Isaac Dunbar On the ‘Blessing and Curse’ Of Knowing Exactly What He Wants — And How to Get It

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Isaac Dunbar has always had a vision for himself, which has been both a blessing and a curse. “If you don’t know what you want, you don’t make anything,” the 19-year-old says with a shrug over Zoom from his Los Angeles bedroom. “But sometimes, I shoot myself in the leg because I can get very territorial over my work.”

That vision led the alt-pop singer-songwriter to pen a coming-out anthem, “Makeup Drawer,” at the age of 14. Dunbar opted to wait on releasing the song — as well as a major-label record deal — until he felt ready, and he reached that point two years later in 2019. Now, on his third major-label EP, Banish the ­Banshee, he is returning to his EDM-inspired synth-pop roots, with pulsing songs like “Sunburn” and “Gummy” employing the ground-shaking production techniques and soul-splicing songwriting he studied before he even turned 10.

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After taking an early interest in Lady Gaga’s career (“I think Artpop is my favorite album,” he says with a shy smile), Dunbar taught himself how to produce at 9 years old. At first mimicking some of his favorite Gaga songs, he slowly began to create his own EDM-influenced tracks by following YouTube tutorials and started releasing both covers and original songs — all self-written, -produced and performed — on SoundCloud.

His first upload, a demo titled “Woman on the Hills,” caught the attention of Nathan James, an artist manager at Little Worry who found Dunbar’s SoundCloud account in 2017. “His bio just read, ‘14-year-old producer/artist from Cape Cod,’ and the only post had a couple hundred listens at most,” recalls James with a laugh. “But as soon as I heard the song, I knew he was special — to have those kinds of production chops and songwriting skills at such a young age is incredibly rare.”

James tracked down Dunbar and his parents within a few weeks and signed on as manager. But despite the industry traction, Dunbar doubled down on what he had always wanted: to take his time. When RCA Records reached out shortly after he posted his song “Pharmacy” in October 2017, Dunbar didn’t meet with the label until the following year. “It was my first time ever talking to anybody at a label,” he says. “I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do with my career.”

Dunbar instead signed a distribution deal with Platoon in 2018, through which he released his first EP, Balloons Don’t Float Here, the following year. Soon after, Dunbar and James reached back out to RCA — not just because of its continued interest, says James, but also because of its track record with developing talent and creating “a really healthy A&R ecosystem for young artists like Isaac.” Dunbar signed to the label that October.

Even with major-label resources at his disposal, Dunbar says he prefers to keep a “close-knit” team around him. “I don’t have hella people around me,” he says with a giggle. “I have maybe one or two people that I share every one of my plans with, but that’s kind of it.” Adds James: “He does so much of the production and songwriting on his own that he just has to feel 100% comfortable that a person understands his full vision.”

Part of that vision is intrinsically tied to Isaac’s identity as a queer person: When he finally released “Makeup Drawer,” which became his breakthrough single, in 2019, Dunbar officially came out to his fans as gay. Written as a kiss-off to would-be bullies, the song sheds insight on the star’s creative process and became the obvious choice to open his 2020 RCA debut EP, Isaac’s Insects.

The pandemic halted plans for touring the project. Instead, Dunbar wrote, produced and released a follow-up EP, Evil Twin, in 2021; Banish the Banshee arrived in May. “Now I’m just really looking forward to seeing everyone [on the road],” he says, referring to his headlining U.S. theater tour that begins in June at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.

And while James reveals that Dunbar has “really elaborate PDF presentations” of his future plans, when asked about the path ahead (including an anticipated full-length), Dunbar simply smirks into his webcam. “I can’t say,” he says wryly. “I’ll wait till the right time.”

This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2022, issue of Billboard.

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