Featured Artist of the Month
August - Aspen Jacobsen
By Cliff Yankovich
The definition of “prodigy” is: “a person, especially a young person or child, having extraordinary talent or ability.” It is not a word to be tossed around randomly, but after learning about Aspen Jacobsen I am fairly confident you will agree that the word applies to her.
Spend some time on her website (www.AspenJacobsen.com) and listening to her recorded music and you will find out that she started playing on a ukulele when she was nine years old and started writing songs at ten. These days, even though she has yet to reach two decades in age, Aspen is proficient on electric and acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, piano, and keyboards – and the ukulele is still around as well.
Anyone in West Michigan who considers themselves a fan of traditional music has probably seen or heard of Bruce Ling. Bruce is a multi-instrumentalist who has been teaching and mentoring musicians of all ages for decades.
“I have had a number of my students go on to great careers in music. I’m very honored to have had a part in helping them on their path,” Ling related. “Whoa! Aspen Jacobsen though… She knew what she was doing from before the moment I met her.”
Ling met Aspen when she was twelve and she attended a workshop he was teaching at the Wheatland Music Festival. There were over fifty guitar players who showed up and Bruce started the session by passing out some sheet music. Aspen was one of the first to get the music and as Ling circulated around the room meeting people and handing out the music, Aspen got right down to business with her kid-sized Taylor guitar. The lesson plan was to spend at least 30 minutes working with the class on the first song, but before he could finish his rounds and start the class, Ling heard Aspen playing the complete song at speed from her chair.
When the teaching session was done, Aspen’s father Ken approached Bruce to ask about private instructions and a weekly time was set for her to travel four hours round trip to Ling’s home. Aspen proved to be capable of learning everything Ling could teach – flat picking, slide guitar techniques, how to play melody, rhythm, and percussion on the mandolin, and she “learned a pile of fiddle tunes, their titles, sources, and histories.” They also discussed some of the practical aspects of making music like how to communicate with sound technicians, networking with event and venue promoters, proper microphone use, and musical gear. Aspen demonstrated an approach to learning everything she could about music and the music business far beyond her adolescent age.
One might say that Aspen is an old soul when it comes to music. In spite of being young, it was the music of the past that spoke to her.
“I first heard old time music at my first music festival, and I immediately connected with the music and the community. There was so much love and acceptance there,” she recalls. “I soon realized that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Even though she is only seventeen, Aspen has a musical Curriculum Vitae that anyone twice her age would be most proud. She has performed at Michigan music festivals such as Arts, Beats, & Eats, Wheatland, Earthworks, Ann Arbor Summer Festival, and Buttermilk. She has performed at countless venues including the Listening Room in Grand Rapids and the venerable Ark in Ann Arbor. In 2019, she was the youngest singer songwriter to ever be featured at the Folk Alliance Regional Midwest Conference. As you read this, Aspen is thousands of miles away in California where she is a music major at the University of Southern California. Oh, did we forget to mention she graduated from Interlochen Center for The Arts?
Aspen has recorded two CDs and will be releasing her third in August. The timing is perfect for you to go to her website and order what will be a limited edition pressing of some of her new music. This CD finds Jacobsen taking inspiration from two of her favorites, Joni Mitchel and Ani DiFranco, and writing songs that deal with heavy personal and social issues.
“I’m impressed with how she writes songs that address troubling societal and human experience issues. Bringing things into a clearer light, and calling for accountability,” Ling stated.
You might expect a 17-year-old to write about easily consumed and digested subjects, but Aspen is not a producer of pablum. Her latest offerings were recorded in Nashville and examine several tricky issues of modern life. Toxic relationships are discussed in "Shouldn’t Give A Damn" while “Dear Brother” looks at mental health. She sings about faith and religion in one song and another, “Monday Morning”, is about gun violence.
After learning about Aspen’s lightning learning speed when it comes to music and music production combines with her writing songs about heavy subjects, it would be easy to imagine that she could be aloof and somewhat adrift in her own world. History is filled with examples of musical prodigies who do not relate well to the world us regular folks inhabit. Her mentor and teacher Bruce Ling assures me that Aspen is an exception in this regard as well. He commented about being very impressed at the way she is down to earth and humble. He has witnessed how she responds to fans before and after performances with engaging conversation and a depth of maturity beyond her years. She values the community of musicians and music makers and works toward the greater good of that community wherever she goes.
“But I know who I am, and I know what path I’m on. Every time I perform, I pour out my heart and soul and I feel my purpose.” Jacobsen stated on her website.
We are safe in considering Aspen Jacobsen to be a prodigy and it should be a delight for any fan of traditional Americana music to follow her as she moves forward.