19-year old alt-pop singer Rowan Drake grew up in Ithaca, NY with parents who surrounded him with a deep love for music and nature. Starting on his musical path at the age of 7, when a family friend gave him a few piano lessons, he then moved on to learning the guitar. From 6th grade through his freshman year of high school, Drake got heavily into snowboarding, moving to Colorado to join a national team at the age of 14. After coming back home for winter break, an accident ended his snowboarding career and he was led back to music.
You were born and raised in Ithaca, NY to a music loving family and began your own musical journey at the age of 7 with piano lessons and then moved on to guitar. What can you tell me about your childhood and that early exploration of music for you?
Honestly, I kind-of grew up in a household full of broken instruments. You know, like un-tuned crappy pianos and guitars with missing strings. My parents are big lovers of music. My mom is, like, what they call a “dead head”…pretty much just a follower of The Grateful Dead at an extreme level. My dad grew up around lots of Bluegrass and all of his friends are in bands, and family in bands. So, I would say my whole childhood had music intertwined in it, but it was almost so intertwined in it, that I never thought about it as a separate entity from myself (laughs). It was kind-of just a part of who I was. Around 7, we had a close friend who taught piano lessons and she came over and gave me a few lessons. I was very…I’ve never been able to read music or anything. I was very, just, into learning by ear and memorization. We found that lessons might not be the best, because piano teachers get frustrated when you refuse to learn how to read music (laughs). We did that for a little while, and then it was a similar thing with guitar. I took, like, one or two lessons and then I was like “I don’t want to learn the scales”, and so I kind-of just quit and started to learn on YouTube. That was kind-of the beginning of my childhood around music.
What led you to start snowboarding from 6th grade through your freshman year of high school, until an accident ended your career? What was the transition like for you back to music? You have talked about how songwriting became cathartic for you and an outlet to express your feelings.
Yeah. Snowboarding became a big part of my life just after going to my local, very tiny hill in NY with a bunch of friends. I was by far the worst one there and I absolutely hated that fact, so I spent every single hour of my life, as I tend to do with things that I’m passionate about, and it just then became my whole world. It quickly progressed to where I moved out to Colorado and then came back home one winter break and got injured while just trying to be a show-off. Once that whole area of my life ended, I wasn’t really able to do much except for just sit around all day with my thoughts and what was around me. That’s what I think really bred the first, maybe not full songs, but definitely the first ideas and choruses and little melodies here and there. I had been doing this before, but I finally started to put an idea behind it and I think that downtime and ability to create and have nothing else to do was really what led me to putting it all into music.
Having spent all of your time in high school honing your craft, what can you tell me about your process of creating your sound as an artist and own form of alt-pop?
I would say…when I say I say high school and honing my craft, it really just means me and my friends skipping class and going and sitting in a…at our school, there were these little rooms with pianos for the choir kids and stuff. So we would just sneak into there and play piano and sing. I think the reason the sound was born out of that is really just the influences I grew up around, and going to this big festival called Grassroots, which was every year. It was, like, a 15,000 person festival and brought bands from all over the world-Asia, Africa, Northern Europe, South America. There were literally bands from every corner of the globe and I think the combination of all of these sounds I heard…like, I heard just the most unique sounds in every set. I really think, when I started to make music, that it almost felt very easy to create music because I had so many different elements to pick from that I had already heard, and it just became this sound. And what was really the challenge for me, was just figuring out where does my voice sit into this. Because I think the voice is the most powerful instrument and everyone has a very unique voice. So I was figuring out how to layer my voice with all of these unique sounds I’ve heard, or less unique sounds, just like a guitar and common sounds we all hear. I think that’s what really formed it. The culture that Ithaca, my hometown, really provided for me.
What was it like for you to perform at bars and restaurants around town and to self-release your first single, “Closure”, all while in high school? What do you feel that those experiences taught you?
So at the bars and restaurants, I was performing mostly covers. Playing at bars and restaurants is interesting, because it’s not like people go to the bar and restaurant to hear you perform. And sometimes, they probably go and do not want to hear anybody performing! So I would say it’s very much a situation of trying to convince people that you are supposed to be there. I think there was a pretty good learning experience there, where it’s, like, you’ve got to choose the songs wisely and accept that not every body came to hear a 16 year old kid sing a Shawn Mendes cover while they eat their dinner with their family (laughs)! I personally had a great experience with it, just because I think Ithaca’s a small enough town where I always knew people and they weren’t mad to see me out and about. It was definitely nerve-wracking and a little bit humbling at times, but it was a great experience.
