TJ Jackson: Insomnia

Words + Interview By Tyrone Davis

Coming from entertainment royalty, TJ Jackson is the youngest son of Tito Jackson and the nephew of the late Michael Jackson. He is most known as a member of the R&B/Pop group “3T” which featured himself and his blood brothers, Taj and Taryll. The group’s debut album “Brotherhood” was released in 1995 and sold about 3 million copies worldwide. After some time away, TJ is now back as a solo artist. He and I spoke about life as a Jackson, stepping out on his own and creating his own identity, adapting to social media, his late uncle and his first single, “Insomnia”. I really enjoyed our conversation. It was truly an honor.

Tell me a about the single, “Insomnia” and explain the concept behind it.
Musically, it’s a slow jam and R&B kind of classic sounding song. I’m a big fan of 90s music like Jodeci and Shai and I wanted to do something in that vain. So, it has a lot of those elements but it’s also modern with the instrumentation that people today can listen and jive on. As far as the lyrics and concept, I was always fascinated with insomnia having a negative connotation. People will talk about how they can’t sleep as if it is a bad thing. I know oftentimes people that have to work in the morning need to get their rest but I wanted to capture that moment where insomnia could be a good thing and it’s where you just don’t want the night to end. The song is about you with your loved one and you guys are just having the time of your lives and the night can’t end for you. You don’t want it to end. You just want to live in that present feeling in that present moment forever.

That is actually an interesting take because I have seen more and more people talk about having insomnia, especially on social media. It seems like it’s a really big thing because I’m hearing about it way more than I did 10 years ago. It is definitely picking up.
They say that you’re not supposed to go to bed with those devices and all that good stuff because they’ll contribute to insomnia but like I said, it’s always with a negative connotation. You know, you have to get medication or people can’t sleep so they’re taking things to get some rest. But like I said, I wanted to capture that moment where it’s actually a good thing where the night is young and beautiful. I wanted to tell that story.

How do you feel about releasing your first single after being away for so long?
I’m excited, man. The game has changed quite a bit from when I started. Back in the day, you’d travel everywhere and do radio, you know? There was no social media and I don’t think there was any internet but I’m loving where it’s at right now. I think artists are in a perfect position because we could share things so quickly with our fans and this whole build up to the single released on Friday had fans getting excited, posting cool messages, making pictures, drawings, etc. It feels like a big movie release for me, you know? I’m looking forward to it and I’m hoping that everyone is jamming and grooving to it. The feedback I have gotten has been really solid and you never know until it has been released but I’m pretty confident that it is going to be a great song to a lot of people, which is everything to me. 

Right. I’ve actually seen quite a bit of that positive feedback. I would like to think that a lot of the people that are familiar with you are probably a little bit older. I’m 35 so I remember when your group, “3T” came out. Going back a bit, break down your background and history, especially for the newer generation who may not know.
I’m Tito’s (Jackson) son. I’m the youngest son of Tito who I call the founding member of the Jackson 5 really, because if it weren’t for him breaking that guitar string there wouldn’t be a Michael or Janet. My brothers and I were in a group called 3T and we’ve toured the world selling millions of records and performing for millions of people. Life happens and even though we’re brothers and we’re a group (we’ll always be a group), as we’ve gotten older, we have our own interests and our own ideas of what we want to do musically and non-musically. So, it just felt right for this to be the time where I released my first song and do my thing the way I want to do it. That’s where I’m at today.

Coming from a family where you guys were extremely talented and a lot of you did some major things in life, how do you go about creating your own niche and your own name where you stand out amongst the family where it’s not always about the whole family but just you in particular?
You just have to be authentic to what feels right for you. I think a lot of people think Jacksons are all the same and that’s not true. There may be something that unites us but at the same time we all have different sounds and different interests and for me to achieve that (separation), I had to be me and do what felt right for me. Yeah, there are people that say, “Sometimes, you sound like Michael or this person” but that is still me and I’ve learned to not run away from that or run to that. It was a challenge, man.

