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It takes all of 10 seconds to understand the appeal of Jacob Whitesides. For starters, there’s the easy smile, that roguishly furrowed brow, but all of that would be nothing without the rest. His voice— with just the right amount of grit—is perfectly matched to his oeuvre of sometimes-soaring, sometimes-tender, hook filled pop songs. Still only 18-years-old, Jacob has been organically garnering an impressive fanbase for the past four years (his YouTube channel has 16 million plus views). But with the release of last year’s two EPs, A Piece of Me and Faces on Film, (both of which reached #1 US iTunes Singer-Songwriter chart), a clutch of successful tours, plus his debut album out this September, this preternaturally savvy young artist is solidifying the foundation for a career set to endure well beyond flash-in-the-pan hype.
Raised in Sevierville, at the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, 30 minutes outside Knoxville and three hours from Nashville, Jacob experienced a fairly average early school life. He played sports, but was neither a jock nor a popular kid—he simply kept his head down. But 13 was the turning point for the nascent singer: he started to drift away from sports, and, thanks in part to an inspiring Chris Stapleton concert, and close proximity to Nashville’s rich history of story telling through song, he picked up his first guitar. With the help of the internet, Jacob taught himself to play three songs—“Hey There Delilah" by Plain White T's, “Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved." His father, who played in a band that frequently performed at local bars, encouraged his son’s talent, bringing him onstage to play those very same songs. It was during this period that the singer began to encounter some friction with his peers at school. This, combined with the fact that he was spending more and more late nights performing with his dad’s band, meant Jacob arrived at a juncture, and home schooling was the route he opted for.
Barely a year later his parents’ marriage started to splinter and Jacob chose to move in with his father. Despite the heavy impact of the divorce, the pair seemed bonded by their love of music. Unfortunately some six months later the teen found the relationship with his dad untenable, and returned to living full time with his mom and sister. Yet in spite of this tumult (or perhaps because of it) this was the moment when his desire to truly pursue music came into sharper focus.
Doing what is now standard, he began posting lo-fi covers on YouTube. From watching other artists in action, Jacob knew that dedicated fans would be critical to his success, so when his videos first began to gain even a trace of traction, he made it a point to interact with every single burgeoning Whitesides devotee. Tirelessly responding to comments, setting alarms to hop on Facebook to chat with fans in different time zones, offering advice, and words of encouragement, and even opinions on outfits (when requested), even to this day he manages to maintain a level of tailored interaction that’s practically unheard of. And the metrics are proof, given that today his fans number in the several millions (over 5M in aggregate) and cover every corner of the planet from Brazil to the Philippines all the way back to Tennessee.
“From the beginning I always kept everything super personal. A lot of artists will just go online whenever they're announcing something, like new music, or a tour—they'll post the link and then disappear for weeks, until they need something else from the fans,” says Whitesides. “My number one priority is to never take advantage of the following I have online, and to keep giving them good stuff to read and listen to and look at.”
As Jacob’s online presence grew and his covers kept garnering clicks (including an early rendition of “One Thing” which One Direction’s Liam Payne tweeted in support), in 2012, scouts for a TV talent show came calling. Persistently. Eventually Jacob gave in (sailing through the first round and getting cut in the second), but the experience was largely notable because it gave the singer a formative glimpse into the inner machinations of at least one side of the music biz. He became intent on finding out more—what really goes on behind the wizard’s curtain—so that he could utilize this knowledge when the time was right.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Jacob’s next logical step was to release his 3AM EP—a collection of ballad renditions of songs by John Legend, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, and more. It stands as a transitional release because 2015 is when Jacob finally hit his stride, gaining the confidence to pen pop songs of his own, with the help of his creative partner, Nashville songwriter/producer Dave Spencer—someone he trusts implicitly.
“Most of the time when artists sign a major deal, they are brought to the Hollywood Hills to get thrown into sessions with a new team every single day, and I knew that I would not be able to function in that kind of environment,” he says. “I really wanted to work with people that I could call friends and be able to talk to them about personal stuff without it being uncomfortable or forced,” says Jacob. “I was really thankful for that.” It was this trust that enabled Jacob to dig deep and lay his own stories on the line. Take “Ohio,” off the A Piece of Me EP, which features such searing lines as, “Last time I saw your face you were screaming that I don't have a clue / I'm not a deadbeat piece of shit Dad/ I’ll never learn that for you.”
“That song was a big step for me,” he explains. “That was pretty much about the whole situation that happened with my dad, and of getting out of that. It was the real stuff that was going on in my life, so that really created a good path for me to get to where I am now. ‘Ohio’ made it clear to my fans that whatever I would write or sing about would be really connected to my life.”
On September 8, Jacob will release his debut album, Why?. Recorded, mixed, and largely written, in Nashville in six swift weeks, it was, funnily enough, this daunting timeframe that the 18-year-old says pushed him to his full potential. A powerful thirteen-track collection, it’s brimming with standouts like the finger-clicked soul-pop of “Lovesick” (“A fun song about getting in trouble with your girl”) and “You Told Me So,” which deeply refects on the stresses of a long distance relationship. His songs are, by and large, heartfelt and relatable, sometimes they’re breezy, but even when they’re upbeat, there’s often another level to the lyrics if you lean in.
“‘Love Slow’ was inspired by the struggle of being 18 and in a relationship and pretty much everything in my and my girlfriend’s life being very adult-oriented,” he explains. “Now we're doing almost everything that adults do, but still have to pace ourselves through the struggles of being kids.”
When he sings, “I was old before I was young” on “Bury Our Love”—the line rings particularly true. Consider that for all the impressive stats, all the downloads shifted, and all the followers amassed, Jacob could have easily signed to a major and handed over his future to the bigwigs. But he’s too discerning for the handcuffed strictures of a traditional 360-deal. Instead, he created his own label, Double U Records, working in conjunction with BMG and ADA, to release his music.
“I have all the services of every other artist who's signed to a major, but I have control of the music I want to release, and when I want to release it,” explains Jacob. “It's really a special deal that I'm thankful for and I fought hard for it.”
Jacob’s story is quintessentially modern: the rise of an immensely likable, warm-hearted Tennessee boy from a modest background, who, for all his pin-up appeal has revealed he’s a remarkably shrewd talent to boot. While his business acumen is both fascinating and, to a degree inspiring, it’s Jacob’s music—honest, unabashed pop songs—that are the crux of his appeal. Ask him what drives him to compose and perform and the reasoning is the same as when he first picked up the guitar at 13.
“I enjoy music so much and whenever it was taken away from me, whenever I stopped playing live, I was heartbroken,” he says. So Jacob poured his heart into his songs and his fans, with a future that lies resolutely in his own hands.