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On Cinematic Lyrics and Taking a New Approach to the Studio
Listening to Sean Rowe against the scope of other American singer/songwriters is like playing a game of one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other. Progressive songwriting is still delivered with simplicity and maturity. Lyrics about people are still tinged by his naturalist views. A matter-of-fact vocal approach is still wrought with abounding, reverberating emotion, whether the song calls for elation or heartache.
After ANTI- re-released his debut Magic last year, Rowe was poised to put out the sophomore record he knows sounds like little else out there. Tracks on The Salesman and the Shark vary – simple ballads are joined by heart-wrenching duets and uptempo, experimental tracks reach outside of his previously bare material. Whether it paints a picture or creates a movie in your head, Rowe hopes to leave listeners with something they won’t forget.
You’ve been playing and writing since childhood, but you’re still young in your professional, signed music career. How’s that been going for you? How are you finding your time in the spotlight?
Well, it’s an interesting thing. I’ve been playing for many, many years but I hadn’t really toured extensively until about 2009, when it all sort of started rolling. I was touring overseas and then I got with ANTI- after that. So it’s been, I wouldn’t say a shock, but it’s been an adjustment period to [being] on the road as much as I have. I know how it works now. You can’t plan too much in one spot because that usually changes. Being flexible is what it’s all about.
I’ve seen a lot of references comparing you to Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison. Are they artists you’re personally influenced by?
I think it’s natural to get compared to somebody because that’s just the way our brains work. We have to relate what we’re seeing and hearing to something that we already know, otherwise it gets a little uncomfortable for people. So I understand that, and of course those are some of my influences and musical artists that I very much respect and draw from. So yes, I’m fine with it, but there is a point where it’s kind of like, ‘I’m in there, too.’ I’m coming from my own perspective and my own voice. Especially with this record I have coming out, I felt pretty free to be myself on it. It’s taken a long time to develop my own voice, and to just let it be as opposed to trying to make it sound like anybody else.
How have you developed your voice over the years? It’s certainly one of your most striking attributes.
Part of it is genetics. I’m in the lower range of vocalists and I have been since I was a late teenager. Part of it is just being comfortable in your own voice. The other part, the skill part, takes a long time. People relate to some kind of natural approach to singing. They relate to just putting your heart out there and just letting it go, letting it be. That creates distinction, I think, in a vocalist, and that has always been my desire, to be distinct. You just let your voice sort of ride it, ride the wave of the music and the melody and just not try. Sometimes it’s difficult to not try, but if you can get into that zone, that’s the best. That’s what I’ve learned, to just let it happen.
Naturalism is another big part of your life. Does that affect your music like it does your personal life?
You take a walk in the woods and you pay attention to everything that’s happening, like the feel of the wind on your skin, the ground underneath you, listening to all of the sounds, all of the different parts of the landscape and the changes that are happening. It’s just about awareness, and it’s like that with songwriting, too. You have to be aware of the feel of the song and what the song is trying to say.
It’s cool that you relate it that way. It’s not like your naturalism comes out in your lyrics all the time…
Lyrics, especially metaphors, you can pull from anywhere. It’s your palette. You can do whatever you want. That’s the beauty of it, you know, it’s my own landscape. Songs are my own landscape and I can paint them however I want and put whatever I want in there.
I gather that in your songwriting, you’re more in favor of compounding imagery and drawing out emotion naturally than you are of telling linear stories. Is that a conscious decision for you?
It’s just the general tone that I write with. Sometimes it’s in story form, but people write in different ways and have different approaches to songwriting. Some people are very, very good at linear story writing and I like that stuff, too. Occasionally it happens that I’ll write a song that way, but it’s not something that I just sit down and say, ‘OK, I’m going to write this in linear story form because I don’t have enough linear stories in my songs.’ I don’t say that, it’s just sometimes it’ll come out like that, and that’s cool. Everybody has their own way of doing it, but mine tend to heavily focus on imagery and so I just sort of ride that out.
So tell me about the new album. Did the songwriting process or the creative approach differ at all from Magic?
Yeah, it was a lot different. When we were recording Magic, it was much more relaxed because it wasn’t like we were rushing to get the record out. It took about a year and a half to finish and that’s not because it was difficult, it was just scheduling. The producer and I, we couldn’t always meet up every day. So we’d do a little bit here and a little bit there.
So that right there separated it from this new release, which was a total reversion. I went to L.A. for about three weeks and just camped out near Hollywood where we recorded this record at Vox Studios. That was an amazing experience, and I found that I really work well by immersing myself in what’s happening. Whether that be in nature or music, I tend to get stuff done when that’s all I have to worry about. I had a lot of support from the label and we recorded pretty close to where they’re [based]. They were very involved with this record and helped out a lot with hooking up the producer. Things just sort of aligned in the right way. That was exciting and we got a lot of good stuff out of it.
With Magic, you were very particular about how it was recorded, wanting certain finger strokes and breath sounds to be perfect. But with The Salesman and the Shark you wanted it to have more of a live feel. Why did you switch up those goals?
The instrumentation is a lot more dramatic on this record, for sure, and we had a lot of different players on the record. That was really exciting for me, to work with so many great people. It was so different from the last record as far as the way we approached it. It sounds a lot different, it’s definitely in a different world, I suppose. The last one was pretty bare and that was very purposeful. Even on this new record, there are songs that have a lot of space, which is really important. You’re not just throwing instruments on there gratuitously because you can. The studio we were in was like walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It had every instrument I’ve ever seen or even thought about before. It was just fascinating. But we didn’t use everything on it; we had some restraint going on there.
You wanted the record to have a certain aesthetic and a consistent feel. What was that? How do you think the record will come across as a whole to listeners?
It pretty much stuck to what I had in my head, which was really inspired by Scott Walker’s stuff, especially Scott 4. That record and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends.
I was really trying to create this cinematic feel to it, which is the way I feel about those records. The imagery is not just the lyrics, but the music itself creates it in the drops and the crescendos of the song.
The way we recorded them and the studio we recorded them in having its own sound sort of brought all these songs together. Even though they are very different from each other, it has this feel to it, this grit to it, which was really important to me.
I don’t think it’s necessary to stick with a style. That’s why it’s important to me to bring out these other sides because I think it just makes it more interesting. People are not just one-sided, you know. They have multifaceted aspects to their personality, so it doesn’t make sense to stay in that one place and become static. The songwriters that I love have always done that, brought in different elements to songwriting to remove that static sense that people tend to expect from them.
What’s the plan for touring to support this album?
We have a ton of dates coming in September and October, so I’ll be on the road quite a bit. Most of it is in the Northeast and the South, although we’ll definitely be out West at some point with the record. I’ve played more out West then I have in the East, which is kind of funny because this is where I’ve lived for most of my life.
Will the set up be full band or just you? Or will it vary?
I’m working on getting the people I’d want to take on the tour. I’m really picky about it, being a solo performer for so long. The shows, people always say there’s a dichotomy between my live show and the recording. There is for a few reasons, and one is because it’s usually just me playing live. So it’s going to be different just because of that. The other reason is that, it’s like comparing theater to film. There’s definitely different approaches happening in both of those two elements, live being much more in the moment and much more intuitive and it tends to dictate what songs I’m going to play. Sometimes it can be a bit more aggressive. But getting the right people has always been a challenge. Just like I don’t like to throw on random instruments just to have them on the songs, I don’t like to bring in random people just to have random people on the stage. It’s gotta make sense, and for me it’s gotta be interesting.
photos by Marius Bugge