Inspirations: How Isaac Dunbar Celebrates Self-Love With His Major Label Debut, 'Isaac's Insects'

Isaac Dunbar
Harshvardhan Shah

Isaac Dunbar

Inspirations is a Billboard interview franchise that examines the process behind new standout releases.

“I just feel like I'm in a prison.” For a fleeting moment, Isaac Dunbar sounds like any other teenager. Quarantined in his Cape Cod home, the 17-year-old is currently staring out the window as a storm encroaches on the coastal shores of his town.

In some ways, he is like any other teenager. Even over the phone, Dunbar is refreshingly unabashed in conversation, disarmingly confident while also thoughtful and well spoken. He’s as candid about trivial opinions as he is regarding his deepest convictions: He has a love-hate relationship with the beach (“I hate sand, but just sitting in the car, listening to music with your friends, it's actually really peaceful”) but also daydreams about the future (“I wanna be married and have, like, kids and stuff right now. At, like, 17. But I can't” [laughs]).

And yet, Dunbar is also far from a typical 17-year-old. A self-taught singer-songwriter, the rising teen pop star was signed by RCA Records in late 2019 after dropping independent EP Balloons Don’t Float Here. A string of sharply rendered singles (“Body,” “Onion Boy”) followed and after a whirlwind of a year, Dunbar is finally readying the release of his major label debut, Isaac’s Insects (out Thursday, April 9).

“It feels like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders,” he says of sending his new EP out into the world. “I have been hoarding these songs for the past, like, two years, some of these songs. And I'm just glad that people are gonna finally hear it.”

Preceded by its titular lead single, Isaac’s Insects feels like a coming out party -- both literally and figuratively -- for the newly christened pop star. Across seven tracks (all of which he wrote, and all but one of which he produced), Dunbar revels in the fantasy of domestic bliss with his dream boyfriend (the aptly titled “Boy”), bucks restrictive gender conventions (“Comme Des Garçons [Like the Boys]”) and wistfully looks back on his first relationship with another boy (“Scorton’s Creek”).

That type of vulnerable bravery and artistic honesty hasn’t come without a cost, however. Privately, Dunbar has waged an internal battle for self-acceptance over the last few years -- officially coming out to the world as gay, pushing back against the anti-queer sentiment surrounding him at seemingly every turn and dismantling a lifetime’s worth of negative messaging about his identity as an LGBT artist and human being.

“For the past year, it was kind of terrible,” he shares of his coming out journey. “When I was in school and also with, like, family ... 'cause you start to believe those things that people say to you when you don't have the right support. You let that stuff go to your head and that's what happened to me.”

Now, the teen credits practicing radical self-love, as well as channeling his experiences into music, with helping him remain optimistic, authentic and honest. “Music is the only way I feel I can say what I have to say and be safe,” he says. “It's the best outlet for me.”

Below, Dunbar walks Billboard through the music, cultural touchstones, places and other experiences that inspired all seven tracks on Isaac’s Insects.

An elevated electronic sound: Dunbar cites French producer Madeon and Porter Robinson as influences for the “elevated sound” of his new EP compared to his earlier, independently-released work.

“I was so inspired by them, and they'd just stack layers and layers of synths and make beautiful walls of sound, but electronic, and I thought it was so cool,” he says. “So I recently did another deep dive into that sort of whole genre of music and applied it to now, 'cause I fell in love with it again.”

The confines of Cape Cod: Much like fellow teen pop stars Billie Eilish and Conan Gray before him, Dunbar pens the majority of his music from the comfort of his childhood bedroom. Having grown up on Cape Cod, the tony peninsula best known as a preppy summer resort destination and home base to a certain American political dynasty, Dunbar’s feelings are, shall we say, complicated about his exclusive hometown.

“I would describe it as the Florida of the East Coast,” he says with a bite. “So it's, like, all old people and crazy people. But there's also a rich population and a Brazilian population and a Jamaican population. So it's low-key kind of diverse in certain ways, but it's very, very preppy.”

Like many a 17-year-old before him, the rising pop star admits that he’s felt increasingly cloistered by his hometown, particularly when it comes to the close-minded attitudes regarding the LGBT community he’s bumped up against over the past few years. Naturally, his experiences with marginalization and, at times, outright prejudice found their way into Dunbar’s music as he began to grapple with and shape his identity as an artist.

“I would say that it made the lyrics more true to the moment because I was living in that space,” he says. “I experienced the internal conflicts in my house, so it was very easy for me to translate that into song.”

An anti-pop soundtrack: While writing the songs that make up the left-of-center pop running through the EP, Dunbar’s musical taste consisted of anything but current mainstream trends. “I listened to alternative, like, indie rock,” he says. “I listened to a lot of Radiohead and Thom Yorke's solo stuff and Fleetwood Mac.”

Other artists prevalent on the teen’s playlists during his writing process? James Blake (“he is so creative”), King Krule and “a lot of underground, random stuff I saw on SoundCloud.”

Gen Z gay culture: “Honestly, I would say just like all the gay stuff that I've seen in my life inspired that,” Dunbar says of the glittering, high-fashion visual that accompanies “Makeup Drawer,” the EP’s stigma-shattering opening track. “So like Kim Petras and SOPHIE and Troye Sivan and [Lady] Gaga, they definitely all had their own individual roles in inspiring me with that video.”

The teen readily admits that, despite the openly queer themes in his latest body of work, he’s just beginning to find his place within the broader LGBT community. “It's a really cool thing,” he says, “but for a long time, since I was told that I'm not a part of this community, like, 'you're not gay,' I didn't feel that. ... It literally was not until recently that I've kind of even grasped that concept.”

To tap into the larger gay culture available online, Dunbar says he’s searched out content creators on YouTube and other social media platforms. “Gay Twitter ... they’re ruthless!” he says. “But also amazing.”

Rejecting (and redrawing) gender constructs: On the synth-driven, ‘80s-inspired “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys),” Dunbar turns the French phrase (and sly reference to the luxury Japanese fashion label by designer Rei Kawakubo of the same name) into a personal rallying cry against societal pressure to fit himself into the prescribed box of traditional masculinity.

“I was acting as if I was talking to somebody that didn't like me, that didn't like my femininity or how I express myself,” he says of the song’s double-edged message. “It was me kind of defending what I believed in -- even though I shouldn't have to in the year 2020, but ... I would say it's a gentle middle finger done with class to this person that wants me to conform to whatever social roles that they want me to be.”

The vulnerability of first love: Kicking off the back half of the EP’s seven tracks, dreamy ballad “Scorton’s Creek” finds Dunbar’s emotions at their most exposed. “That song for me …,” he says before trailing off in thought, “I wrote it about the first time I was in a relationship with a boy, and Scorton's Creek was a place where I lived. ... It's like a little creek, and it was a place where we could hold hands without being judged or ridiculed by people. And it's a very special song to me because I'm very honest, and I feel like it shows how I loved that boy in a very raw form. I hope it can connect to people that feel like they can't be safe being gay. Because that's how I felt. I wasn't safe being myself.”