Not many 18-year-olds are as levelheaded and honest as Jacob Whitesides. As he eyes the release of his long-awaited debut full-length Why (out Sept. 9), the singer-songwriter, who has amassed millions of fans all over the world, considers how he aimed to take his career to the next level and build upon the astounding work he put into 2015’s Faces on Film EP. “That was the most important thing for me. I had just gotten back from Europe. We wanted to have a two-week chill period where we could listen to the music that’s always inspired us,” he shares withPopdust over a phone call last week.
“I flew my producer up to Connecticut where my manager lived. I co-write every single song with him. I’ve only written one song without him. He’s such an incredible songwriter,” he continues of the album’s initial stages. “I was exhausted from touring in Europe and I wanted to spend a couple weeks before the album recording and writing started. I was sleeping, listening to great music and talking about the overall sound of the full-length.”
With the pressure of delivering, Whitesides (not surprisingly) took the process as serious as a veteran act. “That was the most important two weeks of the album process. We were listening to all the things which inspired us in the past, the bones of the first two EPs, like John Mayer and Jack Johnson and James Taylor,” he explains. “Then, we went into the newer stuff that I’m really obsessed with. Jon Bellion is one of my new absolute favorites. We were trying to find the perfect mix of the singer-songwriter like James Taylor and pop elements like Justin Timberlake.”
Admittedly, the album “was really rushed,” Whitesides concedes. “I wanted to have a couple more months to work on it, but everything was moving so fast, that got pushed to a month and a half of writing and recording. It was a special month and a half. If you write for too long, you start feeling like you are pulling too hard. Looking back on it, it was the perfect amount of time. It really pushed everyone to the limits.”
Having moved to Nashville roughly six months ago — he grew up three hours away in a little town called Knoxville — you may be shocked (or not, probably) to learn how much Whitesides is influenced by country music. “There are a lot of folk vibes in my first couple EPs and on this album. I find country songwriters to be some of the best storytellers. I’ll go into a session with an idea or a story, and they have such a way with words,” he says. “It’s really cool. It’s a whole different thing. It’s such a great option to have — to get sessions with incredible and legendary writers. It doesn’t necessarily come out in the track but I feel like you can hear a lot of it in my songwriting.”
In our chat, Whitesides also talks candidly about why he loves Nashville so much, his first-ever concert (cough Chris Stapleton cough), key album tracks and how he’s approaching his new tour. Dig into the Q&A below:
In your Buzzfeed Q&A, you said you have been listening to a ton of Chris Stapleton lately.
“Yes, it’s crazy. He was my first concert, on accident. I was actually 12 years old, and didn’t even really like music at all. I was doing sports; I was playing football and basketball and everything. My dad and mom had heard of this bluegrass festival that was out in the middle of nowhere. That just sounded like the worst thing possible at that age. I was completely dreading it. I ended up going. In the middle of nowhere, in this barn, there was this band called The Steeldrivers, which was Chris Stapleton’s bluegrass band. That night was just really powerful for me. He’s blowing up now, but back then, there were only a couple hundred people there. He was performing like it was a freaking stadium show. It was such a powerful, moving thing. I’m usually never that guy that’s like ‘oh, yeah, I knew this artist before they blew up.’ I’m always so late on every awesome artist, but he was one I was definitely in on and have a lot of influence from.”
How is Nashville treating you?
“I just got my own place here. I’ve basically been coming back and forth for two and a half years now to Nashville, so it was definitely time for me to settle down here. It’s a game changer — to be able to come home after sessions helps with the creative flow. It doesn’t feel as much like a job. Sometimes, when I’m out in New York or LA, all the traffic and going back and forth, it gets hectic and feels more contrived. I really like the Nashville vibe.
I’ve written with people from New York and LA who are phenomenal. It’s just a different game here. People aren’t searching for a formula in Nashville. They really just genuinely care more about the story. We never go into sessions thinking about recording a smash hit. We never go in trying to force anything. In a couple sessions I’ve done in New York, it felt like they were trying to come up with a formula to create the perfect song. I don’t work well in that environment. Also, Nashville is just more relaxed. It’s easier for me to flow here.”
Before you were pursuing a music career, did you go to Nashville a ton growing up?
“I didn’t. I went one time. When I was 11, I went to a Tennessee Titans football game, which was awesome. That was the only time I had gone. That was mind-blowing for me. Everybody is so nice here. It’s the perfect mixture of home and having a hustle.”
Do you have a preference of live setting: big band or acoustic?
“I go back and forth, you know. The more I play acoustic, the more I want to have the full band. With the headlining set, I’ve found the perfect mixture of both. I love being able to do the acoustic thing mid-set for two or three songs. I love being able to flow and talk to the fans and stop mid-song. When you are playing full band, it’s really amazing, but at times, it’s like ‘oh my gosh, if I mess up, we’re going to fall out of pattern.’ It’s fun to do both kinds of sets live.”
Lovesick has such a sick jazz-pop vibe to it. How did that one come together?
