What I’ve Been Listening to: Jake Thistle/Down the Line

Young New Jersey singer-songwriter with incredible story looks like star in the making

As a music lover for 40-plus years, I enjoy coming across young talented artists. I also love a great story. New Jersey singer-songwriter Jake Thistle represents both. It’s safe to assume most of my readers haven’t heard of the recent high school graduate. My gut tells me this may change, and I’m not only referring to this post.

If I recall it correctly, I first came across Thistle about a year ago on Facebook where he’s pretty active and has amassed some 14,000 likes. The other day, I saw him at a free summer outdoor concert, performing a Jackson Browne show – a perfect fit, in my view, since he reminds me of Browne. During the gig, Thistle casually mentioned a CD. Before getting to that, I’d like to touch on his cool story.

The following is based on an interview the then 14-year-old Thistle gave to New York classic rock radio station Q104.3 four years ago. One month prior to his fourth birthday, he watched the 2008 Super Bowl halftime show featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It turned out to be a life-changing moment for the little boy. I guess you could call it the equivalent of seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Jake Thistle at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J.

Bitten by the Tom Petty bug, Thistle began watching videos of the man from Gainesville, Fla. on YouTube. The platform soon also suggested other similar artists and before long, the young boy became a classic rock fan. Listening to great music eventually turned into picking up the guitar at the age of nine; and starting to post his own videos on YouTube. And then something really incredible happened.

Tom Petty saw one of Thistle’s videos and sent him front-row tickets for Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Not only did Thistle get to see one of his music heroes, but he also met the man and the Heartbreakers backstage. It sounds like Mike Campbell was instrumental in all of this happening. Thistle told Q104.3 host Jim Kerr he does an annual fundraiser for Rock the Dogs, an animal charity co-founded by Campbell, who wanted to meet the young musician.

Thistle has also played with John Hiatt and met Steve Winwood. As a 13-year-old, he was hired to play at a Bruce Springsteen tribute festival in the UK. Thistle’s website also mentions an impressive array of other music artists he has met and/or shared bills with, such as Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Foo Fighters, Eddie Vedder, Roger McGuinn, Steve Earle and Tom Morello – not bad for a young cat who just graduated high school!

Jake Thistle with Steve Ferrone, former drummer of the Heartbreakers

This brings me to Down the Line, Thistle’s first CD that came out in June 2021. It was not what he initially had envisaged. “I’ve been wanting to get more original music out for a long time,” he explained in a Q&A on his website. “I had a deal in place with a major studio for a full, professionally-produced EP that I was going to record with some great musicians in the Spring, and I had some amazing offers to record at other studios with some of my heroes that I was looking forward to—then COVID happened, and those things had to be put on hold for now.”

But Thistle still wanted to put out some of his music, so he recorded the album at his home studio, using instruments he knew how to play himself. “I’ve never been one of those musicians who likes to sit in front of a computer—I like to play music— so I bought a new soundboard that allowed me to record and mix tracks right on the board…In addition to arranging and recording every instrument myself, I didn’t use any computer-based enhancements, instruments or sounds.”

After eight graphs into this post, I’d say it’s time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener and title track. When I listened to the tune for the first time, I was immediately struck by how mature Thistle sounds – certainly not your usual high school student. To be clear, I love when high school students get into music, so it’s not meant in a disparaging way. But just check out the remarkable songwriting and Thistle’s voice – so good!

In addition to the guitar, Thistle also managed to pick up the piano. Here’s a beautiful example: Frontier of Time. I could totally picture Jackson Browne playing this song. In fact, as I mentioned at the outset, if there’s any particular artist Thistle reminds me of it’s Browne. The slight occasional rasp in his voice is a bit reminiscent of Bryan Adams.

Another gem on the album is Lines On the Road. Check out the lyrics: Well I’m hypnotized by lines rushing by on the road/Measuring a time in song, feeling the highway below/I’m not worried about figuring out my life/No one ever seems to make it out alive/No I’m just seeing how long I can survive… This is mature singer-songwriter material. “The inspiration was from that sense of serenity and hope I’d get when taking long road trips, often for gigs in other states,” a then-16-year-old Thistle told American Songwriter in December 2020. “I’m a year away from being able to drive myself, so I have a lot of time to look out the window.”

Let’s do one more: Hometown, another neat piano-driven track. While it would be interesting to hear more produced renditions of the album’s 12 tunes, I actually find Thistle’s stripped-down approach pretty engaging. He certainly did a remarkable job leveraging the means he had to his full advantage. I couldn’t find a clip off the album, so here’s a live version from what looks like Thistle music cave at home. Some nice stuff hanging on the wall behind him, including what looks like a Rickenbacker 360/12.

So what’s next for Thistle? Apparently, he still has plans to record in the studio, which would be the logical next step. “Yes, the offers I had are still open, but we need to wait for the effects of the pandemic to get better,” he noted in the above Q&A. “I have a wide range of songs, and some I think would better for a full band with a studio. I write all the time, and I’m very much looking forward to getting in the studio for the next album even as I’m just releasing this one.”

I feel a full band and studio production would also allow Thistle to record some more uptempo rock-oriented songs a la Running On Empty, to stay with Jackson Browne. In the meantime, take a listen to Thistle’s CD below. It’s also available on Apple Music and on Amazon. Or you can purchase it for download on Thistle’s website here.

I think Jake Thistle is on an exciting path. There’s no question he’s both a very talented songwriter and a pretty solid musician. And, again, think about it: He’s only 18 and already so good! The remarkable relationships he has built with other music artists also look like great opportunities. My gut tells me we may well be looking at a classic singer-songwriter star in the making. I certainly look forward to hearing more music from him!

Sources: Jake Thistle website; Q104.3; YouTube; Spotify

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