Sean Rowe’s Natural Anthems
Don’t believe everything you read. If you ask lifelong naturalist Sean Rowe, he’s been wrongly made out to be something of a man against nature. “I don’t go out looking to be rescued,” the singer-songwriter, armed with a tectonic-shifting baritone, says of his recent journalistic portrayals. Yes, the 37-year-old has been known to do a month-long survival stint. But don’t expect Hollywood execs to come knocking anytime soon. “I don’t want to see a show of me going out to pick berries,” he says about his usual outdoor activities. “It’s boring.”
Rowe may joke. But the singer’s approach to music—particularly his take-it-or-leave-it attitude—is fierce and uncompromising. It’s what led the folk musician, whose musical mantra is more akin to country badasses like Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie than some kumbaya-singing drum-circle dippy, to dream up The Salesman and the Shark. It’s Rowe’s second release for the boundary-pushing Anti-Records, following 2009’s Magic. And while he’s well aware that his latest may be a bit divisive—what with its instrumental dirge and electrified acoustic guitar—that’s exactly how he wants it.
Interview caught up with Rowe when he wasn’t foraging the vast woods near his upstate New York home to discuss the poetic nature of his music, his unfortunate foray into hair rock, and how, in his mind, even angels work for the devil.
DAN HYMAN: Your lyrical approach, particularly on The Salesman and the Shark, is very poetic. Intentional?
SEAN ROWE: It’s not entirely instinctual as far as the process goes. Initially there might be a feeling that I’ll have about something. And that’ll be conveyed through the actual music when I’m writing the guitar line. But it gets sort of chiseled down through a process of taking the feeling, the emotion and designing in such a way that it actually has a lyrical purpose to it. It’s like a method.
HYMAN: Every songwriter has his own approach. Some have a story and put it to music and vice-versa.
ROWE: There’s a lot of songs that don’t stand on their own if you take the music away. I’m usually conscious of that. I like songs that can do both.
HYMAN: Your music has an old-timey feel. It seems almost plucked from a simpler era. What appeals to you about this older sound?
ROWE: Well, it’s not so much the era as it is the heart that music had back then. Some of it I think has to do with the limitations of technology back in the ’50s and ’60s. You actually had to be in tune and you had to be really good in the studio. You only had so much of a shot of getting it right. It was all about the vibe back then. It was all about the passion and skill of the artist. The ’50s and ’60s, that sound for me, I don’t think it was ever improved upon by any sort of advances in technology. I think that sound was all about heart, and it comes through. That’s why people can listen to it now and they’ll be listening to it a hundred years from now.
HYMAN: Whom were you listening to as a child?
ROWE: Well, when I was very young I was listening to the Beach Boys. My father was a big fan of the Beach Boys, and I grew up listening to them. I was a really big fan of all of their stuff—all their early rock-‘n’-roll stuff. And then Pet Sounds, when they got really experimental. And also a lot of old country. Like Johnny Cash and the Skylar Brothers. That kind of stuff before country became commercial. That was my early education. But then it was kind of weird because once I started becoming a musician, which was in my teens, I wasn’t really exposed to any of that anymore, it was all like hair rock. So that became a sad kind of musical time period cause none of that stuff was really lasting and it wasn’t coming from the heart, I feel. It wasn’t until I was later in high school that I got really heavy into the blues: Muddy Waters, Jonny Lee Hooker, a lot of black music, soul and Ray Charles.
HYMAN: Everything I’ve read in the promotion for this record seems to focus on your forages in the woods, where you spend time by yourself. I’m sure you’ve had enough of this topic.
ROWE: Yeah. A little bit. But I’ll tell you something. I understand it. It’s interesting. People want to hear something extra. I’ve seen many times that when I talk about this stuff it gets printed in a way that makes me look like an expert. With that said I’m not in any way an expert in survival or any of that stuff. What I do have is passion for it. I have a passion for learning about the land and sharing that. I forage a lot. I did do a month-long survival trip by myself. And I made a lot of mistakes on that. But I learned a ton. And not a whole lot of people are doing that, as far as I know. I know what plants are edible, what the animals are doing, that stuff. But I think there’s too much today of a Hollywood approach of like “Man Against Nature.” My story will never be on National Geographic. It’s not that much conflict. I don’t go out looking to be rescued.
