“You see all the dents in that garage? That’s from me booting my football against that door every day,” laughs Killowen, pointing to the battered outbuilding that sits adjacent to his old family home in a quiet cul-de-sac in Hayes, west London. It’s over a decade since the 24-year-old rapper and producer (born Owen Pickston) lived here – his family decamped to leafy Buckinghamshire when he was 11 – but he still feels close to the area. Spending the afternoon driving NME around the suburbs in his red Peugeot 208, it made sense to head here first.

“It wasn’t the safest of areas when I was growing up,” he says. “I’ve got two older brothers, and they were never involved in anything, but they’d find themselves in situations, getting mugged or beat up. Luckily, my parents were able to earn enough money for us to get out. I went from living in a low-income area with a lot of shit going on to a higher-income area where everyone was completely different. It added to my ability to see things from different angles, and that’s why I’m able to write the songs that I write, because I’ve seen both sides of the coin.”

Killowen’s recent success is testament to that ability to cut through. Exhibiting his thoughtful, succinct style of UK garage-driven storytelling, self-produced singles like ‘Sober’ and ‘Bar Fights & Poetry’ have become viral hits, amassing millions of streams and creating a clamour that’s led to some explosive live performances – the most notable being a packed-out 2023 Reading show he describes today as “one of the best moments of my life”.

Last October, he dropped his debut EP ‘Pub Therapy’, a relatable and intelligently-structured concept project that’s the product of over a decade of work; Pickston first started making beats at 14 with a cracked version of FL Studio, digging into sounds like garage, grime, dubstep and breaks after being introduced to drum ‘n’ bass by his DJ brother.

The EP’s nine tracks give Killowen the chance to ruminate on everything from therapeutic bar corner conversations to pissed-up romantic pursuits and the drudgery of the 9 to 5. Providing the firm foundations for these tales is the institution of the British pub, which functions as a space of comfort, a hub of conversation and collaboration, and a reflection of people’s need for some kind of vice to escape the rat race.

“‘Pub Therapy’ is a narration of me coming into adulthood and becoming more emotionally mature, understanding my own mind more and paying attention to the culture that I grew up around,” Killowen says. “Like I say on ‘Bar Fights’, ‘pick your poison and don’t look back’. Everyone has a thing that they use to process how they feel, and for me that was the pub. I didn’t want ‘Pub Therapy’ to say ‘Drinking alcohol to process your emotions is a bad thing’. In the day and age that we live in, drinking in moderation and having a way to blow off steam that’s so universal is actually quite healthy.”

killowen artist
Credit: Press

One recurring theme across ‘Pub Therapy’ is Killowen’s Irish heritage, communicated through light-hearted, softly-spoken bars like ‘Irish enough for the gypsy lads / Still get on well with the plain Janes’ and ‘This Guinness comes from the motherland / So I might sink ’bout a hundred cans’. For an artist whose work often revolves around questions of identity, this side of him plays an important role, even providing the inspiration for his name (Killowen is a mash-up of his first name, Owen, and his ancestors’ home of Kilkenny).

“I love Ireland, but I’m still learning a lot about it,” he says. “All my Irish family either moved here or they’re not alive anymore, so there’s almost no reason to go back in terms of family. A while ago, we went back to find my nan’s mum’s gravestone. We actually found the tombstone, near Cork somewhere, which was really fucking impressive! There’s a Quincy Jones quote: ‘To know where you come from makes it easier to know where you’re going.” Maybe it’s integral to dive into it some more in order to give me some clarity.'”

As he considers where he’s going figuratively, the west London artist grips the wheel of his Peugeot and steers us toward where he lives right now. We pass the supermarket where he used to stack shelves for “posh pricks that don’t recognise that they’re at Tesco and we literally don’t care if the potatoes are not up to your standards”, and into the quiet country lanes of Chalfont St Peter, a Buckinghamshire village on the outermost reaches of the Metropolitan line. Does it feel like London here?

“Na… the buses come like once an hour, and they’re not London buses. Before I had a car, it was long!” he says. “This is where I spent half my childhood, but there weren’t many mates around. I had one that moved away, and it was like any aspect of community was gone.”

Still, at least there’s a decent pub. At his local Irish boozer The Dumb Bell, Owen regularly gets chatting to members of the traveller community that live nearby. He recalls getting G-checked the first time he went in, before being embraced after disclosing that his nan is from Cork. “That’s where the lyric ‘Irish enough for the gypsy lads’ comes from,” he laughs.

Killowen’s ability to sketch out everyday scenes with colour, comedy and briskness, and his harnessing of garage beats to do so, has understandably drawn comparisons with one of his biggest influences, Mike Skinner. But while his ambient, laid-back instrumentals fizz with the same kind of upbeat narrative swagger as The Streets, the scope of his artistry is wide.

His multi-instrumentalist background comes through on the clean keys and guitar licks of tracks like ‘Break The Cycle’, a sunny, triumphant pushback against the daily grind, and his desire to rail against the ‘chill UK rap’ tag sits at the core of his latest single, ‘Rita Ora’.

The track begins with a kind of thick, suspenseful horn/piano combo that brings to mind hip-hop anthems like UGK’s ‘Int’ Players Anthem’, before plunging into a fast-paced, frantic dancefloor-filling two-minute burst of energy driven by the hook “Fuck chill UK rap / I’m tryna go clear like Rita Ora”.

Credit: Press

“I’ve always wanted to stay clear of that term, because it boxes you in and puts a ceiling on you creatively,” he says. “As soon as you rap in a UK accent and it’s not mainstream, you get labelled ‘chill UK rap’. Someone like Nemzzz probably got called chill UK rap for ages, but now he’s got songs with K-Trap and Lil Yachty, he’s just UK rap.”

He concludes: “I’m not just here to make some Soundcloud bangers. “I wanna win a Grammy at some point! I’m never satisfied. That’s how people become great, because they don’t know when to stop.”

Killowen’s new single ‘Rita Ora’ is out now

The post An afternoon in the passenger seat with suburban storyteller Killowen appeared first on NME.


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