We often hear of musicians being discovered overnight—that rapid rise to fame that is awe-inspiring and contagious for new music lovers. Today, with the ease of sites such as YouTube, Vine and Twitter, ambitious artists like Justin Bieber and Cody Simpson can quickly make a name for themselves.
Such is the case with Jonah Marais.
Jonah is taller than you’d expect from his YouTube videos: six foot one, with the build of a varsity ballplayer. The 17-year-old Stillwater native has a big, easy grin and a slight air of fatigue, indicative of his hectic touring schedule. He is stylishly clad in a bold graphic T-shirt with NYC scribbled across the chest. He wears a pair of new Converse in eye-popping red. His longish, tawny hair—usually gelled into a gravity-defying swoop—is hidden beneath a backward-facing baseball cap.
As with most teens, his iPhone is never far from his fingertips. Unlike most teens, however, he is building a career with his re-tweets and selfies—and doing so at the breakneck tempo inherent to this new breed of media.
Becoming Jonah Marais
Before the summer of 2014, Jonah Marais—the star—did not exist. That is to say, prior to that summer, the singer was a student at Minnehaha Academy, a new driver’s ed graduate and a ballplayer who played pitcher and infielder positions for the state’s top traveling baseball team, the Minnesota Blizzard Elite.
Everything changed when Jonah discovered the live-streaming platform, YouNow. At first, Jonah says he used the website as “more of a hang-out” than a personal media station, doing what many of that site’s users do: cracking jokes for the entertainment of whomever stumbled upon their station and candidly responding to viewers’ live comments.
“I don’t even know why I started [broadcasting],” Jonah says. “I was bored, I guess. I had nothing better to do. I didn’t understand why people wanted to watch me.” Eventually, Jonah peppered in a few musical performances, including a cover of “Thinking Out Loud,” by his favorite musician, Ed Sheeran.
From there, his fan base grew quickly. By the end of that summer, his new Twitter account had more than 10,000 followers. “I remember thinking, ‘How’d that happen?’” Jonah says. After he gained the attention of the festival production company DigiFest, which specializes in showcasing the talents of rising music-makers, Jonah found himself performing in a different city each weekend. When the 2014–15 school year began, this pace showed no signs of slowing. “I was missing [classes] every Friday and Monday,” he says. Jonah and his parents agreed that online classes would be a good fit, and he now continues his studies virtually.
Like many of the young artists Jonah has met on tour, he is now a student at The American Academy, where he is enrolled in typical sophomore-year courses—geometry, chemistry and English—and will take the same exams as his peers.
“I want to have the option of going to college later on,” he says. “But also, I feel like college will always be there. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When I’m 27, it won’t be the same.”
While he enjoys being able to dedicate the bulk of his time to his craft, Jonah says the most difficult adjustment has been missing out on “the social aspect of school.” The extroverted teen has made up for this by getting to know other teen musicians and social media personalities, establishing friendships with people such as Wisconsin comedian Luke Korns and the pop rap duo, Jack and Jack. “We connect, because we’re doing the same things,” Jonah says.
As for Twitter? @JonahMarais now boasts more than 61,000 followers as of mid June.
(Left: Photo by Tate Carlson; Right: An adoring crowd cheers for Jonah at a recent DigiTour performance, photo courtesy of Jonah Marais)
Into the Spotlight
Jonah hasn’t yet had time to get his driver’s permit, much less his license. In a matter of months, he went from having celebrity crushes (Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, to name two) to being a celebrity crush. Last July, for example, when he and Korns arranged a Mall of America shopping excursion via public tweets, their collective fan base flocked to the Bloomington mall, resulting in a gathering that became so disruptive that mall security intervened.
On another occasion, after Jonah tweeted about being excited to return home, approximately 80 teenage girls greeted him at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. “So, don’t tweet your [whereabouts],” Jonah suggests with a laugh. Actually, he enjoys interacting with his fans. “I love meeting my supporters [and being] able to make them happy. That’s why I do this: to make people happy. If I can do that, I feel like I’m doing some good in the world.”
He admits that some of these encounters have been unusual. “One of the strangest things that happened was when one girl gave me a hermit crab. She just walked up to me with the crab in a paper bag. I have no idea why!”
Jonah is still reeling from his sudden and overwhelming ascent to teen idol status. One month, he was singing in front of his laptop in his bedroom; the next, he was singing to an audience of several thousand at the Minnesota State Fair’s Grandstand—a performance where he recalls being so nervous to perform, he says, “I don’t even remember being on stage.”
Up until then, Jonah had never taken the stage as a solo act. His only public performances had been with the school and church choirs, and on one occasion, singing folk songs with his musically gifted parents and siblings in the streets of Aspen, Colo. Jonah has since come to love the energy of a large audience. “I’m getting more and more comfortable [on stage], but I still like the small shows, where you can see the faces in the crowd,” he says.
Though he shies away from the term famous (“famous is when so-and-so’s Grandma knows who you are,” he says), Jonah does recognize his vast reach and the responsibility that comes with being a good role model for others. “I can’t take that for granted,” he says. “Sometimes I want to be a normal teenager and tweet about the usual high school drama. But I can’t do that. I never realized how thoughtful I’d have to be [about my actions.] If I ‘like’ a picture of a supermodel, people are going to [react to that].” He’s aware of how every post will be scrutinized and interpreted by supporters and “haters” alike. “[There are some] people [who] bash on me, but I always try to be the bigger person,” he says. “You can’t let the hate get to you. Always remember [that] you have supporters for a reason.”
Timothy Frantzich, Jonah’s father and a performing musician, along with Jonah’s mother, Carrie Frantzich, served as Jonah’s managers until last March, when Jonah signed with the management company, 26 MGMT. Jonah says his parents were relieved to step down from the role. “It took the stress off of them. I’m still their kid, though, so they still worry about me.” Immediately after signing on with 26 MGMT, Jonah traveled to Los Angeles for a weeklong rehearsal, living in a rented house with his fellow performers. 26 MGMT has connections with Warner Records and radio stations, and represents “some of the biggest [acts] in social media,” Jonah says. “I’m excited for all the future has to offer.”
His tour mates for DigiTour 2015 (which ended in May) included headliner Hayes Grier, whom Marais describes as “a 14-year-old heartthrob,” best known for his videos on Vine, as well as other musical talents under the age of 20: Alyssa Shouse, Daniel Skye and Alec Bailey. The 19-city tour kicked off in April, with some of the dates sold out almost as soon as tickets went on sale.
Never Far from Home
Jonah’s first EP is in the works and will include a number of covers, as well as his first original song, “I Meant It.” He currently records at Brewhouse Recording Studio in Minneapolis, offsetting the studio expenses with his performing income. Although Jonah is drawn to the warm weather and networking opportunities in Los Angeles—a city where he says he “hopes to end up, someday”—for now, the musician is happy to call Stillwater home.
“I always talk about where I’m from. A lot of people don’t know anything about Minnesota or anyone from Minnesota.” He values Stillwater’s “small town vibe” and likes the chocolate-peanut butter shakes at Leo’s Malt Shop. He’s still hoping that he can swing an appearance at his hometown’s Summer Tuesdays music series this summer if his touring schedule allows.