Inside the multi-faceted world of Detroit’s Jax Anderson

What a difference a stage makes. This morning, I was sitting alongside a gracious and humble Jax Anderson in an Austin coffee shop, discussing amongst other things the prolific and productive community from which her music is inspired and created. Eight hours later, as Flint Eastwood boldly commands her platform upstairs in Antone’s Nightclub - eyes aflame with self-belief, a closed fist beating her chest, a defiant tongue exposed as her war cry resounds - it’s hard to believe I’m experiencing the same person.

But, such is Anderson’s tenacious, enterprising spirit and commitment to her art, her live performance is merely an extension of the innate adventurousness and ingenuity that fuels her entire drive. Markedly passionate about expressing her true self through creativity, everything she does is undertaken with an unyielding determination.

We came together on a frustratingly windy Friday morning at South By South West (who flies all the way to Texas to do an interview indoors?) ahead of her performance at Shure’s Bedroom Sessions during the music portion of the festival. In spotlighting their commitment to supporting grass roots artists, the renowned audio brand had curated a diverse two-day event that doubled up as an oasis of respite during the week’s manic daytimes, and a sizzling showcase of exemplary new sounds in the evenings.

The Bedroom Sessions were the inauguration of Shure’s For Those Who Tour initiative, a yearlong enterprise designed to support and encourage travelling musicians, which is now a permanent creative retreat in Chicago, and nobody echoed the brand’s constructive and utilitarian practices better than Flint Eastwood.

The Detroit singer-songwriter thrives on creative control, fusing an intriguing blend of electronic, R&B and hip-hop elements with the industriousness for which her hometown was once famed, and framing it with a vividly visual arrangement - all testament to Anderson’s multimedia approach to her work. Her practical streak of independence is best defined by ‘Queen’, from her 2017 EP, ‘Broke Royalty’; “I’m a queen not a soldier,” she affirms, “Got something to fight for.”

Further reflecting Shure’s patronage to new talent, Anderson herself founded Assemble Sound, a recording compound and creative hub, in 2015, turning an 1870’s church into a Detroit destination for a myriad of artistic polymaths to create and collaborate in a free and responsive environment. It’s where all Flint Eastwood’s music is made, which explains the freshness of sounds and surprises that come courtesy of whoever she chose to work with at that time.

Escaping from the blustery breeze that was blowing down 5th Street, we adjourned to the aforementioned coffee shop to get the inside story of Jax Anderson’s multi-faceted world.

When people think of Detroit music, Motown figures big. It was built on people working together, a community, which is similar to what you came out of: a creative collective scene. Do you think working together is a common theme in the people of Detroit?

I think there are pockets. It’s like Motown existed, and then techno existed - which was very much like that same ‘let’s work together’ mentality. Man, the techno scene in Detroit is just amazing. The history of the techno scene is incredible. The Underground Resistance crew? I look up to those guys so much because they were so independent and they just wanted to help everybody. Whereas Motown was dope, but it was all Berry Gordy’s vision. People like Underground Resistance have kinda paved the way and the ideas for what we do, in the sense of it being very artist-friendly and it being very much about like, ‘Hey, this is what you’re doing. How can we help?’ instead of us coming in and being like, ‘We’re gonna take over this and make it our own and make money off you.’ That’s never our intention. But I think Detroit has always had this mentality of like we mainly care about passion and authenticity over what trend is happening, or if you’re fitting in with what’s going on. Because Detroit is so far from any coastal city and any music city that any time a musician pops off from there, it’s basically because they’re creating their own sound. So you have Motown, you have techno, you have garage rock, you have artists like Eminem, and even - love him or hate him - fuckin’ Kid Rock: he made his own fuckin’ genre! But I think what’s really inspiring about being from Detroit is just the encouragement to do something that is authentic to me rather than something that I think will sell a lot of records.

Do you feel like people judge you on your levels of authenticity, and that in turn drives you to be more authentic?

Yes. Oh definitely, because it’s the kinda thing where they’ll sniff out bullshit a mile away. Detroiters will tell you. They’re very honest motherfuckers, and I love that about it; it’s a very humble city. But yeah, I think I’ve just always been encouraged to think outside the box and do something different, and so that’s what we strive for.

I know you tried moving away to Los Angeles. What was it that drew you back to persevere with Detroit?

I think it really is the authenticity factor. And it’s an entire city that’s based on factory workers, pretty much. Everything is very humble and very much about work really hard and take care of your people, and I think that’s a very beautiful ethos to build any kind of project on. Especially art, because the whole purpose of art is to connect people, to make them feel something, and to provide something for the community. And so, to live in a city that’s all about that, it’s definitely one of the reasons why I stayed.

Presumably that’s the same ethos behind Assemble Sound? Being able to create a hub for people to come to and encourage them as well?

