Neil Jackson redefines the word busy. For several years he’s been hopping out of planes, trains, and indeed automobiles several hundred times a year to go and act on stage and screen in far-flung places. Many of his films and TV shows have been major hits, and you’d think the life of an up-and-coming movie star would be enough, wouldn’t you? But no: Jackson is also a guitarist, singer, songwriter and all-round talented chap. His new album, The Little Things, featuring his deft fingerpicking touch, and soulful vocals, is out now.
Asked if he is one of those irritating people who are good at lots of things, Jackson chuckles, ‘Ha! Yes, I guess so. We’ll see how much people like my music, though. I was talking to a journalist the other day and she asked why I was making the change from acting to music. But both these things have always been passions of mine. For me, I’ve always been a storyteller, that’s the easiest way to understand what I do. Whether it be storytelling as an actor or writer or singer, I’ve always loved the idea of telling stories. It’s the same no matter what the medium is.’
The Little Things appears to be an intensely personal album, we notice, based as it is on themes of love and heartbreak and whatnot. ‘It is pretty personal, yes,’ he agrees. ‘They’re all songs based on things that have happened to me. I’m lucky that the acting job allows me to travel around with the guitar a lot, but I’m left with my own thoughts a lot and so these songs spring up out of that. There’s a lot of songs about my relationship with my girlfriend. The song ‘Save Me Tonight’ is very much about her, for example. We travel a lot in our jobs, both of us, because she’s a stuntwoman and I’m an actor. We’d just spent four months apart and we had a conversation saying that we didn’t know how we were going to make it work, and whether it would be better if we didn’t, just because we never see each other. That song came out of the emotions felt during that, and there are direct lines from our conversation in there. It was a like some kind of catharsis, in a way, from dealing with those things,’ he admits.
‘I’ve been composing songs for 15 years, I guess. I’ve done loads of open-mic nights and things like that, and I started gigging and playing more regularly, but each time I’ve gone to take it to the next level, an acting job’s come up that has required me to be away for several months and I’ve put it on the back burner. I finally made the decision on New Year’s Eve 2011 that I wanted to do the album, so most of the songs have been written within the last year and a half. Most of them are pretty current.’
So which came first, we ask – the stage or the stave? ‘I was a musician before I was an actor,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t actually start playing the guitar until I was 23, but I did play piano and sing in school bands when I was a kid, and that led to writing songs. I went off and studied sport at university and after that I wanted to get back into acting, because I’d done a bit of it in school plays and things like that. My way of getting back into it was to write a musical, and I submitted that and I ended up getting a scholarship to go on an acting course. That led me back in, so the music always came first and then the acting came out of that.’
Is it the case, we say, trying to sound deep and thoughtful, that inhabiting a song with personal lyrics is rather like inhabiting a role on screen? ‘Yes, I think so,’ he says. ‘For me, they’re all emotional journeys. They’re all touchstones for how I was feeling the day I did them. There’s a song called ‘Gonna Have To Change’ on the album, which is again about my relationship and how we never saw each other. That song was written in an hour. I just sat down and poured it out, and I can’t help playing it. It was the same when I was in the recording session with my producer. As much as we’re trying to hone the sound and get a cohesiveness across the album, each song is a story, and I end up losing myself in the telling of that story.’
Asked what guitars he prefers, Jackson explains: ‘I’ve got a small-bodied Martin Auditorium. A lot of my songs involve a lot of picking, and I love that sound as opposed to the bigger sound you get from deeper-bodied guitars. The Martin gives such a warm, personal sound to all the songs. We recorded it with three mics in the studio. The whole plan was to make everything on the album sound acoustic: we joked that we wanted it to be an album that could be recorded in a blackout. All the songs have a very acoustic feel as a result, and maintain that sort of Jack Johnson beach vibe in most of the songs, plus the strings that we added give a type of haunting feel. It was all about trying to capture the live performance on the album.’