I think the reason why it took so long for me to do this is because I was trying to run away from it. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of it but I was just set on doing my own thing that I was really neglecting a lot of my own creativity. Then, when you’re hearing people like The Wknd, Usher and Chris Brown come out and pay homage to my uncle and do things that sound like my uncle and family, it changed how I thought about it. Ever since I made that change I’ve been creating in a way that’s very free and very natural. I think that’s why it has been going so well for me. I think that’s the trick. Whoever you are, you’ve got to be you and do the best you can.

Now, when creating R&B and Pop music, the sound of the 90s has changed. What made you want to stay in that lane versus creating music that sounds more like what is popular today?
That’s a good question. I try to have live instrumentation and there are some simple 808 drums and things like that, that take place and are old school. At the same time, I wanted to do something that married both. I’m a big fan of that sound and I think it is under appreciated in today’s market but I didn’t want to neglect the sound of today. I’m just trying to do my part and bringing the old sound back.

Aside from the single, are you working on a full length (LP)?
Tyrone, man…I have quite a bit of music that is pretty much finished, so I have enough for an EP and an album. Sure, there are some tweaks I have to make on some of the songs but as of now, the plan is to release an EP in the next couple of months and then follow that up with an album around May of 2020.

I’m a writer, man so I’ve been writing nonstop even though I haven’t been in the forefront as an artist. Writing is something that I’ve been doing since I can remember. I had to make an outlet for all of that creativity and all the ideas I had in my head so what I did was took the best of what I had and what was most representative of myself and went out to Tennessee and tried to make the best sounding music I could. We are a good 12 to 15 songs in and I’m still rolling.

Gotcha. Now, you said you went to Tennessee. What made you go to a place like Tennessee or Nashville to create music?
A couple of things: I had to find my own lane again. I had to get out and do my thing. My family has been in this industry and they have every contact in LA I can get but I wanted to do something that was unique that can call my own. A friend suggested I go out to Tennessee to write and that’s what I did about four years ago. I went out there just writing and the vibe out there was so cool.

They are very melodically driven. They are very talented. They could play, they could sing and they could do everything out there. I found a couple of people out there that I really meshed well with and created the best we could together and that is what you’re hearing. It’s kind of this Tennessee influence but with some Jackson, I guess.

That’s interesting to hear. I’m originally from Indianapolis so of course we’re close to Gary but my mother was in the military and I actually grew up right outside of Nashville at Fort Campbell, KY (military base). Even though I have this magazine and I’ve done a lot of stuff in the entertainment business, I’ve never really tapped into that Nashville music side of things aside from a couple of rappers and things of that nature.
Well, you know what? I think back…..I don’t know what time period you’re talking but even 10-15 years ago, it was very
country heavy so I don’t think that all the genres of music were properly represented out there but today it’s different, man. Now, there are a couple of cats in the Nashville area that are just so incredibly talented. They are R&B kids and I’ve written some things with them that are going to be on the record. There is just so much talent out there in addition to the country talent, you know? I think people around the world are realizing it and starting to gravitate there. I love it. It’s almost like a second home to me now.

I look forward to going out there and creating. It allows me to get into another mental space because it is a different vibe when I’m in LA. I’m a Jackson and I feel like I have to be a little bit more cautious. I have to be more careful. There could be paparazzi here. I’m a little bit more sheltered. You know what I mean? I’m guarded but once I get to Tennessee I can really do my thing.

Speaking of LA, the paparazzi and things of that nature, how did you guys’ generation handle that growing up? Was it hard? How did that work?
Tyrone, It’s kind of all I know to be honest, man. I remember being a kid and my parents sitting us down saying, “Look, you can’t go to this party because we heard there is going to be alcohol there” and it’s like, “But why? We don’t drink. We’re not going to do anything crazy.” They are like, “Yeah, but if there is a fight or the police come and they find alcohol the headline is going to say “Tito Jackson’s Kid or Michael Jackson’s Nephew Found With Alcohol”. So we had to grow up a little different than most people do. That’s just one of many, many examples like that.

