“I Don’t Just Write Songs to Have Them Sound Good”: An Interview with Sean Rowe

When praising Sean Rowe, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The most obvious starting point is his swooning baritone, all Tom-Waits-without-the-whiskey. But a deeper listen points to his dreamy lyrics that fit together like poetry, lyrics that manage to simultaneously be elusive and aim straight for the gullet. (“I want to live in your house / This is not my room it’s just a cold hotel / I want to stay in this dream until I believe / I put my hand inside / I pulled a green stone from my pocket and I watched it glow,” Rowe’s voice lingers on “Signs”.)

Then there is his admirable commitment to the natural world, where he retreated to write his first record, Magic. Rowe has taken courses at Tom Brown’s Wilderness Survival School in Asbury, NJ. He also studied for a year at Hawk Circle Wilderness Education in Cherry Valley, NY, where completed a 24-day solo survival quest. And as recently as 2010, Rowe could be found teaching workshops on finding edible plants in the wild.

For Rowe, nature and music seem to be intimately connected. In our interview, he talks about going within as a way of retreating into nature. On The Salesman and the Shark, he goes inside until he is self-transcendent, seeming more to be channeling songs than simply writing or singing them. It doesn’t hurt that he’s backed by nine pieces of strings and, on one song (“The Wall”), the vocals of Inara George (the Bird and the Bee, the Living Sisters). The masterful production of Woody Jackson ties all the songs together, bringing even more light to Rowe’s work.

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Did you write as much of the new record in nature as Magic? Or did your writing process differ for this album?

Well, the process is pretty much the same as far as the way that I write. But the way it was executed was different, because the new record was more of an immersion since I was camped out at the studio for three weeks in LA to do this one. Magic was different; we did that a little bit at a time. We did that in my hometown, Troy, New York. I was working and then I would record here and there.

You said that the writing process for this record was the same. What is that process?

It’s usually not the words first, although I have written songs from just a line. More times than not, I’ll have a chord or something, and I’ll just vamp on that for a while and really listen for what it’s trying to tell me. A lot of what I’m singing at first is nonsense, not even words. Then I’ll record that and listen to it. The way that my process works is that if there’s a song in there, and you are just chipping away at it to figure out how it works and what it’s trying to say. It goes from a song that’s really strange and nonsense to a song that’s slowly shaping into something. It’s an editing process too. I don’t just write songs to have them sound good. There has to be substance to it. That’s more of the left-brain side; the process of digging it out and interpreting it. Really sort of placing it somewhere and getting a sense of the overall feeling of it, that’s the more open side, the more creative side. So they both come together in the process.

What made you decide to have a string octet on the record?

Nine, if you count the bass. Going into it, we knew that we were going to want some strings on it. On Magic, there are strings, but they’re very subtle. I would have liked to have had more strings on Magic, but I’m glad it turned out the way it did. It added to the sparseness and minimalistic approach to the record. On Magic, it was effective. On this one, it was different because we had a live octet in there, and they played all at once, as opposed to layering. They did come in and do it live, and the guy who arranged the strings, is just a brilliant composer. He has this 50-piece hiphop orchestra, and he also writes and composes. He had never heard the songs, and he literally had three days to do four songs. Basically, the main theme of the songs were strings. He did the strings for ‘The Wall’, ‘Long Way Home’, ‘Horses’, and ‘the Ballad of Buttermilk Falls’.

Switching over to the lyrics side of things, I write a lot of poetry, so I found myself wondering how much poetry you read and where you get your imagery.

I do read some, probably not as much as people would think from the stuff that I’m writing. There’s only certain kinds of poetry that really, really hit me. The kind that does seems to be devoid of ego almost. I like poetry that really, really cuts. Sometimes that’s not a bona fide poet. It can be a song that just hits me the right way. I tend to go for the simpler, more direct approach in the poetry that I enjoy. I do like Charles Bukowski, I love Leonard Cohen’s stuff. There’s just a real beauty in that. When I’m writing, even though the lyrics don’t come first, they’re very, very important to me. Not only in what they’re saying and what kind of imagery is being put out there, but also in the way the words sit and the way they fit together and how the rhythm works within the song between the beats. I’m real conscious of that.

Can you talk a little bit about ‘Signs’?

