The last time most of us saw Paris Jackson, she was 11 years old and crying. Taking the stage at Staples Center in June 2009 at her father’s star-studded memorial service, her famous aunts and uncles told her to speak up as she nervously said: “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine — and I just want to say I love him so much.”
But Jackson, now 22, has been busy forging her own path as a model and actor in the decade since. She’s had parts in the Fox series “Star” and the David Oyelowo action-comedy “Gringo.” She has 3.6 million followers on Instagram, but the microscope of celebrity has also magnified her bouts with depression and drug use. It’s hard to live normally or emerge from the shadow of Michael Jackson. But Paris Jackson has now followed her father’s footsteps into music, and her debut album “Wilted” is full of pain, heartache and meditations on mortality.
It’s a record in a surprisingly earthy, indie-folk vein, made in collaboration with singer-songwriter Andy Hull and engineer Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra, one of Jackson’s favorite bands. It owes stylistic debts to that group and her other musical heroes, including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. If her father haunts the album in any way, it’s in Ms. Jackson’s pure-tone, angelic but full-bodied voice. Like her father, she’s not a multi-instrumentalist or trained composer, but she thinks like a producer, humming the different instrumental parts she hears in her head.
Jackson’s media team made it clear that “Dad” was a strictly verboten topic of discussion, so any deeper connections will have to be inferred. Variety spoke to her on the eve of Thanksgiving, a holiday she doesn’t celebrate. “I think it’s good to be thankful every day, you know?” she says. She appears tonight on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” making her late-night TV performance debut.
Why now? Are these songs you’ve been storing up for years?
No, I wrote them all this year, starting in January, all the way till about June or July. I don’t know, I just wanted to get in a studio and record, and it kind of worked out the way it did. The guys that I worked with, my heroes, just so happened to be free and available to record with me.
Was the pandemic an unexpected upside in any way?
Yes, in the sense that Andy and Rob were available to record with me. Usually they’re on tour. Andy’s got a couple other side projects—aside from Manchester Orchestra, he’s also in Bad Books and he does Right Away, Great Captain! He produces for other people as well, so he’s normally a really busy guy.
There has been a silver lining of actually getting a hold of people who are normally so busy.
Yeah. And the first half of the year, the film and fashion industry were pretty much completely shut down, so I wasn’t working as much.
Did COVID factor into your writing at all?
Not really so much in the writing, but it definitely gave me more free time.
How long have you been writing songs prior to this?
Maybe a little less than 10 years, I think.
But this felt like the right time to make your debut with a record?
Yeah, I guess. It really just worked out the way it did. The album was just ready, so we were just like: okay, let’s release it.
Did you see the album as having a concept or a story to it?
No, at first I didn’t, because I wrote all the songs as I was going through just life. Then when it came time to actually get in the studio and start recording demos, it was a matter of: Okay, well, out of all the songs I’ve written this year, which ones am I going to choose to record? And as I was writing down which songs I wanted to record, it started to seem a little bit like a concept record. So I was like, Okay, I’m going to intentionally make this, you know, a story. It’s my experience with love and betrayal and heartbreak. And, in that sense, it is autobiographical. But I feel like it’s also written in a way that can be all-encompassing, because everybody experiences that in some form or another, you know?
Do you write your songs on a particular instrument?
Guitar. That’s the only one I know well enough to be able to write on. I’m kind of slowly picking up piano here and there, but I don’t know it well enough to be able to write on the piano.
So you went to Andy with a batch of demos. What kind of form were they in?
I had gone into a studio out here with an engineer, and recorded just very basic ideas of what I wanted to do with the songs. I had guitar and vocals. And for “Another Spring,” for example, I didn’t have a banjo, so we took the guitar, I did some plucking, and then we tuned it up using autotune, and added filters over it to make it sound like a banjo. We used sample percussion to get the ideal sound that I was trying to go for, and then we used a synthesizer to get the cello sounds that I wanted. I would just sing to the engineer what I heard and what I wanted, and he would play it on the synthesizer. So they were just like really standard demos. But Andy said that normally when he works with someone new, they just come with like a voice memo from their phone. So he said it was really helpful that I had basically full songs. … Some songs, as I’m just playing it on guitar after it’s been written, I’ll hear what I want the bass to sound like, and if I want there to be electric guitar. I’ve been told I have the producer brain, so I definitely hear the song before it’s made.
What was the stamp you felt Andy could give these songs?
I am obsessed with his music. Honestly, he can do no wrong in my eyes. So when I brought the songs to him, I was just like, “Whatever you want to do with these songs, let’s do it.” There were some songs where he was like, “I don’t want to change anything at all.” And then there were some songs where he’s like, “All right, well, let’s work on the lyrics,” or “let’s improve this in some way.” Or he’ll just totally take the producer standpoint and enhance the sound. And then, like “Eyelids” for example, he totally wrote his own verse, and we worked on the harmonies together. But I trust his instincts. We connected in a really cool artist way. Most of the time, if someone tries to tell me to change something, depending on the person, it can feel like they’re not respecting my art, you know? But with Andy, there was so much trust there that I was very open-minded to what he had to say.
Did you envision a certain palette of sound, or a genre of music you wanted the songs to end up in?