This is the life we know where we can walk outside of the bookstore and just start hearing clicks because there is this new headline that something happened to a family member, whether it is true or not, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it affects our personal lives. That has been one of the struggles I’ve had with LA. I try to be very honest and open and chill and I’m not good with those kinds of surprises like that, if that makes sense.

Being that we’re in the social media era, I think there is a huge disconnect between the fans and the superstars/celebrities because you guys are giving up more information about yourselves than before but at the same time it seems like it can either be good or bad depending on the scenario. What is your take?
That is a good question, man. That is something I’m struggling with trying to figure out. Things I’m doing on social media now, I would’ve never thought I would be doing. You know what I mean? It is so different than what we grew up with. We were so close to my uncle Michael and he helped teach us how to be artists and he was so private about everything. When he released the picture or something, it was perfect. In today’s world, it’s like the less perfect it is, the better and fans really want to be connected.

So, it’s a different experience for me because my teaching was one way and the world is moving in a whole different direction. I’m just trying to do the best I can. I enjoy my time with the fans and doing the live chat and talking with them. I’m just trying to really dig down and just be there for them because I’ve learned that it is not just my journey or experience. My music will influence them, hopefully. Some songs will influence them in a strong way and I want them to enjoy them, learn about how they came about and see those creations live. That is the beauty of today’s world. A lot of big celebrities from that time are now starting to do things like that. Will Smith joined Instagram and he is killing it but if you look back two years ago, he wasn’t on it because I think he struggled with the dynamics of it. It’s just not how we grew up.

Entertainers used to keep that mystique about themselves going and the fans didn’t really know much about them aside from their art. Now, they are giving the world a little bit of everything. I think Will Smith has done a great job at giving you some information and keeping people engaged without going too far.
I personally think he is incredible at this social media stuff and he has taken it to a whole new level. It’s funny because even my aunt didn’t have Instagram 2 years ago and she was the last holdout. She has started to do it and as time goes on she is on there more and more because it is necessary. If you don’t participate, the fans will move on and forget about you. Your art won’t have as much of an impact as you’re hoping it will.

One of my business partners is about a generation up from me. We grew up in two totally different eras and a lot of times we clash because as a creative who appreciates the art, I’m am always wanting to create great artwork whereas with him, it is more like “We need to get it out, now and keep cranking it out.” I think it dilutes things a little bit when you rush it. You were talking about social media before and about the type of music that you make, using live instruments and things of that nature. I would hope that that wouldn’t get to you to where you feel like you have to bend a little bit for the new generation. I wouldn’t want you to feel like you need to conform to the new way.
You know what? That is the struggle. I think both of you guys are right because here’s the thing, your fans/followers want to know what is going on all the time. It’s a challenge. I’m a professional so if there is a picture that isn’t right, I don’t want it to come out and be seen. I have a 19-year old son. He looked at my YouTube channel and was like, “This isn’t going to work.” I was like, “What do you mean? I haven’t put out my first song yet so what am I supposed to put on there? My video hadn’t come out yet. So, he grabbed the camera, drives me around, turns the camera around and just starts talking. It still feels weird but I’m working on it.

Okay. So your son is 19? He is right in that pocket of social media and it’s probably all he knows at this point.
That’s it. It’s funny because yesterday I was like, “The lighting is not right” and he goes, “Yeah, but that’s even better.” I’m thinking that is not the best it could be and he told me to stop thinking that way. We just need to do it. We did one take and there was a guitar in the background that was crooked and he’s like, “Nah, that’s how it is. That’s how it’s going to be.” So, it’s a learning curve for me. For the new generation, it is more authentic and “Let’s Roll”. To me, it’s not natural, that’s for sure.

