Ethan Thompson likes to hike the hills of Los Angeles. From those elevated vantage points, he can see the city for what it is, and what is isn’t, as he deciphers the urban panorama through the lens of his Flathead Valley childhood.
“Whenever you’re in a city for a long time, you start getting into that groupthink, and the human experience becomes the realest thing in your life: the next photo shoot, the next accolade, the biggest song,” he said.
“When you climb up and look down into Los Angeles, it really takes you out of that, and it seems so funny how important we think it is when we’re in it. It really gives you perspective. Nature is one of the things that keeps my head on straight through everything.”
Thompson, who was born and raised in Whitefish, has spent a decade reconciling his presence in the heart of metropolitan music scenes with his need to breathe fresh mountain air. He recalls calling his mother during his first year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, wondering why he felt depressed.
“She said, ‘You need to get moving. You need to get out and move your body,’” he said.
After his studies at Berklee, which focused on songwriting, Thompson headed to the West Coast to fully immerse himself in his craft, exhibiting a tenacious blue-collar approach that allowed him to eke out a living in a foreign place as he built up both his name recognition and song repertoire. The hard work paid off.
In 2017, his band Ocean Park Standoff released an EP that featured the Billboard hit “Good News,” followed up by another widely aired single “If You Were Mine,” whose videos have garnered millions of YouTube views. Thompson also amassed writing credits on other bands’ songs, including Shinedown’s “State of My Head,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in 2015.
Thompson followed up that success by inking a solo deal with Ocean Park Standoff’s record label, Hollywood Records. Recording and performing as Alt Bloom, he released his debut solo EP “Astronaut Complex” last summer, amid a nationwide shutdown due to the pandemic. With his tour dates canceled, Thompson headed back to Whitefish to ride out the uncertainty.
Over five months, Thompson, 30, backpacked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with his parents, Dan and Lorraine, and wrote songs in his childhood bedroom, constructing a makeshift recording studio out of table set up on boxes. It was a time for introspection and recalibration.
“There was no pressure to go do x, y and z,” he said. “It’s just you and your people. It rebalanced things for me in a really beautiful way.”
Thompson’s parents are avid outdoorspeople, including serving for local ski patrol, and he grew up regularly exploring Glacier National Park, carving up Big Mountain from a young age and generally immersing himself in nature.
In the last year, those formative outdoor influences have tangibly manifested in his work. Before the pandemic hit, he embarked on a tour of West Coast national parks and shot music videos onsite that are compiled on YouTube as “Alt Bloom – California Sessions.”
Thompson also wrote an original piece called “I Believe” that will be the official song for National Geographic’s Planet Possible Earth Day campaign, scheduled for release this week. He was in Whitefish last week shooting photos with local photographer Alex Strohl to be used for both the Nat Geo campaign and his Alt Bloom project.
Michele Alexander, senior marketing manager with Hollywood Records, said in an interview that Thompson’s Alt Bloom project allows him to reconnect with his origins, at a pace and in settings that feel natural to him.
“Like anybody who loves nature and has been away from it, when you go and hike and do those things, it’s a reset,” she said. “He can be with his thoughts and probably write better music.”
“It was his dream to go solo, to vibe out on who he is as a person, that positive vibe, and have the nature element,” she continued. “That really was his goal in life, and more power to him for doing it.”
The California Sessions typically feature just Thompson and his guitar as he performs stripped-down versions of his studio songs. The spare nature of the renditions, freed from pop polish, illuminate the confessional honesty of his lyrics, often centered on love and heartbreak.
Yet, if vulnerability permeates his music, it also defines the fragile spaces he loves. That’s why he withholds the specific sites of the videos. The idea is to open people’s eyes to the majesty and potential of these areas, without sending the tens of thousands of people who view his videos flocking to the same place en masse.
“I really want to show people that the outdoors is a very special and unique place that everyone needs to get into at some point in their lives because we’re all connected to it in the deepest of ways,” he said.
While the pandemic coinciding with the EP release wasn’t ideal, Alexander notes that Thompson has proven adept at connecting directly with his fans through social media. She said his approachable personality is perfectly suited for such intimate videos, as is his talent, which allows him to set up anywhere with nothing more than a guitar.
“He’s got such a positive vibe and outlook, and he makes everybody feel special that he meets,” Alexander said. “I think that translates in his music.”
“He’s such a personal songwriter, really such a great songwriter and lyricist,” she added. “You can pick out these gems that are like, ‘How did he come up with this?’”
Thompson has worked with heavyweight producers, including John Hill, of Imagine Dragons renown, and Oak Felder, whose stable of artists includes John Legend. He also wrote a song at his house for The Monsters & Strangerz, who has produced Maroon 5, Rihanna and others. His songs have accumulated tens of millions of streams. As fundamentally alien as the L.A. landscape may be, he has adeptly navigated the terrain.
But he remains a small-town boy at heart, and he still fondly recalls his earliest teachers at North Valley Music School and other Whitefish mentors such as Toby Scott. The past year has reaffirmed a basic truth: the Flathead Valley remains home.
“I’ve really rediscovered my roots,” he said.
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