Cabbagetown singer-singwriter Nic Cowan‘s Southern accented growl of a voice immediately conjures up vintage visions of John Lee Hooker and Otis Redding. So, it’s a little jarring when you come face to face with a 28 year old, tatted up skinny white boy. “I get that a lot!” says Cowan. “A lot of people think I sound a lot different than the way I am.”
Cowan’s old soul successfully carries over to his debut album, “Hardheaded.” Released via Grammy winner and mentor Zac Brown‘s Southern Ground Artists record label, Cowan will officially introduce fans to the project Saturday night at a release party at The Loft at Centerstage in Midtown (The project doesn’t officially hit stores and digital download sites until August 16). Musically, “Hardheaded” is miles away from the T-Pain AutoTuned up recordings Cowan’s peers are currently producing. The album sounds like a long-lost master tape collecting dust on a shelf at Stax Records in Memphis, hardwired with Cowan’s wry lyrics detailing the adventures of an old fashioned Southern boy taking on the Twitter age.
“We just tried to make it as authentic sounding as possible,” Cowan explains. “Nobody really understood the kind of album I wanted to make until I met Zac. I kept hearing, ‘You need to figure out who you want to be, man. It sounds like you’re confused. You need to go the Southern rock route or the Southern country rock route or the Urban hip-hop R&B soul route. The truth is that’s all a part of who I am. Zac understood because you can’t put him in a convenient little musical box either. He was the first person to tell me, ‘You’re not confused. You’ve just got different vibes. Let’s put it all on one record.’ I’m very appreciative to Zac for allowing me to be myself.”
While he’s figured out his sound, Cowan concedes that the opposite sex continues to confound him. Exhibit A: The album’s title track. It was originally written as a guy anthem to staying out all night with the boys and telling your hands-on-the-hips girlfriend at home tapping her foot, “I ain’t your bitch!” But then the women at Cowan’s shows co-opted the tune, shouting the line back to him from the front row.
“It’s weird,” he says. “I thought I wrote the song for guys but way more women have come up to me and said, ‘That’s my jam!’ and that it’s their favorite song of mine. It made me realize that nobody likes to be told what to do. Nobody wants to be someone else’s idea of what they should be. I found out nobody wants to be anybody’s bitch!”
Cowan may also be the first songwriter to toss a shout out to Pepperidge Farm bread. In his ode to the simple life, “Money Don’t Make You Happy,” Cowan chronicles the joys of just getting out of bed, putting on a pair of brand new socks, munching on some toast before heading out to the porch with a six string and a six pack. “It was just one of those days,” Cowan recalls laughing. “I never really realized just how awesome a brand new pair of socks feels on your feet. I went into the kitchen and the only thing I had in the house was bread and beer. So I made some toast and took the beers out on the patio and wrote that song.”
“Wrong Side,” meanwhile details the sexually charged courtship of a Mercedes driving Daddy’s girl and a double wide dweller with a broke down Buick LeSabre and “a PhD in Corona.” “If I’m being totally honest with you, my first car was actually a Cutlass Supreme,” Cowan says. “But Buick LeSabre rhymed. When my dad first heard the song, he told me that he owned a Buick LeSabre when I was born and that was the car I came home from the hospital in. It was more autobiographical than I realized.”
Eighteen years after his first ride in a LeSabre, Cowan started his yearly ritual of adding some ink to his arms at Psycho Tattoo on Highway 5 in Douglasville where he grew up. He now has a decade’s worth of work on display. Explains Cowan: “I was always interested in ink as a kid and the day I turned 18 I got my first tattoo, a symbol for life, on my shoulder. I was so eager to get it. Now, some of them even connect to each other. It’s a work in progress. I probably have three or four I want added right now but I’ve been too busy to have the work done. I’m not sure when I’ll stop but it won’t be any time soon.” After Saturday’s show in Atlanta, Cowan heads back out on tour this fall with the Zac Brown Band to open up shows with Southern Ground label mate Sonia Leigh.
In addition to the life lessons contained in “Money Don’t Make You Happy,” Cowan notes in his song, “Reno” that life ultimately boils down to “love and nothing else, boy.” Has Cowan’s old soul figured out the secret to life perhaps?
“Not by a long stretch,” he replies. “But I’m workin’ on it!”