On his song “Steel Jungle,” Jason Paras sings of what he calls “the struggle of being youthful forever/of always believing in big dreams.” The 18-year-old singer/songwriter, who just released his debut EP Steel Jungle in April, penned the song after contemplating his receding childhood. “One day, we had a jungle gym to play on, and the next, we didn’t,” he explained. “What if people never took that away from us? Would we still be playing on it? Would we still be more youthful?”
It’s a fitting title for Paras, who has been pursuing his childhood dream of pop stardom from an early age. So far, it seems no one has dismantled Paras’s inner jungle gym; he’s only a year out of high school, and the young musician has already performed in front of sold-out venues and has attracted the attention of musical luminaries. He recorded a debut EP with composer Adam Zelkind, has opened for bands like Styx and Don Felder, and played alongside Foreigner at the Santa Barbara Bowl and Chumash Casino, both as a soloist and with the Dos Pueblos Jazz Choir. Last year, Blues Hall of Fame inductee Chris Daniels declared Paras “one of the best new young songwriters of his generation.”
It’s an incredible résumé for a performer of his age, but lest it seem his star-studded team of supporters came from sheer luck or industry entrenchment, his success is the result of nearly a decade spent honing and presenting his craft. Paras picked up his first guitar when he was 6 and wrote his first song when he was 10. It was a song, he said, about persevering through mistakes and pressing on toward success.
And press on, he did. In 7th grade, he began taking vocal lessons with Sharlae Jenkins, with whom he has continued to study. It was also then that he entered his first singing competition, held by the Music Teachers’ Association of California. His performance landed him among the top 50 singers in the high-school-age bracket, and the victory inspired him to continue with his “crazy dream.”
Competitive at heart, Paras has also found achievements in other realms, competing nationally in chess, playing on the Dos Pueblos water polo team as a freshman and sophomore at the junior varsity level, and working on the student newspaper Charger Account as editor in chief. Music has been the constant, though, and Paras approaches his with a businessperson’s strategic acumen. He intensively studies the marketing moves made by his pop idol Taylor Swift, and he aspires for that same kind of creative control — “It seems like she thinks of every single aspect of the industry possible,” said Paras.
He works as a one-man business, managing his online presence, booking his own shows, and polishing his image, holding off on a label until he has solidified his brand. He admits sometimes his drive can get the best of him. “I overwork myself a lot because whenever I’m not working, I have the understanding that someone else is,” he said.
It was while showcasing his material at the Durango Songwriters Expo that Paras piqued the attention of Adam Zelkind. The ASCAP-award-winning composer saw potential in Paras and offered to work with him on his debut. The two holed up in Zelkind’s recording studio in the Santa Barbara hills, where they spent months crafting a set of songs.
The end result, the Steel Jungle EP, features five heartfelt acoustic pop tunes accentuated with percussive and string flourishes. The songs would hold their own against the pensive pop of artists like John Mayer and Jason Mraz, and they have already found play on radio stations such as K-LITE 101.7.
Lyrically, Paras writes straight from personal experience, saying, “My biggest goal with songwriting is to create music that’s real. In my music, I just want to be true to what I’m actually feeling.” He distances himself from pop artists he considers inauthentic but acknowledges the difficulty in translating his inner life into a public performance, particularly as a teen. “I don’t think that being yourself is something that comes easily in junior high and high school,” he admitted.
Paras often affiliates with charities, such as Hands4Others, with whom he collaborated on an EP release party on April 17. The proceeds helped fund the construction of safe water systems in developing countries, and the event helped to save more than 100 lives, by the songwriter’s estimation. He partners with nonprofits in part to help others but also to invigorate area youth.
“Hands4Others’ message is that they want to empower the youth doing something that seems impossible to many, which is solve the world’s water crisis,” he said. “I encourage people to try to do things that seem impossible because every once in a while we may be successful.” Well spoken by a young man who has nurtured his childhood dream to fruition. With more than 30 potential songs being readied for an upcoming album, a likely music video on the way, and a growing fan base, it seems at this point for Paras, anything is possible.