When Jesse Rutherford was young — before he got into music and eventually scored a No. 1 alternative-rock hit with his band, the Neighbourhood — the now-tattooed Ventura County native spent a few years working as a smiley-faced child actor.
One of his big auditions?
“A little show called ‘Hannah Montana,’” he recalled recently with a laugh.
Rutherford, now 26, didn’t book the gig on the Disney Channel juggernaut, but that was probably for the best, he figures: Early success in a job like that carries the danger of boxing in a performer — “unless you’re Drake,” he added, referring to the Canadian rapper who started out on “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”
“But that kind of transformation is so improbable, dude.”
Rutherford has come closer to such a shift than he might think. After notching double-platinum sales with the guitar-heavy KROQ-FM staple “Sweater Weather,” he’s released a debut solo album, “&,” on which he moves away from the Neighbourhood’s moody rock sound to rap in a sing-song flow over beats that pull from trap and R&B.
“The alternative world has gotten so boring,” he said over a glass of rosé at a cozy Italian joint near his home in Hollywood. “I don’t look at myself” — and here he raised a pair of air quotes — as ‘the singer in that rock band the Neighbourhood.’ ”
Yet that’s not because he’s left the Neighbourhood behind. On Jan. 12 the group releases a new EP, and it’s scheduled to perform Thursday night at the El Rey Theatre.
Instead, Rutherford has remade the band to the evolving specifications you can hear in his solo material; “Scary Love,” the Neighbourhood’s latest single, is a throbbing pop tune that shares far more in common with the Weeknd than with alternative rock’s reigning champions, Imagine Dragons.
In September, the singer brought the group to Anaheim’s Day N Night festival, where the Neighbourhood was an outlier (at least in appearance) on a bill topped by Chance the Rapper, Post Malone and Lil Uzi Vert.
“We were all like, ‘Is anyone gonna show up to see our set?’ ” Rutherford admitted. “I even tweeted about it: ‘Hey guys, I know Lil Pump plays at the same time as us, so I get it. If you don’t show up, have a good time.’ ”
But fans did show up — though not in the numbers Lil Pump drew to a performance in which he tossed what he said was $10,000 into the air.
Part of what’s eased Rutherford’s entry into hip-hop — and the thing that makes his timing kind of funny — is the growing embrace of rock iconography by rappers such as Post Malone and Lil Uzi Vert. As Rutherford is running away from rock style, some of hip-hop’s brightest young talents are running toward it, which means they’re meeting at a midpoint between the two genres.
Another artist at that midpoint was Lil Peep, who died last month of a drug overdose at age 21 after quickly making a name for himself with songs that blended emo and hip-hop.
Rutherford said he admired Lil Peep. But it’s easy to wonder if Lil Peep might also have been tuned into what Rutherford was doing in a song like “Daddy Issues,” a bleary cut from the Neighbourhood’s 2015 album “Wiped Out!” that feels in retrospect like a forecast of music to come.
Asked if he takes any pride in that, Rutherford shrugged.
“Being early doesn’t matter — no one cares if you’re before a trend,” he said. “You have to be on time.”
With that in mind, he’s working hard to capitalize on a moment well suited to his sensibility. In addition to playing solo gigs and shows with the Neighbourhood, Rutherford said he’s been writing behind the scenes with pop producers including Benny Blanco, who’s known for his collaborations with Justin Bieber and Halsey.
Perhaps those songs will end up on a Jesse Rutherford record or a Neighbourhood record; perhaps they’ll end up on a record by an established star looking to borrow Rutherford’s style. He’s cool with whatever happens.
“I don’t care what song hits,” he said — as long as it hits. “The band is a project I do, and so is my solo stuff.
“I change my mind so much, you know? It’s hard to be just one character.”