Back in L.A. after an Austin sojourn, Jackie Bristow lands at WitZend with songs from a new album
By Bliss Bowen
Sometimes it’s hard to understand what motivates artists to keep moving forward despite bookers with deaf ears, meager ticket sales and the sheer cost of independently recording and promoting music. For prolific singer-songwriter Jackie Bristow, currently working on her fourth album, it comes down to the honest connections made when someone takes the time to listen.
“I’m always writing,” she says via cellphone while driving south after a show in Big Sur. “Just living life, writing songs, and then trying to get them out to people.”
If the native New Zealander’s 2011 album “Freedom” sounded like a celebratory escape down roots-rocking backroads, then the forthcoming “Shot of Gold” depicts pools of pensive quiet further down the way. Spare instrumentation (acoustic and slide guitars, banjo, mandolin, hand-slapped percussion) complements her lightly grained soprano and personal songs, where natural imagery abounds. For the slide-drenched “Cry” Bristow, sounding like an earthier Shawn Colvin, pleads, confesses and dips into her lower register; later, gentle chords and harmonies cradle the poignant “Healing,” “Rollin’ Stone” and “Gotta Let Love Find You,” conveying a sense of hard-won grace.
One of the album’s highlights is “Fallen Youth,” whose lyrics were penned by an unnamed Italian soldier during WWI: “I was running back when I heard him call/ And as I turned I watched him fall/ His body froze in disbelief/ And it fell to the earth like a fallen leaf/ … One man dies and I survive/ And it leaves me empty to be alive/ Another number is all it means/ To those who watch behind the scenes.” Bristow’s simple melody and delivery bind it with the intimacy of her own material.
“This album I tried to just write from my heart more,” she says. “And I tried to keep more space in the recording. ‘Freedom’ was a little different, because I was living in Austin and wanted to make an album that’s fun.”
Bristow, who moved to L.A. in 2006, relocated to Texas in 2009. Considering the virtual caravan of artists who’ve migrated from L.A. to Austin recently, it was heartening when she chose to return last year.
“I went down for the music and had a great experience,” she explains. “But I love California and I missed my friends, and I feel more comfortable here. I have a community of Australians and we’ve known each other a long time.”
Like numerous other singer-songwriters, Bristow sustains her career with song placements in TV shows (in Australia and New Zealand; she’s still trying to crack the US market). She’s also opened shows for a substantial list of marquee artists, including Marc Cohn, Joe Ely, Tommy Emmanuel, Daniel Lanois and Bettye LaVette.
“I’ve been lucky in that way,” she acknowledges. “I haven’t really had a breakthrough song and I don’t have my own audience in that sense, so to be chosen by other people to open for them in beautiful venues — it doesn’t get much better. But I hope to get my own audience! That’s what I’m working toward.”
Last year she was tapped to open a string of New Zealand concerts for longtime hero Bonnie Raitt, whose influence can be discerned in the texture of Bristow’s music.
“That was a big honor,” Bristow marvels. “We got to hang out a lot and she watched our show from sidestage. She was quite gracious, very encouraging and lovely.”
This summer, Bristow has been busy playing club gigs, house concerts and acoustic series up and down the California coast. The venues are humbler than the halls on Raitt’s tour, but Bristow says that doesn’t usually change her performance approach.
“You feel out the audience and just take it in stride wherever you are playing. As long as there’s an audience that’s listening and appreciating the music, it’s worth it to me.”
Jackie Bristow performs at 10 p.m. Wednesday at WitZend, 1717 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. $10. Call (310) 305-4792 or visit jackiebristow.com.