For the past four years, 20-year-old Cowboy Black has been writing music from his teenage bedrooms between small towns in North Carolina and California. He's reflected on many complicated experiences navigating sexuality as a young, queer person, from isolating encounters on hookup apps to the inevitable challenges of sex work. All these "heartbreaks and failures," as he describes them, have been transformed into seven different songs for his debut self-titled EP — an electronic R&B effort that perfectly captures the melancholy of sexual discovery.
Cowboy Black opens with the pianos, rainfall and glitchy vocals of "Proem," as Black quickly warns, "I'm a living confrontation." This declaration leads into "Fine," where the singer offers his relentless love to a man, complete with the EP's most relatable statement: "I'm a broken motherfucker with my arms wide open." Black admits he's feeling "hopeless" and "wasting his breath on a dream." Then on "Feed" he reclaims his power like a syrupy seducer ("I feed you so good"), and on "Needs" demands the attention he deserves. "Hosting" is Cowboy Black's centerpiece, and explores unrequited love in the context of fleeting queer hookup culture, while "Lamb" slips briefly into a moment of pure innocence. "Several Open Fields," a painfully beautiful bookend to Black's EP, builds and drops, lamenting "love behind a curtain."
An independent release, Cowboy Black is one of 2019's most mature, confident efforts to date. Black's vocals oscillate between falsetto flutters and low, soothing tones, as he sings clearly about confusing, erotic love. The production throughout — with contributions from several different artists — manages to distill chaotic emotions into slow, comforting palettes of layered synths. It's sensual and battered, horny and bruised — a collection of scarring memories generously released so that Black can be relieved of the trauma.
Below, I caught up with Cowboy Black over Instagram DMs to talk about his debut EP, queer hookup apps and 2020.
@justintmoran: Where are you rn?
@cowboyblacks: Sitting on the balcony outside my house in some wet chairs.
@justintmoran: Wet chairs? Where's home?
@cowboyblacks: I live in Orange County, actually. We've been getting some heavy rain on and off for the past couple weeks and my patio is soaked.
@justintmoran: Oh! I didn't realize you're a Cali girl.
@cowboyblacks: Oh, absolutely. Born and raised here in California, but my mom loves moving so I've also lived in North Carolina for a few years. I've got some southern charm embedded in my brain.
@justintmoran: Yeah, for some reason I thought you lived in a smaller town. NC + Cali adds up, though. You live just you and yr mom?
@cowboyblacks: Actually, my mom has moved on to a new state. I am living with my dad right now. And to be fair, I am from a smaller town in Orange County— my friends from LA have literally referenced it as "the middle of nowhere," although that's probably a stretch.
@justintmoran: There's something very intimate sounding about the new project, both lyrically but also in its format. Like it was created out of the need to describe your fantasies or maybe out of pure boredom. Did you make it all at home?
@cowboyblacks: Yes, the entire project was made in the bedrooms I've spent my young adult life in. I don't think I realized when I was writing the EP how these spaces made me feel more comfortable and natural, allowing me to feel much more careless painting very vivid pictures of these very real traumas from my life. I always had the intention of *someone* hearing what we made, but it doesn't quite hit you the same until a stranger is asking "who hurt you?" Ahaha. It's very much autobiographical, hence the self title!
@justintmoran: It definitely sounds as vulnerable (and comfortable) as you feel in your own bedroom growing up. Kind of an innocent quality, too. How old are you now? When did you start making these songs?
@cowboyblacks: I'm 20, now, but I'm an Aquarius so I'll be turning 21 soon. It's interesting you mention it, because "Needs" was actually written and recorded when I was 17. I've written poetry all my life, but hadn't necessarily put it in a real song format until I was graduating high school. "Needs" was only the second ever song I had finished— as in, wrote, recorded and finalized. I think a couple years later when Calico Jack was adjusting the mix, I had sent some more vocals for layering. But yeah, that would date the Cowboy Black EP to having been started almost 4 years ago.
@justintmoran: I'm listening to "Needs" rn. 4 years is a long time to have lots of different sexual experiences, both good and bad. This EP seems to cover it all... sometimes the bad is good. Addictive even! Maybe "good" isn't the right word.
@cowboyblacks: Well, the bad can certainly be exciting! It would be dangerous for me to start calling it "good" because then I might not ever break my bad habits. The EP was actually originally titled Hosting because before some of the later tracks developed, it really was a documentation of my sexual experiences from this beginning of my adult life.
