When Jake McElfresh, the emo singer-songwriter known as Front Porch Step, took the Vans Warped Tour’s acoustic basement stage on July 1 for an unannounced performance, hecklers greeted him. “Go rape some little girls!” someone shouted in the Fairgrounds Nashville audience. “F— you, asshole!” yelled another voice, as seven security guards stood watch.
“When I started playing, everything in my world was right,” McElfresh tells Billboard. “For 25 minutes, my world was perfect the way it was. Then I got off that stage and went back into the real world, and I didn’t like it.”
The real world is the one in which more than 13,000 signatures on a Change.org petition protested his involvement with the traveling pop-punk festival. Since October 2014, multiple accusations have surfaced online involving the 23-year-old artist’ suggestive communication with underage girls. Lascivious text and social media conversations, multiple voice recordings and explicit photos of McElfresh — including one allegedly of his genitals — were posted on personal Tumblr accounts and message boards by young women (some identifying themselves, others anonymous) in at least four different states. One girl reports texting McElfresh naked photos when she was 16 — “At least 50 nudes a DAY,” she claimed in a December 2014 Tumblr confessional — at his request.
McElfresh isn’t a national superstar. Front Porch Step’s debut LP, 2013’s Aware, only sold 23,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music, but what the acoustic-punk artist lacked in sales, he made up in devotion. In less than two years, the former hardcore kid built a cult fan base by writing emotionally blunt lyrics about love, loss and rejection — song titles “Island of the Misfit Boy” and “Private Fears in Public Places” are emblematic of his tone — just the kind of romantically angsty soliloquies that attract teenage girls who can’t wait to get tattoos. By 2014, Front Porch Step seemed on the cusp of a breakthrough: McElfresh joined the Vans Warped Tour that summer; in September, Joel Madden praised Front Porch Step’s “good, honest songwriting” on Twitter and the Madden Brothers invited him to be an opening act; in December, his second official release, the EP Whole Again, reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Heatseekers emerging-artists chart.
But all that promise was threatened that same month, when a stream of Tumblr posts trickled out, attesting to McElfresh’s alleged proclivity for sexting, engaging in phone sex and swapping nudes with underage girls. Although this scandal unfolded in North American pop-punk’s virtual nooks, the volley of allegations immediately played out in the limitless and messy way controversies now do online, where every affiliated party is a defendant in the court of social media opinion. Initially, the young women coming forward were dismissed as liars or groupies and that texts like “Snap chat [sic] me your boobs” must have been Photoshopped.
There was a precedent for such calumny: In December 2013, a commenter on the website xoJane accused Bright Eyes singer-songwriter Conor Oberst of rape, an allegation that caused the folk performer’s legal team to counter with a libel suit; the following July, the woman retracted her claim with a notarized letter that said, “I made up those lies…to get attention.”
In contrast, the allegations against McElfresh metastasized from vulgar texts and underage nudes to online chatter of pedophilia and rape. “I’m being accused of things much, much worse than what actually went on,” he says on July 20, sitting on a friend’s couch in Costa Mesa, Calif. In his first interview since the claims surfaced, and accompanied by his publicist and manager, an uneasy McElfresh confirms to Billboard that he engaged in lewd text conversations with 16- and 17-year-olds. He also admits that he exchanged nude photos with women under 18. (Under federal child-pornography law, possession or coercion of images depicting sexually explicit conduct by minors is prohibited.) But he vehemently denies ever having sex with anyone under 18 — and none of the accusers dispute that.
“I was definitely a womanizer,” concedes McElfresh. “I’m horribly sorry if I hurt anyone, but I never intended to,” he says. “I just want to say, on paper: I’m not a pedophile. I’m not a rapist. I’m not a monster.”
The first time Carina (not her real name) met McElfresh was at a Front Porch Step show on Feb. 23, 2014. (Billboard has given his underage accusers pseudonyms because they are minors.) In a December 2014 Tumblr post, the teenager assigns herself responsibility for how the flirtation began: During his set in Boston, the then-16-year-old tweeted about wanting to have sex with him. (“It was meant to be a joke, but in a way, not,” she writes.) The next day, Front Porch Step followed her on Twitter, then McElfresh (22 at the time) direct-messaged her. Within a week, he had given her his number. “You’re not going to post everywhere about it [sic] are you? Haha,” he texted after midnight on March 1. “Nono don’t worry,” she reassured him. By the next day, he had already become rueful about her age, typing at 3 a.m., “You are too young for me.”
