By Tim Anderl
Although this sentimental story line is often reserved for John Hughes films it goes something like this: the overlooked and unsung underdog faces a situation in which the odds seem impossible, but emerges successful and with a clear understanding of self because he was brave enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and lay it all on the line. In the course of a few years, Columbus based singer-songwriter Jake Mcelfresh (aka. Front Porch Step), has seen his own life mirror these unlikely movie moments. Armed with his voice and an acoustic guitar, he’s emerged from dark and abysmal depths to what he describes as “beyond anything I expected or would have asked for.”
With a new EP, titled Whole Again, out now and a January 2015 UK tour on the horizon, Front Porch Step’s upward trajectory seems unwavering. New Noise Magazine recently caught up with Mcelfresh to discuss, where he’s been, where he’s going, and whether he believes he’ll be a better man when he gets there.
I’ve had some friends comment on how Front Porch Step “came out of nowhere in 2014.” It can’t have happened exactly that way, although 2014 has been a huge year for you. Where did Front Porch Step come from?
I’d been playing out since I was 14 under my own name. And in 2012 someone told me that I should market myself better because Mcelfresh is hard to spell. So I started calling myself Front Porch Step in 2012 and posted a video that was supposed to be a suicide note to YouTube. I blew up a little bit and next thing I know it is all over Tumblr and on the front page of Reddit and I started seeing some internet success through that. In turn, that was how Pure Noise found me.
What are your favorite career firsts and best moments from 2014?
This year has been crazy. One of the coolest things was…well, I try to stay humble and I try to expect nothing from anyone. I remember when I played Bled Fest in Michigan and I had to play the small room while The Menzingers played the larger room. And before I played, all my friends and all my friends in bands were like, “Sorry man, we’ve seen you play before, we have to watch The Menzingers play.” I wasn’t mad at all, but I expected not to play to anybody. And when it came my time to play the room was packed with people. It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life to walk into that room and realize that all these people had the opportunity to see someone else and had chosen to see me.
The same thing happened at Warped Tour where I was telling myself, “Don’t be discouraged if 10 or 15 people show up.” Every day the tent was packed, you couldn’t even walk around it. Warped Tour has special guest bands, and one day it was Linkin Park, and God forbid, I had to play during their set. I was like, “OK, so I’m not going to play for anyone.” And I had a full tent during Linkin Park! Same thing happened with A Day To Remember. I remember asking people, “Who here likes A Day To Remember?” and a bunch of people raised their hands. I’m a huge fan of them and love their record. I was so surprised that so many people showed up to the tent when an amazing band like that was playing a few hundred feet away.
It has to be humbling being a guy from Ohio and drawing attention in this way. How have you tempered your success with who you are at your core?
I try to stay the same person, but I feel like touring has bettered me as a person. I’m from central Ohio and my mom is a very Christian woman who taught me to love everyone. But I was raised in an environment where gay people were seen as in the wrong and I used to be a very homophobic person. But meeting different people has opened my heart and my mind to different things. Not necessarily all things as serious as that, but even trying different foods…you realize there is another world out there that you’ve never experienced. I like to think I’m a much better person than I used to be.
Is Christianity something you take to heart?
It is a weird subject. I believe in God, but I’m not sure how much of the Bible I believe. There are things that have happened in my life that have made me choose to believe in God. But I’m not against gay marriage and I know they say it is wrong to cherry pick things from the Bible that you believe. But the parts of the Bible I like best are the parts where it talks about love, especially the New Testament where it talks about loving one another. Regardless of whether or not God is real, we are obviously all very flawed human beings and no one is perfect in this world. It is important to recognize your own flaws, and it sounds hippyish, but I just want to spread as much love as possible. The more I travel, the more I begin to realize that there is a lack of love in the world. I guess I’m more of a spiritual person than I am a religious person.
Are you originally from Ohio? Had you travelled much before beginning Front Porch Step?
I took vacations, but I’ve never travelled as much as I have with Front Porch Step. I used to take Greyhound busses to play in other states and stuff like that. I have always done little DIY stuff, but my actual touring began in December 2013. But yeah, I was born and raised in Ohio. I’ve lived in the same house for 23 years.
I understand that, I’m calling you from Dayton, Ohio.
I saw that. I thought you were one of my friends. I have a ton of friends in Dayton. I have a lot of friends that go to school there.
You were just here with JT from Hawthorne Heights and Grey Gordon.
Yeah, that was a great show.
Was it nice to be on a bill with other straight-edge guys? Is that a comfort zone for you?
I don’t think there is a comfort zone anywhere. There are two types of straight-edge people, like there are two types of Christians, like there are two types of everything. There are straight-edge people who don’t care what other people do, which is what I am. And there are people that hate on other people. I am on tour with… my friends in Heart To Heart love drinking. There’s nothing wrong with that. I have a ton of fun with them while they are drunk. They have a straight-edge manager that drives them every night. They do it safely. They don’t hurt anybody and that’s fine with me and I have a lot of fun with them. So it is cool being around other straight-edge people, and it doesn’t bother me when I’m not. We are all human and that is a label we decide to put on ourselves, or not put on ourselves.
