On Jillian Jacqueline’s debut single, “Reasons,” the country-pop singer describes a relationship that is clearly doomed, even if neither person wants to admit it. The list of excuses is long: “I don’t want to be a quitter, don’t want to have to answer when everybody asks me why ... we were supposed to be married by the time we’re 30, breaking up is scary.” Eventually, it reaches the natural conclusion: “I’m so sick of living a lie, so screw all of our reasons why.”
On first listen, however, it’s easy to miss the devastating nature of the surprisingly buoyant track, which practically demands you sing along. That’s Jacqueline’s favorite musical combination.
“I love the juxtaposition of the very heavy words and a very lighthearted melody,” says Jacqueline, who wraps up her first headlining tour in College Park, Maryland, on Saturday. “I have a tendency to put a darker twist on a lot of themes.”
Where does that tendency come from? “I guess I was a brooding child,” she jokes. “I read a lot of Sylvia Plath.”
Jacqueline’s intriguing spin on country pop has captured the attention of Nashville singers, songwriters and tastemakers — she’s often one of the first names mentioned in conversations about new rising stars. This past fall, she released her second EP, Side B, which has racked up millions of streams on Spotify and features a collaboration with Keith Urban (“If I Were You”).
While her music boasts pop and rock influences, Jacqueline, 31, has always been drawn to the country genre. At age 9, she landed a part in Kenny Rogers’ Broadway Christmas production and later played country music with her sisters in the Little Women Band. Three months after graduating from Philadelphia University (now known as Thomas Jefferson University) in 2010, near her hometown of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, she moved to Nashville.
With a waitressing job to pay the bills, Jacqueline threw herself into the Music City grind: She went to writers rounds and introduced herself to other new artists; she looked up songwriters on Facebook and asked if they wanted to write sometime. A few years later, she met producer-songwriter Tofer Brown; their musical styles clicked, and he’s been her producer ever since. She signed a publishing deal with Downtown Music, which helped her release an EP, and led to her record deal with Big Loud Records in spring 2017.
Jacqueline says the most valuable lesson she’s learned, even as her career has taken off, is patience: “Your career is never going to look the way you think it’s going to look, but if you trust in the process and follow your heart, it’s always going to be better than you thought it could be.” After an exhausting monthslong radio tour to introduce herself to country programmers, “Reasons” — which has 16 million streams on Spotify — didn’t crack the top 50 on the radio chart.
“It was something I was frustrated by,” she says. “But what I realized from that experience, because I didn’t have skyrocketing hit success right off the bat ... I learned there are people that love what I do regardless of radio success.”
For the past year, she has been an opening act for some of the biggest names in country music, such as Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge.
Watching them perform for thousands of people was an invaluable learning experience, and she frequently thought about how she could form a similar bond with listeners.
“I went from zero to 60 and was in these massive rooms,” Jacqueline says. “I found myself really craving deeper, more intimate connections with fans, especially those who knew my songs. I want to be in a room together where we can all hang out and I can do my thing for an hour.”
So in between opening for Devin Dawson and Kip Moore, Jacqueline carved out her headlining tour, a brief run of four shows before her team starts looking into cities on the West Coast.
The first concert was in Atlanta and, incidentally, was a mere five days after her wedding to Bryan Brown (her guitar player and brother of her producer, Tofer). Despite the hectic schedule, those were the dates that worked. She was just thrilled to be the main act on the bill.
“There’s nothing like knowing that however many people are in the room, they came for you,” Jacqueline says. “They’re not there to see the headliner or the second act — they’re there for you. As much as that could feel intimidating, right now it’s exciting and liberating.”