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Michael Roberts (Host): You know how, when you listen to certain songs, you feel you feel like you’re being transported to a totally different place? Most of the time, this is exactly what the musician was trying to do.
Jackson Stell: My intention with the song was to make something that sounded magnificent and was like awe inspiring.
(audio from song Pale Blue Dot)
And that's how I would have imagined if I was in outer space and looking back at this pale blue dot and realizing that's where everything I know has ever happened or existed. I wanted to kind of capture that feeling into a song, that immense magnificent, overwhelming pretty much unimaginable feeling.
Roberts: That’s Jackson Stell, who creates music under the name Big Wild. The song he’s talking about, and that you’re listening to, is called Pale Blue Dot... which, if you know your space exploration history, is the phrase that astronomer Carl Sagan used to describe a famous photograph of earth, taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, when it was about 3.7 billion miles from the planet.
Last year, Jackson used the song in a collaborative video he created with filmmaker Roger Fishman to support the National Resource Defense Council’s global petition to world leaders demanding urgent action on climate change. The footage was of dramatic glaciers and waterfalls and volcanoes around Greenland and the Arctic Circle.
Stell: And I felt like with his imagery that he was capturing of earth, it was just a perfect match of showing off the majesticness of the world too.
Roberts: Majestic is a good word to use when describing the Big Wild sound. Jackson, who just turned 30, has become a rapidly rising artist in the electronic music scene, even while his songs don’t fit neatly in that genre. As a producer, musician, songwriter and vocalist, he is crafting works that are inspired by remarkable outdoor landscapes—and that capture the ecstatic feelings we have when we venture into the natural world.
What’s surprising about this, is that, for most of his life, Jackson was absolutely not an outdoorsy guy.
Stell: I've definitely always been a geek. When I was a kid, I was definitely more interested in doing typical, indoor stuff, like video games, stuff on the computer.
Roberts: He grew up in Massachusetts, and was more or less forced to join his family on hiking trips in the White Mountains, in New Hampshire.
Stell: I remember every time we'd go up, like when I was a teenager, I kind of dreaded it. Like, I didn't want to do it. I didn't really have any kind of appreciation established for nature at that point in time.
Roberts: Jackson actually found his way into professional music through software. Tinkering with his computer, he began creating hip hop beats and, eventually, producing instrumentals under the name J Beatz.
(audio from a J Beatz track)
He was having success... but also feeling restless.
Stell: I think it was also a matter of just spending more and more time indoors and working on computers and making music that this like increasing craving kept coming up. Like, maybe go outside, maybe get your hands in the dirt, maybe do something that grounds you from this really abstract mental world you're in while you're creating music
Roberts: Initially, though, he mostly just channeled that craving into his work. Friends were introducing him to new music, and he wanted to develop a fresh sound.
Stell: It was really a matter of trying to push myself creatively. I was interested in the ability to like get people to dance and move and make music that had an actual, like a physical reaction from people. I think that's so cool that you can use sound to get people to move together and to feel something. And so I think I was really drawn to like, just push myself musically and go down the rabbit hole a little more. And that’s been a common thread throughout my life.
Roberts: Jackson was in this experimental phase, posting a few tracks on SoundCloud, when he got a big shock: In 2012, he was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer.
Stell: Thankfully it was caught really early. It wasn't aggressive. And I got my thyroid removed and I'm very healthy right now and really thankful for that. But the diagnosis was just kind of a wake up call, I guess, to like really pursue your dream. Because you don't know how long you're going to be here for, it's as simple as that. .
Roberts: Not long after his cancer diagnosis, Jackson took his first trip to the West Coast, to visit his girlfriend, who was living in the Bay Area. They went camping in Big Sur and hiked out to some hot springs. For someone who’d grown up Back East, the dramatic landscape along the California coast was a revelation.
Stell: Just physically being in that environment was just so inspirational. I remember hiking along the mountains, along the coast and it's hard to explain. It was just like such a hopeful, like feeling of like starting a new chapter
(audio from Venice Venture plays in the background)
and like the between the sun and like the, the air off the ocean. And like I had this overwhelming sense that this was where I wanted to be. And these are the people I want to be with.
