As a kid, Denton musician Livingston followed his mother’s alt-country/folk act Wise Ruby around Denton musical landmarks — Banter, Zera Coffee Co. and LSA Burger Co. — but it wasn’t until his middle school years at Coram Deo Academy in Flower Mound that he picked up the trombone and gave music a shot.
While he isn’t technically a child prodigy, 18-year-old Drake Livingston has the kind of prodigious talent that got the attention of artist development at Elektra Music Group. On Wednesday, he drops his debut EP, Lighthouse. It’s an aptly named project that showcases his ear for melody and his instinct for production.
The seeds were planted by his mom, Julie, and the wealth of music around North Texas — chiefly Wildflower! Arts & Music Festival and the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival, he said.
“The more that I got involved and the more that I watched my mom go through her music thing, I started to think I couldn’t do music, because I couldn’t sing,” Drake Livingston said. “So I got into videography — my dad had an old camera.”
His work ethic and interest took hold with a camera in his hands. Livingston shot wedding footage gratis for a few months to learn the technology. At 13, he launched his first creative business in videography.
“I remember I saved up from all that, but I got bored of that all of a sudden,” he said. “I got kind of worn out, because you can only work with what your palette is.”
He turned back to music, listening to bands that seemed to bleed pop anthems — Imagine Dragons, Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West. He also took notice of the technology that increasingly put more production power in a musician’s palm.
“This is right when digital music workstations were becoming really powerful,” Livingston said. “Guys were able to make their own stuff in their bedroom or their basement. They were able to make music about coming out of a really bad relationship.”
Call it coincidence or convergence, but Livingston was able to tinker around with his own music, which he says springs from two different creative wells: cinema and pop-rock. The genius of Pixar — Cars, Toy Story and WALL-E — fed his imagination, and Top 40 taught him how to turn his innermost thoughts into the diary of Everyman struggles.
Livingston said what he didn’t have in music education he made up for in curiosity. His bedroom music hobby intersected with possibility when he dashed off an email to the childhood friend and associate of a rising popular musician, never expecting a reply.
“I was not trying to scrounge for a record deal,” he said. “I was more interested in finding a group of people to share the music with who could listen.”
Then, last May, he posted 45 seconds of “a fully produced cover” of a song by one of his favorite artists, Quinn XCII, to social media.
“I wake up on a Saturday morning and there is an email and it was literally from him. Quin XCII,” he said. “Someone tiers above where I was. It was the most inspiring thing ever. He was sort of like, ‘I’m getting whatever you’re putting out.’ ... I guess he felt like the song resonated in a unique enough way.”
Shortly after that, Livingston got a reply from the music maker he’d emailed. The musician had gotten a job in the artist and repertoire division of Elektra Music Group.
“He said, ‘I shared your music with my boss and he wants to meet you next week,’” Livingston said. “I lost my mind.”
In short order, he’d connected with Gregg Nadel and Mike Easterlin, co-presidents of the label, and executives who helped launch the mainstream careers of Twenty One Pilots and Ed Sheeran, among others. Over five months, he hammered out a record deal with the label and tried to keep his feet earthbound as he “crashed into the industry.” Along the way, Easterlin got Livingston backstage at a Twenty One Pilots show, where instead of merely shaking hands with the rising pop stars, he got some serious counsel from frontman Tyler Joseph.
“He told me: Something you’ve got to realize right now is compromising your music to do what you think people want to hear is not going get you to where you want to be. He told me that as long as you steer the ship, and you control the things you want to share — from the design of the shows, to the music and the albums — it will take you where you want to be,” Livingston said.
He created and polished Lighthouse during that time. The EP is an ebullient record, suffused with light and hope even as it confronts common teenage experiences: realizing that your role models are flawed and that everyone — even a teenager from the well-heeled side of Denton — feels the sting of loneliness, bullying and disappointment. But the light dusts the valleys in Lighthouse, which is intentional. He might be just 18, but Livingston knows that when the lighthouse guides ships into safe harbor, the sailors aren’t guaranteed milk and honey or easy love when they step off the dock.
It’s not ideal to release music during a pandemic, but Livingston said he’s been using the time to work on, listen to and develop his work. He also keeps reflecting on Lighthouse
“If I were to nail Lighthouse down to one idea, the common link was that no matter what you do, you think about yourself and your limitations. Whatever that next thing was, whatever issues you get to — whether it’s anxiety or if you’re trying to fit in — at every step, there’s a lighthouse. There is a hope that dares you to fall into that issue.”