Is There More to Life? Dylan Owen Finds Solace Through Writing

Is There More to Life? Dylan Owen Finds Solace Through Writing

Written By Jeff Baird  |  Photos by Pat Capriglione

It is a still and tranquil Sunday morning on Main St. when I step off a bus in Goshen, New York. This sleepy town a few hours north of Manhattan is home to Dylan Owen, the young rapper who is quickly gaining notoriety and a passionate fan base due to his unique and authentic brand of hip-hop; one where advanced lyricism is embedded into alternative songwriting and moody, orchestral production.

The bus grinds the gravel as it pulls off and the hum of its engine gradually fades, leaving a town mostly vacated of sound and movement, basking in the glow of the late morning sun. Dylan arrives in a tan Toyota sedan, dressed in a brown and unzipped hand-me-down Navy Cadet jacket, black jeans, socks, and high-top Nikes.

We take the short drive to his house, two stories tall with a grassy yard and porch deck around back. Inside the front door there are guitars, banjos, and an antique Casiotone 401 keyboard scattered atop a bed, and a few milk crates overflowing with vinyl. There was a video shoot here last weekend, and he hasn’t cleaned up yet.

He combs through the records and finds one by Cage, the former Def Jux rapper. He’s from Middletown — the next town over, and Dylan’s childhood home — and his success has been an inspiration and source of pride for many from Orange County; an area that rarely breeds artists of more than regional fame. Goshen and the surrounding area has long been of importance in Dylan’s music, and on his new EP, There’s More To Life, it often feels as if the narrator is speaking for all who come from rural towns such as these.

The walls of Dylan’s bedroom are buried behind posters and loose leaf pages tattered with writing. Leftover hard copies of How to Stay Young and Senioritis are stacked on his shelves. Keep Your Friends Close wristbands overflow from a box on the floor, next to the shirts he recently had done for the new project. We take a seat at the dining room table and his mother brings in a few glasses of homemade ice tea.

Dylan moved back home last May after graduating from NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Originally, it was with the intent to begin touring. Instead, it became the site of a renewed writing and recording process for the EP, and ultimately most of it was composed here.

I didn’t ever think I was going to come home to write this. I thought it was going to be done in May. But it morphed into this new process, and I decided to just say, ‘Let me make this project into something I’m really proud of.’ ”

Part of why so much of it has been written here, and in just the past twelve months of his three-plus year release hiatus, is that coming home ultimately enabled him the kind of personal and creative freedom he was in need of to properly re-evaluate his sound, and—maybe more importantly—himself.

It can be hard for any artist to remain true to themselves during the infancy of their careers, but this must be even more difficult for someone like Dylan; rurally-raised and rather misaligned with pop culture in regard to his musical tastes. He’s always preferred artists that have largely remained out of the pop gaze: Eyedea, Sage Francis, Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley. Put that young developing mind in one of the most competitive music schools and most densely populated cities, and it may be hard not to be swayed by these new environments. It may be hard to still hear one’s own voice; the one that, for many, is most often and easily quieted.

Coming home has allowed me to not feel any pressure. You can write and just sit with it in peace for so long. It’s not like, ‘I’m gonna make this and then immediately have to play it for my roommate.’ I definitely needed to be more off-the-grid.”

* * *

When the world finally ends, only then will our destinies doubt us. Such are the opening words of There’s More To Life, and the entry point into Dylan’s deeply engrossing and speculative narrative that spans the project’s thirty-one minutes. Throughout the EP, we’re guided by an artist who has proved himself to be uniquely resonant while portraying the complexities of young adulthood, and as he begins to broach larger, darker themes, the powerfulness of his reflections only intensifies.

The opening song, “The Glory Years,” is about his sense that life hasn’t yet amounted to what he’d hoped. It’s the frustrated call of a man refusing to believe these are the days he’ll one day reflect back upon as the best that he had. These years have been marred by loss, unhappiness, and uncertainty, and Dylan is anxious to know whether there truly is more for him down the road. Most vivid is his depiction of the town drunk, whose sense of purpose has clearly vacated him by now. The drums pause briefly and Dylan shouts, I don’t want to end up just like him! It’s not so much a literal comparison as a figurative one. The fear that he, too, might eventually lose his sense of place and of purpose. It’s a fear that flickers throughout the work and clearly looms overhead of the artist, and one that provided much of the basis for the album’s concept.

As the track surpasses the three minute mark, Dylan has become frantic, and exhibits one of the most furious moments he’s let show in his body of work thus far. Because I’m only twenty-two, how am I wishing for the wisdom that’s been missing in collision with my old life, he raps. I said I’m only twenty-two, how the fuck am I wishing for the wisdom of an old life? The beat dies down, but he never truly reaches that sense of solace. So often Dylan’s lows come with an impending frequency shift; a moment where he gains perspective and, as a result, appreciation for those times and the wisdom gained. But that is absent here, purposefully.