That song was written for my father, who passed away in the late 90s. I actually didn’t know I was writing it for him at first. It didn’t come to me until I was done with the song that that’s what the song was about. You almost can’t even take credit for them. They don’t seem to require you to be active to get them out. Some songs are like that. They feel like they’re handed to you. It’s coming from a real place. It’s coming from a place of the heart and of real emotion. It’s real, and it’s right. There’s also this side to it that just because the feeling is real and what you’re feeling is real and you can write about it, doesn’t mean it’s going to be interesting to somebody. That’s when the craft part comes in. For me, I like to filter what I’m feeling into some kind of mode of writing, which is what poetry does. It’s a mode of writing so you can put all this imagery out there. It might not necessarily be very very direct. It is direct emotionally, but the words might not be direct. It might not hit you right away. ‘Signs’ is sort of like that. It’s almost like the song is a dream. It’s constantly changing. It gets out into themes that are moving. They become something else; they evolve into something else. I had been dreaming about my dad for many, many dreams over and over again, usually the same dream. I had this idea that I would create a song around the feeling of the dream. You know how a dream is. It’s not linear. You can be in one place, and then you can be on top of a kangaroo’s shoulders. So it’s really non-linear like that. It still has a lot of meaning to that.

How did Inara George come to sing on ‘The Wall’?

That was a little bit of [producer] Woody’s [Jackson] intuition. I had known her from the Bird and the Bee. I liked her voice. Woody actually came up with her in the studio because of being friends with her [and] working with her in the past. I told him what I needed. ‘The Wall’ was written initially, when I first wrote it, it was just one voice. The lyrics were arranged as if it would be one voice. Then I felt that I really wanted a female component in there, that it would be a really beautiful duet. I reworked the lyrics a little bit. It was hard to find the right female vocal for it. We tried out maybe four people. They were really great singers in their own right, but it just didn’t work. So, he had mentioned Inara from working with her in the past. So she came in for a day, not hearing the song before, and I worked with her a little bit on it, and we went over the emotion in the song and how I thought it should be conveyed, and she did it.

I was really struck by how different ‘Horses’ was from the rest of the album as well. I didn’t know if there was a story behind it, like that you had written it at a different time.

‘Horses’ was probably the most involved song on the record, and it really became this epic thing because of the intent of the song and how I wanted it to build. Structurally, if you strip it down, there’s not that many changes in the song. The chord structure is actually very simple. So we kept that simple structure and filled in the gaps, and I wanted the main theme of the song to remain the same, but in between notes, I wanted to the song to flow, to build, to throb through till the end. For me, I like the contrast. I like albums with contrast. A lot of the later Beatles records have that. I think it’s good, because if you think of whatever we choose to call reality, there’s a lot of contrast there. It’s not dark. It’s not light. There’s a lot of contrast in-between. That’s why the songs are very different from one another.

Where does the title, ‘Horses’ come from?

That was the imagery that I was hearing as I wrote. I like words that are open-ended like that. It could mean many different things. I was hearing and I was visualizing horses for this song, even before I wrote any of the lyrics for it. Sometimes I don’t think the title has to reflect the specific meaning of the song.

I want to switch subjects again to your relationship with nature because I know that’s very important to you. What is the biggest challenge to our environment right now?

The biggest challenge is the disconnection from the land that we have in mainstream society. That pervades everything that we do. All our decisions are based on what I believe to be who we are and a fragmentation of how we live now. We’re all specialized in one thing. We don’t generally feel there’s a connection from this to that. We will do well to recognize that there are other cultures, especially other past cultures that had a different way of looking at things, that there may be a lot of value to it. That’s my concern, getting back to a connection, getting back to a relationship with the land. Any way you can do that — having a garden or going out foraging or just being with nature, participating in it somehow.

Have your feelings about what it means to be in nature changed with all your experiences and your going out on your own?

In one way, you could say that everything here is in nature. You don’t have to go into the woods, you know. You could just go into yourself. You’re a part of nature. We are a part of nature. All of it comes back to the same thing. The idea that we are somehow separate from the earth is just odd. And it creates this idea that we’re somehow aliens to our own planet. So connections in nature could be anything, really. It could be going into yourself to just feel what’s around you. Just hearing and feeling and seeing and touching everything that’s around you. That’s going into nature just as much as going to a mountain.