Was that something you came to after experimenting?
I smoked weed for the first time the summer between fifth and sixth grade. It was absurd and I remember running to my mom and telling her about it immediately, which almost ruined my mom’s world. I started heavily drinking when I was 14. It only lasted about a year, but I was drinking several beers a night and sitting in my basement thinking about wanting to kill myself. I’ve come very far from that.
So when I was 14 I was hanging out at a bunch of shows and met a bunch of straight-edge people. I really looked up to them. They seemed to be the most level-headed people I knew at the time. I didn’t claim straight-edge to be like them, but it was what they represented…I liked that they weren’t sloppy drunk, puking everywhere. At all the DIY shows there were always people drinking 40s in the backyard. It was cool to see people my age and older doing fun things in a more mature manner. They were hoodlums, but they weren’t obnoxious if that makes sense. That caught my attention and I’ve been straight-edge since I was 15. That was the best decision I ever made in my life so far.
You haven’t been slowing down either and are currently enroute to another tour, right?
I’m finishing out this Pure Noise tour and then I’m doing some shows with Joel and Benji Madden in November. Then I have a couple things going on for the holidays. I think that’s it for this year and then next year I’ll start up all over again.
It has to be mind-boggling to play with people who have the status and experience that the Madden brothers have…
It is very weird. It is super weird to be the only non-Capitol Records artist on a bill.
How do you reconcile that? How do you address a crowd who is expecting to see an established artist like that and deliver? You are a little insecure right? To be in a situation where you are scrutinized like that has to be nerve wracking…
Not at all. It sounds like it should be. But I do what I do, and I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m there to play my songs. If they like it, then they like it. I can’t do anything different from what I do…I can’t play my set any differently with the Madden brothers than I would do in a basement that smells like cat piss in front of 35 people. That’s just how it is.
Why do you try to stay so connected and communicative with your fans? Do you believe that this accessibility is intrusive to your personal life at all, or do you believe it is a necessary part of the artists you want to be?
Oh yeah. It is intrusive to an extent. I talk about my girlfriend on stage. Someone actually yelled out her name the other night and that was confusing and awkward. Other than that…well, I guess it gets annoying. I love communicating. Especially when it is “Hey, I love your music.” But that’s not my personal life. That’s my job, my business. That’s what I do and that’s OK. But people do sometimes get a little bit too intrusive to my personal life.
Several of your songs are about unrequited love. How do you reconcile that with having a significant other?
So here’s the thing that is really awkward. There’s no way to fix it, explain it, or turn it around. 95 percent of my songs are about the same girl. The only song that is not about that same girl is “Aware,” and I never thought that song would ever be heard by a lot of people. So, I didn’t feel the need to over explain myself. I was with the girl in the song, and it was one of the situations where she would call me and tell her friends she never did that and then we would hang out two weeks later and she’d try to have sex with me. Then we’d stop talking for a week, she’d tell me she hated me, and I was just in love with her the whole time. So I didn’t over explain myself in that song, which now I regret. People think I’m calling all girls stupid. It is one of those things where you can’t please everyone all of the time and I’m going to have a heart attack if I worry to0 much about what people think about that.
How did the Whole Again EP come together?
Alan Day and I were sitting on my bunk at Warped Tour and told him to bring me songs to write lyrics and a melody to. I can’t write guitar parts for the life of me and he can write guitar parts all day. So we decided to write songs together. And Ace Enders came to play some sets at Warped Tour and I was telling him that we were co-writing, and asked him to join us, and asked to make this an EP. And I had a Christmas cover. So we wrote the four-song EP, Ace Enders wrote “Heaven Sent,” and I wrote the lyrics. “Whole Again” was written by Alan. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is me singing with Alan Day doing harmonies over me. People are pretty excited about it. I love singing. I always grew up playing punk rock, but if I’d grown up playing the piano, you’d be hearing a lot more songs with the range I have in the Christmas cover. Softer and prettier. I think kids will be blown away by this record.
I wrote Aware when I was 19 years old and started playing it out two years later. Some people say, “He’s a whiny baby.” Well yeah, it is my 19 year old self whining about stuff. These are songs I’ve written this year. This is a 23 year old man. I think people will get a better idea about what it is to hear a song from me.
Are you hoping to deliver the songs you write a lot quicker in the future?
I don’t know man. I’m taking it as I go. I am considering during other projects. I’m considering doing a band. I really love hip hop. I am just feeling everything out right now. I don’t care where it goes, I just want to play music.
What are you hoping to accomplish in 2015?
Just to play shows. I already have 2015 booked. I’ve already accomplished it. I’ve had this conversation before. It is odd to have a conversation about, “What are your goals?” I’ve already exceeded my goals. In 2013 I got to play Warped Tour for one day and it was the greatest day of my life. This year I played the whole tour. That was beyond anything I expected or would have asked for. Nothing else can happen that will make me feel any better than I do now.
So you won’t be making resolutions for 2015?
I’m already there man. I don’t care if I make more or less money. I just want to keep playing music.
Check out our Day In The Life with Front Porch Step on Warped Tour here.