When I first heard Sean Rowe sing, his voice caught me off guard. But it didn’t take long until I melted into “The Lonely Maze,” which is perhaps the signature track on his sophomore album, The Salesman and The Shark. If you’re a “come for the music, stay for the lyrics” kind of person, Sean Rowe is your guy.
Sean has been compared to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, both for his unique voice and the depth of his songwriting. It might be more apt to liken him to a songwriting Henry David Thoreau, fully retreating into the wilderness to find inspiration, writing personal lyrics from a poet’s heart, and singing with a haunting baritone that lifts his songs out of the ether and into someplace otherworldly.
Reared on the Beach Boys and the blues, transformed from a metalhead by The Joshua Tree, and committed to making “real music,” Sean talked to TVD about releasing vinyl-only tracks, recording The Salesman and The Shark on the same mixing board that created Exile on Main Street, and how ripping off Columbia House as a teenager changed his musical trajectory forever.
I know you’ve been at this for over a decade, but do you consider yourself a “late bloomer” when it comes to music? Or is it just the case of things taking as long as they’re going to take?
Not really – only insofar as touring goes. I’ve been playing since I was a kid; I’ve been singing since I was young and writing since I was a teenager, but I just haven’t been out there until a few years ago is when it really started rolling. Probably 2009 or so – that’s when I started touring overseas and then it just started snowballing from there.
But if you’ve never heard of somebody and all of a sudden they’re touring nationally, you wonder where the hell they came from. I’ve been around – I just didn’t get out too far.
Do you feel that you’re more of a songwriter than a performer?
Yeah, I did. Performing is a strange beast because I don’t feel like it comes to me naturally. It’s something I’ve had to work at over the years to develop. I’m a very introverted person; I was very shy as a kid and so it was a real challenge to get out there. But I enjoy it tremendously – I enjoy performing a lot. But it’s the hurdle of putting yourself out there in front of people; I’ve developed that over the years.
This seems the case for many artists for whom it was initially all about just creating the art. But when it came time to actually put stuff out there it was terrifying at first, but then the act of performing or publishing or exhibiting simply becomes part of the process. Do you feel it was the same for you?
Yeah, because it’s about connecting with people. I don’t just write for myself; when I’m writing, I’m trying to make a connection with the audience…and you do that live, too. It’s definitely all part of the process, and they’re two very, very separate things – performing and also recording. There’s really different energy involved in them, and obviously different contexts, too, which makes it exciting.
Each song on The Salesman and The Shark seems to be a story in itself. How important is the album format, then, to your storytelling?
You mean are the songs arranged in a linear way that makes sense?
Yes. The songs seem to be chosen deliberately to complement each other. Or I thought they were, even though each one can stand on its own.
Yeah, I think that was definitely conscious on my part. I’m really big into records – I have a lot of records – I like to listen to an album as a whole piece. That may be an old fashioned idea, but there’s definitely a cult of people that really still listen to music that way.
And so when I put together the album, it was a struggle to find the right order, because you go into it thinking certain songs are gonna make it on there and then they don’t end up on there. There’s a lot of rearranging that goes on, but I do think about [putting songs together as an album], to answer your question.
I know you get the inevitable comparisons to Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits because of your distinctive voice. Does this bother you at all – like people aren’t acknowledging you based on your own merits?
Well, I think part of it is marketing – I understand how that works, how the game of marketing works as far as getting a new artist in front of people. And I think that, as a human, your mind tends to freak out when it can’t really relate something to what it already knows. So people do that naturally, and I do that naturally. When I hear somebody new, I’ll think about how it reminds me of this or I hear this in a piece that reminds me of something else. And to a point that’s fine – sort of the initial introduction. But I think when it becomes so exaggerated that you can’t hear the actual person in there – you can’t hear the unique voice in there – then you’re not really listening.
So, I do understand it, but I also am aware that I’m in there, too. [Laughs] I have my influences and I draw from them, but I also have my own voice.
Speaking of your influences, your bio mentions that you grew up listening to classic R&B, early soul, and blues. Were you one of those kids who pretty much stuck to old records growing up?
Well, it’s changed around for me a lot. When my family was together – my parents divorced when I was seven – but before that my father grew up in the late ‘50s, so he was really into early rock and roll and I was exposed to that when I was very young. And also the Beach Boys – I was really into the Beach Boys when I was a kid, like seven or eight years old. We had an 8-track and we had Beach Boys on 8-track and I’d listen to that for hours – I just loved it.
