Sonoma County, rife with talent, can lay claim to another artist on the rise: Josha James Jackson. Born and raised in Santa Rosa, JJJ (as he is sometimes known) is releasing his first solo album, Livin’ the Dream, with a music video accompanying the titular track.
Head straight to YouTube for an independently made work of video art starring “Queenie,” the main character of the music video, and coincidentally, a ball of purple Play-Doh.
Jackson has always been musical, performing with bands like Fishbear, which once opened for Cake, and the marching band Church, which did a live parade through the streets of Railroad Square one summer.
Livin’ the Dream is Jackson’s debut not only as a solo act, but as himself—pursuing the type of questions, through music, he was unable to explore in other music projects.
It started with a high school band that didn’t pan out—Fishbear—after which Jackson spent the better part of a decade working with several different singer-songwriters, helping them tour and playing in their bands. Jackson’s thought was that he was accruing experience, which he says he feels he did, but ultimately the process left him unfulfilled creatively.
“In 2016 or 2017, I made a big stink of quitting all the bands I was working for and started trying to run a band. It was probably more dramatic than was ultimately needed, but it was what I felt like I needed at the time,” said Jackson.
The band in question, Sharkmouth, actually provided Jackson with several songs featured on his upcoming album, including Livin’ on a Dream. The group toured a lot, and Jackson describes it as a “really high concept musical group that relied heavily on a lot of work from a small team.”
The stress of it, he said, became ultimately untenable.
“Everything was last minute; I’d show up making it work by the skin of my teeth, and it felt like we were letting people down. It was too much pressure on too small a team. So I made the choice to transition to using my own name again, a probably ultimately more dramatic than necessary move,” said Jackson, laughing.
Jackson realized he needed to pursue his own art rather than create a dream band.
“I think a lot of musicians suffer from this—I grew up watching Beatles movies. I thought that being in a band would be like that—you know, team, siblings, family. All the time. And I was trying to cultivate that, when it doesn’t really exist in that way. Which was on me for trying to create an idyllic community from my idea of what that could be, instead of a real reflection of what it was.”
He still collaborates with some of his old Sharkmouth band members, and shares no bad blood, but Jackson saw the need to truly honor the singularity of his creative calling. After over a decade of collaborations, Jackson began his first solo project in earnest in 2019.
“I right away started putting a record together, and it was scheduled to be released in 2020. But we all know what happened, so here it is now.”
Jackson recorded Livin’ the Dream in the OK Theater in Enterprise, OR, the oldest operating purpose-built theater in Oregon, erected in 1919. He tracked the bulk of the record there, and worked also with Dimed Records with musician and producer Jeremy Lyon.
The record in full is still to be released—meaning I haven’t heard it all yet—but Livin’ the Dream, the title track, is a feat of poignant yet upbeat melody layered with brass, keyboard and percussion, and Jackson’s vocals, all at once playful, crackly like a record and sad.
The lyrics, “I’m living the dream, if that’s what we’re gonna call it,” pretty overtly suggest that the dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jackson wrote this song while touring with Sharkmouth, at a moment when people would look at him and assume he was living a magical dream, when in fact he was struggling to find a sense of happiness and balance in his life.
“I’m super grateful for that time, and it was magical, but I also wasn’t getting enough to eat, I wasn’t bathing right. A lot about that lifestyle was so hard. So many of us who are trying to make work that we think is important live this experience where we struggle with our basic needs. It’s tough,” he reflected.
That said, Jackson says his life is more charmed than hard, though he adds that what looks cool can actually feel bad.
“The classic Instagram versus reality type thing,” he said. “So it’s kind of that. And at the time too, I was really depressed and lacking the tools to deal with that, and at the same time felt like I was actively living out my dreams. It was a strange dichotomy.”
Jackson’s work now, as a solo artist, is to continue exploring dichotomies like this one, and others he confronts, including feeling both incredibly privileged as a white male, but also experiencing real financial struggle in pursuing his art.
He feels that his work “oscillates between feeling self-indulgent and culturally useful.” And he is courageously exploring that cognitive dissonance. In going solo, he seeks to figure himself out, and hopes to also regain the momentum he had just before the pandemic hit, when he returned from a three week tour in England and was gearing up to sign with a record label.
“In a way, I’m totally starting over,” said Jackson.
Jackson gave his track over to Dana Merwin, a producer, writer and comedian originally from Georgia, who has performed at The Moth’s Grand Slam in Los Angeles, SXSW in Austin, TX, and SF Sketchfest, to name a few. Merwin, along with director, editor and animator Mike Manzielo and cinematographer Steve Kaye—both of whom Merwin emphatically acknowledged as vital players in the entire process and critical in bringing “Queenie” to life—took Jackson’s song and ran with it, creating the inimitable aforementioned “Queenie” and a totally unique music video filmed in downtown Oakland.
As Merwin tells it, “Queenie” is a purple ball of Play-Doh, but so much more. Merwin chose Play-Doh because of the nostalgic nature of the smell, and the child-like quality of the substance. It represents a love of childhood that we all, especially artists and creatives, seek to reconnect with, and keep alive.
“What I love about all of Josh’s work is that combination of soul sadness and joy,” said Merwin. “That’s the struggle that Josh’s music is asking us to acknowledge. How do we live that dream, the waking dream that was asked of us as kids—what do we want to be when we grow up?—while also living ‘the American dream’? This is going back to what we really wanted as kids, and facing that reality as an adult, without being overwhelmed by it, is what ‘Queenie’ is working through.”
It’s fitting that in this moment a music video and album come out asking us to confront our dreams and the harsh nature of reality also. Taking a look at duality, dichotomy and dissonance, the way Jackson is doing in Livin’ the Dream, is perhaps the best chance any of us have to actually create the symbiotic relationship between our childhood dreams and what life asks of us as adults.
Watch ‘Queenie’ in ‘Livin’ the Dream’ today, and stay up to date with JJJ by following @joshuajamesjackson on Instagram.