Jacob Whitesides was only four years old when John Mayer released his first EP. Nine years later, Whitesides picked up his first guitar and taught himself to play. He then found the courage to sing, perform and write. Today, at age seventeen, Whitesides releases his own EP, A Piece Of Me – a name chosen by almost 150,000 of his 1.42 million Twitter fans who voted for it. The six-song body of work shows a young singer/songwriter who demonstrates the skills, maturity and poise of a seasoned veteran performer without losing the conversational authenticity of his age.
From humble beginnings in Eastern Tennessee, Whitesides has created an international musical phenomenon on his own, without the backing of a record label, starting with a series of YouTube covers that attracted a global following and set the stage for this next chapter.
After posting his first YouTube video – filmed by his younger sister–his videos have now amassed an incredible 10 million views. In addition, Whitesides has racked up 1.42 million Twitter followers (he has been steadily gaining roughly 20,000 new followers a week), over 1.3 million Facebook likes, almost 900,000 Instagram fans and almost 700,000 Vine subscribers. Along the way, he made it through only one round of The X Factor, which only fueled his focus and the results convinced him that fans and songs must come first before fitting in on TV.
A Piece Of Me, released on Valentine’s Day 2015 through his own JW Records is the result of a fan enacted Twitter request to name and support the album. It resulted in a flurry of twitter responses that enabled Whitesides to take over three of the four trending spots on the social media platform the night that the 2015 SAG Awards were airing and trending.
Jacob’s self-penned debut, boasts autobiographical tracks like “Ohio,” a heartfelt confessional about teenage pressure, anywhere-but-here escapism and his own personal struggle with an absent father. “Not My Type At All” is a soulful, stripped-down stream of consciousness about being unexpectedly attracted to a girl he’d never hang out with but still enjoyed being around. The martial rhythm and hooky melody of “Billboard (If I’m Honest)” shows Whitesides’ ability to paint a picture; he explains, “It’s about craving attention from someone you love who doesn’t see what they’re missing out on.” “Let’s Be Birds,” with its lyric, “What’s the use of wings if you never go anywhere,” captures the wanderlust of a teenager who grew up in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains in his East Tennessee hometown of Sevierville, home of Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, reaching to the outside world from his bedroom laptop.
It’s clear Jacob is more a youthful troubadour in the patient style of John Mayer and Jack Johnson, than a walking insecurity looking for short-term super stardom. Whitesides’ EP marries his velvet gravel pipes, the clear strum and finger picking of a talented acoustic guitarist with the same fresh pop elements you’d find from The Lumineers, American Authors and, needless to say, a young John Mayer: live drums, bass, piano, banjo and easy melodic hooks to hold onto. Most of all, Whitesides doesn’t ever talk down to his fans but rather speaks directly to them with authentic lyrics from a best friend. “We’re all growing up and we’re all trying” is his youth in “Ohio’s” end refrain, followed by the blue collar truth “We’re all growing up and we’re all dying” — not a young YouTuber.
“I knew it would be an adventure, writing my own songs,” said Whitesides, whose father, a musician in a cover band, first turned him on to the likes of John Mayer and Jack Johnson as a toddler. “But it turned out to be pretty natural and things I’ve been feeling about myself and being my age, I got to put out there. It’s a real privilege, you know? And after touring so long with just me and a guitar, it was great to record with a band and to feel that energy around my songs.”
As a younger kid, Whitesides was more interested in sports than music until thirteen, when the combination of a trip to a local bluegrass festival and watching his father led him to teach himself how to play the guitar. He honed his skills performing as a backup player in bars with his dad, a relationship that eventually ruptured when his parents divorced three years ago, recounted in the ultra-personal “Ohio,” a song about preferring to “fall asleep in an open field… to the glitz of Hollywood, the New York heights and Las Vegas lights,” with a bitterly uncharacteristic rejoinder to his old man: “I’m not a deadbeat piece of sh*t/I never learned that from you.”
His mother, who worked three jobs as a fitness trainer, a waitress and caring for those with special needs, tirelessly drove him to rehearsals and opportunities in Nashville, encouraging his fledgling career, which started slowly but picked up steam when his YouTube cover of One Direction’s “One Thing,” was endorsed with a Tweet from the band’s Liam Payne, sending it to upwards of 500,000 views.
Although still a junior in high school now studying online at home, Jacob has already undertaken three tours, charted a hit single in his cover of One Direction’s “You & I,” and an EP, 3AM, which went to #2 on iTunes, with a Top 5 ranking on the album chart. His first original single, “You’re Perfect,” which hit iTunes last summer, has sold over 25,000 copies. Of course, he was fifteen “way back then,” and the musical control and growth is clear in A Piece Of Me, for his fans and himself.
For all of his increasing success, Jacob remains down-to-earth and grateful, making it a point to keep up his unique relationship with his growing fan base his first priority.
“From the start, my number one goal is to have a super-personal and close relationship with them,” the self-described “socially awkward” Jacob explains. “And not to make it feel like a business, where I’m only selling them stuff. It’s fun for me to talk, interact and hang out with them, where we can get to know each other. Meeting people for the first time can be weird, but I’ve gotten better at it. Talking to fans and doing interviews has really brought me out of my shell. Being around my mom and sister, it’s impossible to get a big head. They keep me grounded and in check, for sure. But my fans are my best advisors and my most important collaborators.”
Jacob is preparing an acoustic only headlining tour to promote A Piece of Me EP, which will come out on Valentine’s Day. After that, he will hit the road for a month-long stint with Epic Records’ group Fifth Harmony; that tour is already sold out.
Touring is what excites Jacob most of all. “Even from a young age, I was always infatuated with the idea of traveling, seeing different places,” he says. “Being able to fulfill that dream has been amazing. I love waking up early on a show day and exploring the different cities. I can’t wait to perform in Europe and Australia. Before music, I hadn’t been anywhere except Georgia and Florida.”
As the excitement continues to build, Jacob remains firmly in control. “I really have been taking things one day at a time. I’m committed to keeping my fans heavily involved in everything I do, to keep them interested even when I’m not touring or releasing new music. I also want to continue improving, always wanting to get better at what I do.”
With A Piece of Me, Whitesides proves he’s learned those lessons well.
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