When Pink Sweat$ picks up the phone to talk about his new six-song EP, The Prelude, the Philadelphia-born singer is relaxing at his West Hollywood home watching Paul McCartney videos.
It’s not that the R&B balladeer and songwriter is all that big of a Beatles fan. “Not particularly,” he says. “I’m just interested in anybody that’s great. Anybody who’s great, I want to know, I want to look to, I want to see. Greatness attracts greatness, that kind of thing.”
Pink, who’s 28, grew up in North Philly, West Philly, and Mount Laurel — originally as David Bowden. He acquired his stage name by hanging out in recording studios always wearing the same pair of pink pants. When he didn’t show up one day, somebody asked: “Where’s Pink Sweats?”
From an early age, he’s aimed to make music that doesn’t conform to the norm. His drum-less 2018 breakout “Honesty” became a viral hit despite its old-fashioned sensitivity and lack of hip-hop’s streetwise machismo.
Bowden’s father is a minister and drummer, his mother a gospel singer, and he started helping out on the church drum kit when he was 4. “In the Black church, you just fill in what needs to be done. You learn to play drums. You just do it.”
Gospel music never grabbed him, though. “Anything that’s forced on me wasn’t an option,” he says. “And it was pretty much a dictatorship, like, ‘We don’t listen to outside music.’ Rap and R&B, that’s secular music. That’s devilish.”
But pop music wasn’t forbidden. In the early 2000s, he started hearing hits by Maroon 5 and Avril Lavigne on the radio. Eventually he discovered vintage vocalists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson. The influence of all three can be heard on his two 2019 EP’s, Volume 1 and Volume 2, as well as The Prelude.
“The biggest thing for me was always diversity,” says the love-song specialist — born on Valentine’s Day. “I would never listen to just one thing, anyway. That’s not healthy. You wouldn’t just eat apples from the day you’re born to the day you die. Try potatoes. You might even like pizza, who knows?”
Bowden, who answers to the name Pink — “my Mom doesn’t even call me David” — was fortunate to grow up in an environment “where music was my life.”
When he was in fifth grade in West Philly, “I held my first gun in my hand. One of the older kids was showing off his gun. I grew up in those areas, so I know what that’s about. To me, I just never had a taste for it. You see the people who were getting rich, like the dope dealers. They were the fly ones. But that wasn’t my reality as far as how I turned out to be.”
Bowden initially aimed to break into the music industry in production and songwriting. In those capacities, he’s worked with Philly rapper Tierra Whack and pop-country duo Florida Georgia Line.
His life took a turn at age 19, when he was living with his grandmother in Philadelphia after graduating from South Jersey’s Lenape High School. He was stricken with achalasia, a rare disease that effects the esophagus.
“I was throwing up all day, every day. It was terrible,” he recalls. “I thought I was going to die. I lost about 40 pounds.” The condition went undiagnosed for weeks until it was identified by a specialist, and Bowden underwent successful surgery.
Until then, Bowden had been content to sing on demos of his songs and shop them to other artists. But freedom from anxiety led to new confidence. “It gave me a newly full life. It made me appreciate everything.”
For years, Bowden thought his supple, luxurious voice was nothing special. “My mom is an incredible singer,” he says. “When you grow up in church, you’re surrounded by all these amazing voices. So I compared myself to them, and thought I’m not that good.
“But then people were hearing me and saying, ‘Yo bro, you should be an artist.‘”
His breakthrough, he says, came with “Cocaine.” In true Pink Sweat$ fashion, it’s about feelings, not about indulging in drugs: “You traded in your emotions for cocaine.”
He then made his name with “Honesty,” a spare, forthright romance that set itself apart with its delicacy and patience. “Love will happen when it wants,” he sings.
The song shot up Spotify’s U.S. and global viral chart in 2018, and has been streamed more than 160 million times. It earned him a deal with Atlantic Records, which had planned on releasing his full-length debut, Pink Planet, this summer.
“I was hoping to have the album out by now. I really was,” he says. He moved to California two years ago to work on it. “But it’s hard times for everybody now, so we’re in an adjustment phase.”
The pandemic has pushed the full album release back to the fall and nixed tour plans for now. (Pink Sweat$ will be performing virtually Friday night at 9 p.m. on Instagram Live in what is being billed as The Prelude Live.)
Among The Prelude’s six songs is “Not Alright,” which speaks to the suffering of Black Americans as the country grapples with its racist history. “I’ve been roaming on this earth forever / Please don’t beat my soul, because it’s the only thing I treasure.”
“It’s a song I wrote about the wide range of feelings you experience being Black in America,” he says. “It’s really me looking back on my life with hindsight. It’s like, ‘Damn, I really went through a lot of [stuff] that I had to tap down.' ”
His purpose in making music, he says, is to lift people up. “You know some people are in it for the love, and some people are in it for the money. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either one. I just think we need to protect and make space for the people who want to create.”
“I want to be memorable,” he says. “I just don’t want to leave this earth knowing that I didn’t give my all with the creative energy that’s moving inside me. I want to put it out there. I don’t want to take this gift for granted.”