Features/What to SEE/Music/Theatre

Jackson sings a different tune

27 March 2023

Joel Jackson made his name in front of the camera and treading the boards, but nothing feels more personal than playing music. Julie Hosking catches up with the award-winning actor on the eve of a symphonic performance.

“I wanted to be like this guy more than anything when I was at school,” Joel Jackson says, indicating the distinctive tones of another double J wafting in the background. “I was known for playing him all the time – my buddies would call me Jack Joelson!” 

We’re sitting in an empty bar off Stirling Highway, in Melville, with only a bartender and Jack Johnson (or at least his voice) for company. Joel Jackson may have secured his own identity as an award-winning actor but he’s still clearly a fan of the American singer-songwriter, tapping his fingers almost absent-mindedly along to the music. 

The 31 year old is a music tragic who waxes lyrical about everyone from Paul Kelly (“one of my favourite musicians of all time”) to James Taylor (“I’ve just discovered him again”).  For while acting catapulted him to fame, Jackson has been playing music since he was a teenager. He wasn’t old enough to drink when he was supporting the likes of the Hoodoo Gurus, Daryl Braithwaite and Birds of Tokyo in pubs in his home town of Karratha. 

Even when Jackson’s acting career took off with eye-catching performances in TV mini-series Deadline Gallipoli and Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door (for which he won the AACTA for best actor), his guitar was never far from his side. It still is, along with a journal, his brain constantly whirring with melodies, lyrics, and ideas. 

“Music has always been my escape, it’s always been my personal time,” he says “When you’re acting, you’re telling people’s stories but you’re definitely in the realm of the director, producer and writer. Music has always been this thing for me that is my total self-expression.” 

Joel Jackson as Yan opposite Virginia Gay’s Cyrano in Gay’s adaptation of the 1897 play. Photo: Daniel J Grant

So he’s very excited to be stepping into the spotlight as a singer rather than a thespian for String Sessions, a concert with Katy Steele (Little Birdy) and Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO), on 31 March. 

PSO has reworked their respective songs for the string section of an orchestra, including Jackson’s Currents, for which he recently created a video at Glebe Town Hall, in Sydney.  

“It was just so great to do this version and have it as a string trio and plan and produce exactly where I wanted it to be, exactly how I wanted it to be shot, make the storyboards and find the musicians, find a design and then make it happen,” he says. 

“It was just such a great experience because it used everything I’d learnt along the way and all the beautiful connections I’ve made to make it happen.” 

Being able to perform it with the backing of an orchestra, a seed planted when Jackson met PSO founder Bourby Webster at an event he was hosting, is the icing on the cake. 

“I haven’t had the same opportunities in music that I’ve had with my acting,” he says with endearing honesty. “I’ve struggled to find original gigs that would have me … someone might think, ‘thanks buddy, we don’t need another acting musician’. So to get to hear your music played by like 30 or 40 people is phenomenal.” 

Jackson is also looking forward to being on the same stage as Steele. “She’s been doing this much longer than I have and for much bigger audiences – it’s just cool to watch someone evolve, to know their music and think about how that’s going to sound with the orchestra.” 

Although Jackson had a few guitar lessons as a child, the singer-songwriter is mostly self-taught, so he’s found himself constantly apologising as he trades chord notes with PSO for the song interpretations. 

Joel, pictured with his dad Weston, says family is everything. Photo: Courtney Bertling

“It’s like ‘sorry I don’t know what it is, it just sounds great’; ‘I’m really sorry, I think it’s a G’,” he says with a rueful laugh.   

But he’s come to realise after a decade in the acting game, working with people from all walks of life, that how you get somewhere doesn’t really matter, so long as you do the job well. Indeed, Jackson thinks if he had been classically trained, his Peter Allen would have been too polished, not authentic enough. 

“If someone can stand on their own two feet to do the thing, it doesn’t matter what their education is or what their process is; it’s really none of your business how they do it,” he says. “And the world is better for not being asked or not keeping people out because of certain things.” 

Jackson understands this better than most. Born in Albany, where most of his “huge, massive family” still lives, he was 10 when his parents moved to Karratha, where his father was a primary school principal and his mother worked in the local high school (she now runs a coffee van). 

He seemingly led a charmed life within this loving clan, spending holidays in the Great Southern helping out on the farm or wherever his uncles needed him. Jackson was popular at school, the school captain and the captain of the football team. He was also a good student, winning a study scholarship that took him to Brazil for a year after he graduated. 

But for 10 years a near tragedy weighed heavily on the young man’s shoulders, one he writes poignantly about on his website. The then 17 year old was “bush bashing” with four of his mates, driving on a dirt road when the 4WD flipped.  

