If you are an artisan of any variety – a painter, sculptor, metal worker, writer, or even musician: your job is, in large part, to be an idea factory. For certain, to create anything at all requires multiple meetings with whomever sits above your head in the congealed spiritual world. But, as logic would have it: if your muse is not residing in the spiritual, invisible realm, then it lives here. And if that’s the case, that your inspiration lives among us, then it breathes and eats only one thing: emotion.
You, Me and Apollo is the creation of Brent Cowles, an emphatic and torn man on stage. Off the stage, he is something more to center. A bit more approachable. Yet, assured is the idea that, if you ever were in the room while he was on stage, with his band or not: you’d have known it. He would have killed and rose some part of your spirit, for sure.
Trust me. I’ve sat in that room. It happened to me.
Raw emotion is a contagion. It underlies all of our human interactions and is the mouthpiece to the gods. But reckless honesty in the way that Cowles gives it, is an art not yet won on our species. This is why he is a godly gift.
In music, as in any creative form, I implore every artist to drop their drawers. I say, I want to see you stumbling. I want to see you trip and stagger and humble and haw. Give it up, I want to see you: scream. Howl. Abandon everything for the reckless. I want ever to be intoxicated by music, in the face of its jowls – I beg you to give me everything that I think being alive is about.
This is precisely what Cards with Cheats, the latest album from Brent Cowles and his outlaw accomplices in his band, does (with Matthew Roberts, Lead Guitar; Corey Coffman, Rhythm Guitar; Shawn Keefer, Bass/Vocals; Spencer Monson, Drums).Thing is, there is a profound translation to the stage that I don’t think many other acts, local or national, are willing to put themselves through. Because, how is this kind of exhibition possible every time you lace-up your boots? Tell me.
Asking Cowles about what he’s thinking after he walks off stage and it’s something about how the performance could be better, something technical should have been stronger (yes, it’s a different band on the stage: Morgan Travis, Lead Guitar; Jonathan Alonzo, Rhythm Guitar/Vocals; Shawn Keefer, Bass/Vocals; Tyler Kellogg, Drums). I’m remarked to hear something like this (about all things technical) when there is such a profound emotional expenditure – even when there was only 20 people in the room (but, I assure you – this isn’t common – the word has spread about Cowles and his heartbreaking and raw performances). To this end, it’s safe to say that Cowles has come full-round, to a place where he continually steps outside of himself. It’s as though he leaves his boots at the stage when he walks-on, like a Japanese home – then, when he exits, he laces back-up for the big, bad world outside of that safe space. It’s a bit sacred like this. Really: I don’t need to justify it to you, but I will – just watch him.
Here is where you spy a photo of the young musician in humble repose, exiting the stage and its amber lights. Here is probably where you meet the kind of musician that you always wanted to. After he puts his boots on for the big, bad world, of course.
So let’s be straight: A pastor’s son, Cowles has been pushed to a place where reconciling the secular with the spiritual was a way of life. Immensely supportive his parents have always been, Cowles began to wind his way outside of the church’s natural teachings. Then (serendipitously) he really found music. At the age of 13 he received his first instrument. At 14 he began writing. Immediately, it was important. Maybe something more than that. And then, at 17: You, Me and Apollo.
Named after a phrase he heard his girl speak about he, she and his pup: You, Me and Apollo was born. Brent quickly internalized the name at the same point that he was becoming even more fiercely inward about his music. Like a wolf, it howled at him. And so it was that he began pushing this omnipotent organ chord. Once the key was depressed it rang through his whole being. This was it. There was no doubt: this was his calling. Just like Jack London, he set out into the woods, by himself. The subsequent stories have been about his walk, alone.
And so he worked. And worked. And wrote and drove his being even deeper into the situations where big songs come from. Hear it, because it’s loud like a drill – his gospel stylings that call to everything bigger than you.
To be precise, it was love that called to him. The great bridge between everything here and there – up and down. The songs came as vignettes; stories to that grand element that keeps us all human – the property that binds us all. And while all the songs sound as though they come from the same story: these are not songs of one night, one girl nor one situation – it’s about the myriad. The composite. In the way that red and yellow and blue are all their own constellations, love writes its own stories – each separate, each with its own space in the spectrum. Cards With Cheats is exactly that: a composite of these colors. It’s a swirling of the palette altogether where the knuckle of every finger is drenched with the all-knowing paint.
Cowles fell in love, married a girl. After five years, it fell apart. In truth, he was still a boy and she was still a girl – but admire the idea that he chased this idea so early on. Most of Cowles’ songs ring like a lament to this love lost couple. But the secret truth is that everything he has written are about everything and every mess, good and bad alike, the kind you can imagine yourself entangled with: self-love, their love, hate-love and just getting through the day in a honky tonk life.
Cowles’ songs are about being unafraid of losing hard. And then stumbling up: to fight. Again.
And this is where I don’t understand a whole army standing up around this kid. Because yes, let’s get this right: he’s still a kid. In the best of ways. He’s enjoying this jump start on the rest of us. Really, who says something like this, the way that he did in “The Learned Thief”, out-flipping-loud?
I spent five whole years
Killing her dreams
Killing her dreams
Killing her dreams
Wish she’d killed me.
Just extract his voice from the words. Try it. Then: listen. And I don’t mean this lightly: there’s biblical stories here, people. There’s a singing to those Old Testament kinds of teachings that, no matter who you are, are bigger than you. There’s a cosmic robe-dressing desert walk kind of approach to all this. And yes, it’s true: love may even involve killing your own son. Er, at least, that’s how these songs bullied me into believing.
Really, just listen. It’s there. A crying-out. In a human kind of way. A howl. A caveman scream. A bellyful of ache and promise. Yes, promise.
It’s understandable: every songwriter should be themselves. I just wish that more were like Cowles. I wish that more had this kind of Van Morrisonian, unencumbered throatful of fisted passion: I wish more were embroiled in an alley fistfight of being unafraid of perception and being terrified of who they were and are and were supposed to become. Whatever you hear: this is what makes great art. Get to that point and then, voila! You’re finally screaming something that will probably fall on its face in its own time, but then, magically – it will transcend that finicky fourth dimension that we all speak to but can never see.
What I’ve learned from Brent Cowles is: be brave. Have balls. The stories are there, just find them. Then, tell them.
But the problem remains: how can you continue to be an idea factory when your current repertoire is about being tortured – this, when life for you is actually kind of great? What do you do then? What do you do?
Answer: You reach further beyond you – you grow extensions in your limbs like hair and you reach into the darkness of your future and your past – really, maybe even the world’s past. To be sure: history and its stories of the human condition provide endless ideas, unbelievable options. And this is precisely what Cowles is currently doing, to create the band’s next album: he is using the simple, complex human condition of story and emotion to push him further into a deeper understanding of himself. For sure, I wouldn’t expect him to stay in that same depression, rolling the same mud. Cowles is simply too strong of a writer to stay in one stupid place.
Looking forward, Brent Cowles will be using the shoulders of his gang, with all of their instruments to guide their mast even higher to capture every single finicky trade wind that they can. Because the seas are large and there’s so much left to explore.
Be sure to stay on course with You, Me and Apollo, here: www.facebook.com/youmeandapollo