“I didn’t really expect [to become an activist],” the American Idol season 14 finalist admits to Billboard over coffee in Los Angeles. “It was initially supposed to be me just putting my story out there, because it’s about the music at the end of the day. But because of the impact that it’s had, I’ve fallen into working with [some powerful] organizations.”
It’s no surprise that the 26-year-old singer’s story has been so well-received. His aura emanates warmth and positivity, and that translates seamlessly into his music. Below, Billboard premieres his latest single, “Gold,” an upbeat anthem about celebrating love. Listen to the empowering track and learn more about Owen’s story and the origins of “Gold” below.
You used your “Can’t Fight It” video to publicly come out in 2016. What made you decide to use that as your vessel?
Music is my main thing in life, so I kind of wanted to -- without being too extra -- be artistic and share my story through music. That’s what I do best, I think. To have the video go along with it, and the whole story, I thought was kind of a way to express myself the best way I know how.
Initially, I thought it doesn’t need to be a big deal. It’s more just for me -- a therapeutic way to share -- but I learned the importance of sharing your story and how that can help a lot of people, so I thought it was a cool way to share.
You come from a pretty conservative family. How did they react to you coming out?
Yes, I do! Well… the majority of my family has been very supportive, but I do have a few family members who are still having a hard time with it, especially in my hometown. Coming off Idol, there was more pressure. There’s people at church who say, “We’re praying for you,” like it’s a bad thing. There were levels of that, that my family had to experience, but for the most part they’ve been amazing.
How have things been going the past two years?
It’s been a crazy ride. I can’t believe everything that’s happened to me -- the places I’ve gotten to see, the shows I’ve gotten to play, the people I’ve gotten to meet -- it’s been such a growth thing, coming off the show. I’ve learned so much!
Another reason why I wanted to share my story was because of my fans. They’re so supportive and sweet, and I wanted to connect with them. Being authentic when I write is so much better for me and for them. It builds a stronger connection. You want to connect with them, they want to connect with you, and it’s the music that bridges you together, so I want to be as honest as possible. If I can help somebody along the way, that’s good too.
Have you had fans reach out to you after sharing your story?
Yes! I was so shocked, because I was expecting some of my more conservative fans to be like, “This is crazy!” But there was so much love and support. It really gets me when people say, “You helped me come out to my parents” or “You saved my life.” Knowing my music is important to a lot of people is what keeps me going.
You are known for being an activist in the LGBTQ community, and you also work with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yeah, I’ve always been supportive of what they do and recognizing the issues that are real. There’s so much racial injustice out there, and it’s so frustrating, but all we can do is continue to be the example and share our stories in hopes that people will recognize the issues that are out there and do something about it.
Those issues have become even more magnified, and the divide has grown in America in the past couple years.
Yeah, I sang the national anthem [at a Carolina Panthers game] when all the kneeling was going on. I love seeing people use their voice. I support that. I don’t support people feeling like they can’t speak up. That’s why we are the country that we are -- we stand on those freedoms and have the right to protest and to speak out peacefully. I support all of that.
How did it feel singing the national anthem amid the protests?
Very weird. It was a rare experience. It’s crazy to sing at an NFL game in general, but it’s cool to be a part of that, in a way. I’m the one that’s singing while everyone is kneeling. It’s a big thing that I support.
How have you personally been coping with the current tensions in America?
Music is always my safe space. It’s so therapeutic to just get out my feelings, get out my thoughts. My boyfriend, Shane, spending time with him is my favorite pasttime. He’s so loving and supportive of everything I do. The fans, they keep me going. I pray. And I spend time with my friends.
For me, personally, it’s all about a balance. Especially getting involved on the activism side. It can be heavy on you too, since you’re constantly researching, talking about, singing about issues, so that can be kind of taxing and exhausting. It’s trying to find that balance and live and lead by example. I feel like people can do more damage than good if you’re going so hard at something. Show people how to love instead of preaching. You’re just going to add to the tension.
We’re all stronger together. We gotta stick together, no matter who you are or where you come from, and we need to see each other for our differences and appreciate that diversity. We all come from different places, different backgrounds. Not everyone’s gonna think the same way you think, and I think as soon as people realize that and try to meet in the middle, we could get a lot further.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to come out but is afraid?
Take your time. Listen to your heart. Listen to your instincts. I feel like as I’m growing, I’m learning more to trust my gut and trust my instincts, because I think that means something, and to not be afraid to walk into what that means. Explore what makes you happy.
You need to be accepting of yourself, and just be patient. Try not to let society dictate how you feel, because it’s so easy to feel pressure from other people. Listen to what’s inside you, because that means something.
Your music reflects that. “Gold” is an upbeat and empowering anthem. What’s the story behind the song?
I wrote the song with my buddy Nate Merchant, who I worked with on “Can’t Fight It.” That day, we were feeling good. [Laughs] There was a good energy in the room. Whenever I write, it’s a stamp in time that captures the emotion of what I’m feeling that day. We were talking about coming out to L.A. and being out in the industry and how stressful that can be. He was kind of diggin’ someone, I had just started dating my boyfriend and exploring being a gay man -- I’ve never felt that emotion before, being with someone like that. I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it. It’s been a long time coming for me to feel that. I know there’s so many other people who don’t get to feel that, but I’m hoping that they do when they come to terms with who they are.
So that fueled us, and I just wanted to say, “Hey, you got me feeling good as gold.” What better feeling do you have? Falling in love is such a beautiful thing. I love singing about love in general -- the good and the bad -- I write sad songs too, which will be on the future project too. You’ll kind of see the whole gamut. But in that moment, we were feeling good and thankful.
What can you say about this “future project"?
I will say I’ve been working on a lot. I’m looking for a more fuller length project that will be coming out this year. I’ve been writing a lot and expressing a lot of feelings and enjoying the process and enjoying being out and happy and writing about that, but writing about sad times too. It’s going to be a bigger project than my previous EP, that’s for sure. I can’t say for sure that it will be a full-length album, but it’s in the works. I’m excited to share.
I’m feeling very optimistic about this year. 2017 sucked in a lot of ways. My first project was called Cycles, kind of like the cycles of life. I feel like we had a rough year, so we gotta come up from that. Everyone was depressed at some point in 2017, I think. But it comes back around, so I’m feeling good about the second cycle of my life this year and sharing that with everybody.