Monday, November 13, 2017

INTERVIEW: Sean Rowe (March 2017)



With the likes of Rag‘n’Bone Man and Hozier reaping commercial dividends preaching a new kind of gospel, the time has never been riper for a Sean Rowe breakthrough. Over the past year, To Leave Something Behind - the moving song which accompanies the climax of recent Ben Affleck thriller The Accountant - has proven a poignant gateway for many to the world of the US singer-songwriter. Fittingly, the long-player it prefixed - New Lore - offers a rich melting-pot of folk, country, blues and soul which distils Rowe’s previous material down to its emotional essence.

Rowe’s wisened, oak-hewn baritone comes from way down deep in the gut and packs considerable emotional heft: think Ray LaMontagne with the timbre of an old bluesman. Recorded in Memphis’s historic Sam Phillips studio, New Lore is a beautiful, rich-sounding record on which the singer’s wounded croon conveys a power and depth far beyond his years.

On the last record, you tried your hand at a number of different genres and musical styles - New Lore seems a much more focused collection than your last album, would you agree with that?

Yeah, I’d say so, sure.

Was it the case that you felt like you’d exhausted a lot of the possibilities musically last time around and decided you were going to hone things down on this album?

I don’t think it’s so much that - I just think it’s more of, um... you know, the more I’m at this, the more I do this kind of work, it’s easier to see sort of see through the smoke. It’s kind of like once you have a certain thing you do really well that you figure out over time - just sort of honing in on that, and trying to distil it down to something that I feel is like the most effective way to connect with people. And that really, you know, has a lot to do with my voice. As a musician, as a writer, everyone has something that they do really well - there’s a thing that is just theirs, that if you’re being honest about it, no-one can really touch it. You know, and no-one can really do what you do, if you’re being authentic. So, I think just distilling that, trying to figure out what that is exactly, took me kind of a long while - so the more I record, the more I perform, I sort of get it down to the essentials for me, you know? So I think if the record is more focused, it’s partly because I’m older - and you hopefully get wiser [laughs] as you get older, you know, so I’d say that’s why it’s a little bit more focused than the other ones, maybe.

The album’s got a wonderfully rich sound to it - I was wondering how you came to record it in such a legendary facility.

Yeah - well, the co-producer I worked with, Matt Ross-Spang, he’s doing really well now; I first heard of him actually through the work he did with Jason Isbell. And, you know, Matt, he works out of Memphis, what was formerly a studio owned by Sam Phillips himself - but also Matt has a lot to do with Nashville recording, too. You know, the sound that’s happening out there - his hand is in that stuff as well. I just really like his aesthetic, and I really like... I mean, the history around the place I recorded, Sam Phillips Recording, and of course Sun Studios all tied in together there in Memphis really drew me in. You know, because partly the music I was listening to when I was younger was, you know, Otis Redding from Stax and early rock‘n’roll: Johnny Cash, Elvis... So as a kid, I was really influenced by that music that was not of my generation - that music transcends generational gaps anyway, so yeah, that was partly the draw was ’cos of the music I grew up on.

There’s a documentary I saw recently about Muscle Shoals, and how that as an environment feeds into the music that comes out of it. Is Memphis one of those places where you can feel that energy and that history when you arrive there?

Yeah, the players we had on the record were this group of people that I had never met before; most of these cats were like the ‘Memphis sound’ people - they were like the house band of the studio, so everybody knew each other really well except for me! [Laughs] I was kind of going into that thing blind. But there’s a definite vibe out there - there was a feel to it, and that’s what I was after. But it’s a balance; I didn’t want to overload the songs with a ‘Memphis sound’ just because I could - I mean, first and foremost it’s about the actual songs, and how I could make them the best that I could do.

Did you find that the songs ended up coming out differently as a result of the environment it was recorded in, particularly as a result of the players?

Yeah. Yeah, I think so - it’s hard to pinpoint what makes the record sound the way that it does in the end because there’s a lot of factors coming into play, but I know for sure it wouldn’t be the same record if I wasn’t in that spot; it would sound different. So I think being there was inspiring enough that... you know, it’s also nerve-wracking too, but I kind of like the pressure of it all too, going into a space like that where you know some amazing music’s come out of that, and some people that were in that building you’re recording in are legends. So yeah, that kind of pressure creates a mysterious kind of excitement that can build on a record, and it can definitely have an effect on the sound that you end up with, so I’m sure that had a profound effect on the end thing.

