Keyboardist and vocalist Malcolm Jackson never planned for amajor-label sideman career. It just happened. The 25 year-old Bakersfield, California, native grew up amidst his family’s record collection, in which the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Pearl Jam got equal airtime. Later, Jackson came to admire the music and stage antics of piano rocker Ben Folds.
“I had never seen a pianist go where he dared to go,” Jackson tells me. “I was amazed at how he’d just rock out on the piano, curse on the mic, and throw the piano chair over. He really got into it!” Jackson would form his own rock bands in Bakersfield during junior high, playing guitar and drums as well as piano. Later, he would move to Provo, Utah, where the dream of a career in music seemed to be slowly slipping away.
“I was working in a restaurant,” he tells me, “playing piano and writing songs on my own, but planning on going back to school. I didn’t think anything was going to happen for me musically.” A chance meeting with local phenom Isaac Russell, a 17-year-old singer-songwriter with escalating indie buzz, would change everything.
“Isaac’s family and mine have been close since we were both kids in Bakersfield,” Jackson says. “We lost touch, and ironically, both ended up moving to Provo. When Isaac’s brother Spencer heard me playing piano in church one afternoon, he told Isaac to call me. Unbeknownst to me, Isaac had been looking for a piano player. We started jamming, and everything just clicked.”
Soon after, Russell would sign to Columbia Records, tapping Jackson to anchor his live acoustic duo tour to support his recent self-titled EP. While most bands try to emulate their studio releases live, Russell and Jackson find new stories to tell through acoustic versions of the album’s songs.
“We realized that with just the two of us, we’d never recreate the sound of the album,” Jackson says. “So we decided to make the setting more intimate, focusing on the guitar, keyboards, and vocal harmonies. The piano parts are similar to the album, but Isaac has a really unique guitar style, where he sometimes does intricate finger-picks, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. I try to build around that.”
Live, Jackson uses a Roland Juno-Di, focusing on vintage sounds that complement Russell’s guitar and vocals. “The Juno sounds great and is really portable. It has a lot of synth sounds, but I’m using it primarily for Rhodes, Wurly, organ, and piano—also flute, bells, and strings at times. For what we’re doing as a two-piece, it has a great selection of sounds.
“As long as you keep yourself open to the opportunities around you, you end up where you’re supposed to be,” Jackson says. “I thought I might not ever make a living playing live, but I never gave up on the music.”