BRENT COWLES / VELORAMA
“HOW TO BE OKAY ALONE.” That’s what Brent Cowles scribbled in a notebook one afternoon as he grappled with the complexities of his newfound independence. It was meant to be the start of a list, a survival guide for navigating the solitude and loneliness of our increasingly isolated world, but instead, it turned out to be a dead end recipe for writer’s block. Months later, the Colorado native stumbled back onto his list, empty as the day he started it, but this time he recognized that the blank white page actually held a profound revelation, one that was hidden in plain sight.
“I realized then that I actually didn’t know how to be okay alone,” reflects Cowles. “But I also realized that it was okay not to know, because having friends and family—and the kind of friends you turn into family—is what really matters.”
That epiphany lies at the heart of Cowles’ rousing debut solo album, ‘How To Be Okay Alone.’ A deeply honest, intensely personal portrait, the record channels loss and anxiety into acceptance and triumph as Cowles discovers that our relationships with each other are only as strong as the relationship we have with ourselves. That insight introduces a newfound maturity into both his personal and artistic lives here, leading him to redirect his search for satisfaction and fulfillment inwards for the first time. Blurring the lines between boisterous indie rock, groovy R&B, and contemplative folk, the music showcases both Cowles’ infectious sense of melody and his stunning vocals, which seem to swing effortlessly from quavering intimacy to a soulful roar as they soar atop his exuberant, explosive arrangements.
Growing up, Cowles first discovered the power of his voice singing hymns at his father’s church in Colorado Springs. Having a pastor for a parent meant heavy involvement in religious life—church three days a week, youth mission trips, etc.—but as it does for many teens, temptation came calling in the form of rock and roll. “I never really felt like I fit into that religious world,” says Cowles, who now calls Denver home. “When I turned 16, I discovered secular music and I just fell in love with it. I hadn’t heard anything that emotional before. I’d never even heard a distorted guitar up to that point in my life. That’s when I realized that I could start writing my own music and it could serve as a ventilation system for my emotions.”
Cowles’ teenage years became a whirlwind. At 17 he recorded his first proper demos in a friend’s basement, at 18 he was married, and at 19 he was divorced. Meanwhile, what began as a solo musical project blossomed into the critically acclaimed band You Me & Apollo, which quickly took over his life. The Denver Post raved that the group created “some of the most exciting original music in Colorado,” while Westword proclaimed that their live show was a “clinic in roots rock mixed with old school swing and blues,” and Seattle NPR station KEXP hailed “Cowles’ Otis Redding and Sam Cooke inspired vocals.” The band released two albums and toured nationally before they called it quits and amicably went their separate ways. The parting was a necessary but difficult one for Cowles.
“I had to go through a grieving process at the end of that band,” he explains. “It had been my life for such a long time that when it was over, I questioned the whole idea of making music as a career. I even took an online college course to see if I actually wanted to try something different with my life.”
In the ensuing months and years, Cowles would find himself alone more than ever before. His band had split up, a long-term relationship ended, and at one point, he was living out of his Chevy Tahoe just to make ends meet. But rather than break him, the experience only strengthened his resolve. “Going through such a difficult time actually made me realize that music was all that I was ever meant to do,” he says. “Coming out on the other side made me that much more positive I was on the right path.” For all the challenges being alone presented, it also created a refreshing sense of liberation. Cowles was free to pursue his vision with total artistic autonomy, to write the kind of music he needed to hear in his life at that moment. The new songs were exhilarating and joyful even as they tackled the worry and darkness within, and when it came time to capture them in the studio, it was only natural for Cowles to strip away any and all artifice and record them under his own name. “Even though I was writing the songs back when I was in You Me & Apollo, the group was a democracy,” Cowles explains. “This album marks the first time I’ve ever had complete control over my art, and that’s been a dream since I was kid.”
Recorded with producer/engineer/drummer Joe Richmond (Tennis, Churchill) over six days in an isolated stretch of Joshua Tree, ‘How To Be Okay Alone’ finds Cowles thriving in the driver’s seat. On spirited album opener “The Fold,” he stacks gorgeous harmonies as he contemplates the obstacles that hold him back from reaching his potential, singing, “I’ve got questions / and a whole lot of doubt / I am riddled with inspiration / but my fear carries clout.” Those emotions hang over him like a storm cloud on the first half of the album, darkening the driving “Tequila Train,” which examines the destructive ways we cope with hardship, and keeping him up at night on the rollicking “Keep Moving,” which finds him battling the constant onslaught of comparison and insecurity that comes from our social media-obsessed society. By the time Cowles reaches the poignant “Velvet Soul,” though, it’s clear that a transformation has taken place.
“That song is about realizing that you need to find happiness and contentment within yourself,” he explains. “You can take a hard situation and accept that it’s hard, but you can also know that it doesn’t have to ruin you.”
On the sultry “Wire Walker,” Cowles spins the imagery of a tightrope artist into a metaphor for transitioning from a world of co-dependence to one of self-reliance, while the slow-burning “Places” reconciles his discomfort with the organized religion of his upbringing with the simple fact that he loves his family and friends regardless. It all leads beautifully to the title track, which finds Cowles finally striking that elusive balance between independence and community. “After broken bones I / Still don’t know / How to be okay alone,” he sings on the album closer, but it’s clear that he’s ultimately come to understand this as a strength rather than a weakness. “You’d have to hold me down / To cut me out / Out of this crowd,” he concludes.
“Hell if I know how to be okay alone,” Cowles reflects on it all with a laugh. “All I know is that I’m grateful for the people that I have, because I don’t think that anyone can get through this life by themselves.”