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Musician hits it big on small screen

Portland singer/songwriter has success with music for TV shows


by: COURTESY OF SARA JACKSON-HOLMAN - Singer/songwriter Sara Jackson-Holman, 24, has penned some impactful songs in her young career and looks forward to playing more live shows.Sara Jackson-Holman doesn’t watch much television, but it’s the medium that has made the Portland singer/songwriter relatively famous.

Songs from her first two albums have been used as part of the stories on several television shows, namely “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Bones,” “Castle” and, most recently, “Pretty Little Liars” and four others.

It’s quite a boost for a career that started only five years ago. Jackson-Holman, 24, began songwriting while attending Whitworth College in Spokane, and caught the attention of Blind Pilot’s Expunged label after an online fan post. Trained classically, she began to go in the indie pop direction, with Blind Pilot producer Skyler Norwood part of her band.

She has produced two albums now, “When You Dream” and “Cardiology.”

All the while, she still works regular jobs, including currently at Costco in Beaverton, arranging flowers.

“I’m always done by 5 or 6 o’clock, which gives me some flexibility for playing shows and stuff,” she says.

It’s pretty clear that Jackson-Holman has a bright future in music. She has played mostly festivals, and some gigs in the Northwest, Los Angeles and San Francisco. She’ll be leaving this fall on an international tour — Germany, Austria, Switzerland — and plans to work on another album, with the hopes of setting up a U.S. tour next year.

“My next really big goal is I need to tour, play a lot,” she says. “It’s very exciting for me, because I have these built-in little networks of people who have never seen me, but heard me from TV shows. I’m excited to get on the road.”

Her licensing agent has been busy selling her songs. Before the release of her first album, the song “Into The Blue” received air play on the Season 2 finale of “Castle.” It was the third song Jackson-Holman had ever written.

She watched the episode and “it was surreal, a very different way to experience my music.”

“Freight Train,” an ode to her late grandfather, appeared on “Bones,” and subsequently has been picked up by several TV shows. It’s a song that resonated with people, she says, about the loss of somebody dear and trying to move on.

“The online responses have been overwhelmingly personal,” she says. “That’s very humbling. To be able to share (the song) with someone, connect with someone in that way, is awesome.”

Her grandfather, Jim Ridderbush, died in January 2012, while Jackson-Holman worked on her second album. He was hit by a car. She wrote “Freight Train,” and other songs, within a couple weeks of his death, as a tribute to the man who used to drive to her native Bend to watch her play classical piano.

“He always told me, ‘You need to go to Juilliard,’ ” she says. “He was very passionate. He was not a ‘sweet’ grandpa — ex-Marine, very gruff — but he was always sweet to me and supportive. He was awesome.”

His death didn’t deter her from completing the album.

“I was so much in shock, writing the music really did help me,” she says. “It was a way to work through my feelings.”

Netflix series picks up song

Another song, “For Albert,” also has been used by TV shows. Albert was her grandfather’s middle name.

After growing up in Bend and graduating from Mountain View High in 2007, Jackson-Holman attended Whitworth and then left college to concentrate on her music. She has lived in Portland for about three years.

Jackson-Holman has been compared to chanteuses Adele, Amy Winehouse and Feist.

“I’m really grateful,” she says, of her early success. “My music career started with my first album, the first songs I ever wrote. I started writing songs the month before being discovered by my record label. I was just dabbling. I had been doing classical for so long, it definitely gave me the foundation from what I draw heavily from. Very inspired by it.

“I didn’t have any interest in songwriting until I was 19, although I’ve always loved writing (stories and such). I kind of thought I’d be working with kids in some capacity. For a long time, I thought I’d be a pediatrician, although I got so bored with biology. ... Now, I feel very good and fortunate to be doing it. I love it.”

As the story goes, Jackson-Holman posted on Blind Pilot’s Facebook page after seeing the band live. Executives from Expunged Records checked out her MySpace page, on which she had hurriedly put up a photo and some songs (including “Into the Blue”) on the encouragement of her mother.

“She also told me in high school, ‘I just feel that you should be writing songs,’ ” Jackson-Holman adds. “I was probably 16. I remember the conversation — ‘Oh mom, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not going to do that.’ ”

Now, she adds, “my mom (Anne Holman) can take credit for my entire music career.”

From the online interaction, Expunged’s Anthony McNamer signed Jackson-Holman, who hadn’t even produced a formal demo.

While “Cardiology” focused on loving and letting go, “When You Dream” contemplated everything from love and longing to forgetting and remembering to the world of dreams.

Recently, “Freight Train” was used by the shows “Graceland,” “Client List,” “The Fosters” and “Pretty Little Liars.” Her song “For Albert” was used by “Orange Is the New Black,” a series on Netflix. Netflix already has told her it would use another of her songs in the near future.

“It’s definitely a great way to get exposure,” she says.