Roberts: Jackson moved to California soon after the trip ... and he also came up with a label for the new sound he wanted to create: Big Wild. One of the first songs he released under the name was Venice Venture, which he says embodies the sonic shift he was going through.
Stell: I don't know what sparked it, but I've always had this thing, even from a kid of like wanting to learn about different places around the world and even around the country. And I've always had this thing about wanting to at some point move to the West coast. And it was like, when I finally hit that point and went on that trip, it was like, okay, I think that little voice inside me since I was a kid was right
Roberts: Jackson says that a lot of the music he created at the time derived from his experience of coming West.
Stell: I think that feeling of new beginnings is like something I've kind of like put inside this like a bottle in my studio and whenever I need some inspiration, I just open up the bottle and take some inspiration from it.
Roberts: A couple of years after relocating came Big Wild’s first breakout hit, 2015’s Aftergold.
(audio from Aftergold)
It was a bass-y dance track...and it was catchy, topping the Spotify Global Viral Chart on its release. Soon after, Big Wild was headlining a spring tour.
In 2017 Jackson put out his first Big Wild EP, Invincible, which delighted his growing fan base—and also the marketers at Apple, who used it for a commercial for the third edition of the Apple Watch.
(audio from Invincible)
The advertisement showed underwater footage of a surfer, taking off on a spectacular peeling wave…. and then getting a phone call on her watch.
So, Big Wild was getting…. big. But as Jackson began working on his debut album, he again wanted to do something different. Up until this point, he had been creating music exclusively as a producer and musician. Now, he was ready to use his voice.
Stell: I think it's the same part of me that wanted to switch gears for making hip hop instrumentals to making the music I make under Big Wild. And the same part of me that was wanting to move across the country is the same part that I wanted like to keep pushing and being curious and try vocals and singing. And I think that was really sparked by like, I was just consistently hitting these creative walls while making music. And I felt like I was having kind of a limited way of expressing myself and the ideas I want to get across by just strictly making instrumental music. So it really came out of a necessity to just want to express myself more specifically and more with more depth that I could with just purely instrumental music.
Roberts: We’ll be right back.
Roberts: In February of 2019, Jackson released Big Wild’s debut album, Superdream. For the first time, he was the producer, songwriter— and vocalist, adding his voice to a collection of songs that conveyed a spirit of exploration.
For Jackson, there’s nothing strange about the fact that an artist creating electronic dance music would build sounds that evoke natural wonders.
(audio from Maker)
Stell: There's definitely this perception of producers being kind of like mad scientists and laboratory, like in a very dark or like synthetic environment. And that's somewhat true. But I think being inside and being behind the computer allows your imagination to start to develop its own world and where mine gravitates towards is like natural environments.
I almost think if I was outside, like if my studio was in a forest somehow and I had all my gear just on like a log table or something, and I was producing, I almost feel like I might end up making more synthetic or like digital sounding music because I'm just imagining somewhere else.
Roberts: That’s not to say that Big Wild music doesn’t play well outdoors. After Superdream came out, Jackson went on tour, performing at iconic venues across the United States, including Red Rocks, in Colorado. The day he was there for his show, he also did a recording on a trail outside of the amphitheater, at the invitation of local officials. He’d already been working out some stripped back analog sessions that included other singers, and he jumped at the chance to perform in a truly open space.
Stell: I feel bad for our sound guys because they had to like bring equipment out down these trails that were not super easy, so big shout out to them for making it happen. But being able to play music in like open, beautiful environments like that I think really ties in with like a bigger vision I have for the project and in lining it up with outdoor spaces and natural environments.
It was super cool to just be like behind this mic singing a song. And then I look out and I just see like all these mountains in this open meadow with like these yellow wild flowers and it was like nature was the audience at that point.
Roberts: The experience stuck with Jackson. In recent songs while he’s been writing new songs, he’s also been thinking of ways he might literally incorporate wild places into his music and his performances.