Yeah, definitely. We’re not there to be like, ‘We’re the sound of Detroit’, or ‘We’re saving Detroit music’; that’s not our intention at all. Our intention is like, yo, if you’re doing something and you feel like you’re stuck, and you feel like you need help, we want to be a tool to help you. We want to encourage you to work with any artist that you can, because we know that it takes a village with anything that you do. And if you want to build your own little collective and your own thing with all your friends, then go for it, if that’s gonna be what’s good for you. It’s a very open-door policy kinda situation, and it’s very much based on the idea of if you’re there, be there to work. Because I feel like a lot of times people assume, when they hear the word “collective”, that it’s just a bunch of artists running rampant, doing a fuck ton of drugs, and not being productive. We very much encourage the idea of if you’re going to be there, be there to work, be honest with yourself, be honest with others, and do your best work.

Your song ‘Queen’ feels like an outwardly show of a confidence that’s come from going out and doing things on your own - the determination and commitment that’s involved with that.

Oh yeah. It’s the kinda thing of like, in Detroit it’s not like you have a fuck ton of promoters and a fuck ton of resources if you wanna do a dope show. For us, I feel like Flint Eastwood kinda jumped off by we did some warehouse shows when I first started that kinda springboarded us into this other realm. I figure you can’t really do that in major cities because it would probably cost too much money and it would just be too hard to organise, but with Detroit, it’s that idea of if you have an idea and you’re super passionate about it and you just tell people about it and you’re proactive, then usually people will jump on board because they just wanna do something dope. That’s an artist’s dream to be able to be in that scenario.

‘Push’ is a song that represents your commitment to music. What is it that keeps you motivated?

I think music has always been very attractive to me. I’ve lived a lot of lives: I was a commercial editor before doing music full-time - I did photo and film and stuff - and I think what separated me from that art form and made me go into music is just the passion behind it, and how much music can bring people together - as clichéd as that is. It’s a beautiful medium. With music you have the power to either speak so much joy into people’s lives, or empathise with their pain… It’s so easy to have a purpose with music, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing, and I think there are just so many avenues to help people. That’s why I do music: I want to connect people. I want people to not feel alone. There are a lot of people in the world that just feel an indescribable loneliness.

That echoes a quote I read from you where you said that ‘Broke Royalty’ was dedicated to life’s underdogs. What do you think is the most effective way to promote empowerment in your listeners?

For me, I’ve always been a big fan of leading by example. I think you can preach something for a while, but until you actually put it into action, then it’s just words. For me, I like to be very involved in the listeners’ lives. I like to go to cities - if somebody’s doing something, I like to go and meet them where they’re at and see what’s going on and encourage them. For me, doing stuff outside of music - like connecting people and doing different community events - is something that I try to do. Like, ‘Hey, you can do this too. If you have an idea, you can do it. It’s not actually as hard as you believe in your mind. Yes, there will be roadblocks, and yes, it will be stressful, and yes, it will be hard, but it’s so worth it.’

Much of your music is made in collaboration with other people. What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?

I think just the way that I do my sessions immediately weeds out the type of energy that I don’t want around, so the energy that I do want around is somebody that is very open, somebody that is very free-flowing, somebody that is very passionate about what they‘re doing, and somebody that is excited to be there. That’s really important, because if you’re just trying to coast, and trying to write a song just to write a song, it’s probably going to be shit; let’s be real. So yeah, all of my sessions are open sessions, meaning that anyone in the building is allowed to come through and walk through my session. Which can be extremely intimidating; unless you want to be there and unless you are passionate about what you are doing, it can be very scary to jump to the mic and say an idea because there are usually a lot of people in the room… I’m very much about no ego, no competition; we’re all here together, we’re all trying to do the same thing, and if one of us succeeds, we all succeed. It’s just this idea of if you can have no ego and you can be passionate and bring good vibes, you’re there. I don’t care what level you are musician-wise, you probably have something good to offer.

You’re completely in charge of your whole creative output. How important is that to you, and how challenging is it for you to realise your full vision?

I think for me it’s always been about necessity. Again, being from Detroit, there aren’t a lot of options for directors or video people, so I taught myself how to do video. And there aren’t a lot of photographers around so I need to be able to accurately describe what I want photo-wise, so I learned photography. I’ve just always had this mindset of if I can’t find somebody to do it, then I’ll just learn how to do it. Which is a lot of fun. I love it. And yeah, I think it’s very important to have a vision and have a purpose and have a lens that you can filter everything through, because a lot of times as creatives we get so many ideas that it can be so easy to be distracted, so for me, I’m always very intentional with having a clear vision - especially because I work with so many creatives, so there needs to be somebody that’s just like ‘This is a good idea,’ or ‘This is a bad idea.’ It’s very important to me to have a vision, so I try to be intentional with it.

Hopefully there’s an album forthcoming?

Yeah. I’ve been working on it.

Your EPs very much feel like a different chapter of your life. How will this album be a cohesive whole of all these parts?

I feel like every EP is a different event that happened, and the full-length that I’m working on is more of an explanation of who I am as an artist, so I’m excited for it.

Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Katherine Squier

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