Although he and his friends escaped relatively unscathed physically, it took Jackson a long time to forgive himself, much longer than their parents, two of whom were his footy coaches. He punished himself for a decade, sabotaging relationships in the belief he didn’t deserve to be happy. Success was one thing, but happiness? No. 

Until Anzac Day 2018 when he ran into his former coaches and plucked up the courage to bring up the past. To his surprise, they were only interested in telling Jackson how much they loved him and were proud of him. 

Joel Jackson in ‘Barracking for the Umpire’ with Steve Le Marquand and Jo Morris. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

“Ten years of remembering, almost every day, that I had caused a car crash that could have ended lives and believing that everyone who was affected by it looked at me and my happy life through cross hairs,” he writes.  

“I stood on the pristine golf green of the Karratha Golf Course surrounded by school kids, military personnel, mates, local dignitaries, a beautiful desert sunrise filling the air that was heavy with remembrance. Remembrance on a very special day not to remind us who our enemies were, but to remember the importance of forgiveness.” 

Jackson never forgot where he came from, however. Whenever he needs grounding, he heads to the Great Southern, where someone will always find him a job to do.  

“We’re a really close-knit, old-school kind of blue collar family,” he says. “I appreciate so deeply what they do and what they give to this country and this family in terms of providing as farmers or mechanics, it’s so important. And too often what I do gets the limelight.” 

Jackson has been juggling those two worlds all his professional life. As a wide-eyed 18 year old, he auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) over WAAPA, reckoning he needed to stand on his own two feet, and the latter was too close to home comforts.  

In Sydney, he was known as ‘Karratha’ for the first year, which made him more determined to prove himself. He was thrown in the deep end almost immediately, cast as a gay lover in his first play opposite one of the oldest students, Robert Collins (The Drover’s Wife, Cleverman).  

“It was a beautiful challenge that (the late NIDA teacher) Kevin Jackson put down to me, like ‘you’re from the bush, you’ve never experienced any of these different subcultures, go and explore it’,” he says. “It was very eye-opening, and I think put me on the path to do Peter years and years later. You know, people could see I had this empathy to understand people, to crack yourself wide open.” 

While he tasted success relatively young – he was only 22 when he was nominated for an AACTA and a Logie for his portrayal of World War I journalist Charles Bean — Jackson has had the dry spells common to his profession. He’s not one to wait for the next job to come along. “I hate being idle, I can’t sit still, I’ve done quite a bit of landscaping – I really like it, it’s another form of creative expression.” 

A distressed looking woman in a red dressing gown is comforted by a younger man wearing a vest and trousers.
Joel Jackson with Mandy McElhinney in ‘The Glass Menagerie’. Photo: Daniel J Grant

He’s unlikely to be popping up in back gardens in Fremantle any time soon, though. Jackson moved back to Western Australia last year, eager to escape the grind of Sydney and Melbourne. He was filming Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis when Covid broke and had to relocate to Sydney, where he found himself in lockdown. When it looked like production on his TV series Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries would resume, he went to Melbourne. A week later, the Victorian Government shut everything down. 

He has nothing but affection for either of those cities but is enjoying the tight-knit arts community in his home State. “I was always coming back to work in Western Australia anyway, there were all these connections that I’d been growing forever and they’d become really fruitful,” he says. 

He had his first meeting with Black Swan State Theatre Company at the start of Covid, which led to starring roles in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Andrea Gibbs’ debut Barracking for the Umpire.  Jackson was back treading the boards during Perth Festival, playing the dim-witted but delightful Yan in Virginia Gay’s much-lauded take on Cyrano

But his work could take him anywhere at a moment’s notice. When we meet, he’s only just been asked to do a new film in Victoria (though he can’t give any details), where he’ll be based for the next few months. He’ll make a brief trip home to perform String Sessions before returning to the set.  

Life is busy, though you get the sense that Jackson not only makes the most of his opportunities but helps make them happen. Like String Sessions arising from that chance conversation several years ago.  

“I think the overwhelming sense for me will be to just take it back to simplicity,” he says. “The orchestra will know exactly what they’re doing, and this is just me and my songs. My job is just to tell stories and perform and have a wonderful time.” 

Perhaps it’s the knowledge of how close he came to a different future, but Jackson is determined to relish the moments.  

“I’ve got no qualms about not being the coolest kid on the block. I’m very happy being the dorky kid. Who’s having the best time in the world.” 

String Sessions is at Rechabite Hall on 31 March 2023

Currents will be released on 31 March, with the video out on 7 April

Pictured top: Joel Jackson during the filming of a video for his song ‘Currents’ in the Glebe Town Hall. Photo: Dave Shannon

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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