This is a very loaded word, so I mean it perhaps not in a literal sense, but the overall sound is almost “religious” in a way - particularly a song like Promise of You, which has that really stirring gospel feel. How do you feel about that as a description of the album’s overall sound?

Yeah, I mean... I think when you get into talking about gospel... you know, gospel is inherently religious in its thematic quality - however, it transcends that, too; it’s more of a personal connection in the song, and a yearning song that could be about anything. So that is the draw with gospel, I think, is that it doesn’t matter that it’s religious in its context and intent; what’s important is the connection that happens between the song and the listener, you know. That sort of desperation and yearning, and total authenticity - that comes across, and I try to put that in everything that I do. So in essence, it’s all gospel, you know? It’s coming from the heart; it’s coming from a place of genuine desire and need, sure.

Do you think maybe ‘spiritual’ is perhaps a more fitting term?

Um... it depends on who’s saying it and what they mean by it, but yeah, I think I would call it that; you know, in a certain way, everything is spiritual if it’s trying to find something outside of yourself - trying to connect with somebody or something in a larger picture, you know: that’s spiritual. It’s all that.

The song that really jumped out at me (for perhaps want of a better phrase) is The Salmon - character sketch, autobiographical, or a mix of the two?

Yep, it’s all of those things. It’s all of those things. Sometimes I just like to create an overall feeling - not really necessarily spelling it out in terms of a narrative, but just creating an overall feeling of it that people can relate to: that maybe they can put themselves into and really feel it, so that was one of those things. You know, sometimes my storylines are not very linear, not very detailed in terms of the specifics, and that’s okay because it depends on what you’re really going for. What I was going for was a feeling, as I say.

Since your last release, Hollywood came calling and you had a song featured on a mainstream soundtrack - what sort of impact did you find that having? Did it have a really noticeable effect on your profile over the last couple of years?

It’s been immensely helpful, to be honest, yeah. It’s a song that was really dear to me when I wrote it - it didn’t really fit on the records I was doing, however, and I was pretty bummed that it kind of got lost in the shuffle of the records. And along comes this film, and they felt it was really right for this scene - and just the timing was perfect: to be right before this release, and for the song to have the impact that it did, that was very surprising. I knew it had a universal appeal to it, but I didn’t think... the song is pretty long, you know; it’s certainly not a pop song. But for me - and I’m still working on kind of a small scale, but from anything I’ve done, it seems to be the song that’s resonated with the most people, you know. So that’s surprising to me, and very... it’s comforting.

And I guess it’s better it being a song that you really like, rather than one you feel isn’t particularly emblematic of what you do.

Yeah - and there’s certainly songs I write that I call ‘songy-songs’: they’re more like a feel-good song. Not that they’re poorly-written, it’s just that I wouldn’t say there’s an excessive amount of depth to them. Sometimes it’s just on the surface and that’s okay - it’s how it makes your body feel. But with this song, there is depth to it, and I took a lot of care in writing it, so it’s nice to get that kind of recognition for that song.

Your website biography lists you as “Singer, Songwriter, Forager” - I only found this out the other day, but you actually run Wilderness Classes, which is probably a first for any musical artist I’m aware of! How did that come about?

Well, that seed was planted when I was a kid - I was real fascinated with... oh, living off the land, what that would mean, and how to go about doing that. So I lived at a wilderness survival school for a year when I was younger; I took a lot of courses and a lot of it was self-directed learning - I spent some time alone in the woods doing just that, just living off the land and building shelters. But nowadays I primarily focus on foraging as means of keeping me connected to the land, and also to provide some of my food intake over the year. So it depends on where I am - if I’m touring, I’ll certainly forage on the tours too, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve done some in Europe too on some tours that I’ve done out there - so I’ll find, like, parks, I’ll find forests, fields, all that stuff when I have a break, and I’ll just harvest the plants that I know, bring ’em back home, cook ’em up!

What’s the best place you’ve found then for foraging around the world?

Well, the North East is great - the further you go south from the north-east, the more you have available for a greater portion of the year. So where I am in upstate New York, I’m limited by the winter for what I can harvest - but from May through let’s say the end of October, there’s always something out. And really, like, what I’m doing right now is processing acorns into flour, and traditionally that was done in the north-east, but more so in the west: on the west coast there were tribal peoples out there who their main staple food was acorns. And acorns from Oaks are found all over the world, which is cool - I mean, there are cultures in different countries that use acorns for flour. It’s just not well-known you can do that anymore, but I have a lot of fun processing that, and I make all kinds of stuff from flour, so it’s been really fun doing that lately.

