There's a line in a song performed by Billie Holiday which goes: the difficult I'll do right now / the impossible will take a little while.
Jessica Horton, 24, has done a lot of the difficult, and from an early age. Her younger years, she says, were challenging for most of her childhood. Her father battled serious health issues and was unable to work. Her mother worked full time to support them and her two younger sisters. And when Jessica was 13, her mother became very sick herself.
“There was a lot of responsibility on me to help out,” Jessica says. “I kind of grew up at a young age.”
At 14, Jessica went through a major depressive episode and missed six months of school.
“That was after my mum had her time off and there was a lot of pressure on me to keep the family going,” she says. “Once she kind of recovered, it was like, 'OK, my turn now.'”
The doctors and services Jessica interacted with motivated her to become a doctor. But then the last six months of her Year 12 were severely disrupted with her parents' separation and she wasn't able to complete her final assessments. The average grade she was assigned put a hole in her goal to go to university.
“I thought, being a doctor isn't in the cards for me – but I was still passionate about music,” Jessica says. “I decided, if I can't be a doctor I'll be a music therapist.”
“So when I couldn't go to uni I thought, 'What's Plan B'? That's why I went to CIT for three years, then came to ANU.”
Throughout all the messiness of her upbringing, music had been a grounding and healing force. Music was a big part of her family and Jessica had started playing piano at age 6. She sang, and was in musicals and choirs from a young age. By the time she started a Bachelor of Music, majoring in performance, she was 21 and living independently.
She was also working four jobs to make ends meet.
“I was working at two restaurants, nannying, and teaching one-on-one music lessons,” Jessica says. “I would go to work at 7am, work for a couple of hours, then either go to a class or to the other restaurant to do a lunch shift.”
“In the afternoons I'd be either nannying or teaching. Then generally going back to one restaurant to do a night shift.”
That period, marked also by serious health issues of her own, was “intense”, she says. But it was also her best semester in terms of grades.
“I'd just gotten used to things being a bit crazy in my life. The more I have going on, the more I can dedicate myself better.”
Her best full year though was 2018, for which she was awarded the Bill Hyslop prize (highest aggregate performance mark for a student majoring in performance (voice) at the ANU School of Music). That same year, she was invited to perform for the Governor-General at Government House. Her song of choice? The Billie Holiday number “Crazy he calls me”.
“It was terrifying,” Jessica recalls. “A lot of pressure, but it felt incredible afterwards. I feel very honoured to have been a part of that evening.”
This year brought about another highlight of her time at ANU: composing (and performing) the music for the 2020 60th anniversary Australian of the Year Awards.
A number of pieces had been put forward by her Composition 6 class, and by a couple of individual teachers and students; including Jessica. The National Australia Day Council committee picked Jessica's composition.
“It's awards ceremony music, and I wanted there to be a sense of accomplishment and achievement,” she says. “But also I sang on the track, which is why I'd say it's like Enya meets the Oscars.”
Her piece was played at all the state and territory ceremonies, including the ACT awards ceremony, which she attended: “It was amazing to hear something I'd done used in a commercial setting.”
As she approaches her graduation in December, Jessica has nothing but praise for the ANU School of Music.
“You get a nuanced education and one-on-one tuition with your set instrument. The experience you get in the industry and community is also really helpful,” she says. “It's not something you'd get in a generalised music class.”
She appreciated how broad her options were – that just because she was majoring in performance didn't mean she was limited to just that.
“I could do composition and songwriting, aural and theory as well as history classes. I'll be stepping away from the School as a musician rather than just a singer.”
The support she received came from not just the lecturers, but also the administration and technical staff.
“Everyone at the School of Music was very open and willing to help,” she says. “They want people to succeed.”
Jessica intends on returning to the School to do Honours, but in 2021. Until then, she'll be recording her first album of original songs and attending the Fusion Film Scoring workshop in Greece.
“I've got a bit of a band together that are working with me on the album at the moment,” she says. “The songs are all on the sadder side, but I believe in writing a song when I have something to say.”
Having moved mountains and gone through fire, Jessica is feeling excited, as well as scared, about graduating.
“In the music industry, you have to be very self-driven, which shows with my Australian of the Year awards experience – taking initiative.”
'I think I've got some really strong stuff in my portfolio to say to people, 'This is what I've already accomplished and I've only just graduated'.”
While she has worked incredibly hard to get to where she is, Jessica is also thankful to all the people who helped her along the way.
“I owe a lot to the love and support of my family, friends and long term partner. I couldn’t have done it without them!”