Singer-songwriter Sean Rowe is used to following his instincts. Whether he’s surviving out in the middle of nowhere a la Bear Grylls or working on a new song, the recent Anti- signee knows that you’ve got to trust your gut. We talked to the Albany, New York native about songwriting, Neil Young, and the call of the wild.
Take us through the arc of your career. How did you end up getting signed to Anti-?
I started performing solo in bars and cafes when I was around 22 years old. Open mics, lonely weeknight shows—I even performed in the storefront of a salsa shop… which was about as sexy as it sounds. I just wanted to get out there. It took a few years, but slowly I built up a local following.
In 2008 I took a year long break from performing, and it was around that time I wrote much of what’s on Magic. I ended up recording the album locally, putting it together with the help of musician friends that I grew up with. We recorded in this old brick building in Troy, NY that i would swear is haunted. I didn’t realize till halfway through the recording sessions that my grandfather had actually owned the building at one time.
Mostly because of scheduling…the record took over a year to finish. Even so, songs like “Old Black Dodge,” “Night,” and “The Long Haul” were recorded quickly and instinctively without much pre-production, as these songs happened to “come out” during the sessions for the more rehearsed pieces. In hindsight, I think they were really important for the record as they brought a real intuitive feel to it. It was also important for me to keep the unplanned nuances of the room in there; the squeaky chairs, the pigeons, the heating pipes. I really like the grit it has.
I was happy with the end result but we really weren’t in a big rush to put the record out. Somehow the record found its way into the hands of my now, current managers who shared my vision for where I wanted to go with my songs. Soon, we were in full swing.
I toured with Noah and the Whale in the UK, did shows in France, I found out that the president of Anti- got a hold of my songs from my US manager, and… here I am. It was a long road from the loud bars to Anti- Records, but I’m grateful for it. I’m honored to be on the same label as the musical heroes that have always inspired me.
Are there challenges to getting noticed as a singer-songwriter, as opposed to fronting a band?
I think a lot of people see a guy with an acoustic guitar and think, okay, well there’s another one of those. With such an enormous sea of music available to millions of wandering ears its important to be distinctive. And not only distinctive but… good. You’ve got to check in your pretense and give yourself to the song. I check myself regularly to make sure I’m really feeling it and not thinking it. When you’re alone on stage it gives people a chance to really feel the essence of the song. There’s a real nakedness to it– no drums or trumpets to hide behind.
You like to employ nature imagery and religious imagery in your music.
I’m not a particularly religious person in the sense of the organized dogmatic traditions, but religious images are powerful tools. I would say the same for nature. They simplify these impossibly complex ideas about life, and that’s something that people can connect with. It’s what we all want — a way to hear in music what you can’t necessarily express or understand in life.
You sometimes go out in the woods for a month at time with just a hunting knife. Awesome! Do songs run through your head, or get written, while you’re out there?
Well, the longest I’ve been out alone like that was nearly a month. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that luxury again. I’ve always felt incredibly connected to nature, and I started getting into wilderness survival skills when I was very young.
Going out there and relying on just yourself and nature is a way to get down to the core of who you are in a culture where we’re so surrounded by distractions. I believe nature is worth living with and not something that needs to be conquered — enter Man vs. Wild and all that, that’s not what it’s about to me. I’m not trying to get out of the wild, I’m trying to get in it.
Mostly, I was so involved in covering my basic needs that i really didn’t have much time to think about music. I did keep a journal though and sometimes some odd songs would come into my head like “Here comes the rain again” by the Eurythmics.
Being really comfortable with nothing takes time and focus and the right kind of attitude. I left my guitar at home.
Does clearing your head in this way help you write songs when you return to civilization?
Absolutely. Wilderness is pure emotion for me and I try to bring that to the table when writing. Being in nature helps me balance out the music—it can’t be all one way for me.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
Well… I would like it if they heard all of them but, I’m really close to “The Walker.”
I put elements of me in my songs just like Stephen King puts cameos of himself in his movies but for the most part, I write about other people, their stories or what their story could be, or what I can make their story into. It’s an open world to work in and I really like it in there.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
From “The Walker….” I found a blue bandanna in a rusted old garbage can / While every body’s thinking themselves to death, i just use my hands.”
Are there any words you love, or hate?
No…but I do hope the word “rancid” never ends up in one of my songs. My mother always used that word when describing old mayonnaise.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
Usually it’s the melody. Then I hear the words as mumbles but I chip away to get at the real lyrics. I get a feeling when it’s “right”. I’ve learned to trust that the song is really in there somewhere and it’s my job to rescue it.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
I don’t rely on any one thing but if it’s not coming naturally, the forced nature of it is apparent and those songs usually end up in the trash.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Well, Neil Young is certainly rated high as a songwriter but I’ve always liked him as a lyricist. The words always seem to know their place and the simplicity and space in the phrasing really speaks to me.
It seems a little zen to me, the way he writes. It’s simple in its packaging but vast in its shadows and depth.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen.