Stephanie Quayle’s new project, the five-song If I Was a Cowboy, digs its heels into themes the singer first addressed when she dropped its title track in early 2019. “It really set the stage, that cowboy state of mind,” Quayle explains to Country Now. “That grace and grit. That ability to always get back up on your horse, no matter what is thrown in your direction. I think that’s a beautiful metaphor for life.”
A Montana native, Quayle grew up steeped in the culture that informs this collection of songs. “I grew up in it. I was sure I was a cowboy,” she relates, eyes shining. “Well, until my mom shared how that whole thing works — but that state of mind. And I always say that my mom is the greatest cowboy I know.”
The Western themes that had been instilled in Quayle since early childhood further locked into place after she established some sonic parameters for the new batch of tunes. “In the studio, when we added the baritone guitar, that really just moved me in the sonic [direction] I was looking for,” she goes on to say. “Then that, I think, subconsciously and consciously became ingrained in me, from my songwriting to the songs I was finding that were pitched to us.”
Some of If I Was a Cowboy’s songs take inspiration from Montana’s Western culture in a literal sense. “Evel Knievel” was inspired by a poster of the iconic stunt performer and Montana native that happened to be hanging in the room where Quayle and her co-writers, Karen Kosowski and Tori Tullier, came up with the song.
“When I think of Even Knievel, I think of a superhero, right? Like, we all have our backstories, we all have our differences, but that thought of fearless courage,” the singer explains. Those themes of finding the superhero inside of ordinary people made for what Quayle calls “one of the coolest writes,” and a performance of the finished song in Bozeman, Mont. later made “Evel Knievel” even cooler to her.
“So cut to, I’m performing it, and Evel Knievel’s daughter is in the audience!” she exclaims. “She doesn’t know I have a song about her dad. I don’t know she’s in the audience. Talk about full circle on steroids!”
Though Quayle doesn’t necessarily advocate that her listeners chase thrills like Knievel did, she stresses that “being comfortable with being a little uncomfortable” is a big part of the message behind If I Was a Cowboy. “This is my go-to song when I need a little kick in the butt,” she says. “I love motivating myself and others to not let anything take you down. I don’t wanna be preachy, but I do want to empower.”
Quayle co-wrote three of the album’s five songs, with two outside cuts — leading track “If I Was a Cowboy” and closing track “Untitled” — bookending the project. Songwriter Nicolle Galyon appears in the credit of both tracks not written by Quayle, who explains that she’s always felt a special kinship with Galyon’s songwriting style. “I feel like somehow she just hangs out in my brain sometimes,” the singer says with a laugh.
“Have you ever read the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert? It’s a great book,” Quayle goes on to say. “There’s a particular anecdote in this book about a songwriter who had an idea, but he wasn’t able to finish it or somehow it didn’t come about, and then he heard it through somebody else. It’s about how all these creative ideas have to find their way to the world. We might be the vessel, or someone else. It’s just a really interesting way to look at creativity.”
That idea stuck with Quayle ever since she read it, and she thinks about now when she hears a song that was written by someone else, but that could just as easily have come from her pen. “And as an artist, whenever I get to sing a song that feels so aligned with me, it feels like wearing the perfect pair of jeans. That’s how this song feels, when I sing ‘If I Was a Cowboy,’ or when I sing ‘Untitled.’”
So much so, in fact, that both songs are major plot points in marking the new project and its place in Quayle’s journey as an artist. While “If I Was a Cowboy” immediately settles her in the mindset of this Western-influenced batch of songs, “Untitled” points her toward what’s next.
“When we recorded ‘Untitled,’ we knew that whatever way that song came out to the world, if it was on an album or an EP, that would absolutely be the last song, so that it could be the lead in for what’s to come,” Quayle relates. “That’s what’s awesome about that song, too. It’s like, ‘I’m here right now, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.’”
The last track on If I Was a Cowboy isn’t a period at the end of a sentence, in other words — it’s a semi-colon. “Exactly. Yes,” Quayle interjects excitedly. “It is a giant semi-colon.” The singer’s next musical step might still be a little hazy, but she says it’s brimming with possibilities.
“What isn’t on the horizon?” she adds with a laugh.