What can you tell me about your decision after high school to pack your things up and move out to LA? What was the adjustment period like for you and how did you go about making connections once you got out there?
I had spent the year prior to moving to LA really preparing. I started trading penny stocks to make money and started emailing the few months leading up to me actually getting in my car and driving to LA. I just scoured the internet and probably emailed every employee at every record label. They could go through their inbox if they wanted to, but none of them responded. I just cold emailed everybody I could find, and I emailed this one lady named Samantha Cox, who works for BMI, which is a big organization in the industry. She, after 4 emails (laughs), finally responded to me and she introduced me to a few people and that’s kind-of what led me to have the confidence to move to LA. But I will say, when I moved here, none of those people responded to me once I got here and it was just a whole different cycle of “Ok…like, Record Plant, which is a big studio, is next to this coffee shop, so if I go to this coffee shop the odds are that somebody at some point in the day will be an employee or artist at Record Plant.” I started to figure out where people went around Los Angeles and I think that’s how I met a lot of the people.
What can you tell me about your breakout hit single “Abandonment Issues” and your subsequent signing to Atlantic Records/Arthouse Records? I imagine it was surprising how quickly the single took off!
I would say I’m nowhere near anything that I would consider a breakout yet, but it has been amazing connecting with…I mean, for me, if 10 people were interested in the music, I would consider that really amazing. To see this amount of people excited about it is pretty amazing. I’m very big into visualizing my experiences before they happen, so I’ve spent so long thinking about these things, that while they are very fulfilling when they do happen, I think in the grand scheme of my plan, they are just check marks that I check off and then take a second to be like “Good job!” and then I move forward. For me, I really had clear intentions to sign to a label and to start building this team as soon as possible when I moved out to LA. So when it did happen, I was excited for sure, but it was also just one step along the way that I’d kind-of been thinking about for a long time.
In what ways do you feel like “Abandonment Issues” was a creative turning point for you?
I think “Abandonment Issues” was the first song I made that really just felt consistently and sonically like me. I think it all started with the chords. The chords themselves are unique. They’re not just your standard chords. There are a lot of, like, major sevens. I don’t even know what music theory is, but people have now told me that there are major sevens and cool things in the chords. And they just feel really good. And I think, lyrically, it’s straight-forward, but it also tells a story. But I think where “Abandonment Issue” really comes to life, is just how chaotic the song is at times and then how stripped back it becomes. It’s a very dynamic song and for me, it just creates a world, if you listen to it with headphones or in a car or just with good speakers, you really start to pick up a new piece every time you listen to it. And for me, that’s what music is all about, just being able to revisit it and hear something different every time and get transported to somewhere different every time. So that song is the first one that communicated that emotion to me, and I think it’s been doing that for other people too.
You also released a visualizer for the track. What was the idea behind that for you and do you have plans to release more visualizers or music videos?
I try to release a visualizer with everything I do. I think it just helps kind-of bring a cohesive vision even a little bit more together for people. The visualizer for “Abandonment Issues” was so exciting. I worked with a close friend named Zach Valenti and he’s from my home town. We just got together and I really wanted to portray the inside of my mind, so we found this abandoned house and I was like “I want to project almost like the memories from my head.” So we filmed a lot of b-roll footage and put it on a projector and we projected this very beautiful footage onto this disgusting, abandoned house. And it’s a very cool contrast of this kind-of like love story unfolding, but in an abandoned place with me sitting there, kind-of looking very distraught. It’s filmed a lot on VHS camera and we really tried to make it as chaotic to match the song as possible, but also tell a really good story and I’m insanely proud of that visualizer and there’s definitely more to come with every single I put out.
You’ve talked about how growing up your dad had a wilderness connection program and that as a result you cultivated a deep love for nature as a child. So, in what ways is nature important to you and what are some of your favorite nature spots, whether in or around LA or elsewhere?
