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For 19-year-old artist Rowan Drake, songwriting has always provided a space for turning inward and transforming his most complex and painful feelings into unexpected beauty. Growing up in the small college town of Ithaca, New York, the singer/songwriter/producer first discovered the power of that outlet when, at age 15, a terrible accident ended his burgeoning career as a competitive snowboarder. After devoting nearly all his time in high school to honing his craft—and frequently skipping class to record songs in his school’s music room with childhood best friend Kii Kinsella (aka SAINT KID)—Drake dreamed up his own hypnotic form of alt-pop: moody, immersive, fearlessly confessional. On his debut EP Dear Ella, Drake brings his mesmerizing sound to a selection of songs detailing the end of a life-changing relationship, casting a dreamlike spell even as he documents some of his most heart-wrenching experiences to date.
Born into a music-obsessed family who raised him on artists like Van Morrison and Elton John, Drake first explored his innate musicality by taking piano lessons at age seven and later moving on to guitar. But from sixth grade until his freshman year of high school, snowboarding dominated his entire world. “I put my whole life into snowboarding, but at some point my body decided I couldn’t keep going,” says Drake, who moved to Colorado at age 14 to join a national team. “It showed me that life has a way of putting you on a different path than what you’d planned for, and you just have to trust the process.” Turning to songwriting for solace and escape, Drake soon began performing at bars and restaurants around town, and later self-released his debut single “Closure” while still in high school. Just a few months after graduating, he packed up his car and moved to Los Angeles on his own, ready to fully commit to music and the goal of writing songs that provide listeners a sort of catharsis.
Once he’d settled in L.A., Drake threw himself into connecting with potential collaborators, quickly linking up with up-and-coming producers like Davin Kingston (John Legend, Joshua Bassett). As he built up his body of work, Drake had a major breakthrough with “Abandonment Issues,” a quietly captivating piece of storytelling. “I was alone in L.A. and missing my girlfriend and my mom and all these people from home, and it turned into a song about the anxiety that comes with feeling distant from the people you love,” he explains. Produced by Aaron Osbourne and co-written with Ben Levy (aka Author), “Abandonment Issues” soon caught the attention of Arthouse Music Publishing and Records CEO Kara DioGuardi, paving the way for his signing to Atlantic Records / Arthouse Records in spring 2022. Since landing his record deal, Drake has delivered a string of tracks further proving the depth of his artistry: the piano-laced “2 People,” the desolate and indelibly moving “Hollow,” and the deeply personal “Hey Little Sister.” “It’s a message that I wish I could’ve communicated to her many years ago,” Drake says of “Hey Little Sister.” “It touches on the domestic violence that filled our lives at that time. I hope this song can allow anyone who relates to these struggles the space they need to remember and to heal around these traumas.”
“I made the EP for me and Ella, as a way to immortalize our relationship in the hopes that we can look back years from now and recognize the love that inspired all this,” he says. After opening with the hopeful prelude of “Ithaca,” Dear Ella, portrays pivotal moments in the relationship’s dissolution, encompassing everything from the wounded confusion of lead single “Elephant in the Room” to the tenderly expressed doubt of “Heartbeat” to the edgy intensity of “Part of You.” Meanwhile, on “How Do I Love Again,” Drake presents a gorgeously hazy outpouring of post-breakup sorrow, threading the track with doo-wop-esque harmonies and sweetly swaying rhythms before drifting into guitar-drenched dissonance in the song’s final seconds. “That song came from thinking about how I’d found someone who understands me more than I even understand myself, and how the thought of meeting someone new is really overwhelming and challenging for me,” says Drake. “When I think of someone else having to learn all the little nuances of who I am, all the insecurities and traumas, it’s almost immobilizing.” In bringing the song to life, Drake focused on creating a soundscape that fully echoes his inner turmoil. “That song started with just me and my guitar in my living room, but Davin and I decided to throw all these different sounds in at the end,” he recalls. “We put it in some harsh-sounding drums and layered up the vocals and let the guitar go a little out of tune, instead of trying to make something nice and clean. It’s a song about all these intense feelings, so it felt right to make it as chaotic as possible.”
Naming the elegant experimentation of bands like Radiohead and Bon Iver among his essential inspirations on Dear Ella, Drake brought an element of sonic ingenuity to every track on the EP. On “Heartbeat,” for instance, he embedded the song’s bridge with a delicately warped sample spontaneously captured during a recent trip to New York City. “I was on a subway platform and recorded a busker singing a cover of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love,’ and at the end of the recording the subway pulled in,” he says. “We took that sound and pitched it up and added it to the song, and it’s definitely one of the coolest sounds I’ve ever used in my music.” As he reveals, those strangely enchanting details serve a purpose beyond sonic adornment. “I wanted to create moments in all the songs where you’re completely wrapped up in the sound, whether it’s ambient noises covered in reverb or whatever else is going on,” he says. “The intention was to take people to a different place or allow them to disassociate into whatever experience the song brings up for them.”
To access the profound vulnerability within his music, Drake often writes in deliberate solitude and embraces a stream-of-consciousness approach to the creative process. “I love to write in stairwells and parking garages and other weird spaces with cool acoustics,” he says. “It’ll be just me and my guitar, and I’ll start to sing and wait until I come across a hook or a line that sticks with me.” A lifelong nature lover, Drake also finds endless inspiration in more idyllic surroundings. “My dad founded a wilderness connection program, so my whole childhood was spent building fires with bow drills, running around in the woods with very little clothing on, and all the other things you do as a kid in a small town,” he says. “Nature has always been very important to me, so now I make sure to take at least a couple of days a week to get out of the city and calm my mind.”
As his following grows exponentially, Drake aims to use that platform as a way to unite others in his deep-rooted mission of protecting the natural world. “There’s so much that needs to be done to take better care of our planet, and I really believe that music can be a way to build community and create some kind of positive change,” he notes. And in his songwriting, Drake remains intent on preserving the more immediate impact of unfiltered expression. “It’s been amazing to see that once I create something and put it out there, it belongs to everyone else just as much as it belongs to me,” he says. “With every song I make, I’m just trying to get something off my chest, and then people can take that song and fit into their lives however they need to—hopefully it will help them to let go and cry if they need to cry, or smile if they just need to smile.”