Brent Cowles is certain it’s going to be a big year. The singer-songwriter and former frontman of Denver’s You Me & Apollo just signed to the Greater Than Collective label. He has a solo EP in the works. And in a few weeks, he’ll be heading across the globe to Uganda as part of the Seattle Awake Music Exchange.
“I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” Cowles says. “Just about everything that’s happening. I have this feeling under my skin that it’s going to be a big year. Something cool is going to happen.”
Cowles wasn’t always so positive. At the end of 2014, You Me & Apollo broke up, and he felt lost for months, unsure if he would ever play music again.
“It was one of the hardest things I went through,” he says of the breakup. “I didn’t even know if I wanted to play music. It was like, ‘Holy shit, maybe I’m supposed to do other stuff.’”
Before You Me & Apollo was a band, Cowles performed as a solo artist using that name. He eventually connected with other musicians and formed the group, playing a hybrid of roots rock and blues. Yet just months after releasing their second LP, Sweet Honey, and embarking on a national tour, You Me & Apollo suddenly decided to call it quits. At the time of that announcement, the party line was that it just wasn’t working anymore, a sentiment that Cowles corroborates.
“We’re on good terms; nobody is mad at each other,” he says. “It didn’t make sense to keep going the way we were going for everybody. Everybody has their reasons, and I know I had mine.”
After three months of exploring, Cowles returned to music and his solo-artist roots, realizing he would be doing himself “a disservice not to play music,” and is now just weeks from sharing his craft with people a continent and ocean away.
The Seattle Awake Music Exchange (SAME) is a project of Maureen Brotherton and her husband, Joe, who both serve on the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund board. Both programs support the Kristina Health Clinic in the Ugandan village of Awake and helps villagers in northern Uganda combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
On the upcoming trip, Cowles will be joined by Mikey Gervais, of Seattle’s Mikey and Matty, and Faustine Hudson, drummer for Washington band the Maldives; the three will travel to a Ugandan village and share music with the people there.
Cowles doesn’t know what the day-to-day itinerary of the trip will be, but his hope is that the journey will be life-changing.
“I’m just going to go with my guitar, help where I can, and probably receive a ton of change in myself,” Cowles says.
He notes that opportunities keep presenting themselves for him to use his music for something less self-serving, and it’s a path he’s embracing.
“[Philanthropy] has always been a part of my life; my dad has been a pastor my whole life,” Cowles says.
“It’s always just been helping people that no one else will help — that has been my whole life. Now I can use music to help and use those morals I grew up with. It feels incredible to take music that has been such a self-indulging thing...and this is a way where it’s not like that. It’s bigger, and more important.”
SAME will cover the cost of the trip for Cowles, and he is currently fundraising for the organization he will be helping in Uganda. He hopes to help provide medicine and Afripads, a kind of reusable menstrual pad for women and girls. The whole trip has been dubbed #operationmenstruation after that product.
When Cowles isn’t busy planning for the trip, he’s in the studio with former Churchill drummer Joe Richmond, creating a new EP he hopes to release this year.
“Nothing is being forced, but it seems I’m more aware of who I am as a person and maybe even a songwriter,” Cowles says. “I have more of a direction with what I want to do with music. Not really a sound, but when I sit down and create something, it has more of an idea behind it, maybe more of a purpose.”
Before he started recording, Cowles signed on to Greater Than Collective, the local record label managed by Illegal Pete’s, last August.
“Greater Than Collective has been after Brent Cowles for a while,” says label manager Ben Desoto. “We were all big fans of his last project, so when the opportunity came to sign Brent this time around, we jumped at the chance. Brent is a really talented singer and songwriter, a hard worker, and he understands Greater Than’s bigger goals of supporting our music scene.”
In the announcement of the signing, Greater Than described Cowles’s current sound like this: “Cowles writes from a deep, raw, authentic place, and marries it to a sound that has been likened to the soul of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.”
Cowles’s music was always filled with electric attributes, as well as a focus on his powerful voice, which almost needs to be heard in person to believe. He says that these varied influences continue to affect his new work.
“Every time I go, ‘I’m going to write this style of song,’ it’s always, ‘Nope, I’m going to stop myself right there,’” he says. “I tend to write a lot of styles.”
Cowles does let slip that what he’s working on now is more “rocking and rolling” than You, Me & Apollo. Like his old endeavor, the EP will feature a full band. But he has different plans for his potential bandmates this time around. He says he could take the full band on the road or accept gigs as just a guy and a guitar. At a recent show opening for Los Lobos at the Boulder Theater, he performed with two other musicians as a three-piece.
“That way, there’s no opportunity this project can’t say yes to,” Cowles says. “That way, there’s not four other people who are committing their lives to this.”
He also plans to use the “Brent Cowles Music” moniker and to use his work more as a force for change and good.
“There are more opportunities pointing toward that,” he says. “I don’t know at what capacity the future and me using my music to try to make a difference [will be]. I don’t know what that looks like, but any chance I get.”
The solo effort, the international expedition and the foray into philanthropy are all new terrain for Cowles, but he’s ready to explore this new territory.
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“It’s new, and I assume it’s coming from the life transitions since You, Me & Apollo disbanded,” he says.
“It’s been a self-discovery year, and developing this solo project just seems to be making everything come to a head. It’s like, ‘Okay, this is where my life is going to happen.’”
Learn more about Cowles’s trip with SAME at gofundme.com/opmenstruationii.
8 p.m. Friday, February 26, Ivywild School, 1604 South Cascade Avenue, Colorado Springs, $10-$12, 719-368-6100.