Reilly Downes came to Chicago for the musical theater, but she stayed for the music scene.
This week, the solo artist, raised in the heart of Texas Hill Country, drops “Spent,” her debut album of self-described “sad cowgirl” tunes.
The six-song collection moseyed through Downes’ history, relationships and revelations as a queer artist, channeling her theatricality and musical heroes over a country-esque base. Growing up, she was part of her family’s church choir and school choirs and was surrounded by music, but she said she honed her sound more to relate to what she was exposed to by her parents.
“My mom would listen to Leonard Cohen in the car all the time. And my dad’s favorite band is Pink Floyd. So I have these alternative rock influences,” she said. “And Leonard Cohen is just a beautiful poet. So whenever I’m writing, the first thing I think about is lyrics.”
Five of the six songs on Downes’ new album were written during moments of isolation during the pandemic, and that gave her the chance to be introspective, to find herself and to sharpen the truths she wanted to share from her writing.
“At that time, I was very much a homebody,” she said. “So I was like, ‘I’m just going to go to my room every day.’ And so I was pretty lonely during the pandemic. And I think that’s probably why a lot of my songs sound so solemn, because I was just in my room with my cat.”
The album, out for streaming and purchase Friday, starts with “Dirty Love,” a deep dive into self-discovery with a driving rhythm and a catchy hook. Downes follows it up with the pensive “Ruins,” which ponders deep questions from relationship breakdowns. She also touches on childhood and family in “October’s Waltz” and brings high-energy riffs to the intense and anthemic “Can’t See Myself.” But through the introspective bent of the album, Downes’ zestful persona shines through her effervescent vocals, especially on the title track “Spent.”
“I get put in the country genre a lot, probably because I come from Texas and there is some Southern influence on the way that I write. But I’ve started pushing myself more toward Americana,” she continued. “I would say that I lean closer to Jason Isbell. If you’ve ever listened to him, his lyrics are gorgeous and haunting, and I feel like he has a lot of rock influence. And so a lot of this year has been like, ‘Well, what am I?’ Because people kind of immediately put me into a box like, ‘Oh, you’re a cowgirl. You’re a horse girl.'”
Part of that presupposition comes from her theatrical history. For seven years in her 20s, Downes was part of “Texas: The Musical,” a long-running outdoor professional production staged in Palo Duro Canyon, in Canyon, Texas. Most of those were as Parmalee Flynn, a comedic cowgirl character she now has tattooed on her arm.
So when she released her first single after moving to Chicago four years ago, she was unsure of exactly what she was saying and where she fit in.
“I had this crazy impostor syndrome whenever I was putting ‘Water’s Fine’ out because I was like, ‘Well, everyone just knows me as Reilly who played a cowgirl for seven years in a musical.'” She later noted she had been on billboards for the production, which further reinforced that perception.
Downes studied musical theater in college, which eventually brought her to Chicago a year before the COVID-19 pandemic locked down major stages. In that downtime, she started thinking seriously about her passion for songwriting, which had been simmering in the background since childhood.
“There are so many songs that helped me in my life, especially going through depression and everything. They saved me because these people were being so honest and open and kind of just letting it all out,” she said. “When you journal, you’re talking to yourself really, so you don’t hold anything back because there’s no one there to judge you. So that was my idea; I wanted to write in a way that people could relate to, and not feel shame and judgment from that. … These people saved me when I needed it most and I hope that I would be able to do that for other people.”
• Downes celebrates the album’s release with a full-band show at Chicago honky-tonk bar Carol’s Pub (4659 N. Clark St.) at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 9. Sparkle Carcass, a cosmic-country band she sings backup vocals in, will play an opening set.