I knew I wanted “Undone” to be more upbeat, a little bit more on the rock side. I knew I wanted “Scorpio Rising” and “Wilted” to be the weirder ones on the record. I wanted to really experiment with textures and just weird sounds, and I really wanted to make the listener feel uncomfortable in a comforting way. I believe that art is supposed to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I wanted to try and capture the feelings that I get when I listen to certain Radiohead songs, and howI’ve seen some people react where it just makes them uncomfortable and uneasy, but it feels so comforting to me. I knew I wanted “Another Spring” to just be like super folky. And then there were just some other ones where I’m like, “Yeah, I just want it to be a mashup of Radiohead and Manchester Orchestra, so, I trust you, Andy. Do your thing.”
Manchester Orchestra. Radiohead. What other kind of music do you gravitate to? Which artists speak most to you?
Honestly, I have so, so, so many influences. But for specifics, “Undone” was very heavily influenced by the band Grandaddy, and the lead singer Jason Lytle and his music. “Another Spring” was very influenced by Caamp and the Lumineers.
What adjectives would you use for what this record is?
Mmm… just a good starting point. Because I want to keep growing. I want to keep expanding. I want to keep experimenting. I want to try as many things as I can, while staying true to myself and what I think sounds and feels right. I mean, just for the sake of naming a genre, I’d say it’s more alternative folk, but I don’t plan on staying with just that. I’m definitely going to keep some of those elements, but I really, really want to expand, and just try everything out.
Talk about the little touches and textures on the album, like the glass jangling or whatever that sound is on “Repair.”
That was a really fun one to record. That one was very heavily influenced by Cage the Elephant — and Radiohead, of course. The sound that you’re thinking of, the percussion, was actually a box filled with tambourines and shakers and little percussion thingies, and we just shook the whole box in front of a mic. It was really fun.
I was also really struck by the quality of your voice. I hadn’t heard you sing before. Who would you say are some of the inspirations for you as a singer?
I guess Thom Yorke, for sure. And Andy. I don’t know. I mean, I grew up hearing my dad’s voice all the time, so I imagine that’s definitely got to have an influence on me, subconsciously — and just picking up things here and there because that was my childhood. I think all the music that I listen to, in some way, just influenced my sound.
Your singing voice feels very unaffected. It doesn’t have a put-on to it. A lot of popular singers do a voice, and yours is a little bit more pure.
First of all, thank you — I appreciate that. That is definitely my intention, is to be as honest as possible with my music, and to just be myself. But I definitely, in the future… I’m starting to try out different sounds with my voice, and see how far I can go before it starts sounding bad and weird. When I’m by myself in my car, I’m trying out different voices to see what sounds right. Up until this point, I’ve just been 100 percent myself, and just singing how I sing. But I’m trying more raspy stuff, and just trying to see what my voice can do, and really explore.
You mentioned Thom Yorke, who goes up into falsetto a lot. There’s something very vulnerable about that — especially for a man, I guess — but something kind of pure and vulnerable about his voice.
Oh man, he’s so incredible. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out “In Rainbows – From the Basement,” which they released earlier this year, he does exactly what you’re talking about. It’s kind of like a wailing. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
Tell me if I’m wrong on this, but your video for “Let Down” reminds me of the ball sequence in the movie Labyrinth. Was that inspirational at all?
That’s a massive compliment. You’re talking about the Bowie movie, right? That’s awesome. I could totally see how that would be influential for me. I do love that film. The influence for that was mainly just a collaboration with me and [director Meredith Alloway]. Meredith just wanted to take a more Victorian approach, based off of what I described. We both love “Penny Dreadful,” we both love gore, we both love Alexander McQueen. The waltz itself, as a female, you have to be very trusting to your partner. You have to really trust them when they’re leading you, and dipping you, and doing all the things that you do in a waltz. And if you are going to hurt someone, it is when they’re going to be most vulnerable, and you trust your partner the most when you let them dip you. So it’s the perfect time to rip someone’s heart out, when they are 100 percent belly exposed. And I love gore. So that was mainly the approach that I wanted to take. I talked to Meredith about it, and she had this beautiful — without even hearing the song “Wilted” — she was just like, “Oh, decay,” and started talking about decaying fruit. I’m like, that is exactly what I’m going for.
I was struck by some of the imagery in your lyrics, like “bugs may eat my flesh,” but I guess if you’re into gore, that makes sense.
Were you planning to do live concerts to promote this if there hadn’t been a pandemic?
Yeah, I mean, I love performing. There are so many different cool parts about being a musician, and performing is one of them. As soon as I’m allowed to, as soon as it’s not problematic, I’ll definitely be hitting the stage.
You say this is a good start. What’s a career dream you have?
To do this for the rest of my life. I’ll share this moment with you. I think it was maybe day two or three in the studio in Georgia, at Andy and Rob’s place. And we recorded the basics for, I think it was “Freight Train” that we were working on. “Freight Train” was one of the more vulnerable songs of mine. I was sitting in the computer room with Rob and Jamie [Martens], and this was just a few days before Dan [Hannon] came on board. Andy went into the vocal booth to do the harmonies and the backup vocals, and for that they turned my voice down so we could hear what he was doing. And to just hear my hero singing my lyrics… it brought tears to my eyes. I just remember thinking, Damn, I want to do this for the rest of my life.
“This,” meaning make music?
Yes. Connect with other artists like this, and to create like this. It just makes my heart so full. It’s that feeling like I’m exactly where I need to be, and I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing. It’s hard to explain, but it’s incredible.