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After Hurtwood... Cassa Jackson – our very own singer, songwriter and all-round great performer

Updated: Jun 4


What an impressive journey and what nuggets of wisdom were on offer in the Pavilion recently when Cassa Jackson, scion of the house and ex-student of Hurtwood, joined us to share insights and advice on the considerable challenges of the music industry with a lively bunch of A1s.  Not an easy gig this, even for one who has, as we soon learned, performed to an audience of around 20,000 at the O2 Arena.  It is rarely easy to speak of one’s own achievements, but with her innate sense of modesty and a honed mode of the ironic, she held her audience’s attention with a balanced swing between video footage and photographic evidence, of her quite extraordinary experiences since leaving Hurtwood eight years ago.  Here was absolute gold for the many ambitious and talented creatives in the audience, looking for grounded advice.  As she emphasised repeatedly, it has required unrelenting hard work and commitment, a refusal to give up, along with a deliciously cheeky (and entirely justified) self-belief, that has brought her this far.  It’s a truly fascinating story, and she had the students enthralled from the start, beguiling them with big-screen video clips and images from some of her finest moments and alongside an impressive array of celebrities. Balancing glamour with more prosaic reality and throwing in simple but vital advice about the need for flexibility, as well as unstinting hard work and commitment, she explained how even the personal heartache of breaking up with her long-term boyfriend (‘right girl, wrong guy’) had ultimately fed into her increasingly passionate engagement with songwriting and performance.  Although, as you will see, serendipitous luck has undoubtedly been part of the journey, what she downplayed was her clear and obvious talent, which has rightly earned her the opportunities to strut her stuff in vast stadiums and festivals across the world.  In doing so she has already won the hearts of thousands of fans and gained multiple invaluable endorsements from celebrities across the musical spectrum.


So where did it all begin?   At Hurtwood, Cassa tells us, her initial aim had been to become a lawyer.  She loved shows, though, and threw herself into performance, relishing her roles in the musical showcase as well as Chicago and Grease.  She also found herself in the music room collaborating on ideas with a fellow student whose aim was to DJ.  ‘Dabbling,’ as she calls it, grew into something more serious in her second year.  By now she was really enjoying writing songs, exploring her own ideas and experiences, and drawing on her work on poetry in English.  The songs were work in progress, she assumed, and ‘didn’t think (they) were that good’; someone, luckily, disagreed. Dave Parsons, Head of Music, thought one in particular had real value.  Unbeknown to Cassa he entered this song into a prestigious competition called Song Academy. The first she knew about it was when she found herself shortlisted for the final.  With little time to catch her breath she was soon belting out her composition at a pop-up show in Westfield, just as her A Level studies were finishing, and although university was obviously on the agenda, she decided on a gap year in which to consider the possibilities of developing her music.   At Westfield, where she had ‘given it her all’, she had been performing to an audience which largely consisted of friends and family but, once again, serendipitously her talent was spotted, and she was invited to perform at a charity concert called ‘A Voice in a Million’ the following March. This time it was at Wembley Arena and the stakes were very much higher.  Once again, she caught the eye of those who matter.  By July of the same year, she found herself performing to around 40,000 people, most of them young, her own age, in glorious Athens’ sunshine, at a festival called Colour Day.  The images of the experience that she shares with us show an ecstatic Cassa (who had written new material for the occasion) very much at home in this glamorous new world.  The experience, she tells us, was almost overwhelming, but she clearly made her mark.  Typical of her self-deprecation, she recalls the literal scar that she still bears of that day.  High on post-performance adrenaline, and just off the stage, she struggled not to cry from the pain of an inadvertent cigarette burn courtesy of the DJ with whom she shared the stage.  She sucked it up like a true pro: she laughs, but there seems something metaphorical in her stoicism, with this first almost fairytale taster of this fizzing world of music and performance punctured by a little note of harsh reality perhaps.


Anyway, it was now career decision time.  She opted to take up her place at Bristol to study French and Spanish, and at the same time pursue the challenges of the lively music scene there.  Although she makes light of it, Cassa did not shy away from the hard slog of both academic commitments, and the opportunities that university life offered to make music and perform.  She was soon part of a band but, realising that this was not the right fit for her talents, she pulled together her own group of musicians (Cassa and the Novas) and they threw themselves into the campus scene, working all kinds of gigs, big and small, including competing in the Battle of the Bands (‘which was amazing’) and even busking on the streets of Bristol.  It was clearly brilliant experience across the board, which she cites as an effective inoculation against stage fright in the huge arenas in which she has subsequently performed.  ‘There is nothing more humbling than busking’, she tells the students, generously sharing the learnt wisdom that success is built on realism and adaptability.  


