By: Tim Lavoie
This past November, the ascendant Sean Rowe powered through a rambunctious, genre-busting solo set of folk and blues at the South Side’s packed Club Café. Many know Rowe for his booming, almost subterranean baritone. For as immediately gripping his powerful vocals are, after his impactful Club Café show it’s clear that it’s everything else that Sean does so well that’s been the force behind his steady, and continuing rise to acclaim.
Rowe came to Pittsburgh in support of 2015’s Her Songs, an EP consisting of six covers of songs originally written and recorded by women. These stripped down, guitar and vocals only takes on material from Regina Spektor, Neko Case, Sadé, Lucinda Williams, Feist, and Cat Power, is an ear-opening study in contrast. The effective, unexpected interweaving of these songs written from a female perspective with Sean’s almost impossibly masculine delivery provide a challenging, fascinating new context for songs that listeners thought they knew for years.
Regarding Her Songs, a visibly proud Sean acknowledged, “I’m very happy with it. I’m happy with the way we did it too, which was really bare-bones, live recording. It was straight live, and we recorded the videos of each take live. The videos online are the actual recordings, the microphone is sort of out of the camera, which makes it a really cool shot.”
Asked what the process of selecting those six songs was like once he had the idea to honor some of his favorite female songwriters, Rowe explained, “First of all they had to translate to guitar because a lot of them are piano based.” He continued, “I’d done the Cat Power one on piano before, (“Colors and the Kids”), and made a clip of that from the studio while I was recording the last record. But for the most part I wanted them to be able to translate to the guitar. But also I went though other songs to see which would be best for my voice and to be believable as a singer to pull them off. I didn’t have the arrangements in mind going into the project, and some were done very quickly. The only song that I had played that I was really familiar with before all of this was that Cat Power song. The Sadé song, (“By Your Side”), I was familiar with, but I had never tried to play it.”
Rowe’s take on Sadé’s seductive “By Your Side” is the track that’s received the most talk
and online attention. Part of the appeal may be that on paper, it’s the most surprising selection of the six for Rowe to have undertaken. Yet, his intense, unironic interpretation of the new R&B classic not only works, but provides a refreshing emotional depth that adds layers of enjoyment to hearing Sadé’s enchanting original. Now that is the sign of a successful cover. Sean agreed, “That one I knew was really special as I was recording it. It just seemed to flow really nicely. We tracked a different version of it, and it wasn’t sounding right for some reason, I may have changed the key, I’m not sure. But that take felt right. That one and I think the Regina Spektor were my two favorite tracks from the project.”
Sean is an accomplished songwriter in his own right, having penned four solo records since 2004, the latest being 2014’s breakthrough, Madman, on ANTI Records. His records are a dynamic mix of heartwarming traditional folk (check out “My Little Man”, about his young son), blues-rock, and even surf. Asked if it’s a double-edged sword for a songwriter to be known for successfully playing other people’s songs, Rowe found a comfortable middle ground. “It’s kinda boring to me if I’m just playing a cover that’s an attempt to just try and copy the original. Sometimes I’ll do that just to get into the head of the person that wrote the song. Sometimes it’s nice to get in their shoes for a little bit, but it actually sort of brings something new to the table that might be exciting. And it feels like kind of my own thing. I try to attempt to do covers like that. Preserving somehow the emotion of the original, but also doing it in a different way. And in enough of a different way that I feel like I’m bringing something new to it.”
An unfortunate byproduct of having a voice as immediately recognizable as Sean’s, is that the other aspects of his immense talent don’t receive nearly the attention deserved. After taking in his thumping, joyus set, the most obvious weapon in his musical arsenal is his virtuosic, almost athletic guitar playing. The only conclusion the crowd could reach after he closed with a rousing take on Richard Thompson’s 1991 renowned motorcycle tale, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (see clip below), is that this guy can absolutely wail. Sean’s dexterous approach involves using his palm against body of his self-customized guitar as percussion and a rolling storm of fingerpicked melody.