“That was the first song presented for my album. That was the only song I didn’t write. I’m usually so against cutting other people’s songs; not that that is a bad thing. It’s hard for me to connect with songs I didn’t have a part in creating. What was really special for that is they really made it flexible. Mark [Pellizzer] and Alex [Tanas] from the band Magic! sent over the demo while I was in Connecticut for those two weeks. They are incredible writers. We knew immediately that we loved the song. We flew down to Nashville almost immediately. They really gave us a lot of room to play with it. It was such a fun song for me. That’s one, specifically, that connects so well live. It really helped guide the rest of the album. That was one of the first songs we cut for it.”
Why did you name the album after the song Why?
“‘Why’ is my personal favorite song on the album. It’s such a self-reflecting song. A lot of this was inspired by the goods and the bads of a previous relationship. I remember back in the day, when my mom and dad used to fight, how much blame he would always put on my mom, which was really stressful for me to watch. In my relationship, I really wanted to focus solely on being very self-reflective on the things I was doing. That’s the general vibe of this album. I was pretty critical of myself. ‘Why’ is one of the songs that hits close to home.”
Based on the title alone, there is one, specifically, which jumps out: Black and Blue.
“That one’s about heavy regret. I don’t want to talk about the situation; it’s really personal. It was one of the biggest regrets I’ve ever had in my life. It is like a weight off my shoulders when I sing that song. It’s one of the most detailed songs. It’s more upbeat and leans to the indie-rock side. It’ll be incredible live.”
What about the song Bury Our Love?
“That was one I wrote with a guy in Nashville named Mark Trussell. He does a lot of country stuff. The song is really a story of a couple running away and defying all odds. They run away and bury their love from everyone else. It was really fun for me to take a personal situation and create another story around it.”
Jaded Love is also an alluring title.
“My fans speculate a lot about the titles. All of them think it’s going to be a sad ballad, but it’s actually a really fun, upbeat song basically saying FU to love. It’s about being zealous and jaded toward all my friends in these awesome relationships and going through a difficult breakup myself. It’s more of a funny song about love.”
When you listen to a demo, what are you listening for?
“I just want to connect to it. If it doesn’t make me feel something on the first listen — I’m already really skeptical about cutting other people’s music — then it really doesn’t do anything for me. Although I couldn’t personally relate to the storyline of ‘Lovesick,’ it just made me feel good. The rough demo felt so huge. I thought there was so much potential for the song.”
What have been some of your favorite songwriting sessions in Nashville?
“Some of my favorite sessions were just my producer and I. We are both so close. He’s done all of my stuff I’ve ever released on iTunes or Spotify. We’ve really bonded. We spend a lot of our free time together. It’s really special for me to be able to go into session with someone how has that deep of an understanding of how I am. He hates working late at night because he gets up really early every morning. He has a family and two kids. He never sleeps through the night and he’s always exhausted. Sometimes, I would have him do a couple late-night sessions. I’m a night owl. I’m most inspired at night. Some of my favorite sessions were when I’d go in and tell him everything on my mind and my heart, and he just gets it right away. The ‘Lovesick’ session was really incredible. We usually spend about a day on a song, but for that one, we spent three days — they were such nice guys, in general, Mark and Alex. They were such good hangs; we just got carried away sometimes.
Marc Scibillia — who is going to open for me — actually came in, and I wrote ‘Focus’ and ‘Jaded Love’ with him. We’ve become really close. He was the first artist that I ever downloaded onto my first iPod (the original). I bought his song ‘How Bad We Need Each Other.’ I’ve been a huge fan of him for probably five years. That was surreal for me, having him in a session and working on my album. It’ll be fun to have him out on tour. I think he’s going to come out and play guitar for ‘Focus.'”
Have you thought about how you are going to approach your new tour with all this new music?
“We’ve been very limited. We had my two EPs, which is a total of like 10 songs or something. That’s not a lot to take from for an hour and a half set. I really wanted to focus on getting more upbeat songs into my album. I do tend to gravitate more toward the slower stuff. That’s just what I grew up listening to. It’s a very good mix of fast and slow on the album. That’ll bring the live show to another level. We’ll be able to keep the energy up for a lot longer. When we were writing, we really tried to make songs we knew were gonna go over well live, especially when it came down to production. One thing I would love to do is have the band learn the entire album and be able to switch up the set lists. Sometimes, things get repetitive when you are doing it all the time.”
What song are you most excited to play live?
“Oh my goodness. ‘Why’ is really awesome. It’s really hard to pour your emotions into a song when it’s more upbeat and fun. But for that song, we really nailed that. It’s more upbeat but really weighs on my heart. I’m really looking forward to doing that one live. ‘You Told Me So’ is one of the tracks no one has heard yet — that’s one of my most favorite songs I’ve ever written. I wrote a lot of it by myself in a hotel room. I’m really looking forward to being able to start that song off acoustic and bring the band in toward the end.”
Fans can now pre-order Jacob Whitesides debut album Why on iTunes.