Stumbling upon Sean Rowe on NPR’s First Listen left me wanting more from the Troy, New York native. Drawing on pure talent and folk influences, Rowe’s latest album, The Salesman And The Shark (Anti-), showcases the enduring simplicity of a man, a voice, and a guitar. Sometimes singing with a mournful, gritty tenderness, and sometimes with an enviable Tom Waits growl, Rowe proves his worth as a singer and songwriter, hooking his listeners and hawking his wares with each track. Before heading out on the album’s supporting tour, I spoke with Rowe about the album, his survivalist treks, and living-folk-legend-turned-friend, Greg Brown. The conversation is below:
I noticed on your newest album there’s a song called “The Ballad Of Buttermilk Falls.” Is that the same Buttermilk Falls as in Ithaca, NY?
No (laughs). No, it’s another one. I thought that was the only one. There’s one in the Adirondacks near Long Lake, New York.
There’s also a beautiful gorge in Ithaca called Buttermilk Falls.
Oh yeah? You’re familiar with it? You’ve been there?
Yeah, I’ve hiked it many times. That might be a good lead-in to talk about your survivalist expeditions. My first question is what do you do with your film crew?
(Laughs) I put them in my suitcase. I hide them so that the general public thinks that it’s just me out there. To be honest, the longest I’ve ever been out was 24 days, and that was pretty long for me. I had gone out for a weekend here, a weekend there, then up to a full week. But now, with touring so much I really don’t have the luxury of spending as much time out in the woods as I’d like to. But when I was out for such a long time, I was pretty much solo. There was nobody else there, except for one other guy who was camped out for different reasons, going in and out of town. So I was pretty much alone. I did take a camera with me but it got wiped out in a torrential rain we had for about three days. I made a lot of mistakes out there, but…
Well that’s why you’re out there, to learn. Where did your interest in getting out and spending time in nature come from?
No clue. I’ve just been fascinated with it, from as early as I can remember. I think some of my really early memories are of my Aunt Mary who taught history. She had arrowheads in her car and when I was a kid, I was totally fascinated by that.
Do you remember Into The Wild? I was wondering if that book influenced you at all.
I was well into it before I ever saw the movie. Chris McCandless was criticized a lot, pretty harshly I think. I can sympathize and empathize with the sentiment of what he was trying to do. He put himself out there, which is more than most people do at all. I think he didn’t have enough training, obviously. For what he was going out for, he was just inexperienced and in Alaska of all places. You have to know what you’re doing. I was out in September in Upstate New York, which has its ups and downs, but is nothing like Alaska; even then I struggled and I knew a lot.
And it’s heartbreaking because he was making a go of it, for months. Does your time in the woods influence your music at all?
Everything influences my music, not just my time out. I write a lot on the road, too (laughs). You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this. It’s really funny. When I go out for an extended survival period—which I don’t do much of, mostly I forage to connect to the land—but I’ve never taken my guitar. I don’t have that kind of agenda when I’m out there. I’m just trying to experience what’s around me. It’s sometimes different, depending on what my purpose is out there. If I’m going out with the family, camping, that’s a different experience altogether than if I’m doing survival. People don’t realize what it really takes to sustain yourself if you’re going it alone. It’s a massive skillset for one, but also it burns so many calories when you’re out getting shelter, fire, food, that you really don’t have much time for anything else.
There’s not much leisure time, I guess.
No, there’s really not. That’s why, in tribal living, there was a division of labor. You had your whole tribe to depend on. Nobody did everything by himself. So it’s sort of a weird scenario. To begin with it’s kind of odd, I mean, you wouldn’t voluntarily put yourself in a position where you had to make everything yourself. It’s kind of silly, but it’s a device to get closer to the land.
Your new album is fantastic, in all regards, lyrically and musically. Do you feel it has a different dimension than your previous albums?
For sure. The last record, I think, had its own deal so I’m proud of that. On this one, if you saw pictures of the studio online, Vox Studios, it’s really untouched from the ‘50s. The guy who owns it now was the producer and also played a lot on the record. He bought the place from a family in the ‘50s and it was modeled after Sun Studios. I think he restored some of it but it was pretty much left as is, so it’s like walking into a time machine a little bit. It’s not like the average studio you’d walk into today. It kind of reminds me of Catholic school (laughs). I know that sounds weird. I used to go to school as a kid in this old building at a Catholic school. The floors have a certain feel to them… probably asbestos.
That authentic asbestos feel is hard to replicate!
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah. And it had that same kind of smell. Anyway, the vibe of that room is really present on the record. I wouldn’t have gotten that anywhere else. It’s all about the vibe for me because I have a hard time with recording. I really do. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief when I’m in the studio because there’s no audience. A lot of times I’ll have my guitar and will be singing and hearing the rest of the band through headphones in another room, so that’s kind of difficult. We really tried to keep it as live as possible for the record.
There’s a lot happening with the songs, compositionally. How will you recreate that on your tour?
I have a side band with me but it’s sort of intermittent because they have their own band as well, Railbird. They’re sort of all over the record and are really good friends of mine. So my answer is yes and no. For the most part on this upcoming tour, I’ll be solo, but when I can take people in, I do.
People seem to ask you about your baritone voice a lot. I heard you say on NPR that you used to dislike it and wouldn’t listen to yourself on a recording.
(Laughs) Yeah. I’d listen to it back on the tape recorder and was convinced that the recorder was fucking broken or something. I’d ask my friends, “This, this is not what I sound like, is it? It’s got to be the tape recorder” (laughs). They’d say, “No, I think that’s you dude. That’s your voice. That’s the way it sounds.” I was really self-conscious about it. I didn’t like it.
I completely understand. I’ll fast forward through every bit of myself talking when I transcribe this interview.
I think it’s because it’s in your own person, you know? You can’t really separate. Sometimes hearing myself kind of puts me to sleep.
In addition to your remarkable singing voice, your influences come through in your music. But I don’t often see you compared to Greg Brown.
I’ve seen that written a few times. I certainly love Greg’s stuff. He turned out to actually be a friend of mine. I was really humbled by that. I was playing a festival in Canada and his daughter Pieta was as well. I was excited to meet her and she actually came up to me and I had no idea that she would know me. She said she was a fan of mine and said her dad was, too. I’ve kept in touch with Greg, back and forth emails, just sharing songs and stuff. If there’s anything you can say about “making it” in any sort of way, that would be it for me. To me he’s always stood way far out in his genre. His songwriting is stellar. There aren’t too many people who can write like him. Plus, being a low voice, I’m always drawn to those singers now.
Sean Rowe will be at the Mercury Lounge on Sept. 19, Brooklyn Bowl on Sept. 20, Philly’s Tin Angel on Sept. 21 and Rockwood Music Hall on Oct. 22. For more info, check out seanrowe.net.