That didn’t stop McElfresh from calling her his girlfriend or asking the high-schooler for naked photos. (Her compromise was underwear selfies.) “He was very controlling and would send dirty messages to me a lot,” says Carina now over the phone. Screenshots of texts she never posted online, but provided to Billboard, illustrate this explicitly. (One: “Baby shut the f— up and come ride me.” Another: “I just want to bend you over and destroy you. Ughhh send pics baby.”) “He sent me two photos of his penis. He would tell me he could [ejaculate] to pictures of me. He would also call me, masturbating.”
Before long, they started to argue. More than 700 miles away, McElfresh got jealous easily. He despaired about her age, messaging, “I can’t even go public with you for a year. What happens when we get caught?” Sometimes he alluded to suicide over text: “As soon as I find a gun, you wont [sic] ever hear from me again.” In April, Carina was asked to the prom. McElfresh was livid, so they broke up. That same month, he texted that he missed and loved her, then promised: “ill [sic] f— your brains out then buy you froyo and organic peanut butter and ill [sic] lay back with you.”
Another 16-year-old, Elizabeth, recalled similar experiences in a December Tumblr post. She loved Front Porch Step — his songs had gotten her through a family death and a breakup. On her 16th birthday, she tweeted that she wanted him to sing to her. He direct-messaged her, asked for her number, then serenaded her over the phone. The next month, she went to a festival where he performed, and they hung out in the merch tents. They stopped talking when she told him her age, but then he contacted her again two months later. Phone sex ensued, as did nude-photo swaps and sexual texts.
She posted one of his texts online: “If I’m single when you turn 18, I’m just going to marry you.” Another: “I’m gonna go find a girl to bring to [her home region] and get a hotel and me and her are going to tie you to a bed and have our way with you.”
“I did say that,” McElfresh admits to Billboard. “It does make me sound like some freak that’s going to go attack this girl. That was a mutual conversation, that’s something that she wanted to do, that she wanted to happen. Let’s put it this way: None of these girls were like, ‘Hey, Jake, I don’t want to text you like this, I don’t want to do this.’ It was always consensual. If anybody told me, ‘Hey, you are going too far,’ or ‘This is really inappropriate,’ I’d be like, ‘Oh, sorry, I’ll stop.’ ”
He also doesn’t deny his relationship with Carina. “I wanted to be her boyfriend, but I knew it was not a good thing,” he says. “One of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life — I really got along with her, and she happened to be 17, unfortunately.” (In fact, she was 16.) He confirms they had phone sex and describes his dirty texts as “pillow talk,” reasoning, “I was expressing to her how attracted I was.”
There was also 15-year-old Maggie, one of the three underage girls Billboard has been in contact with, who remembers taking off her shirt for him, but leaving on her bra, while FaceTiming him on her sister’s iPad. “I felt really dumb and naive, and dirty and ashamed,” she says now. “I didn’t tell authorities, because I didn’t want to get in trouble or have my parents find out. I don’t know what the laws are for cleavage pictures. A lot of victims get slammed and called sluts and whores, and I didn’t want to be known as some fan girl.”
When the underage allegations first surfaced on Tumblr in October 2014 — an 18-year-old said he asked her for nudes when she was 17 — McElfresh was living with his then-girlfriend Autumn Lavis, 21, and his mother in his Newark, Ohio, hometown. He had met Autumn in December 2013 at a show. They officially became a couple in July 2014. Two months later, Lavis moved from Missouri to live with him. Soon, McElfresh started acting peculiarly, searching her Facebook and her phone; she grabbed for his and he freaked out. His behavior became so suspicious Lavis went through his cellphone on Nov. 17 and found a trove of explicit texts.