So, performing with the band only ended when the demands of her four-year degree in languages meant a six-month stint in Madrid.  Here she swiftly managed to convert dull translation work in an office into daily dancing on what she calls ‘some random TV show’.  She had tried to explain to her Spanish employer that she was a singer; it clearly got lost in translation, but hey, this was way more fun, and as it turns out, more useful experience.  Cass shares her philosophical approach, one that seems to have worked for her, in creating opportunities like this.   ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get,’ she tells us. ‘You’ve got to shoot sharp and fake it till you make it.’   From Madrid, her work experience took her on to Grenoble (and a little skiing) swiftly cut short by global pandemic in the form of Covid.  Back home and in lockdown like the rest of us, she mourned her inability to perform collectively or publicly, meanwhile throwing herself into her academic studies.  The outcome was a truly impressive first class degree in Spanish and French. 


But other moves were afoot.  Alongside her studies, confined at home, Cassa had been busy building her profile online, posting performances of her songs (some in Spanish – nothing wasted here) interacting with other writers and performers and fans.  She was nothing if not persistent, but her success began slowly and warily: posting up videos of her songs, she met with little or no take-up.  Really believing in her material, she resisted the temptation to give up, however, and eventually things began to change.  One song in particular, ‘Suits U’ really took off, with around two million views, which has now grown into many, many more, and proved to be the turning point. Don’t give up, is the message.  ‘If I hadn’t continued posting, I wouldn’t have taken off and none of this would have happened.  So believe in yourself,’ she tells the students.  Sterling advice to our creatives.   


During this time, she had also made contact with boy band JLS:  noticing that her work had caught their attention she ‘DM-ed‘ them (Direct Message – I had to ask) to see if they needed a support act.  They didn’t then (it was lockdown) ... but ... when they did – you guessed it.  They called back, just as she was finishing her final exams at Bristol. Once again, she was unable – yet – to share this extraordinary news.  The year was 2021 and was to prove the most momentous so far for Cassa, full of highs and lows.  The loss of her beloved dog (a lifelong companion) early in the year, was followed by an excruciatingly painful breakup with her boyfriend.  Turning experience and pain into music proved to be her outlet, and  communicating this with others brought, finally, its own rewards: individual validation from so many who were likewise struggling to recover their sense of worth and self-esteem   Once lockdown began to lift, she had the chance to perform on some of the most impressive stages in the country.  What followed was a whirlwind of performances, touring with JLS, ending that November, when she promptly caught pneumonia.  She was exhausted, of course, but elated, and well and truly off the blocks, on her way. More back-up tours followed, with Blue and Bewitched, and finally she toured in her own name, at places like the Omeara in London.  It was, of course, all new and exciting, and, as she tells the students, she loved the instant glamour of professional styling – the clothes, the makeup: all focused on her.  Oh, and the tour bus.  Actually, forget the tour bus: uncomfortable, antipathetic to sleep, and with dodgy ‘facilities’.  There is a disarming irony and ‘groundedness’ always in her narrative that keeps us all engaged.    Cassa does, however, tremble at the next highlight and the most exciting moment so far.  Nominated for TikTok Songwriter of the Year, she found herself invited to the iHeart Radio Awards in LA for a red-carpet premiere: clearly a moment she will never forget. She had truly arrived.


One thing that is clear about her career journey is that it is ongoing and pretty relentless. Luckily, Cassa seems to relish it all, especially since she has finally found herself in a ‘happy’ relationship, and this clearly colours it all.  With a growing network of connections within the music business she soon made her British TV debut on a show called Saturday Mash-Up.  In this insular world, she tells us, ‘everyone knows everyone’ across the creative fields.    So ‘always be nice’: you never know when they might be able to help you. She has certainly benefitted from this policy, it seems, and work came in from different quarters.   She had played at the O2, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow Arenas as well as many venues small and large across the globe.  She has performed alongside a huge range of talents from musicians and singers to actors and DJs.  Yet she remains grounded, focused and hardworking, and still seems surprised at her own success. As she finishes the narration of her career journey she is at the centre of lively questioning from lots of students, all of which she answers with integrity and practicality.  Use your assets, believe in yourself, be your own best fan, hustle every day, keep going. Asked by one student what Hurtwood had added she is fulsome: the chance to work with so much talent which is inspiring and challenging.  She also felt empowered by the professional approach and expectation, whilst acquiring a network of skilled people to call on as well as call friends.  Oh, and inspiration to write lyrics through close work on poetry in her study of literature.  (As I enjoyed the privilege of teaching her, I can only say thank you.  It was a pleasure.)


So, Cassa – thanks for taking the time to share your journey with us, particularly as things are really kicking off right now.  The plan?  She is releasing a new song every month until the autumn.  Reset Me has just launched, to positive plaudits and radio airplay (BBC Introducing Track of the Day) and most importantly to Cass, at least, it has won the endorsement of her fans, so many of whom had struggled like her to find their own way back from personal unhappiness.  Plans for a nationwide acoustic headline tour are in the mix, probably for later this year.  Phew. What an exhausting but satisfying roller coaster of a ride it has been, and how lovely to share in her sense of achievement.  Thanks for all the excitement and honed advice, Cass, for all your modest self-deprecation as well as your belting talent.  Go out there and make us (even more) proud.




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