Paris Jackson Turns Brokenness Into Dark Alt-Folk Music On Debut Album, ‘wilted’

Paris Jackson is carving her own path. It may have been easier to follow in her late father Michael Jackson’s musical footsteps, it would also have been less fulfilling. So, instead of fitting her voice within the pop/R&B space, she veers in another direction entirely. Her debut record, wilted, written with and produced by Andy Hull (of Manchester Orchestra), shape-shifts between shadowy, evocative confessionals and alt/-folk soundscapes which align snuggly up against Phoebe Bridgers.

“I love Phoebe Bridgers,” she says of the comparison. Funny enough, Bridgers is in a band called Boygenius with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, and Baker is good friends with Manchester Orchestra. Two degrees of separation underscores how tight-knit “this little community in the alternative/folk world” really is, she remarks.

Jackson measures out her own unique musical ingredients, though, from the haunting chain-stomp on “repair” to the otherworldly orbs of “dead sea,” and always with a feathered inflection and pinches of raw vulnerability. “Wither away like bones to dust / Shrivel and break and combust,” she draws pain unto herself, letting it finally dissipate on the titular track. A ghostly moan tumbles around her, fusing together with so much static, and her voice remains the unwavering constant.

wilted certainly runs the risk of being too dark or too depressing 一 but her journey into and out of heartbreak and impenetrable anguish could not have been expressed any other way. “I know you’re fallin’ to pieces / ‘Cause you wear your heart on your sleeve / But if you could just put down the needle / Mend yourself and make believe,” her voice quakes on the hypnotic “undone,” witnessing a relationship spiral terribly out of control. Leaning into her rock sensibilities, Jackson found herself drawn to Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle’s approach, structuring with doses of synth and swapping in a bass solo instead of classic guitar.

It should come as no surprise how influential folk legends like Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne are to her own work, as well. Jackson may not have studied music theory or adhere to any strict songwriting guidelines ─ but her songcraft is instinctual and moving, much like her heroes. “[Damien and Ray] are just so honest and raw. When they sing, you can hear how much they feel it. It really sounds like it’s coming straight from their soul, no filter, no restraint. It’s sometimes pure agony, or pure love. You hear it.”

Moments later, “repair” smacks the eardrums with an unsettling melody and rattling chains that feel bruised and tormented. “You told me once our broken pieces fit so well,” she weeps. “But now I’m whole / So swear to God you’ll love me still.” Even her inherently lilting vocal cords appear to flounder in heartbreak’s rising waters.

Strongly influenced by Cage the Elephant’s acoustic iteration of “Right Before My Eyes,” originally a hidden track on 2011’s Thank You, Happy Birthday, Jackson pays homage in both the guitar line and her vocal phrasing. Side-by-side, “repair” certainly feels beholden to it without growing stale or overwrought. “I’ve always loved the acoustic version [of that song]. It’s been one of my favorites since I was a freshman in high school. The only way I can find it now is going on YouTube and listening to a fan uploaded version of it,” she explains.

“That influenced the strumming patterns of the guitar and the chain-like percussion. What we did for percussion was we got a giant tote of shakers and tambourines and different little percussion tools and shook the entire thing in front of a mic. That’s the sound you hear, and it does sound like chains rattling and dragging on the floor.”

“If I could be the one that you wanted / If I could be enough for you,” she laments on the bridge. Her misery echoes throughout the song, notably with the switch from E minor to a full E chord, a technique she absolutely adores and borrows from Radiohead’s work.

With “dead sea,” Jackson draws from her Jewish heritage and turns to one of her favorite The Lumineers tracks for inspiration. “I’ve always loved [their song] ‘Dead Sea.’ That whole record [2012’s self-titled] was a big record for me when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. I listened to that whole thing on repeat. It was one of the first records I owned on vinyl,” she says. More importantly, she’s always been fascinated with “what the Dead Sea can represent.”

