By Ilana Kaplan
May 07, 2019 at 09:30 AM EDT
Coley Brown

When Mac DeMarco announced the title of his fourth studio album, Here Comes the Cowboy, it seemed like he was following in the footsteps of Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B in the recent trend of the “yeehaw agenda.” Despite the name, the Los Angeles-based indie rocker doesn’t think the record has any cowboy or outlaw themes embedded in it. Honestly, he says, he just made some songs.

“I think a lot of my music is usually escapist, [like a] grass is greener, daydream kind of thing; I’m using the imagery of cowboys in that form,” DeMarco tells EW, adding, “I like to think of this record as kind of the interpretation of the idea of the cowboy from somebody who knows absolutely nothing about cowboys.”

On Cowboy, DeMarco, who’s from western Canada, found himself coming from an eccentric character’s perspective — an isolated wanderer of sorts. The 28-year-old musician spent six months writing short songs when he had spare moments on tour, and started recording the album the day after he got off the road, with the project coming together in just a few weeks. “It kind of drove me nuts,” he admits. Part of that had to do with his improved artistry. When he first started making music, he used whatever means he had to record and accepted the outcome. “Maybe I’ve set higher standards for how I want things sounding,” he concedes, recalling how the tech side used to complicate things for him.

In terms of the music itself, Cowboy finds DeMarco focused on fewer elements and simpler arrangements. But the lyrics are more in-depth than he’s composed in the past. “Usually the lyrics are the last thing I do,” he says. “It bogs me down a bit, but [here] it felt a little more natural.” Ahead of the record, he spent time listening to Henry Flynt, an experimental artist from the late 1960s and 1970s who used tape loops and early experimental recording techniques to make music. In particular, DeMarco became fixated on “Graduation,” which features Kermit the Frog-like vocals and mimics the eerie vibe DeMarco seems to have channeled into his own project.

Despite DeMarco’s specific vision, the record announcement arrived with a bit controversy. When the title was revealed, there was an uproar about its apparent similarities to the name of Mitski’s 2018 album, Be The Cowboy. DeMarco says he didn’t know anything about it. “I thought Mitski was a rapper,” he says. But he ended up apologizing to Mitski about the whole debacle. “She was very cool about it. I just thought it was a cool coincidence, and I think she took it that way as well,” he says. DeMarco thinks the people who were most up in arms about the comparisons didn’t even listen to the new song. “The music sounds absolutely nothing alike, but I think that’s the world we’re living in nowadays, where people are more interested in the visceral and idealistic sides of being involved with an artist, which is fine. It was just really confusing to me.” Even if he had known of the similarities, he wouldn’t have changed anything.

Here Comes The Cowboy is also a departure from DeMarco’s 2017 album, This Old Dog, which centered on his complicated relationship with his father. Despite how personal that record was, he thinks his latest LP is even more so — but not in the obvious sense. “It feels more ‘me’ than the last one did, but it’s hard to put it into words,” he says. The introspectiveness he’s referring to go beyond lyrics. On “Little Dogs March,” DeMarco says the song’s slow, strange feeling was something he was never able to portray emotionally in a soundscape before. The title track elicits the same feeling to DeMarco too. “It’s not really a song, but it can also make me feel very sad, so I don’t know what it is, but there are these notes of that in there,” he says. DeMarco can’t explain it any further than that — like something he knows he might only be able to hear and understand, which is also why he might like it. That same personal connection applied to lead single, “Nobody,” which he gravitated towards because of its eccentricities; he envisioned it being played on a dark stage. His second single, “All of Our Yesterdays” was a more classic choice — a stoner rock track paired with a meandering chorus and DeMarco’s signature lilt.

The most poignant part of Here Comes the Cowboy comes on “Heart to Heart,” a tribute to rapper Mac Miller. DeMarco had gotten close with Miller just a year prior to his passing. Before that, DeMarco tried to have a faux beef with him because of their identical names. “We had this strange history, and then we became really close, and I was going over to his place multiple times a week, up until the point that he passed away,” he says. Miller also influenced another track on the record: a sparse, psych-ballad called “Skyless Moon.” DeMarco wasn’t sure about putting it on the album, but one of the last times he saw Miller, the rapper asked him to play the song. “We just listened to it in silence, and he just looked at me after, and he was like ‘Yes! Yes!’” DeMarco recalls. “I probably wouldn’t have [put the song] on the album otherwise.“ DeMarco, fixed on that moment, pauses, with one last thought about Miller. “God bless him.“

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