Stell: What unique things can I do around this whole new body of work? And I've definitely thought of doing some kind of like potential outdoor entire live show video based around like a full performance of the album, just in this really cool outdoor setting and maybe we use some like weird lighting and stuff like that, but I just love the idea of like incorporating nature into the show as much as we can. Obviously we're limited when we're on a stage and stuff or in a venue, but when we can actually just take the content in our own hands, I think it's really cool to kind of integrate the two. They just naturally go together.
Roberts: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson has, like the rest of us, been spending most of his time at home. Early in the year, he was preparing for a long tour that included major festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza.
Stell: And for musicians who are doing a lot of touring and, and whatnot, they know it's like totally two separate sides of the brain to be out on the road and doing live shows and performing versus being in a studio and working on music and using that part of your brain.
Roberts: Fortunately, Jackson has a pretty idyllic home studio setup. He now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, and last year they converted their garage to a recording space. It’s a bright, white room with large skylights, and a big round window looking out onto a lush garden.
In the past, Jackson has used nature sounds in his tracks—he once sampled an elephant trumpeting—and now, during the pandemic, he’s been tinkering with a field recorder, sometimes taking it with him on hikes to capture whatever he might hear. Meanwhile, he’s also discovered another source of inspiration for how he assembles his songs.
Stell: It's been unexpected, but it's actually gardening. I've been doing a lot of things around the house, like planting stuff, growing vegetables, taking care of things and just learning more about making it productive.
And you realize that like all from the soil to the sun, to water and everything, how plants have adapted, it's all this really incredibly intricate and beautiful system that works on its own. It's similar to like when you really want to make a full production for a song it's like, you have different elements. You have the drums, you have guitars, you have vocals and synthesizers and it’s like how are you going to create that like synchronized system. And like it's very abstract and conceptual, but I've been able to take some of those ideas and like how to organize some of my sounds and maybe be like, well, this is completely extra, I can take this out of my song. Like learning what to prioritize so I’m getting a clear message or theme across to people.
Roberts: In May of this year, Big Wild released a new single, Touch, that felt perfectly time to what we have been going through, despite the fact that it was written well before the quarantines began.
The lyrics describe an intense hunger to be close to the person you love—to touch them, but you can’t, because they’re far away.
The song was spurred by Jackson’s experience last year, while he was on tour for Superdream.
Stell: I just remember jumping into my bed, probably had been gone for about a month. We're on the bus. I'm in bed, just lying there alone, just getting jostled around and just having this, like this pain of wanting to be with my wife. It's a feeling that I know a lot of people can relate to and for whatever reason, it was just particularly strong in that moment. I think that at night that's when people tend to feel like once everybody's gone their separate ways and we're all calling it a night and that's when that feeling of like, Oh man, I wish I was with the person I loved. And that feeling just kinda stuck with me for a while. And it it's what really inspired the song.
Roberts: As Jackson’s musical exploration continues, he says he finds himself drawn to a more stripped-down sound and process. He’s mixing the inspirations and lessons he finds in nature with the far out places he imagines, and, increasingly, expressing this with his own voice. The result are often songs that make us feel like we’re on an adventure—and having a fantastic time.
Stell: When I really got around to using my voice in Super dream, it really gave my music a focus that I don't think it ever had before. Now that I'm exploring that more, I find the need to like almost use less in my music because now I can communicate more with my vocals and lyrics.
It took me to a human place if that makes sense. I'm not quite as up in the clouds as much with producing abstract sounds and things in a computer, it felt like I was more having a human connection and conversation with listeners by using my voice.
And at this point I'm really combining that idea of making something grounded with nature and with my voice and something more, more out of this world and imaginative, which I think comes from my earlier music and blending in together in a way that feels really unique and special in me and hopeful and positive. And cause I feel like those are things that I need to even remind myself of. And it gives me a place to go when maybe I'm not feeling quite as hopeful.
Roberts: That’s Jackson Stell, aka Big Wild. You can learn more about him and keep up with his new music at bigwildmusic.com.
This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts. If you enjoyed it and listen to our show regularly, please consider making a contribution to Outside to fund the storytelling we do on this podcast. In face of an economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, your support helps ensure that Outside’s commitment to outstanding literary journalism goes on. Make your contribution now at outsideonline.com/podcastlistener.
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