“A lot of the songs I [took] to Georgia to record were already written. But ‘Dead Sea’ was completely rewritten with Andy. It was a very back-and-forth kind of thing. He’d write half a line, and then I’d finished the sentence,” she continues. “Or I’d say one word, and that would inspire him to write two parts of a verse. It definitely exceeds any expectations when two musicians truly connect and speak the same language. It’s like when two brains melt into each other and become one.”

“Cut my eyelids / So I can’t see you float out the door,” Jackson unpacks visceral, terribly gutting imagery against a celestial, watery backdrop. In such a way, she is able to dive deep into the darkest, most troubled aspects of the human existence, insightfully nestled among her own. Hull, who sings background vocals on the entire record, rises to meet her voice in the set’s only duet.

“I knew I wanted to do a duet with him at some point. I didn’t know which song or if he’d want to do it. I left it up to him to decide which song. It was originally supposed to be a hidden track and only a minute and a half long,” she says. “I’d only had my verse written. He said, ‘No, we could really take this somewhere.’ He wrote an entire new verse, and that’s the part he sings. He’s so good. There’s no words to describe what it felt like to hear my hero singing the words I wrote.”

Often described as having a “soft” and “sweet voice,” Jackson works her tone to her advantage, frequently pairing with her love of “the macabre and gore and really dark things,” she offers. It makes sense then that her entire album aesthetic, from YouTube audio thumbnails to album artwork, would lean hard into creepy, unsettling imagery.

A long-time admirer of artist Matt Duncan (known as CREEPTOONS on Instagram), she knew almost immediately he would be the right fit. “I’ve been following him since I was about 16 or 17. I’ve always loved his art and the creepy stuff. When it came down to thinking up cover art, I was going to research some artists and maybe reach out to some who have done art for my favorite bands,” she says, noting bands like Colour Revolt. “While I was thinking about it, one of Matt’s pictures popped up on my feed.”

wilted drags the listener through the most overgrown lyrical thickets, leaving them nearly as emotionally injured as she. In the final moment, on the unexpectedly giddy closer “another spring,” Jackson allows all the heaviness to fall from her shoulders. “Seasons change / Days dawn anew / I’ll rearrange  /And let my wounds shine through,” she sighs in acceptance. She comes to terms with all her pain and fully realizes it’s time to move to what’s next. Initially, the song was never intended to make the final record. “While I was in the studio recording, I wrote this song. That’s the newest one. It seemed like a good punctuation to put at the end, and it felt like a part of the story,” she says.

With inviting Manchester Orchestra into her world, Hull and the band have become much more than collaborators; they are family. “Over the last couple months, since recording this album, they call me their little sister. I can’t even describe how that makes me feel. But I call them my musical big brothers,” she shares. “When it came down to getting the record deal or asking for advice, I can always call Andy and ask him what he thinks about the contract or this one lyric or melody. We send voice memos or memes to each other.”

Hull even recently sent her a snippet of a brand new song on which the band is working. “He just sent me the first two verses, but it’s so beautiful. And it got me teary-eyed listening to it. He’s incredible. I asked him, ‘How do I get this incredible at writing? Is it really just experience and practicing?’ He said, ‘Study really good songwriters. Try and take it from a different perspective.’ So far, I’ve been writing about what I know and things I’ve experienced. He’s like, ‘Start thinking about more from a storytelling approach, not necessarily telling your story.’ So, I said, ‘I just watched ‘The Fly.’ What if I wrote a song about that?’ He said, ‘That’s a perfect example.’ So, I wrote a song about ‘The Fly.’”

Paris Jackson exhibits great strength and power as a songwriter. wilted is only the beginning of her journey, and its shimmering promise will surely serve her well. Not one to be constrained by genre labels or boxes, she eyes “maybe sprinkling some grunge or rock” in her work in the future, she muses. “I’m going to let it happen and not think about it too much and feel my way through. I do what feels right.”

Photo by Janell Shirtcliff

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