But I suppose if anything was put in front of me at the time, I would’ve gotten into that because… it was music. My nine-month-old son will dance to anything, no matter what it is. [Laughs] You could be humming and he’ll dance to it. I think that’s just the way it was [for me, too] – that’s what I was exposed to. And then when I got older, into my early teens, I wasn’t exposed to that anymore. It wasn’t what was around me; what was around me was hair rock and roll and the embarrassing ten-year period of the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s, you know? [Laughs] So that’s what I was listening to. Do you remember those Columbia House deals?
When you get, like, twelve CDs for 1 cent? Well, I’m old enough where I got cassettes and probably before that, they did records. But when I was a kid, they were big on the cassettes and everybody – all of our friends would share each other’s addresses and get compounded cassettes by using each other’s names to, like, re-sign-up! [Laughs]
We did that, too – we’d use fake names!
[Laughs] They must have been close to going out of business or something – I have no idea how that all worked! But we’d get these cassettes and, I don’t know if you remember, but they’d send you one – even if you didn’t want it – and you’d have to send it back to them. If you didn’t send it back them, then you’d have to pay for it. I was just so happy to get my twelve cassettes that I picked out! [Laughs]
But then they would send me this one, and I remember what they sent me – it was 1987 or maybe 1986 – but they sent me The Joshua Tree by U2. And that turned out to be one of my favorite albums that I can remember, but at that time what I was listening to was metal. When that came to my doorstep, I played it and was like, “This is fuckin’ terrible. I hate this. What is this?” It had so much depth to it that I couldn’t really wrap [my head] around that at that time. It wasn’t registering for me – there was a whole other world of music out there that I just wasn’t aware of.
So that passed me by until I was about sixteen or seventeen and I heard the Stones for the first time. Well, I’d heard the Stones before, but it was the ‘80s versions of the Stones. Then my friend’s dad used to play us Goat’s Head Soup and the early Stones, too, like Exile on Main Street and I was like… whoa. I was really drawn into that because that was different from anything that I was listening to. From there it was like a flood; I got into really old blues, roots music, and soul and I found a home in that stuff. I always go back to that – that’s like a sanctuary for me, that kind of music. From there I found out what real music really was.
I’m assuming you still listen to records today?
Oh, yeah. I have a decent record collection.
What’s in your vinyl collection today? Do you have any go-to records?
I have a record by RL Burnside – I actually covered a song of his on my new record, but it’s only on the vinyl version of my album. There are actually three songs that are only on the vinyl … which I did on purpose. [Laughs]
But that RL Burnside record… he was a blues guy in the early ‘60s he did acoustic Mississippi Delta blues. This record is just him with his guitar at his house in the hill country of Mississippi. It’s really, really raw and nasty and I love it!
I also have this record by Leonard Cohen that’s a favorite of mine. It’s called, Songs of Love and Hate. I first heard it when I was eighteen and it blew me away. I think I had the CD at first, but then I got the vinyl and I played it so much. It’s really scratchy now.
I have some more modern records that I really, really enjoy. I have Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips. I like that band; I really think they did some amazing records. I’ve never seen them live, but I know that they’re an experience live. I like their experience on record, too. I think whoever produces it and whoever’s engineering them did a great job with creating a landscape with their sound.
So, how important was the way you recorded this album to creating a landscape for The Salesman and the Shark? It was recorded through the same mixing board used to master albums like Exile on Main Street and albums by Neil Young and Tom Waits? Was that an intentional choice or a happy accident?
It started out as an accident because the producer that I worked with was Woody Jackson. I got real lucky with him because he was friends with the president of the label that I’m on and they had known each other for a while and worked together on a few things. But Woody had come into the studio in LA which was formerly known as Electrovox, and Electrovox was designed to be a replica of Sun Studios. So a lot of bands or artists cut their demos at Electrovox because it was set up the same way [as Sun Studios].
And so over the years it pretty much remained the same – the aesthetics of the place. When Woody got a hold of it, he took the space which was basically untouched, and [filled it with] all this gear that he’s collected over the years… it’s unbelievable. It’s like walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for music. He’s got everything you could dream about that’s been used on an album – he’s got it. The combination of the studio and his equipment – which, as you were saying, that board was used on some really classic records – it just made, for me, a really great starting point. If you’ve got the songs, there’s just a real unique sound to the place.