We are talking about music, your son being 19 and you taking a hiatus for awhile. How did you go about taking on the guardianship of Michael’s children and how has that been?
I had my son when I was really young, at 21 years old. I needed him because my mother was murdered when I was 16 and I had lost all sense of hope and care for life in a sense, you know? I needed that person in my life that I could love unconditionally again so I had a child very young against what was the norm where I grew up. I’ve always wanted to be a parent. I remember being young thinking about parenting and I used to subscribe to the parenting magazine at 14. Also, I grew up with my uncle and he was so influential and positive in our lives that I always thought about how I could repay him. I couldn’t buy him anything. There was no new TV that he couldn’t have before it hit the market, you know? There was nothing I could get for him that he didn’t already have.

When he passed, it just felt right. That was the opportunity to pay him back and do something for him. I knew how he raised his kids and how he thought about parenting and our kids were similar in age so we would always talk about it. We wanted them to be humble and empathetic. We wanted them to be learners. So, when he passed, it just felt natural for not only myself but also my brothers to step in and try to help my grandmother out as much as we could.

Then, time happened and as my grandmother got older, more responsibilities fell on me for the kids. I love those kids with everything. My heart is soft for them because I know how much they lost when they lost their father. I’m just trying to be the best father I can for them. I shouldn’t say the best father but the best guardian parental role I can for them.

Right. You have a foundation set up for your mother, correct?
Yeah. Like I said, my mother was murdered and the loss of a parent is like no other. My brothers and I started a foundation back in 2015 that helps people deal with loss. Not just the loss of a parent but also the loss of a sibling or best friend or even a strong loss like a house. Loss is so difficult in today’s world because we are so busy celebrating winning. When you get on social media, all you see is people winning but people have to be able to deal with loss because for every winner, there is a loser. Our foundation is about handling that loss and growing from it.

I’ve thought about that over the years as some of my friends have lost a parent or grandparent because I haven’t had any major losses yet but I’m always dreading the day I do. I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.
It is a real thing and you’re not alone. There is a book called, More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us by Steve Leder. It’s an easy read and very powerful because it talks about losing not being the end of the world and a lot of people struggle with that. They go into a funk that could really affect their lives and their loved ones who are surrounded by their lives. The better we can get at learning how to deal with and navigate through that the better off we’ll be. I don’t want you to think by reading it that it’ll put it into existence but at the same time, I think we have to be prepared because we can lose time dealing with loss and recovery. Starting early prepares us for those times. I hope I’m making sense.

Yes. I got you and I appreciate the advice and referral. I would like to ask from an artist’s standpoint, what type of advice could you give someone who wants to get involved into writing?
Just do it. Write. Write. Write. It doesn’t matter what kind of device you have. We all have phones that can record. Keep creating. Keep a journal and keep asking for feedback. Be humble and don’t let your ego get in the way. Understand that you’re going like a lot of what you do. You’re going to think you’re there and are the next big thing but you have to stay humble and open to suggestions. You have to welcome them. I think that is a big hurdle that a lot of people have. Their egos get in the way and it stunts their growth and potential.

Great. Are there any misconceptions that you would like to clarify right now? It could be about anything.
That’s a good question too. Whoo…That that’s a good one, Tyrone. The main thing I’d want people to know at this moment is that my uncle Michael was an incredible loving person who supported me. He was the nicest person and would give the shirt off his back to help anyone. He spent all his time in hospitals and giving back. I think that message doesn’t get enough play and enough volume. Again, we like to celebrate and look at negative things but his heart was second to none. That’s what I would say.

Lastly, how can people find you on social media and how can they get ahold of your single?
Okay. So, the single is available on all major platforms. My Instagram is @tjjackson9. My Facebook is TJ Jackson World and Twitter is @tjjackson. Also, people can go to my website and sign up for my newsletter, which I’ll be doing once a week. Join my journey.

All right, man. Well, I appreciate you speaking with me today. Much respect to you and your family and I wish you nothing but the best.
Thank you, Tyrone. I appreciate it, man. Great questions too and good luck with everything in your life.

Thanks a lot, bro. Take care.

*Editor’s Note: A few weeks after our phone interview, TJ came to Atlanta on a press run where we were able to catch up with him for a follow up interview on camera. We continued our conversation, going more in-depth on some of the topics that were discussed here.

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