Sean Rowe has one of those voices: an oaky, resonant baritone that would suck you right in even if his songs weren’t so sturdy and compelling. Even a short listen to Rowe’s work, however — his voice, the quality of the writing and the spare, yet filling nature of his guitar accompaniment — confirm him as a triple-threat alt-folkie justifying all his buzz and then some.
But the voice, man. The voice.
Comparisons to Nick Cave get tossed around a bunch, and that’s legitimate. I hear at least as much, however, of Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher and Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples. And even that’s limiting; Rowe’s is an instrument malleable enough to shade into Johnny Cash territory, maybe even Tom Waits if he scuffs it a bit.
Rowe’s label home is Anti-, the same as Cave and Waits and on which he has a sterling new album, The Salesman and the Shark. The combination of that album and 2011′s under-the-radar gem, Magic, is a good place to start, as are live recordings. (Rowe’s 7/21/12 show at New York’s Mercury Lounge, linked here in a superb capture by the irrepressible NYCTaper, is a good example, featuring achingly on-point covers of Waits’ Jesus Gonna Be Here, Leonard Cohen’s Bird On a Wire and the Violent Femmes’ Gone Daddy Gone, in addition to unhurried, fleshed-out readings of Rowe originals like Joe’s Cult and The Walker.)
At least as important to Rowe’s make-up is his passion for the wilderness. Rowe’s love of naturalism originally started after reading Tom Brown’s The Tracker at 18, and turned into taking courses at Brown’s Wilderness Survival School in New Jersey, solo survival quests, studying under wild food experts, instructing wilderness survival students, and blogging for the Albany Times Union on the subject. It’s not always completely obvious in his music, but it’s the type of personal attribute that add a level of understanding to some of his lyrical choices – and for many listeners, that enhances the experience.
Rowe, who briefly caught up with Hidden Track earlier this month, is on tour this fall, including two nights opening up for Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers in New York this week.
HIDDEN TRACK: Your interest in naturalism is well documented. In what ways does that directly inform your songwriting?
SEAN ROWE: I wrote a song called the Lonely Maze. The answer is in that song.
HT: How did you get so interested in naturalism in the first place? I read that you took inspiration from Tom Brown and other authors but was there one particular experience that was the “wow” moment for this passion?
SR: My path became more solid once I read the “tracker” by Tom Brown Jr. I was 18 years old at that time.
HT: Magic more or less broke you to a wider audience, and it sounds like there was pretty natural progress from Magic to the Salesman and the Shark. What were your goals for the latter?
SR: I wanted to play around a bit more. I wanted to take more risks. It’s more expansive than the last one. That’s what I was looking for.
HT: It seems like on Shark that you’re pushing your voice a little harder — different directions, really trying to flesh on your singing — than on previous albums. Am I imagining that?
SR: The voice is such a liquid, you know. It goes where it wants to go depending on all sorts of conditions. I was playing with it more on this one. It felt good to do that. I think it’s good to keep expanding as a singer and to break out into territory you might be unsure of.
HT: Some of the arrangements on Shark remind me of your previous albums but some are a lot more enhanced, buoyant. They sound “produced.” Tell me a little about what you and producer Woody Jackson were going for here.
SR: I think Woody has a great sense for not getting in the way of the vocal or what the story is in the song but instead using the right devices to tell the story in the most effective way possible. And he’s not opposed to fucking things up a bit. He takes risks, and I like that a lot about him. He’s also an extremely focused and talented musician himself.
HT: How have you evolved as a live performer? I’ve seen you solo, but in one of your last NYC gigs, for example, you played with Railbird’s Sarah Pedinotti and her presence was a nice complement.
SR: Yeah, as a performer it’s been a long road. Lots of hard work. I’m not a natural performer. I’m actually pretty introverted so it was a process for me. For me there is no other approach to performing to being completely emotionally naked. But it’s a challenge to let go. I’m still at it. I enjoy it really. When it’s great, it’s great. I’ve learned that “thinking” on stage is not your friend but rather a most brutal enemy. There’s all kinds of poisons to help vanquish the enemy but the fucker keeps coming back. Not much you can do. It does keep things interesting though.
HT: You’re doing something like 16 dates with Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. Do you know each other? Think you’ll collaborate at all?
SR: We’ve never actually met. I love collaborating with new friends but you never know how it’s going go so, I guess we’ll see.