Journeys In Music, Love and Life: A Conversation with Annabel Lukins
The first time I saw Annabel Lukins was several years ago on Jam Cruise 14. She was this streak of light – all energy, determination and laser- focused purpose – cutting a swath through the jumble of fans, musicians and technicians aboard the ship on her way to help construct another epic jam.
“What? Who was that?” I asked a veteran Jam Cruiser next to me.
“That? That is Annabel,” he said. “You gotta know Annabel. This thing doesn’t happen without her.”
This “thing,” as it turns out, goes to the very heart of Jam Cruise – a floating barge of collective joy where no adulting is allowed and where your inner child runs free. It’s a place where musicians bring their A-game, connect with fans and let their hair down being fans themselves. It’s a place where larger-than-life jams happen as a matter of course. It’s a place where, for five nights, joy takes up residence amongst a community of humans known as The Jamily.
It’s Lukins’ job to craft that joy for fans and musicians alike. In charge of Artist Programming for Cloud 9 Adventures, which puts together destination music events, she is an integral part of a team whose carefully curated lineups are things of legend at events like Jam Cruise, Panic en la Playa, Strings and Sol, and Closer To The Sun.
Diminutive in stature but huge in personality, Lukins wears many hats: event hostess, artist-whisperer, den mother, problem solver. She is the face of Jam Cruise who has spent more than 20 years surviving and thriving as a leader in an industry that has a reputation for eating its own, never losing site of its core purpose – the music.
Brimming with self-confidence, Lukins says this was not always the case and that she worked hard to become the leader she is today. “I grew up in New York City and went to Lehigh in Pennsylvania, and I thought it was my destiny to be a sorority girl and sorta follow that lead. I knew that was never me, but I didn’t know any other way. I didn’t know what being a leader meant. I just followed the path of the others ahead of me.”
And then something happened that changed her – The Grateful Dead. “First I had to start from within. First I had to build selfconfidence, and that started by following The Grateful Dead.”
A serendipitous encounter with a classmate during her freshman year led her to her first show with The Dead. “We walked in, and I fell to my knees and started to cry. I said, ‘Where have you people been?’ It was just an immediate sort of connection. It was great for me to have that beginning of who I was meant to be, because it has obviously served well in the Jam Cruise community and the jam band scene.”
In a way, the music business is imprinted in Lukins’ DNA. She was raised in the The Dakota, home to rock legends like John Lennon, and her father managed gospel groups before giving up his dreams in music to run his family’s security firm. She spent her childhood with her dad attending concerts by artists such as Crosby Stills and Nash, Sam Bush, Bruce Hornsby and Bela Fleck. Ironically, she would develop friendships with both Hornsby and Fleck during her storied career, and both would come to play Jam Cruise at her invitation.
And while her father, who passed away in 2011, never had the opportunity to fulfill his ambitions in the music industry, Lukins said she is living that dream for him. “What’s crazy about the whole full-circle thing is that Bela Fleck and Bruce Hornsby have become my dear friends. And when your idols become your dear friends you’re like, ‘Okay. What?’”
Lukins’ pursuit of a career in the music business began in earnest after earning a degree in Journalism with a minor in communications and public relations. Afterwards she worked internships and jobs at PR firms, Elle Magazine and several record companies including Polygram Records in New York City. At about the same time that her department at one record label was eliminated, she landed a job with The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which ultimately did not work out in the long term.
The volatility of the music industry worried her practical-minded parents, who encouraged her to return to New York City to pursue a teaching career. Something in her gut told her this was the wrong choice. “I couldn’t, give up,” she said. “I knew that my path had been laid out, and I had to follow it.” A friend told her about an opening for marketing director for Jam Cruise, in 2002. The first cruise had already sold out with a waiting list, and a second cruise was being planned to meet the demand. But it wasn’t selling as well as the first, so founder Mark Brown, asked Lukins to come up with a marketing plan to entice fans to come onboard. And so it goes that the now much-anticipated “Activities At Sea” aboard Jam Cruise were born.
“Why don’t we come up with different activities that match personalities or hobbies of these artists,” she recalled asking Cloud 9’s team. “The first one was Michael Franti and soccer on the beach.” The idea went over big with Cloud 9 Adventures, and she was hired for the marketing job. It soon became apparent, however, that the title was too small to contain what her role would become aboard the ship. “They said, ‘What do you want to do on board, because there’s no marketing on board?’ And I said. ‘Well, who’s taking care of the bands?’ It was literally like five people who looked at each other, and they were like, ‘Uh. Well, we haven’t gotten there yet.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll do that.’ And that’s how Julie McCoy was born.”
For you youngsters out there who are unfamiliar with Julie McCoy, she was the famed cruise director on the hit ’70s comedy series “The Love Boat.” It’s a role that Lukins relishes and has fun with, even answering to the name from time to time.
Using her connections and friendships with musicians that she’s cultivated over the years, Lukins serves as artist liaison for Cloud 9 Adventures, seeing to their every need. “I’m basically their mom,” she said. “I hold their hand through the whole process, because Jam Cruise is a different event than anybody has ever attended.”
She is in the enviable position of helping to curate lineups that result in a free exchange of creativity among artists whose historic, no-holds-barred jams aboard ship are things of legends. They are too numerous to name, but one of my favorites was watching funk legend and drummer Bernard Purdie set the Jazz Lounge on fire on Jam Cruise 14 with Karl Denson, Fred Wesley and members of The New Mastersounds and Lettuce.
There’s also no separation between fans and artists, who can be found sharing meals, drinks, selfies, and laughs and raging side by side, soaking up the music when not playing themselves. This sense of intimacy carries over into the cruise’s piano sets, where fans can get up close and personal with their heroes, some of whom admit to feeling vulnerable performing alone without the security of their bands to back them up.