Most people don’t think of “keeping it real” in music as involving “real instruments” so much anymore. Do you think a sense of what’s “real” is what’s missing from music today?
Well, I think there’s a couple things going on with it. When I think of electronic music… I get into some of that stuff! But for me, this is my own personal feeling, there’s a quality to it that’s not lasting. It’s not something that I can always come back to and have a kind of home with it. I don’t know why it is – it might be because of humans not being machines. If you listen to a record from the ‘60s and it sounds like the timing is exactly precise, it’s probably not! It’s probably off here and there.
I heard of an engineer who got copy of a Stevie Wonder session where he could take apart all the instruments and play them individually, and there were some mistakes in there! But when you put everything together, you couldn’t really hear it, and those mistakes actually help the record to be… liquefied. It has this movement to it that, for some reason, is just really, really inviting and makes it so you want to hear it over and over again.
And then there’s also the element of obscurity… meaning when CDs first came out, everyone talked about how there was so much clarity, and that was supposed to be a desirable quality. For me, I liked the obscurity of older music. I like the fact that you can’t really quite make out what’s going on [on a record]. Some of it is just a mystery and it gives a magical quality to it that is lost the more you clarify things. And I feel that that’s also a part of it. And when those qualities are missing from modern music is when – it’s when I sort of turn my head away. That’s when I lose it; I try to write with those qualities because that’s what I’m into.
But let’s take someone who’s sixteen years old right now – they’ve always known digital downloads. Do you think they have a sense that something’s missing at all?
Well, for me, when I grew up in my early teens and there was all this hair rock around me, that’s what I knew, and I liked that stuff at the time. But I think inside of me, too, deep down, I was really craving for something. I was always digging for something that felt real, and I knew that I wasn’t really finding it [with what I was listening to]. I think that as kids growing up in this modern age, you never know. Once they get a little bit older and they start to expand musically, they might dig out the “White Album” and be totally blown away. I think you just never know.
Basically, it’s all a gateway.
Yeah, I think so.
You spent nearly a month in the wilderness alone some years back, directly inspiring the songs on your first album, Magic. You continue to be an avid naturalist, but was this passion for nature the main inspiration for The Salesman and The Shark?
I think everything can be inspiring, it’s just that… not everything is necessarily interesting. I think a lot of people write with a confessional approach. Especially as a listener… sometimes the lyrics and the story of the song can be so cryptic and so personal that it might just be that you’re relating to the sound of the voice or the music itself, you know? But I like to have everything in there. I like to be able to relate to the story of the song as well as the sonic aspect of it, too.
I think that I’m aware of that when I write that you can say, “My heart is broke,” in a song, but you can also say it in a way that has a bit more mystery involved in it, that makes you want to dig deeper into the song. I’m careful about that, because it excites me when I write stuff like that – I feel like I need to get interested by the music first, or by what I’m writing first.
My first impression of your stuff: You’re a come for the music, stay for the lyrics kind of songwriter.
Right. When I listen to music, I’m always hit by the sound of it first and then I think it’s great because if there’s real substance there, on the fifth listen, you start to dig a little bit deeper. A lot of my favorite music is like that – there’s so much depth to it, however you want to drag yourself into it a million different ways. I love music like that.
SEAN ROWE TOUR DATES
Sep 21 – Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA
Sep 22 – IOTA Club & Cafe, Arlington, VA
Sep 23 – The Camel, Richmond, VA
Sep 25 – The Jewish Mother Hilltop, Virginia Beach, VA
Sep 26 – Kings Barcade, Raleigh, NC
Sep 28 – the 5 points pub, Columbia, SC
Sep 29 – The Pour House, Charleston, SC
Oct 01 – Live Wire, Savannah, GA
Oct 02 – The Melting Point, Athens, GA
Oct 03 – Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, GA
Oct 04 – Asheville Music Hall, Asheville, NC
Oct 05 – The Evening Muse, Charlotte, NC
Oct 07 – The BarN on Green River Road, Williamstown, MA
Oct 22 – Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY
Nov 01 – Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
Nov 02 – Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA
Nov 09 – The WorkPlay Theatre, Birmingham, AL