So, it’s definitely one of the biggest aspects of me. I mean, just as a child growing up around that was so powerful. I don’t think I realized it until later on. Obviously, when you are growing up you are kind-of just in it, but now, looking back, I just see how much solace and processing I get to do in those spaces. But around LA, I actually spent the first few months when I moved here, when nobody was responding to me, I spent it just exploring. I love vantage points, so I know all of these amazing viewpoints that just overlook downtown Los Angeles or the ocean or all of the above. But I would say the biggest spot for me is in Santa Barbara. I go to Santa Barbara once a week and I leave at, like, 5 am and I park my car and hike a few miles up into the woods and there are these natural hot springs that overlook the ocean. For me, in Los Angeles, getting to go and be in the quiet for a long time and in natural, scalding hot water, it feels amazing. That’s probably the number one spot!
In what ways do you aim to use your platform as a way to unite others in your mission to protect the natural world? How do you feel that music can help to build community and create positive change?
I’d say first would come just really building a solid community. I think right now, we live in a place where there are, like, platforms and it’s easy to grow a following but not necessarily easy to grow a fan base, and they don’t always correlate. Right now I’m really trying to build a community that is strong and active and willing to spread awareness and messages that we all collectively believe in. I would say right now that the first step is to build a really solid foundation. But then, there are so many amazing organizations out there, even just in the natural protection environment that I would love to…I don’t know if it’s going to be to fund or just to shed light on them…but that’s kind of a big thing in that area. And down the road, definitely starting my own, because I think you can kind-of do the most when you’re going through your own outlets. Again, I think the first step is just building this platform to a good spot and then spreading it out from there.
You are currently working on your debut project! What can you tell me about that and what people can expect?
Yeah. I would say that I am a very, as most artists are…I create a lot and I love everything I do for a few months and then always think I’ve out-created myself. So, right now I’m really just working on putting all of the songs, that even after 6 months or even after a year stand alone as a song that’s special and still connects with me in the same way, so right now it’s just kind-of this stripping. I probably have 200 songs now and am just stripping that back to, like, what are the 12 songs that I need to hear the most and I needed to say the most and will therefore hopefully resonate the most with people. So, right now it’s just creating with people I love and with new people and figuring out who I am while also making sure the music is continuing to come out. You can expect more singles first, but definitely a project around the top of the new year.
What can you tell me about your process of writing in solitude and embracing a stream-of-consciousness approach towards your creative process?
I can’t even describe it. There’s an amazing book called ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert, I believe, who also wrote Eat. Prey. Love. She kind-of talks about how she believes that we are just channeling into these frequencies that are then allowing creativity to stream through us, and I really believe that. I can’t describe the feeling when I like to write in, like, my stairwell at my house and will just be sitting there mumbling melodies and I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ll just be singing something and BOOM! I have the main chorus melody or the first line of the song. And it’s like, I didn’t sit there breaking it apart. It just came out in one clean swoop. And I’m just like “I don’t know what that was?”, and obviously it’s related to me but I almost feel a little bit like I didn’t always create it. So, I’m very much in the mindset of “I’m just tuning into the world, trying to say something, and I just happen to be the person who gets to say it in that moment.”
Do you see yourself doing any collaborations with other artists going forward?
I would love to. I mean, my best friend and roommate goes by Saint Kid and is an amazing artist, and we will definitely have some songs coming out. Moving to LA has really showed me just how much amazing talent is out here that isn’t known by the world yet. So there are some incredible artists. There’s this girl Alien Valentine I’d love to work with. I don’t know. I think 100% there will be collaborations.
What kinds of things do you like to do outside of music?
I love chess so I play a lot of chess. I love nature. I go to Malibu and I just swim or I’ll go just drive around. I also love to read and would say I’m always listening to an audio book of some sort or podcasts. So, really just taking in and consuming a lot of knowledge and then sitting by myself and processing/decompressing that knowledge. Those are the main things I do.
What’s next for you?
Hmm…what’s next for me? I would say figuring out balance. I think my life is quite unbalanced right now and I’m trying to figure out how to balance all of these new changes in my life, while also not draining myself of all of my energy. I’m also trying to figure out how to live a life that is worth creating about, while also giving the time to this craft that it needs. And that’s a very hard balance to find. I think just working on myself and working on the relationships I’ve built and the people I love around me and making sure those stay strong throughout this process is kind-of the main “what’s next”.