“There were a lot of messages back and forth from underage girls, and some are really disgusting,” she says now. According to a text dated Feb. 24, 2013, McElfresh discussed meeting two underage girls in a hotel. “I don’t know how that would look walking into a hotel with two 17 year old girls lol,” he allegedly wrote. “And we couldn’t have sex with your friend in the room.” Today, Lavis has tallied 23 women who had been sexting her ex. Many of them, says Lavis, were underage.
Talking with Billboard, McElfresh claims he didn’t ever knowingly exchange nude photos with anyone younger than 16, and in Ohio, where he was living, that’s the age of consent. That distinction wouldn’t matter in federal court, explains Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney Jerod Gunsberg. “Under federal law, it is illegal for anyone to persuade, entice or coerce anyone under the age of 18 into sending sexually explicit photos over the Internet or cellular networks. It doesn’t matter what the age of consent is in any particular state. Under federal law, the age of consent is 18. A first offense can carry a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 15 years.”
As of press time, no criminal charges have been filed against McElfresh.
“I’ve probably seen more psychiatrists in my life than Gene Simmons f—ed girls,” confided McElfresh last fall in a podcast interview. Growing up, he was bullied, told he looked like he had Down syndrome. “People always picked at my appearance. I’ve always had messed-up teeth, and it made me feel really self-conscious around anybody, let alone women. I’m scared of women. I always think they hate me or they can do so much better than me.” So when young women fawned over his music, everything changed. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I have all these girls to talk to now’ — it was all these girls started talking to me. I was just like, awesome.”
When McElfresh was 10, his father left for a woman down the street. His parents divorced and he tried to jump out of a window, but his mother intervened. The second time he tried to kill himself, he was 18, driving fast, and contemplated smashing his car into a pole. A minivan approached, so he swerved out of the way and barreled into a cornfield. “If I had done it, I could have killed kids, or a whole family,” he says. “I was sitting in this cornfield, and I started bawling my eyes out. I went home and told my mom I needed help. I sought out therapy for suicide.”
In January, in the wake of the allegations, Front Porch Step’s first headlining tour was canceled. He split with his record label, Pure Noise Records. He went to counseling and thought about suicide. “I am and always have been a depressed person,” he says, noting that he’s on medication. “This situation did make me want to kill myself. Now I can’t do what I love to do because of it. That seemed like a good reason not to live anymore. I wanted to die.”
“I’m not defending Jake, but he went through a lot in his life,” says Vans Warped Tour founder and promoter Kevin Lyman, 54, who helped McElfresh seek help after the allegations came out. Lyman, who is also a member of the board of directors of music industry aid and assistance group MusiCares, said via phone that, although he wasn’t going to allow Front Porch Step to play on the tour this year, he changed his mind on the condition that McElfresh would be monitored by professional counselors (three were present), as well as his agent and management team. Lyman asserts no one was harmed or at risk at the show. “I have two daughters, 16 and 20, out here. Do you think I would ever put them in danger?” But, he adds, “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t accept someone asking to give someone a hand up. The easy decision would have been to say, ‘F— you, Jake. I’m not helping anymore.’ I’ve had 13 death threats so far. It wasn’t a rash decision. It was just an unpopular one.”
Lavis was furious that Lyman allowed Front Porch Step to play. The day after his Warped appearance, she posted a 10,000-word tell-all online, detailing the entirety of their relationship and explaining that she had recently filed a restraining order against him. “I didn’t feel safe,” she tells Billboard. “He would send me pictures of his gun in his hand and threaten to kill himself.” McElfresh filed one against her on July 2, citing the “slandering comments on Facebook and Tumblr” she posted that made him feel unsafe.
McElfresh, who’s moved to Nashville, wants people to know he’s trying to become “a better person and a better man.” That he’s talking publicly now because, “I have to not sit with my head in the sand and let people say whatever they want about me.” That he’s not trying to make excuses. “I’m not victimizing myself against the girls that made the accusations, because I made my bed when it comes to things like that. If those girls truly believe that I hurt them, then that’s their truth. I can’t take that away from them.” He pauses, bites his lip and sighs. “I didn’t realize the gravity of what I was doing.”
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.