Regarding his vocals unfortunately overshadowing his guitar-playing, Sean laughed, and noted, “There’s aspects of what I can do on the guitar that I feel are really original, and that I haven’t seen anyone else do, that comes from me and is my thing. At the same time I don’t feel like I’m some incredible guitar player. I just do a couple things really really well, and unlike anybody. It’s a nice place to be. Because if somebody makes a certain kind of sandwich somewhere, and nobody else can do that, it might not be technically amazing, but it’s that sandwich that you have to have every once and awhile. So I feel that I’m a shop somewhere that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Sandwiches aside, when asked if he saw himself as bluesman or folk singer, Sean avoided all talk of labels. “I see myself as just a songwriter, a performing songwriter. Nobody wants to be classified as one thing. Why would you want to limit yourself? The canvas is pretty large. It’s a number of people, influences, and emotions coming together anytime you write a song, and you never know what you’re going to get at the end. I approach performing as raw as I can get. I like recordings that feel fresh and exciting, and not contrived - that feel like they’re in the moment, and have grit in them, and mistakes in them, and just feel real.”
A committed naturalist, when not performing, the Troy, New York, native focuses his energies on his passion for the wilderness. In the past, he’s been a nature and wilderness writer for the Albany Times Union. Now he enjoys practicing his survival skills on excursions into the nearby Catskills and Adirondack mountains, teaches wilderness classes anyone can book on www.seanrowe.net, and is an active nature blogger. Asked about the irony of having to spend more and more time in big cities as his career blossoms, Sean highlighted the positives aspects of the situation. “Having to play cities gives you perspective. It’s a part of growing up too. When I was younger I was more romantic about the idea of living on my own in the woods and not having to deal with society. But now having a family, I’m more in touch with my own needs for that quality of life of sharing with other people and being part of a community. That’s been really valuable to me. Even in the city - the component that I drag into my life is foraging, and you can go anywhere for that. You don’t have to be in the mountains. In fact, some of the best foraging I do is in local parks when I’m on the road.”
Each of Sean’s records have more expansive sonically that the previous; collectively building a sort of historical document of American roots music. He explained that this wide breadth of sound is the result of his “A.D.D. approach of putting an album together. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best, and I’m trying to get to more of a place where the whole album has one sort of solid mood to it rather than up and down. I can’t look at it objectively because I’m the one doing it. Whether it works really depends on the person hearing it and what they feel about the record.”
On the immediate horizon for Rowe is another record of originals. “I definitely have a vision for it, what I’d like it to be. Maybe a few possibilities of where it could go, then when you record the songs, it can go in a totally different direction. You kinda have to wait until you get stuff down and tracked to see what it really wants to be. It may be totally different from the original idea, which it has been in the past.” He continued, “The songs are all written. I have about 30 that we’re going to try to piece together. Then we’ll pick from there which are the best. I still believe in the record. I play vinyl at home. I still believe in the spirit of the record - one recording that stands on its own as a spiritual entity that’s got an aura about it. As long as there are people out there that want to buy records, I want to make them. It may not be the main thing again, but it’s very satisfying.”
After spending a few minutes with Sean before the set, and watching him perform, it becomes apparent just how much positivity the man exudes. He’s rightfully excited about his future, and while not fully buying into the “Golden Age” of singer-songwriter talk, he’s optimistic about the musical state of things. “There’s definitely a lot more opportunities to do stuff at a grassroots level then there ever was before. There does seem to be this element that’s coming through that songs are very important and not the flash so much, but the actual song content seems to be coming to the foreground. And that’s good, it’s a really good thing. There’s still a lot of garbage out there too, but I think that it is a ‘thing’ we’re seeing. Somebody like Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell, they have that country vibe, but there’s something about that makes them different about them, almost a punk attitude. There’s a realness that comes out and I think that’s pretty obvious. It’s nice to see it in that genre.”
Sean happily still calls Tory home, and laughed at the suggestion of at some point having to move to Brooklyn as he gets more popular. “Ha, no, that’s not my scene. I’m at a place in my life where I need to do things on my own terms. So I certainly have people helping me get through this game here. But I call the shots.” So long as he’s still calling the shots, his listeners will continue to reap the benefits. Look for Sean’s new record to be released sometime in 2016, and his hopeful return to Pittsburgh soon thereafter.