Oliver Tree on pouring “all the sadness” of his soul into ‘Cowboy Tears’
Cowboy Tears is a unique follow-up to his acclaimed album, Ugly Is Beautiful. For the new project, Tree developed an “emo cowboy” aesthetic, something reflected in the album’s musical vision as well as his visual universe. The project also draws from deep emotional themes, many connected to heartbreak, addiction and suicide.
Ahead of the release, Tree connected to AltPress to preview the new record. He told us about the record, which is a deep exploration of sorrow and pain. According to Tree, “I poured all the sadness of my soul into making Cowboy Tears, and I hope it can help others cry, too.” Tree also explained the painstaking care that went into the project, a function of the lengthy period of time afforded to him by the COVID-19 shutdown.
More than that, Tree gave a sense of his overall artistry. He spoke about continuing to speak for (and as) an outsider, something that is one of the key reasons so many people identify with his music. He also talked about his perspective as a multi-medium artist, someone who brings his talents to film, video and projects that blur the lines between them.
Can you tell us about the album thematically as a whole? What were you trying to capture with the image of the title Cowboy Tears and the single “Cowboys Don’t Cry”?
The theme is that we all need to cry. Even tough guys like me should let our emotions out through tears instead of letting it build up and get out through anger and aggression.
I saw you characterized your aesthetic as “emo cowboy.” We’re in a moment where people are really embracing emo or celebrating our roots in that world. What does emo mean to you today?
Emo is just short for emotional, and I am a very emotional person. I bawled my eyes out yesterday as I listened to the album. I poured all the sadness of my soul into making Cowboy Tears, and I hope it can help others cry, too.
The sound of the album is really interesting to me. To my ears, it’s returning to a lot of great musical moments of the past while also feeling fresh and original. What were you going for musically?
Musically, I was trying to recreate a song that I heard in Taco Bell with my dad when I was 5 years old. I don’t know what song it is, but it’s a memory of a memory of a memory, so it’s been super distorted over the last 20 years.
There are a lot of difficult themes tackled on the record. Can you say a bit about why you explore those topics and what you hope to say about them with your music?
I read an essay from the band Pink Floyd that explained how every great album covered as many massive themes as possible, so I covered everything I could — heartbreak, time, addiction, money, war, suicide, home, following your dreams.
I also think you’ve continued to do something that I think of as characteristic of Oliver Tree: speak from the perspective of the outsider. The image of the cowboy — typically thought of as a solitary figure — pairs really nicely with the image of the freak, the emo kid or the general experiences of anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong. Is that outsider image still an element of your thinking on this project?
Yes. Being an outsider is something I will likely always identify with. I don’t fit into any genre of music, any scene of people. I don’t look like anybody I know of, I don’t act like the other artists. All the while, I’m not that unique. No one is. We are all the same, yet we are all so different.
I know a massive amount of work went into this project. You wrote hundreds of songs and 32 video treatments. Can you speak about the process of making the record and why you were inspired to put that much energy into it?
It was during COVID, so I had all the time in the world for two full years to record ideas. Normally, I would be touring and running around doing press, but instead, I built a studio in my house, didn’t leave and just made song after song. It was a beautiful experience, and I highly doubt I’ll ever get to do anything like that again, so I took full advantage of the opportunity to develop it and make the album I dreamed of.
You’ve done a lot of collaborating in the last few years. You worked with Travis Barker and Ilan Rubin as well as some of your childhood friends. And Marshmello and John Hill produced the new album. Can you talk a bit about what working with some of these artists has meant?
I produced the album, which allowed it to have a cohesive sound while having a rotating cast of co-producers who were different almost every session. Pretty much everyone who worked on the record became a close friend because we camped out for long periods of time. It was a very extensive time deep-diving into the sound, and once I locked in my rules and established my sonic aesthetic, it was off to the races trying to develop my own world.
Your career is really versatile, bridging the gap between comedy, action sports and music. I also know you’ve been working on screenplays and directorial projects. Can you speak about your interest in film?
Music is my day job. I often tell my closest collaborators of the album that it’s a good thing music videos exist because, without videos, I wouldn’t still be making music. It’s a means to an end to get budgets that allow me to direct, write and produce my own music videos — or, as I call them, “short films” because these are not the traditional music videos. Making music videos is my film school, but whenever I find the time, I focus on writing feature film screenplays as I slowly work toward that dream. When my dream of being a musician became a reality, it no longer was a dream. But I’m a dreamer by nature, so I must continue to dream up new things.