Singer-songwriter Jackie Bristow has described the career-defining moves that took her from New Zealand to Sydney and later to Los Angeles and Austin as massive and brave. She wasn’t lying.
“I was my own pathfinder,” Bristow told AudioCulture. “To make that move and big jump from Gore to Sydney, and then Sydney to Los Angeles – big moves, but they opened up a whole new life for me and I met and worked with some amazing people. Music has taken me places I never dreamed possible.”
In Australia she met her long-time musical collaborator Mark Punch and was signed to industry legend Michael Gudinski’s new label. When her big-budget debut album didn’t meet her expectations, she took up with a small Sydney imprint and relocated to Los Angeles.
“That was another big move.” Bristow couldn’t help but laugh. “Fearless and blind. Courageous really – just blind faith. But sometimes you’ve got to have the courage to go. If you thought it through, you wouldn’t do it, would you?”
She established a solo touring circuit out of Austin as well as opening for major acts such as Foreigner, Boz Scaggs and Chris Isaak in the US and Bonnie Raitt in New Zealand. In Hollywood she was part of a tight-knit musical community she could call on as a backing band.
Her last two albums have been self-released. Although she has enjoyed the creative control, behind the scenes has been a real eye-opener. “It takes a machine to get your music out there, and that’s been one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me – where I haven’t had that kind of money or machine behind me.
“[There]’s a lot of work to releasing music and getting it out there, making professional videos. I think I’ve always kept the standard high, but, you know, it’s been hard to pay the right publicist that you want to get and the right radio promoter and advertising and that. It’s just a lot of money, and when you’re paying for it all yourself out of playing live, it’s not easy.”
Her parents were into rock’n’roll, Elvis Presley and Linda Ronstadt.
But Bristow has made it look effortless. From the moment she decided to remain in Sydney, she has stayed true to herself and remained focused and determined. That self-belief and an innate songwriting ability to go straight to the heart has brought industry accolades and seen American Songwriter magazine declare that Jackie Bristow was “crafting some of the most beautiful compelling Americana today”.
Although she was born in New Zealand’s country music capital of Gore, her parents were into rock’n’roll, Elvis Presley and Linda Ronstadt. Bristow’s grandmother Molly Scully played the organ at church and taught piano. Her music teacher at St Mary’s School, Walter Hailes, was a cousin of Molly’s and had all of his pupils learn ukulele and guitar.
After attending the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards in Gore at the end of the 1980s, Bristow’s mother regaled her daughters with tales of tasselled and cowboy-booted children singing country music and proposed Bristow and little sister Katrina enter the following year. Thus began a decade-long routine of travelling New Zealand competing in the country music awards circuit and playing at festivals, rodeos and hoedowns.
“It was quite an amazing childhood, and also the community of friends that we had,” Bristow remembered. “We made friends with people who weren’t at our school or anything: they were all around the Southland region and the South Island.”
When she left school, Bristow studied music at the Invercargill Polytech while tentatively venturing into the pub band scene. Although she had been writing her own songs throughout her teens, the thought of performing them for an audience had not yet crossed her mind.
Just turned 20, Bristow made the big move to Sydney in 1998. Feeling she didn’t fit in the current New Zealand covers trend of big soul voices, she yearned to try something else. She applied for music schools in Australia, but it was a birthday gift from her parents of a return ticket across the Tasman that was the catalyst. She never came back.
Initially staying with the only two people she knew in Sydney – former Queenstown residents Melanie Forbes and Nicci Heffernan of the band Sistermadly – Bristow worked bar. Forbes and Heffernan introduced her to Michelle Nadia, another New Zealand expat, who got her into her first gig in a Balmain café.
“I met a lot of great people early on in Australia,” she said. “Australia just felt like the world opened up. It was so positive.” One of those people was session drummer Mark Meyer, who heard Bristow sing at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. He put her in touch with banjo player Mark Collins, and most importantly, guitarist Mark Punch.
Punch was one of Australia’s most in-demand musicians and had been part of the recording scene since the early 1970s. As a member of The Renee Geyer Band, he co-wrote their hit song ‘Heading In The Right Direction’. Besides credits on records by Mike McClellan, Marc Hunter, Jenny Morris, Sharon O’Neill, Tim Finn, Slim Dusty and Lee Kernaghan, Punch sang backing vocals on Dave Dobbyn’s Loyal album and was part of Dobbyn’s Stone People touring band in Australia in the late 1980s.
After arriving in Sydney, Jackie Bristow was turned on to the singer-songwriter world of Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin. But when it came time to record a debut EP, Punch told Mark Meyer the song they should concentrate on was the only one of her own Bristow had put forward. “You won’t believe it, but I’m recording with the guy who wrote ‘Heading In The Right Direction’,” Bristow gushed on one phone call home.
They recorded demos with multi-instrumentalist Matt Fell, who was just starting into what would become a successful production career, and Bristow sent the results to Badloves and Leonardo’s Bride manager Norman Parkhill. Although he “never listened to unsolicited tapes”, Parkhill was impressed with Bristow’s and set up a meeting.