I read a lot - and think a lot - about where society’s headed in a post-industrial age. Though seems to be a particularly pertinent issue for people like yourself who have children, it seems odd that more people don’t take more of an active interest in connecting with nature. There’s a book I read called The Long Emergency which details how important this is going to be in decades to come - I wonder if perhaps you’re rather ahead of the curve on this one.

Well, I think I realise the value - and especially there’s a palpable feeling I get: if I’m sitting at the computer too long or I have just, like, the busy work side of not being on stage, if I do that too much and don’t get out in nature, I really feel that in my body. And sometimes tells me okay, it’s time to take it away from this. So I think there’s something internally that is a biological thing that we’ve evolved to in nature, you know, of course. For many, many... most of our lives as humans were spent outside - it’s only very recently that we’ve become as modern as we are in how we live now. So I still feel there’s a biological connection there that’s being unfulfilled by the lifestyle we live now. And getting too caught up in that... I feel it, so I have to go the other way, you know. I imagine it’s the same for a lot of other people that might just not have another outlet for it.

The song Gas Station Rose seems to tap into the idea of being lost in the wilderness or dwarfed by nature; of being “on our own”. Without wanting to get too grandiose or existential, is that how you feel as a member of the human race, or am I reading too much into the metaphor?

Yeah, I tend to use... I think nature in and of itself, when you’re talking about themes, there’s just some grandiose imagery to work with there, and it’s woven throughout a lot of my songs ’cos it’s just meaningful. It’s the same with religion - I’m not a religious person in terms of any sort of doctrine, but I use those themes because they’re powerful and they’re tools; you can understand them. You know, sometimes I’m not really specifically talking about being in the woods, but I’ll use that as metaphor, for sure. And sometimes it is what I’m talking about - this song I have called Madman directly addresses that on my last record, so it’s both, really.

It’s perhaps inevitable in the current climate that any American artist gets asked about politics, but as someone with a deep affinity to the natural world, what’s your perspective on what’s going on in your country at the moment in terms of environmental legislation?

Yeah, I think it’s very... it’s become like a cartoon world right now. I think it’s very scary as a parent to be following what’s happening right now and not knowing how things are going to look, because the way that our government has now put us on this path - and hopefully it won’t go on for more than four years! - but it’s like, when you put jobs or the economy of higher importance than clean air, clean water and clean food, that’s like biting yourself on the ass, you know? That’s like a concept that a third-grader would get, you know? You know what I mean, the fact that we have a President that first and foremost what he’s about is terrifying, you know. It’s terrifying. So we try with our art to expose that kind of lunacy, you know - and art can do so much, but nobody knows what the end result of this is, it’s just the lunacy of it and, as I said, the cartoon quality it has is very troubling.

As someone who is an activist in their own way, do you find it something that challenges you to keep at it, or do you find it more dispiriting?

Yeah, I find it both - it is dispiriting, but when you look at it, there is no alternative but to either perish or keep fighting; keep fighting in your own way with what you can do. I think you tend to look at things differently if you’re a parent and if you have kids, because they’re inheriting the world at some point - they can’t do anything right now [laughs], and they’re gonna get this world that you leave them, so... It’s just when you have such lack of sight as a leader, it’s just mind-boggling, it really is. So I’m doing what I can to keep myself up.

Finally, this is a question I asked of Micah P. Hinson, who’s someone who has a similar sort of feel to his voice and conveys similar sorts of meaning. He had quite a funny response, so I was wondering what your answer would be. Do you feel like an ‘old soul’?

An old soul...?

Yeah.

...Sometimes I just feel really old! [Laughs] An ‘old soul’. When I can feel the arthritis in my knees, I wonder what the hell happened to me! But, uh... you know, I feel very much connected to place, and this idea that we don’t need to keep growing economically to find our value, and to find meaning out of life. There’s this idea that, like, the wheel just keeps turning, and nobody’s ever happy unless we get to this next point, you know. And I think that we’re looking in the wrong place; I think that if people could just stop for a minute and realise what they have - and just how privileged we are to see the beauty around you... I think if that’s being an ‘old soul’, I believe that at one point humanity as a whole was much happier than we are now. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I feel kinship to the people that came before to and have found meaning in their lives just from what’s around them.

I’ll tell you what, that’s a much nicer answer to the question than I might have anticipated, so it’s as good a place as any to leave it!

[Laughs] Alright!


New Lore is available now on ANTI-.

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