“I wanted it to be a little bit unfulfilling, just like the concept is. You don’t ever really reach the glory years that you want to have, and the song is the same way—the chorus doesn’t have pay-off, you don’t hear the same chorus twice… It just has this changing feeling, and I wanted it to be the same as it is in the lyrics.”

Next up is “Everything Gets Old,” the first song Dylan completed for the project, which places him and his friends in this forgotten small town. There are many around him who never leave, who never amount to anything on a greater scale — but Dylan deeply fears not reaching his potential. Convinced my ticket out isn’t a scratch off, he raps, and while the mood is lighter, there’s still the sense that he’s looking, pining, yearning for more. Some of the project’s most unforgettable lines come during the bridge: Because I would rather crash my car on purpose than grow up to be a person who’s unhappy with an accidental life.

“It is because of the honesty and openness with which Dylan describes his struggles that his fans have clutched on to him so tightly. He shares his pain with them, and they share back.”

This is a thought that lingers throughout the project, and artfully merges us into the next offering, “The Best Fears of Our Lives,” a song about having to move on after losing people he loves. His supposed “best years” have contained a lot of pain — his grandfather sick with cancer, a deep-seated fear of losing his parents, the loss of a close childhood friend. There’s the line, from a college dorm room I have not improved, which highlights that Dylan still hasn’t managed to evade the anxieties that have followed him for much of his life. It is because of the honesty and openness with which Dylan describes his struggles that his fans have clutched on to him so tightly. He shares his pain with them, and they share back.

There’s also a section here where he addresses the music world, and those he knows through it. When Dylan packed up his dorm room and moved home after college, it was a move rather counterintuitive to other up-and-coming musicians, who predominantly opt for the higher rent and resources of New York or L.A. That he has chosen to hang around Goshen for this long, even when his list of friends in the area is so shallow—his close friendship with long-time producer Skinny Atlas is really all that punctuates his time spent alone—is a testament to his priorities. In the second verse, he writes: How can you pack your bags when you don’t know who you are? He explains that many he knows have left in search of a skin deep wish, a decision Dylan never seriously considered. It’s a sentiment quite reminiscent of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop,” (How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?) as Dylan, too, sees the merit of coming to terms with himself fully before pursuing a successful career.

“I just felt like, ‘I have to get myself right before I can go off and join the plethora of artists vying for the spotlight. I want to figure out exactly who I am before I go out and do that.”

* * *

As is true for most young artists, Dylan owes much to the development of the Internet music scene for how his work has spread. It’s where he’s amassed an intensely appreciative base of fans who are arguably more engaged with his work than the typical, casual listener. It’s why he’s begun to make moves more orchestrated towards them rather than what might have the largest reach, or what might go viral. “Sail Up the Sun” is one of those songs. Originally a demo, Dylan never intended for it to be heard by more than his girlfriend, who he wrote it for. It was a piece of encouragement that was private and unpolished.

Dylan plays the draft for me, entitled “Set Sail,” and I remark that it sounds almost identical to the final version, save for the rougher and more miniscule production, which Dylan originally crafted himself.

“I didn’t change a single word. It was tough for me because I’m so obsessive over the lyrics. But I just wanted this one to be as pure and true to the original emotion as possible. It was legitimately a piece of encouragement for her, and I just felt like, ‘What’s more real than putting that on the project?’ ”

Because of that, Dylan didn’t seem to mind when some had a hard time embracing it—particularly the singing. It’s not the first time his fans have heard his singing voice, but it’s the first time he’s taken on a big chorus by himself. The official version contains a much better vocal take and a bit more polish than the first demo, but it’s still not as if his crooning is going to earn him a stamp as a multitalented vocalist—and he gets that.

“When it came out I remember some people were like, ‘Dude, I don’t know about the singing,’ and I kind of wanted them to say that. I wanted it to be a little uncomfortable. I could’ve gotten a girl to sing the chorus, but I wanted it to be like ‘Hailie’s Song’ by Eminem. He’s not supposed to be singing but he is.”

He shows me an email he received after releasing the song. It’s one of many letters and messages he’s gotten over the years from fans professing that his music has changed them for the better. That it speaks to them, or has gotten them through a tough time.

That isn’t necessarily a unique experience for an artist—even those who don’t write about themselves often get such appreciation from fans—but in many cases, people are simply speaking to the value of a distraction; of having someone’s work to immerse themselves in. Because of the type of music Dylan makes, as well as the specific songs that listeners talk about being of use, Dylan has started to recognize that he has the opportunity to provide a deeper and more meaningful connection.

“This is my album that I believe would exist the exact same way if nobody else had to hear it.”

“It makes me want to rebel against making anything that isn’t one-hundred percent me. What’s the point of doing music in the end? I feel like back in my high school days I was a little more interested in appealing to everybody, and getting everyone to like the music, but now I legitimately do not care if everyone likes it. I just want to make the music that is true to me, and appeals to people who relate to me.”

It’s created a sense of confidence in Dylan about his direction that he now proudly wears. Everyone has their opinion, but Dylan knows firsthand what he’s doing matters on a greater scale.