Gudinski signed her to his new Liberation label.
That led to Australian music impresario Michael Gudinski taking in a Bristow and Punch gig at Balmain’s Cat & Fiddle. With Punch singing Bristow’s praises, Gudinski signed her to his new Liberation label, founded in the wake of the sale of his Mushroom empire to Festival Records in 1998.
Produced by Mark Punch and Matt Fell in Australia and Grammy winners Larry Klein (best pop album in 1995 for Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo) in Los Angeles and David Leonard (best engineered recording non-classical in 1982 for Toto IV) in Nashville, Bristow’s debut album Thirsty was released in 2002.
The first single ‘Thundercloud’ was an outright pop collaboration with writing and production outfit The Matrix, who had worked with Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne. The song didn’t ignite any interest, even with Bristow herself. “It ended up being a mistake. They [Liberation] thought they were going to have a sure-fire hit with that one, but they probably should have stuck with what was my core, and that was the more country-flavoured pop.”
With the music industry flailing about, trying to find its way in the burgeoning digital world, Bristow’s A&R man and manager Norman Parkhill resigned and Bristow got lost in the upheaval. She extracted herself from Liberation, signed with boutique Australian label Craving Records and moved to Los Angeles with blues-singing labelmate Kara Grainger.
For the next few years, Bristow played for little or no reward around Hollywood. The LA-recorded album Crazy Love – produced by Daniel Lanois protégé Mark Howard and another Grammy winner, Helik Hadar – was released on Craving Records in 2007 and she shifted base to Austin, Texas, in 2008.
“There’s a huge independent scene there, and that’s how I learnt to tour in America and how to make money at my shows and have ticketed sales,” she said. Radio and TV coverage in Austin saw an influx of new fans at Bristow’s gigs and she began touring solo, playing house concerts and listening rooms.
“In a way, it was quite good that I learnt how to perform solo because I can go out and do solo shows and hold the stage and all that. But it was hard work, because you’re doing all the driving, you’re doing a 10-hour drive and then you’re playing.”
She toured as support for guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel and opened for the likes of John Oates.
Bristow also took control of her recording career and her next two albums were independent. Released in 2011, Freedom was recorded between Austin and Sydney and was produced by Bristow and Mark Punch. Recorded in Los Angeles, Shot Of Gold was produced by Punch and released in 2016.
She toured as support for guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel and opened for the likes of John Oates and John Waite before Punch moved to Nashville and they began working again as a duo. In 2017, Bristow also moved to Nashville where “everyone’s got a recording studio, everybody’s world class.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, Bristow was just wrapping up a two-month trip to New Zealand. She has been in limbo in Gore ever since. Her boyfriend and well-established music community wait in the States but Bristow was unsure when she would get back.
The greatest benefit of being stranded in New Zealand has been the ability to continue playing shows, doing songwriting workshops and teaming up with NZ icon Barry Saunders. “He’s been like a lifesaver for me, actually, because it’s been connection to the music world,” Bristow said. “He’s such a great guy and he’s such a great songwriter.”
Jackie Bristow’s fifth album Outsider was completed during the pandemic, and released in 2022 on Mesa/Bluemoon; once again Mark Punch produced, in Nashville using local musicians. The vocals were done in Auckland and sent to Nashville. “We got people that we might not have got on the record from all around the world actually, because they were home and not on tour. So that was really cool.”
Jackie and Katrina Bristow.
Jackie Bristow - Blue Moon Rising (2020)
Jackie Bristow outside the Kessler Theatre, Dallas, Texas, July 2013.
Jackie Bristow Collection
Jackie Bristow and Jason Kerrison - Warrior Spirit (2016)
Jackie Bristow (left) with her sister Katrina.
Jackie Bristow Collection
Jackie Bristow with Tommy Emmanuel.
Jackie Bristow (left) and her sister Katrina make their first appearance at the Gore Gold Guitar Awards.
Jackie Bristow Collection
Jackie Bristow - Outsider (Mega/Bluemoon, 2022)
Jackie Bristow (right) with her sister Katrina, performing for patients at Gore Hospital.
Jackie Bristow and Tommy Emmanuel.
Jackie Bristow - Thirsty (2002)
Jackie Bristow - Shot of Gold (2015)
Jackie Bristow with Boz Scaggs, for whom she opened in the US.
Jackie Bristow Collection
Jackie Bristow (left) with her sister Katrina and some early trophies.
Jackie Bristow Collection
Jackie Bristow: "Leave your guns at the door".
Jackie Bristow with Mark Punch.
Jackie Bristow with US songwriter Jimmy Webb.
Jackie Bristow - Freedom (2010)
Jackie Bristow - Outsider (2022)
Jackie Bristow - Whistle Blowin' (2016, directed by Mark Tierney)
With Jackie Bristow are (from left) bassist Jon Ossman, guitarist Mark Punch, Mauricio lewak (Jackson Browne’s drummer) and, on harmonica, Trent Williamson.
Jackie Bristow - I Don't Want to Come Down (2015, directed by Mark Tierney)