokane, Wash., where she attends Whitworth University, and was blown away.
“It was just a typical fan post, like I love their music and are they coming back to Spokane any time soon ... and that's literally all I wrote,” Jackson-Holman said earlier this week. “And (Anthony McNamer, head of the band's record label) was randomly looking through their comments one day ... and he clicks on my profile and hears my first song and sends me a MySpace message.”
McNamer runs Expunged Records, a Portland-based label best known for releasing Blind Pilot's debut and an excellent, star-studded tribute to Elliott Smith. He had noticed a photo of Jackson-Holman sitting on a couch in the forest, she said, and thought it looked like an album cover.
“He asked me if I had a demo CD and, I mean ... I didn't, really,” she said with a laugh. “I was working on stuff. And I kind of thought in the back of my mind that I'd try to make an album at some point. But I was also doing my school thing and working a lot.
“So I said, ‘Demo CD? Well, I have the songs on my MySpace,'” Jackson-Holman said.
Those were enough to interest McNamer, and it's easy to see why. Jackson-Holman's songs are a blend of her influences, ranging from the classical music of Chopin, Bach and Beethoven to current pop stars such as Coldplay and Damien Rice. Her melodies flit and flutter distinctively like Regina Spektor's, and her voice has the same kind of naturally smoky, jazzy quality that helped make Norah Jones a superstar.
While the pop influence is relatively new for Jackson-Holman, her affinity for classical music is deeply rooted. She grew up in Bend, began plunking around on her mother's piano at age 6, took lessons from Peter Brownlee, and was competing in classical competitions by her teenage years.
She also loved literature and poetry, and her mom encouraged her to combine her interests and write her own songs. But Jackson-Holman wasn't ready.
“I was like, ‘No, mom, I'm not going to write songs,'” she said. “I think, initially, it takes a lot of confidence to put yourself out there. I guess I was just lacking that initial confidence.”
So she continued to focus on classical music, and attended Whitworth with the help of scholarships for piano performance. There, Jackson-Holman was exposed to a new world of music through new friends. And near the end of her freshman year, she finally dipped her toe into songwriting.
“I think ... it was not only the encouragement from my friends and my parents (Anne and Bill Holman), but also I started listening to a lot more music,” she said. “I think that kind of opened my eyes to some more possibilities.”
Jackson-Holman wrote her first song, “Maybe Something's Wrong,” in about 45 minutes, she said. She wrote more over the following summer and her sophomore year, creating the sound that tickled McNamer's fancy a few months ago.
Once McNamer took notice, things progressed quickly. Jackson-Holman left that fateful comment on Blind Pilot's MySpace on June 11, and on July 18, she attended a concert in Portland, where she met McNamer and producer Skyler Norwood. She signed a deal with Expunged soon after, and recorded the album with Norwood in August and over Thanksgiving break. After Jackson-Holman reviews the final tracks, they'll be sent off for mastering; she hopes to release the record in May or June.
And then it's time to tour, and that's fine with Jackson-Holman. She says she loves performing, and she loves performing her own songs even more than classical music.
The reason is simple.
“The difference is really astounding, because when you're performing classical, people don't smile at you afterward and it's a really polite applause,” she said. “But when I first started performing my own stuff, people were smiling at me and encouraging me. I was like, ‘This is so friendly.'”