But "Hosting" is one of the more recent songs I'd written for the EP. When i sent it to Calico Jack I hadn't expected it to develop into this, big echoing piece of R&B butter... Lyrically, I'm playing with my perception of queer romanticism (or maybe the lack thereof) in my life. "Hosting" is a popular term used to communicate on gay hookup apps that you can have the "date" at your place. In the song, I find myself hosting more often than not. I am using this as an analogy to explain my feelings of having an open heart for someone to embrace, influence, rest, etc but not being able to find that home in someone else. I don't know if it's an effect of queer men's inability (or rather, fear) to love openly and honestly because of past traumas, or if I myself find the faults in other people to protect myself from intimacy. Either way, I'm always left with these fleeting, hyper-sexualized partnerships that end quickly. This theme is the centerpiece of the EP for me.
@justintmoran: "Hosting" is also something that has specifically emerged in the digital age of queer hookups, which is the only experience that young people like us have been a part of. I really love that this project captures queer isolation in a way. Like sex culture on your phone, on apps. It's exciting, but it's also lonely. There's a loneliness to the way you sing and tell these stories. "I'm a broken motherfucker with my arms wide open." Like... same.
@cowboyblacks: Ahahaha it IS lonely... And it's a shame that it's such a similar experience for so many queer men. I think that these apps could be a good way of communicating amongst each other and integrating different parts of the community, but we don't seem to use them that way. I mean, everybody likes to have sex, right? But when that sex is not moderated and is constantly being promoted to you, right in the palm of your hand... it becomes this mode of instant gratification. It becomes a way to escape into a world where queer sexuality isn't inaccessible. It's a nice fantasy, but it's also just a fantasy. I may have been ranting, I'm not positive that reads sensical.
@justintmoran: No, this makes perfect sense. It's instant gratification and it's in your control, but life outside apps takes time and it's definitely out of your control... which is mostly a toxic imbalance.
@cowboyblacks: Exactly. Not to mention the *human being* you are communicating with has their autonomy and their own will and desires and isn't just a toy that you ordered off a screen. It's a dangerous game to start seeing your queer brothers and sisters as (mainly) sexual objects, from my perspective. And these apps line all of us up so that we can be judged and picked through like pieces of candy ahaha. It's odd, really, and I contribute to it!
@justintmoran: We all do. Damn... Ok so, who all was involved in this EP? You worked with collaborators, right?
@cowboyblacks: Yes! I worked with three lovely producers on this project. Deepfake produced "Proem," Peter Taylor produced "Fine," and Calico Jack produced everything else. I don't think a single track would sound the same without the entire tracklist being what it is. I'm so grateful for their hard work and their willingness to listen to my very oddly specific visions, or my shitty demos with the wobbly piano synths.
@justintmoran: So you'd work on the skeleton of the song, lyrically and melodically, from your bedroom, and then take it to one of them to develop? For being your first major release, it has such a confident, mature quality to it. Definitely one of the strongest independent releases this year!
@cowboyblacks: Oh wow, thank you so much. That's high praise. I write everything I sing, yes, so it makes me feel special to hear someone resonate with it the way we intended. I think the EP sounds very... intentional. And I love that. All the little details, the false glitter of "Hosting," the pitched down vibrato of "Needs," or the wide folding over space of "Several Open Fields"... all of it was crafted with purpose. I'm so thankful for Calico Jack to have deeply related with the content I was giving him. He's always so kind and supportive, even when I'm giving him a demo way late or switching up concepts all together. I write all the lyrics, the melody and sometimes the progression. And then Jack and I go back and forth on finalizing it with last vocals, maybe little lyric changes, etc.
@cowboyblacks: Yes and no. I think the pop community online, especially in the queer scene, is still very derivative of the mainstream when it could be a much greater counterculture. I think there are super talented indie queer creatives who deserve more recognition, like Tama Gucci or Auden, but unfortunately the gay world is still very saturated by whiteness. Most times, the people who are exalted in our scene are white or lightskinned. It's very disheartening to me, and even more so when I think that a lot of the publications aren't doing much to alleviate this issue.
@justintmoran: So your work is not only relatable, but completely vital in 2020!
