“Trying Again” (see video below), from Jake Thistle’s recently released album Down the Line, is a world-weary song about living on the road. “Cold shower and cheap motel breakfast as you look for somewhere else to go,” sings Thistle. “Didn’t sleep, your dark eyes won’t let you forget it, but you still head back out on the road.”
You wouldn’t know it if you just heard this song on the radio, but Thistle doesn’t even have a driver’s license. Well, he’s got a learner’s permit now, but he didn’t when he recorded the song.
Thistle, who lives in Paramus, is 16, and a junior at Paramus High School.
Down the Line is his first album, but he has performed all over the country, and in England, and has even made concert appearances with some of his musical heroes. With its thoughtful lyrics, quietly assured vocals and deft supporting music, Down the Line sounds like the work of a veteran, mature artist, as well as someone who grew up in another musical era.
“It really all started when I was very young,” says Thistle. “In 2008, I was 3. I was about to turn 4, but I was 3. And my parents thought maybe I’d get into sports, so they let me watch the first half of the Super Bowl. And that was the year Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers played.
“I don’t remember anything about the game. I think it’s my first memory, but I just remember the Heartbreakers playing, and just being absolutely mesmerized.”
He started going to YouTube to check out Petty videos, and that led to Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and other classic-rockers.
“And so I got into this style of music,” he says, “and I’ve listened to it my whole life.”
Soon, he started playing guitar, and posting videos of himself playing songs on YouTube. There are now more than 900 (!) of them, collected at youtube.com/c/jakethistle/videos. The oldest one is of him playing Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” in 2013, at the age of 8. (see below)
He also became active in Tom Petty Facebook groups, and has appeared at a number of Petty-related charity concerts. (A video below shows him performing “Learning to Fly” with Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone and others at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.)
Thistle says Petty learned of him and sent him front-row tickets to see what was destined to be his last tour stop in New Jersey, in June 2017 at the Prudential Center in Newark. (Petty died in October 2017.)
“It was a great time,” says Thistle. “I got to go back (stage) and meet a lot of the guys. All the Heartbreakers. I didn’t get to meet Tom, though, because he wasn’t feeling well that night.”
The Heartbreakers and Petty family members “have always been really supportive, which I’m always extremely grateful for,” Thistle says. “They’re all really some of the nicest people.”
Thistle is also active in Bruce Springsteen fan circles, and has played at events presented by the Spring-Nuts Facebook group, in Asbury Park, and the E Street Fans group, in London.
“When I first started (playing music), like the first 20 songs I learned were just Tom Petty,” Thistle said. “That’s really all I was listening to. A couple of Beatles tunes, some of the classics. But being in New Jersey, everyone was always asking me, ‘Play some Springsteen, play some Springsteen.’ So eventually I just said, ‘Fine,’ and I learned ‘No Surrender,’ and I put it up (online). And it had a pretty good response. I wasn’t sure how it was going to do, because it was a little out of the box for me, at the time. But it did pretty well. So then I put up ‘Thunder Road,’ and people liked that one even more.”
Those two videos led directly to the offer to play in London.
“This guy sent me a message,” said Thistle. “He said, ‘Hey, I own a hotel in England. We’re doing a Springsteen weekend. We’ll fly you out. We’ll give you a room. And you’re going to play a bunch.’ And so after we figured out that that wasn’t a scam … because we figured it must have been … I was only, I guess, 12 at the time … I said, ‘Sure.’ And he goes, ‘Great. You’re going to do two two-hour sets.’ And I was like, ‘Awesome.’
“And then I realized I only knew two Springsteen songs. (laughs) So I really had to get down and learn. So I learned a lot of his songs quick. There was a while where it was just like, it was all Springsteen I was pumping out as quick as possible.”
To my ears, Thistle’s Down the Line seems to have more of a Jackson Browne influence than a Petty or Springsteen influence. Thistle says he has only recently been listening to a lot of Browne.
“For most of my life, up to this point, I only knew the highlights,” he says. “But earlier this year I really started to listen more, and now, he’s one of my all-time favorites.”
He said the increase in his interest in Browne was spurred when Petty’s widow, Dana, requested that he perform Browne’s song, “Barricades of Heaven.” (see below)
“It’s not one of his giant hits, and it really started to get me to listen to some of the more obscure tunes,” he says. “And since then I’ve really been a huge fan. He definitely did have an influence on the record. Especially because I recorded the record at home, and I didn’t have access to, like, a full band. And so, even though the Heartbreakers are a huge influence on me, and they’re great people, I didn’t try to shoot for that sound, really, because I didn’t have the band behind me, because I recorded all the parts myself. I didn’t have drums or anything like that.
“Jackson has always been able to do so much with so little. He has a couple of great acoustic records, and he does some acoustic shows, and so he was a big influence, to try to dial in that tone for the record.”
Thistle’s parents are not musicians. But his mother is an English teacher, and his father, a communications manager. “I’m sure that helps me,” Thistle says. “I have writing in my blood.
“I write as much as I can. Not all that I’m pumping out is good, but every once in a while, I’ll find a theme that works, or even just a line that works, a melody that works. And after a while, I can put enough of those things that work together and make a song that I can be fond of and play. I think there’s definitely a kind of trial and error.”
While he’s looking forward to things getting back to normal, in terms of being able to play concerts, there have been some benefits to staying at home. He has had ample time to concentrate on his songwriting and get the sound right for his home-recorded album, and connect with people online; his online performances have included a ticketed show presented in conjunction with the album’s release.
He is now writing material for his second album, and planning to go to college: He thinks he will major in history. And while he would like to try playing with a band, he’s not sure if he’ll ever have a long-term group, the way Petty did.
“I think the music industry is a little different (now),” he said. “I don’t know if there are as many bands. The Heartbreakers were around for so long. They were kind of an exception. And the E Street Band. Both of them have been together for so long. That doesn’t always happen.
“So I see myself playing with a band at some point, even if that’s just a really great group of studio musicians that I tour with, or whatever. Maybe it’s not an actual band with a name. Kind of like how Billy Joel has used a lot of the same musicians for years, but it’s not Billy Joel & the Whatevers. It’s just Billy Joel.
“So I’m not sure. But I’m sure in some way or another, I’ll have a great group of musicians that I can play with.”
For more on Thistle, visit JakeThistle.com.
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