How NYC and Debut EP 'Without' Threw Owen Thiele Into the Family Business
Photo by Jenny Awler
A few minutes after we’re supposed to meet at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, Owen Thiele hurriedly scurries through the door. His 6-3 frame makes him easy to recognize. He apologizes profusely for running behind and for his scattered appearance, attributing it to an all-night recording session in the Valley. Thiele just released his debut EP, Without, and the nineteen-year-old has suddenly seen his profile grow beyond what he ever would have expected when he first wrote the songs in his NYU dorm room.
Thiele’s musical background goes beyond putting together a few heartsick songs in Third North. By what he calls “an amazing coincidence,” the singer was adopted by a family rich in both music and Hollywood pedigree. His father, Bob Jr., is the music supervisor for Sons of Anarchy and has produced songs for such artists as Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, and the Kills, while his grandfather was a legendary producer who wrote Louis Armstrong’s iconic “What a Wonderful World.” His maternal grandfather was Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe’s agent. His star power is in the process of materializing, but the particles of creative progress began to take shape long before he started plunking out notes of his own.
Despite having first sung onstage when he was four, Thiele never longed to perform publicly. He never fully had the desire to go into the family business, even as his parents encouraged him to do so. He’d compose a few songs in private, but ultimately was wary of presenting anything to his father out of fear that everything would be less than stellar.
“My father always wanted me to pursue music, but knew that it had to come from me,” he reflects. “Even though he’s not judgmental at all, I didn’t want it to seem that I was following in his footsteps.”
When he finally had the confidence to play his father his first song, when he was twelve, he was surprised by the positive response but still had sights set on a career on the small screen. An aspiring actor, he worked on those particular chops at night, and though the prospect of a TV show fell through in his early teens, he quietly continued to work on songs in his bedroom.
The acting bug continued to bite when he applied for colleges, and he eventually enrolled at Tisch with the intent to study the dramatic arts. The first days of school saw the end of his relationship with a long-distance boyfriend, and acting wasn’t the creative outlet Thiele could channel to lessen the blow of the traumatic split.
“I switched programs to Gallatin and there I realized acting wasn’t cutting it,” he explains in between sips of miso soup. “When all I was doing was acting instead of singing, I didn’t feel like myself. Now that I’m only singing, I’m loving it, so clearly, acting wasn’t for me.”
By the time Thiele realized what had happened to him, the chill of late fall had settled in, a far cry from the warm comfort of Southern California. Cold and alone, he started writing songs that reflected his emotional state. He began sending tracks to high school buddy Zack Sekoff (a musician who's collaborated with Thundercat, OVO, and Daddy Kev), who was attending school in New Haven and therefore relatively close by. Once they started collaborating, the two spent hours traveling up and down the Metro-North's lines to fully flesh out songs. Over the next few months, they zapped ideas back and forth over their school’s high-speed internet before ultimately deciding on the four tracks of Without.
Initially, Thiele never expected anyone outside of a few friends and Sekoff to discover what they were doing. By the time they finished “II. Run,” he realized that this music was a representation of himself, and he wanted to release it.
“Everything was so therapeutic that I kept wanting to do it,” he explains. “I found myself dancing to this music, but it still has sad lyrics, a lot like Adele. The goal was to have a sad song lyrically, but you’d get lost and groove to a song and have fun.”
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Ditching the folk sound he played around with as a pre-teen for a more r&b, electronic-driven one — think the Weeknd–meets–Raphael Saadiq — has won Thiele plaudits from unexpected places. When he was feverishly emailing production companies to make his video for “II. Run” in between classes, he never expected that he’d hear back from his top choice: the High Five Collective, the group behind the videos for Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You" and the Weeknd’s "The Morning.”
“Surprisingly, a member of the H5C, Zachariah de Cairo in particular, was one of the first people to hear the music,” he says. “He respected us for being so young and so honest, and so he wanted to work. And of course, his vision played out brilliantly.”
Thinking about what he had to endure over the past year, Thiele now understands that his heartbreak was the best thing to happen to him. Within the first three days of the EP’s release last week, over 25,000 people watched the video for “II. Run,” and nearly 12,000 listened to its tracks on SoundCloud. Thiele was overwhelmed by the response, which he knows never would have happened had he not had that time on his own in New York.
“It was such a blessing in disguise,” he says. “While I never want to be back in that state, it’s still weird to me that people have discovered [the music] and seem to like it."
And what about his toughest critic? "Oh, and my dad really likes it, which is the biggest confidence booster of all.”
Owen Thiele x Zack Sekoff's Without is out now and available for streaming here.
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