@cowboyblacks: Ahahaha I wouldn't say Cowboy Black is necessarily vital. I myself am lightskinned, but I do have the bigger picture in mind and I want to see my people start doing bigger and better, that's all.
@justintmoran: Do you see your Instagram grid as an extension of your music?
@cowboyblacks: I wish I didn't have to see my instagram grid at all, really! But yes, I try to keep it tied into the music. I think every way I present myself should be derivative or representative of the art I release. It makes me as a person a little easier to process for strangers, I think. Everything comes back to a central theme.
@justintmoran: Listening to the music and looking at some of the images you've created it all seems to have a through line. It's provocative, but tells a familiar story. Especially for queer people!
@cowboyblacks: Yes, I'm happy you noticed! I think my Instagram feed tells a story of sexualization from a young age. That morphs into lack of intimacy and then THAT morphs into a full dive sexual performance. I have a huge fascination with "performing sex," by the way. Not just in porn material, but in everyday life.
@justintmoran: What do you think informs your "performed sex"? Both on Instagram and in your music?
@cowboyblacks: l don't want to say too much, but I am very much informed by real life experience and trauma with sex work. It's unfortunate that there's not a lot of education on the topic because of the stigma. I went into it almost blindly, but I am happy for the experience because it provides an entire new context to sexuality in my life. I feel so much more liberated now to be able to not just say, but sing "I feed you so good," knowing that was something I said to a past client who had harmed me deeply. Ugh I keep using the word "trauma," but I don't know what other name to prescribe my demons.
@justintmoran: Thank you for your honesty! Honesty is hard... do you find it easier to be honest through music?
@cowboyblacks: Yea... I think it's a cycle. I find it easier to talk about after I've written a song about it. I think that's something a lot of artists feel, maybe, after singing something so many times. I think when it's on my brain for so long while I'm writing the song, and even after when I'm singing to it, listening to it, talking about it with a listener... It allows me to arrive at a place where it's not so bad talking about the issue.
@justintmoran: Is it scary knowing all these experiences are available and open to anyone who cares to listen?
@cowboyblacks: Yes! It is, because even with the little amount of attention I've gotten, I'm already receiving really negative messages and comments. It reminds me that not everyone is listening to understand your experience. There will be many who listen to critique or criticize it. And I think I'm okay with that, ultimately, but it is off putting sometimes because the music really is just an extension of me, and some people can be harsh.
@justintmoran: Where do you want to take things in 2020? Do you want music to be your full-time project?
@cowboyblacks: Absolutely! This has always been what I want to consume all my time. I wish I could live in the middle of an evergreen forest somewhere suspended in time writing albums for all the valley creatures. Being an indie artist is hard work, but I like that. And I want to make it happen for Cowboy Black in 2020.
@justintmoran: I see it for you! I've been sending the EP around to my friends.
@cowboyblacks: King! I assume you'll leave that invoice for promotional work to the forest nymphs.
@justintmoran: Yes ma'am! Also I was just looking in your comments and someone suggested an OnlyFans visual album... that would be genius and iconic
@cowboyblacks: Right!? I mean, at this point I'm just scared someone is already doing it!
@justintmoran: But they wouldn't do it like you! What're you doing the rest of today?
@cowboyblacks: Would you believe me if I said I'm going to work 8 hours in a book store tonight, slaving for corporate America?
@justintmoran: Noooo. Have you watched You on Netflix? Speaking of book stores... Idk why we're all so forgiving of/obsessed with a man who has murdered and stalked so many people, but here I am!
@cowboyblacks: I watched the first couple episodes with my sister last year! I'll admit, I was very intrigued but I was curious of the writer who was trying to convince us that a man stalking a woman and committing extreme acts of violence was likable. But, here we are! I see posts about him online and I think it might just be that the actor is hot.
@justintmoran: Oh for sure. All so fucked up! What're you doing for NYE?
@cowboyblacks: Probably gonna get really drunk with some friends and watch cartoons. I know that sounds lame, but it's my perfect holiday.
@justintmoran: There's too much hype around these holidays anyway, sounds perfect. I'll be somewhere drinking too much tequila and making bad decisions! Ty for letting me DM you for an hour+ haha. Is there anything we missed?
@cowboyblacks: I don't think so, thank you so much Justin I didn't expect it to feel so natural!! You didn't have to take the time but you did so I appreciate it. Also be safe!! Ahahaha.
Photo via Instagram