Houston Music

Zachary Knowles Takes the Country Roads to Pop Stardom

Zachary Knowles
Zachary Knowles Photo by Phoenix Johnson, courtesy of Notorious Noise
Songwriter Zachary Knowles grew up in Magnolia, small town Texas right outside of Houston. He attended university at Texas A&M in College Station. Now that’s he’s graduated, he’s set to move to Nashville. He recently filmed a video for some of his songs at Billy Bob’s Texas, the iconic honky-tonk in Fort Worth.

Skimming that geography, one might conclude that Knowles, 23, is a country music artist. You’d maybe have to spin his latest EP, GOALIE, to realize he’s actually an indie pop artist, one who’s part of a new wave of pop acts openly addressing some profound topics.

“I feel like you would assume I’m country based on where I’m from. Growing up, my town is definitely a smaller town, it’s a lot more country than surrounding areas. I feel like I grew up listening to a lot of country with my dad and then somewhere along the way just kind of found my own taste and started listening to a lot of pop stuff,” Knowles said. “It’s kind of interesting I went that route. I’ve always really loved pop and coming from a really small town where it was super chill, I think it was kind of what made me go more of this sort of chill pop route.”

“Where I’m from is definitely more country and I did listen to a lot of country with my parents growing up. I still love country,” he said. “Fun fact, I really want to write country. It’s always been something that I really love but I’ve kind of chosen a pop route for my artist stuff.”

Everything is on the board for Knowles and why not? He’s a young, evolving songwriter whose talent would come through no matter the genre. GOALIE is his latest record, released last month on the FADER Label, but he’s got 70 million global streams across a variety of platforms including Spotify where he’s earned a million monthly listeners. What those listeners are hearing, and what Knowles is pushing through songs on the new seven-track EP and past efforts like 2021’s tendency to be a loner, is the importance of knowing one’s self and using that knowledge to connect to others.

“I think music originally for me was a way that I found I could express myself. I kind of started in sports and then segued myself into music because I had a lot of anxiety surrounding sports. And once I found music it was like this really fun and cool outlet for me where I felt like I could express myself and I feel like once I noticed people connecting with it, it took it to the next level for me where I realized not only can I connect with this and express myself, but other people can also connect with it. People were telling me it was also helping with their anxiety and stuff like that.

“I’ve touched on personal stuff in that past like anxiety but this one definitely dives into that way deeper,” he said of GOALIE. “It’s more expressive of different time periods in my life where I’ve noticed I wasn’t in the healthiest spot, so I wanted to kind of talk about it on this project and in doing so it’s kind of helped me process a lot of where I was at. Most of the songs are kind of a conversation with myself, or talking at myself, whereas I think on the outside it kind of just sounds like a relationship, one person speaking to another.”

Knowles started writing songs in grade school after his parents bought him a toy keyboard in first grade. He’d later release tracks on SoundCloud and they got tens of thousands of streams. By his freshman year in Aggieland in 2017, he’d set a goal to release a proper album of work. That EP was titled Magnolia and it established his brand.

On GOALIE, Knowles sings about insecurity, overthinking and detachment, personal issues that resonate in a new era of pop. One of the album’s tracks, “CIGARETTES” got a boost from Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists and he’s recently released the live performance video from Billy Bob’s. He said it’s a good primer for those who have yet to see him live, including Houstonians.

“I’ve only really done like one show in Houston,” he said. “It was Sofar Sounds, like a smaller, more intimate setting, but that was fun.”

“It was amazing,” he said of playing Billy Bob’s. “It was my first time being at Billy Bob’s. That was sweet. It just felt cool doing something like ‘very Texas.’ It was a really cool clash of country meets pop, doing it in this rodeo arena. It was a really cool combo. That was super fun. I did it for ‘Wrong Side’ and ‘Just Stay for Once,’ those two songs off of my EP. It was a really good time.

“We wanted it to be as real and raw as possible so in a lot of the shots you can see the film crew walking around videoing it and it’s really cool. I love how they put it together. I think it turned out really fun and I’m happy to share it with people, I hope they really love it.”

Knowles has an EP release show in Dallas on November 19 but nothing slated for the Houston area just yet though he hopes to book more shows at the top of the year and plans to release more new music then, too. For now, he’s celebrating GOALIE and its central theme, “this battle with self and conversation with self,” he said. The EP’s title conjures a sports image of someone attempting to defend against an offensive attack. In this case, it’s the idea of blocking out one’s own complex emotions.

It’s a good opportunity to ask about the trend young pop artists like Knowles are developing, one focused less on bubblegum and more on mental health and our emotional response to the anxiety of the times. We noted how nice it is that young pop artists are taking up that flag but wonder what it might have been like first emerging with songs of this nature in small town, Friday Night Lights Texas. Knowles played football and basketball in high school. Student athletes aren’t exactly a group many would conventionally identify as deeply in touch with their emotions, much less being open about them.

“I think from the very beginning I just had this focus of wow, this is a really cool way to connect with people and build relationships and help people. I’ve always tried to kind of focus on that and carry that with me,” he said. “I think music is really interesting in that no matter where you’re from you can connect with it and it’s a really cool way for people to relate to each other, even if you’re from different parts of the world.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.