HYMAN: [laughs] I always assumed those shows were hyper-dramatized.
ROWE: It has to be for film. It’s the way they edit and the way they have to make it look so people will get paid and they’ll make money on it. We’re obviously attracted to those kinds of shows. It’s entertainment. It’s fun to watch. I understand that.
HYMAN: Do you find a tie between your naturalistic lifestyle and your approach to songwriting?
ROWE: Yah. Nature is kind of odd, because if you look at it in one way it seems simple. But really, it’s not. It’s very, very intricate, and there’s a lot of things we probably have no idea what’s going on. I think the mystery of it is what I draw from. ‘Cause there’s certainly mystery in music. And why we like it so much and why it affects us so much when it’s really not even anything tangible.
HYMAN: There’s always more to learn—in both nature and music.
ROWE: There’s a lot of parallels there. The scientific approach to everything may be true but the mystery is lost—the whole excitement and adventure is lost. It’s the same thing with music. I like stuff that sounds fucked up. I like art. I’ll change the sound of my guitar. I’ll put clothespins on it just to change the sound. I do that because I like obscurity, in some respect. Obscurity has nothing to do with lack of skill. It’s a matter of aesthetic—what you really get a jolt from, what you get inspired by.
HYMAN: I sense that sort of purposeful obscurity in songs like “Horses” and “Joe’s Cult,” both that find you diving into instrumental, almost haphazard segments.
ROWE: The [album’s] producer, Woody Jackson, we’ve shared the similar aesthetic as far as a certain abrasiveness being a good thing. We were thinking more now of electrifying the song and having the guitars be nasty a bit. And that’s not typically what you’d associate with that song like that. One of my friends was hearing the raw demo against the new version and was like, “Your acoustic sounded distorted in the song.” I told him, “Yeah, because it’s a fucking electric guitar through an amp.” Some of these people get set in a way. They get used to a sound or used to a demo and they lose sight of the actual song, where it wants to go. But a song like “Horses,” there’s a risk in that song as far as where we went with the strings and it’s pretty intense. And not everybody’s gonna like that. I know that. I’d rather take the risk than have a song that’s okay that a lot of people will generally like. I’d rather have just a small portion of people that love it and then the rest of everybody can’t stand it.
HYMAN: That’s a great approach. There’s nothing worse in music than complacency.
ROWE: If you look at music as a whole today and what’s really popular, it’s like the stuff that’s out there in the mainstream, the best you could say about it is it’s okay. But none of it is amazing. I don’t think, anyways.
HYMAN: And that’s the beauty of a label like Anti Records. They give their artists so much room to explore.
ROWE: It’s the only way that it would work for me. I can’t have people telling me what is commercially viable. I’ve had people approach me like that in the past. I don’t follow where they’re coming from, and it’s not worth it to me to exercise any effort to please people like that.
HYMAN: Is there always a worry that some of the more complex songs on the album will be difficult to translate to the live setting?
ROWE: I had this joke with Woody Jackson while we were recording all this stuff. It was like, “Hey. man, this sounds really amazing. But thanks for not allowing me to ever play these songs live.” I don’t expect, and I don’t think the listener really should expect, that live has to be the same as the album. When I go see somebody live, I don’t expect them to completely alter the song so it’s not recognizable. But the essence of the song should remain there, whether or not you have an octet in the background or just even a guitar. My favorite artists can do that. Neil Young can do that. It’s just a matter of leaving the essence of the song intact.
HYMAN: Your album title, The Salesman and the Shark, seems to point at your disdain for corporate greed.
ROWE: It’s taken from a line in a song called “The Wall,” and the line in the song is “There’s a shark on the ceiling/And a salesman in my head.” I thought it was a good metaphor for not listening to what your instinct is telling you. Because there’s the cliché of the angel and the devil on your shoulder—which voice are you going to listen to? I think it’s foolish, in a way. They both work for the devil. Even the angel works for the devil. That’s the way I view politics. That’s the way I view religion. You don’t really listen to yourself or what your body is saying. Listen to the land. Listen to what it’s saying. Don’t listen to the people that are invested in money and have a vested interest in something. Either way, it’s a scam.
SEAN ROWE’S THE SALESMAN AND THE SHARK IS OUT TOMORROW. STREAM IT IN ITS ENTIRETY NOW AT NPR. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.