Ivan Neville, whose piano sets are a must-hear aboard ship, told me that he was actually nervous about performing solo this past Jam Cruise. Ivan Neville, nervous? Yup. It was because this seasoned performer was moved to prepare something special for someone who had inspired him to do his best – his friend and muse Annabel.
Lukins considers it a gift to inspire the musicians in her care, and they feel close enough to her to sometimes share their nervous anticipation and excitement about performing. Sometimes those moments are as comical as they are touching, like the time that Ivan called Lukins while she was hiking a mountain trail and couldn’t exactly talk.
“I’m on a hike with a friend,” she recalled, “And Ivan (Neville) calls me and says, ‘I’ve got my set list. I’ve got it written out. I’m going to mess with your head. You’re going to love it so much, Annabel. It’s going to be one of my best yet!’
It’s these conversations that make my life. It’s so great that Ivan is so excited to tell me that I really have nurtured this piano set of his so that it has become a thing for him in general.”
Having the trust of musicians to assemble experiences like the piano sets and super jams are among Lukins’ favorite parts of the job. One of her least favorite parts is having to deal with unforeseen problems on the fly. But turning a bad situation good – even remarkable – is the mark of this team of professionals.
To the outside observer she makes it look easy. Take Jam Cruise 13 in 2014, when inclement weather forced the closure of the pool deck for the last day of the cruise. She and her staff had less than 12 hours to find other spaces for 10 bands to play. Rather than chaos, the scramble produced one of Jam Cruise’s most memorable sets – Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds bringing down the house in The Atrium.
“It was, to this day, one of the best sets on Jam Cruise,” she said. “Because there’s this tiny little atrium. There’s no stage. There’s just acoustics, and it was exhilarating. The energy in that little space with the amount of people and the music was over the top.”
Jam Cruise is brimming with special and emotional moments like this and more – The late soul man Charles Bradley mesmerizing the pool deck on Jam Cruise 13 as the ship pulled away from Roatan with the sun setting behind him, George Porter, Jr. and his late wife, Ara, renewing their vows on Jam Cruise 15 after 50 years of marriage; and Lukins’ husband Peter Stelling proposing to her on stage on Jam Cruise 5.
Lukins mused that, in her wildest dreams, she never pictured where she is today. She has held just about every significant title working the music business behind the scenes in promotions, marketing and artist relations. She has earned the respect of hardened business professionals, musicians and fans alike. She has been instrumental is exposing talented musicians to broad audiences, and she is part of one of the most successful team of promoters in the country – even receiving a Grahamy Jammy award in 2002. Named for legendary promoter, Bill Graham, the Grahamy Jammy is given to the jam world’s most influential people behind the scenes.
But not long ago, Lukins came to an epiphany that would change her life. She was working what amounted to two full-time jobs wearing countless hats at Cloud 9 Adventures when her mother died.
“My life sort of went on hold,” she said. “I was like frozen in time and sort of looked outside myself and to say, ‘This isn’t working right now. My mom is dead. I’m working too hard. I want to start a family. I can’t do it all.’ I had to stay true to myself, which is taking better care of myself as opposed to my job being the only thing in my life. Quite frankly, Jam Cruise and Cloud 9 had become my identity. And that was okay, but that was all I lived and breathed for so long. And as I said, I wanted a kid, and my mom was dead, and I was just like, ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why is this all happening?’ I’m losing my idols and then my dad died. It was just a continuous cycle of too much.”
A close friend suggested she consider working part-time, an idea she couldn’t quite picture but one she came to embrace the more she learned to let go. “I think there’s a fear associated with letting go, but letting go is a freedom. The more you let go, the more freedom you have.”
Still, after having her hands in nearly every facet of Cloud 9’s marketing and artist relations operations for so long, she said she was afraid she would be forgotten. It would take some prodding from her friend and mentor Dave Schools of Widespread Panic to make her realize that she had reached the pinnacle of her career with nothing left to prove. “He said to me, ‘I don’t think you really understand who you are,’ she recalled. ‘You are Annabel. You are not Cloud 9. You are not Jam Cruise. You are not Panic en la Playa. You are you, and you are the best in the business. You do not need to go higher. You just need to continue doing what you’re doing right at this moment and know that it’s enough.’ And that was it,” she said.
She now works for Cloud 9 Adventures part-time, a decision the company fully supports, and spends her free time at her home in Colorado with her husband and five-year-old daughter, Lyric. When not pursuing her life’s passion in music, she loves to ski, hike, and practice yoga and fitness.
Lukins is the first to say that what she does for a living is about love – the love of music and the musicians who make it – and the ability to share that love with the people she touches. “I am making a difference in this world,” she explained. “I am helping to make people happy, to enrich their lives, to bring them joy, to help give them gratification, to help introduce them to family – to community. You think about that you want to do something in your life that really helps people.
Music is one of the most powerful tools in life to help people. So the experiences that people have had on board are so overwhelmingly special to them, and our fans are extremely gracious about telling me. Although there are many of us that put this thing together, I am the face that they know the best. So all year long, anytime they see me, they want to talk about how special Jam Cruise is to them. It literally happens all the time and it warms my heart.”
“And it’s not just the passengers,” she continued. “It’s the artists too. I see bands across the country that have formed because of Jam Cruise. Bands tour whether it’s two big bands touring together or super groups coming together. So, at the end of the day, being able to provide this kind of long term joy for people is one of my biggest pleasures. It’s not just a week-long music festival. It’s more than that. Jam Cruise becomes part of people’s lives forever.”