A Musical Homecoming

Whitefish native Ethan Thompson returns to his hometown for a concert benefiting North Valley Music School

By Madeleine Lamon
Ocean Park Standoff. Pictured left to right: Samantha Ronson, Pete Nappi and Ethan Thompson. Courtesy photo

If you look up Ethan Thompson on Instagram, you’ll find the usual trappings of a rising pop star’s feed: thousands of followers, mid-concert action shots, videos of intimate acoustic sessions, and lots of smiling friends.

Intermingled with those are shots that are instantly recognizable to Flathead Valley residents: wakeboarding on Whitefish Lake, Central Avenue at Christmastime and Glacier National Park.

That’s because Thompson, 28, is a Whitefish native. And he’s returning to his hometown on July 25 to play a benefit concert for North Valley Music School (NVMS) as the lead singer for the Los Angles-based, alt-pop trio Ocean Park Standoff.

Born and raised mostly in the Flathead, Thompson began piano lessons at a young age and then convinced his mother to let him take voice lessons at NVMS around the age of 12 to follow in the footsteps of his older sisters. He developed his vocal abilities with instructor Ron Gerard and began taking guitar lessons with Don Rees, a guitar and banjo instructor, in high school.

“Ron and Don were my people there,” he said. “That was where we would hang out after school.”

Rees remembers Thompson having an impressive musical aptitude.

“It was neat having someone that could sing so well,” he said. “It was a real joy when he would sing along.”

At Thompson’s behest the pair spent much of their time working on finger picking, Rees said, with the student learning to play Paul Simon hits and a number of folk songs.

After graduating from Flathead High School, Thompson headed to the University of Montana to pursue his interest in music, both inside and outside the classroom.

“I hated to see him take off because he was such a good, adept student,” Rees said. “And he was really into it — as evidenced later.”

Thompson experienced his first taste of real success when he and his band mates, who adopted numerous monikers, including What Rhymes with Oranges, won the 2010 Folgers Jingle Contest, performing a rendition of the coffee giant’s classic tune. It was the first time he thought he could make a career out of music.

Thompson began creating songs after suffering his first heartbreak at 15 and then became more involved in writing music after seeing a flyer for a songwriting camp at the Berklee College of Music, a prestigious Boston school that boasts a number of notable alumni, including Quincy Jones and St. Vincent. Discovering others who shared his musical passions at the camp, he transferred to Berklee to continue his studies on the East Coast.

In 2014, Thompson appeared on American Idol, arguably the nation’s largest talent competition at the time. Performing an original song, he charmed the judges and earned a ticket to Hollywood. Adamant in his respect for the show, Thompson, who was eliminated after the group round, said the experience made him realize that he didn’t want to perform his music for television. He then left for the West Coast to pursue his musical dreams in L.A.

Thompson soon began collaborating with Pete Nappi, a producer, writer and Berklee classmate, who introduced him to Samantha Ronson, a renowned DJ and fellow songwriter. The trio started jamming at Ronson’s house in Santa Monica and released music online for fun, unexpectedly garnering attention from record companies. Coming from different musical backgrounds, they produced tunes that incorporated a variety of influences, including old rock, modern pop and hip-hop. By 2016, the group signed with a label and started making hits.

Ocean Park Standoff began to attract fans, releasing their first single, Good News, in October 2016 and performing on the Today Show in February 2017. They dropped an EP and then toured with Third Eye Blind that summer. This year, the band released a new song featuring the rapper Lil Yachty and played on tour with the Plain White T’s. They have more than a million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Characterizing Thompson as a “super fun, down-to-Earth kid,” NVMS Executive Director Deidre Corson said she expects the upcoming Whitefish show to be sold out.

Thompson expressed respect for NVMS and noted that he was excited to support the place that supported him. While he and his band mates’ visit to Whitefish will be a bit of a whirlwind, he said he would make sure to take the newbies to the lake and enjoy the wonders of MacKenzie River Pizza Co. and KettleHouse beer.

With “lots of love for the hometown,” Thompson, who will return a few weeks after the concert for family time in the mountains, said that if he could play music at the same level in the Flathead as in L.A., he would definitely be based out of Northwest Montana.

“If anyone has a house [in Whitefish] for free, I’ll definitely take it,” he said with a chuckle.

Tickets for the July 25 concert at the O’Shaughnessy Center are available for $20 presale or $25 at the show. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert begins at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.northvalleymusicschool.org.

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