“This is my album that I believe would exist the exact same way if nobody else had to hear it.”

It’s a rather fitting preface for the rest of the album, as the remaining tracks are as experimental and true to the music Dylan himself loves as really anything he’s yet created. “This Incredible Life” was made to sound like it was created in a basement, and features Dylan playing guitar. He wrote it in one sitting; a stark comparison to most of his songs for which the writing process takes longer than any other aspect. He has almost forty drafts of some of these songs before he declares them complete.

“The Streets” was inspired by a poem that his girlfriend wrote. Dylan is known well for his ability to contextualize his experiences within a greater worldview, which he does here beautifully: Someday I’ll move on from this and twenty years of life will only be a story I tell to my grandkids.

“Land of the Brave” is about doing everything he can to let go of his pain, and ultimately, trying to graduate from the baggage he details on previous tracks. As he listens, his head is lowered and he nods rhythmically to the beat. He plays with the tab on his seltzer can. Just before the line Until I’m no longer in pain over the man I’m gonna be plays, his eyes shut, and it seems to be one that is still deeply resonant for him, as much of this project is.

Lastly, there’s the title track. “There’s More To Life” was partially written before anything else on the project, and yet it was the last one to be finished. He wrote the song on the bus back and forth between Goshen and New York, and within it he found the concept for the full body of work. It’s the most hip-hop sounding track here, apart from maybe “The Glory Years,” and it’s certainly the most positive. It also provides a new take on the EP’s title phrase.

“I wanted it to be an uplifting song to end the project on. It also kind of flips the meaning of the phrase. The whole project is like, ‘There’s more to life in terms of time.’ But on this last one it’s like, ‘you can get more out of life.’ That’s the more colloquial use of it. I was like, ‘Let me take that now and apply it to everybody, even myself.”

When Dylan began work on There’s More To Life, the perspective from which he typically writes—one of wisdom and new context—wasn’t one he yet had. In his search for more solid ground, he began the writing process, and thus the title track was, at first, more of a call to himself than a frame of mind upon which to base a project. But ultimately, as he always seems to, Dylan found his solace through writing, and by the time the project’s thirty-one minutes fade into memory, Dylan has created another profound piece of encouragement. Like always, he has found that perspective from which he can provide guidance.

“I wanted to make sure that I included myself. This project is not only an encouragement for other people, it’s also very much an encouragement for myself. And I wanted to make sure that was clear.”

Just before the project closes, there’s a line that seems as important as any line he’s ever written; one where the line deliberately is shined back in his own eyes. At the end of a chain of scenarios which portray that there’s always more to life than how some spend it, Dylan breaks the fourth wall with the audience and says: There’s more to life than writing songs about it, Dylan holy shit!

It’s an incredibly relieving moment that shows the listeners that he’s in this with them. That what holds him back may be the same thing that he’s just created so much value from.

I wanted to make sure that I included myself. This project is not only an encouragement for other people, it’s also very much an encouragement for myself. And I wanted to make sure that was clear.”

* * *

We spend the remainder of the day seeing the few other places where Dylan has spent his time this past year. The Colonial Diner, where Dylan likes to go and clear his head. Skinny Atlas meets us there for coffee and assorted wraps. We go to the basement of his family home, where there’s a pool table and a carnival basketball hoop. A bathroom with no door.

On the far side of the room is the studio where all of the production was written. It’s a small room packed with equipment: a Juno-106 synthesizer, an old piano, a vintage Casio keyboard from the 80s, a Yamaha. There’s a mic set up in the middle of the room, where Dylan often records his drafts.

The only thing left to be finished is the promo video, which has just been shot. Dylan pulls up the video. It was directed by a friend, Brian Petchers, and is essentially a collage of shots that evoke the stories and scenes that make up the EP. It’s beautifully filmed and put together. It ends with Dylan, walking across an open grassy field, journal in hand. The camera gradually pans panoramically, creating distance slowly until it’s fully overhead, giving a sense of Dylan’s diminutiveness amongst the world around him.

For a writer who we’ve all watched spend so much time grappling with the internal, it’s a remarkable moment. During that three year lapse between releases, hundreds of drafts of beats were made. Profound lines added to Dylan’s collection of ones to keep. But only one new song was released to the world. The chorus is such: Maybe all I need is the view from the window seat staring back at me. That desire to look down upon his life from ten-thousand feet was what he most craved, and the only sentiment that he believed was developed enough to share with the world. It was this that defined this period of Dylan’s life, and the transformation we’ve seen in him between this release and his last.

By now the sun has completely set, and I have a train to catch. For Dylan and his producer, the day’s work is just beginning. We drive back to the bus stop and say our goodbyes. As the tail lights of Dylan’s sedan fade into the unilluminated night, I think of how small that spec must appear from above. How unequivocally dark and forgettable this town must be from overhead. And yet out of this lonely town, Dylan has managed to become a beacon of light for many. One seen from thousands of miles away. Is there more to life than that?

www.dylanowenmusic.com

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