Like so many of us, Jackson picks up the acoustic in spare moments and writes a song. Unlike most of us, this can happen on a James Bond film set. ‘I always take a guitar with me, it’s always by my side. When I get to the set, there’s usually at least one other person on the set who plays the guitar or dabbles with it a little bit. There have been many a night spent in the hotel bar, with a group of us singing songs.’
Warned that expensive guitars and Neanderthal baggage handlers do not mix well, Jackson laughs: ‘Don’t jinx me now. I love that Martin. It’s the guitar that I’ve had for the last six years and written all the songs on that album with. But I’ve got my system down when it comes to airlines. Luckily, they’ve never let me check it in, I always bring it on the plane. Touch wood, but they’ve never said, “There’s not enough room in the plane for it, we’ll have to stick it in the hold.” I’ve always put it in one of the upright cupboards.’
Jackson debuted his new songs at a show at the Troubadour in London’s Earl’s Court back in January. Will he be doing more shows? ‘I don’t gig a great deal, because I’ve been doing so much acting, but I’d love to set aside some time to do more gigs. Due to the nature of the acting work, which pays my mortgage, I can find out that a week in advance that I’ve got an acting job and then suddenly I’ll be in Belize or Australia. You never know, but we’re booking more gigs in now while I’m back this time.’
He adds: ‘The plan now is to set up a load of local gigs wherever I happen to be when I’m acting abroad. We’ve got a full band: two guitars, bass, piano drums and a cornet, plus me. Most of those guys played on the album so they know the songs already. I don’t want to just play the album, though. I want to play the songs in a different way so you feel the music is a completely different experience. I’ve worked on the arrangements to give them a cool original live feel. I can’t wait to get into it, it’s going to be so exciting.’
Jackson, who is about to start filming various projects in the UK and abroad, has a frankly exhausting schedule if you ask us. How does he cope? ‘It’s become second nature by now,’ he reasons. ‘I’ve just spent a month in Australia, and that was my second trip there this year. I flew from Los Angeles to England seven times in 2012, which is crazy. I also shot a film in Bulgaria. But I’m one of those people who has a bag permanently packed and ready to get on a plane. If I write a song on the move, I use the recording app in the iPhone or I’ll use Garageband on the Mac, to make sure that I’ve got a rudimentary version down.’
Perhaps oddly for someone who spends more time on stage than off it, Jackson admits to a touch of the pre-show horrors. ‘Oh, I always get stage nerves,’ he says. ‘For instance, I recently did a listening party in LA, which was a really interesting experience for me. There were so many people there who didn’t know that I play music, so we played a couple of tracks from the album to people in the bar and we ended up having 90 people turn up. I played a few songs on the guitar too, and I was more nervous doing that than I think I’ve ever been, whether it’s standing on the stage or stepping onto a set.’
‘It’s such a personal experience to perform these songs. It’s so easy when you’re on set to hide behind the character or the writing or the director’s vision, because these are all somebody else, but everything is me this time, so there’s no place to hide. It’s a really exposed place. And knowing that everybody is going to be coming up to you with their own personal feedback afterwards is much tougher than doing it in front of a load of anonymous strangers. It just feels like there’s a lot more judgment in the room, even though there isn’t, because it’s a warm audience.’
This reminds us of the all-too-familiar situation where you’ll happily bash out a song in front of a 500-capacity club but come over all embarrassed when your auntie Hilda asks you to play a song for the kids on Christmas Day. ‘Exactly.’ he says. ‘That said, once I’d got the first couple of chords out, it felt great. It wasn’t about staring at a load of people who were staring back at me, going “Here goes…” But yes, I still get nerves. Without them you wouldn’t want to do it, though, because it wouldn’t mean so much to you.’
The million-dollar question has to be: if Jackson could wave a wand and become a gazillion-selling musician, would he jack in his acting career? ‘No. I do love acting,’ he says. ‘I’m just lucky that the two get to go hand in hand, because I travel around and act and the guitar gets to come with me. They’re both passions for me. That passion is what drives it.’
Neil Jackson’s The Little Things is out now.