Every few years, Brent Cowles thinks about taking a break from music — and then almost immediately changes his mind. The son of a pastor, he can’t help constantly contemplating the reason he’s alive and whether music is a part of that at all.
“I think everybody has an innate nature deep down to want purpose, whether they’re going to admit it to themselves or not,” Cowles says. “Sometimes I don’t get it, and I’m like, ‘Who the fuck am I? What am I trying to do, playing music for a living?’ I have doubts all the time, and I think everybody wants to feel like they’re doing something that has meaning behind it.”
These days, Cowles, 28, has found plenty of purpose in music, and he’s sure of his direction. He recently signed to Dine Alone Records, a Los Angeles-, Nashville- and Toronto-based label that also works with Dashboard Confessional, City & Colour, Jimmy Eat World and others. The label will release a debut full-length album from Cowles soon.
The singer-songwriter also finds purpose in the type of music he plays, a hybrid of blues, pop and punk that he’s been crafting for years; he’s finally landed on a sound he’s proud of.
While Cowles believes he neared musical perfection several times in his life, notably in previous project You, Me & Apollo, it took him years to come to the realization that although music is his true purpose, it has to be done on his terms.
Cowles, who was raised in a religious household in Colorado Springs, grew up listening to music of all kinds, including secular fare — which was strongly encouraged by his parents.
“My parents have always been super-cool and never tried to force any kind of beliefs or anything that I haven’t discovered on my own,” he says. “I think they figured out pretty early on that I’m stubborn as hell. I think it was in everybody’s best interest to let me figure out what I wanted to believe. They’ve always just been the biggest support system for my music career, and so I’m super-thankful and lucky that they’ve been so present and into what I’m doing, because not a lot of people can say that.”
Entranced by early-2000s emo bands like Taking Back Sunday, Cowles played similar music in his early days in Colorado Springs, performing occasional shows at the Black Sheep and honing his vocal range.
“I wanted to sing really loud and really high. It’s probably why I have somewhat of a wide range vocally — because of all those bands,” he says. “That was the shtick back then.”
But while he loved music and playing in bands, he constantly questioned the practicality of a career in music. Because of his commitment to the church, he felt that settling down at a young age was what he needed to do. So at the tender age of eighteen, Cowles married his girlfriend at the time and tried to ease into a quiet life.
“I think it had to do with growing up in the church, and I was like, ‘Well, I want to still be involved with music, but maybe I need to think of something that’s more practical,’” he says. “For some reason, audio engineering was my conclusion. That’s not exactly a super-easy industry to just jump into, though.”
Cowles attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona and received his certification in audio engineering in 2009. Later that year, Cowles and his wife divorced.
“I had this huge life-crisis mode where I decided I had to play music,” he says. “But everything had to come to a screeching halt first. I was a stupid kid, and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, so we decided to go our separate ways, which was definitely for the better. That’s where I was like, ‘You know what? I need to play music. I’m still young. I need to go for this, or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”’
Shortly after, Cowles relocated to Fort Collins and started recording solo demos and playing out from time to time under the moniker You, Me & Apollo.
“For a few years, it was just me and an acoustic guitar,” he says. “Then finally I decided to start a band. I actually showed it to a friend, Tyler Kellogg, and he was the one that said, ‘You know, we should do this, and we should do it as a full band.’”
In 2011, Kellogg signed on as drummer, and they recruited guitarists Jonathan Alonzo and Morgan Travis and bassist Dave Cole. Cowles’s solo project had become a fully formed band.
On the strength of his songs, You, Me & Apollo went on to garner acclaim, both in Colorado and nationwide. The band toured heavily, earning fans wherever it went, and even won a national award for the song “I Don’t Want to Be Loved” in 2014.
The outfit’s rise was meteoric, but Cowles found the process empty and unfulfilling. He sensed that he was starting to lose track of the reason he was playing music, and in a mutual decision with the rest of the band, You, Me & Apollo ended its run. The split was amicable, and the band played its final show at Hodi’s Half Note in July 2014.
For Cowles, it came at just the right time.
“I was blocked, because I realized I had lost my passion for what I was doing, and I didn’t understand why I was playing music,” he says. “It didn’t feel like me, and nothing felt right at the time.”
He decided to walk away from music once again.
“Right after that band ended, I thought I was going to quit music totally,” he says. “I was just like, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to go to school online.’ I did one class, and I was like, ‘That was way too expensive.’ Then I realized again, like, ‘Okay. Well, Brent Cowles isn’t supposed to do anything but play music.’”
Cowles sees this kind of back-and-forth in a positive light: “I think it’s important to have doubt, because that’s what makes you appreciate the faith you’re putting into something that you love.”
With no band to back him, he returned to his roots and began writing songs on his own again and playing solo shows around Fort Collins and Denver. After a few months, he reconnected with current drummer Joe Richmond.
Richmond — whose former band Churchill broke up amid circumstances similar to those underlying You, Me & Apollo’s split — was focusing less on performing and more on recording. He reached out to Cowles to see if he was interested in collaborating and recording new songs.
“It started out like, ‘Let’s do one song and see where that goes,’” Cowles says. “We did one song, and we’re like, ‘Okay, now let’s do an EP. Let’s see what happens, because this is working.’ I think we’ve both learned from our experiences, because how can you not and still continue in this business? Mostly we just clicked instantly, and this has just been something that makes sense ever since we started working together.”
Throughout the process, Richmond encouraged Cowles to take a more active role in his music, and he’s been critical in helping Cowles shape his songs. Along with bassist Anna Morsett and guitarist Jacob Miller, they released the Cold Times EP in early 2017.
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“Some songs, he has a huge part in them,” says Cowles. “Like ‘Cold Times’ — Joe was like, ‘You need to change the pre-chorus to the chorus and the chorus to the bridge.’ I was like, ‘What? That sounds crazy’ — but I did it, and I was like, ‘You’re absolutely right, man.’”
In Richmond, Morsett and Miller, Cowles has found musical counterparts and confidants who have made the experience of playing music fun again. The music that the four of them create has given him new direction in his career — and the sense of purpose that he’s long sought.
“I don’t know how to do anything else,” he says. “It seems like the more I just apply myself 100 percent without any kind of hesitation, the better things work out. I think it gives you perspective, because at that point, you’re really looking at it from a different angle, and you can see what it’s truly worth to you once you step away from it for a minute.”
Brent Cowles, Friday and Saturday, December 8 and 9, Lost Lake Lounge, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, $12.75-$25.50.