Luke Atkinson

Mitch Rowland – Finding the Fuel & Filling out His Debut LP ‘Come June’

Musician Mitch Rowland is an Ohio native as well as a local across the pond. He is also a sharp conversationist, a doting father, and the notable right hand to pop rock powerhouse Harry Styles. However, he is currently (and most poignantly) the unafraid, soft-spoken artist whose first headlining tour began last night in San Francisco.

Last month we hopped on a Zoom call with singer-songwriter-guitarist Mitch Rowland and started our conversation by letting him know that his debut album made it onto our coveted round-up of 2023’s best albums. He was coy and bashful at once, admitting that he hasn’t looked too closely at the reviews of Come June. (“I’ve had my head in the ground a little bit in terms of feedback.”) Whether it be because he dropped it not too far out from the hubbub of the holidays or because he’s simply not the kind of artist who craves the buzz that swirls around a release, Rowland was seemingly unaware of the connection people have had to his first solo endeavor. Nonetheless, it is clear that the delayed compliments from us (and listeners at large) warmed his heart.

There’s a bit of bias, surely, but Come June is an exceptional album; atmospheric, grounded, and twinkling with understated joy. You listen to this album and hear the cool tones of late winter transitioning into the warm pastels of spring. You hear the score of an imagery-driven man observing his day-to-day; adding fluttering notes or narrative prose to the already intricate melodies. 

Folk influences are evident and create a through-line, but there is much more to these 12 tracks. They are concise, weighed-down by nothing except humble musicianship, and feel as if they are a breath of that fresh, early April air. For a debut, Come June is an easy and comfortable listen, but it is far from an off-the-cuff creation. With its sounds in our ears and that knowledge on our mind, we knew we had to speak with the man behind it. And let us tell you this: Mitch is a compelling creative and an attentive partner – personally and professionally.

Mitch, I have got to say that we are beyond excited to have you playing as a solo act here in New York. I can only imagine how excited you are.

You know, growing up, these kinds of venues were the shows that I preferred going to, so it’s cool to be on the other side of it. The Music Hall of Williamsburg in particular – I haven’t been there in about 10 years, I think. I saw Jonathan Wilson there last; I’d just moved and he was playing on Valentine’s Day. One thing led to another and I found myself at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Valentine’s Day. He is a kind of modest singer and an indie guy who became more of a producer later on, so I didn’t expect him to whip out a Madonna cover that night, but that’s what happened [Laughs].

Such a special memory that only you and a few other people probably have. Maybe you can whip out a Madonna cover yourself and pay tribute to that moment and its full circle New York City nature.

You never know! That would be fun, but it’s all about that time and place.

For sure, but we’re not here to talk about a surprise performance from a Laurel Canyon-esque artist that isn’t yourself – we’re talking about you today. With that in mind, Come June is not only the title of this debut album of yours, but the closing track. Did you know right away that that was going to end the record and wrap it up?

No [Laughs], it was the last one! It was mostly written before I started making an album. I recorded “Come June” a handful of years ago and it was to go with nothing else. It was just on its own. I certainly didn’t see it going on this album until Rob Schnapf (who produced the record) was saying to me, “Get as much out as you can.” I thought, “Well, I have nothing else except for this song that I’ve abandoned.” We re-approached it, though, so that it would fit on the record. I re-recorded everything and then I thought, “Oh, this is kind of a cool closer.”

As time has gone on, it has become one of my favorite songs from the record, but if I spend one second thinking about the record and all of the songs, the one that I always think of first is the one right before “Come June,” which is “Goes With Everything.” To listeners, that may be the most insignificant song. It’s very short and there’s not a lot to it, but as small as it is, I feel like it will be the hardest to get right live. We’ll see… maybe I’m wrong, but it could be an uphill battle.

They’re both beautiful songs, but when I think about the record, the first that comes to mine is “When It All Falls Down.” That’s my favorite song off of the record.

Oh, really?

Yeah! It’s quite pretty lyrically and understated musically. I enjoy it every single time I spin it, and when I do, I start thinking, “If this is my favorite song, what would I think Mitch’s favorite song would be?” In one of my notes I wrote that I thought it might be “Bluebells,” due to its sweet, sort of familial essence.

My other favorite song is “When It All Falls Down,” too. To me, it’s a perfect with-a-band song or without-a-band song. If I had to sum up the album all at once and I had to throw one song out there to say, “Come June sounds like this,” I would probably use that song.

I’m intrigued by that. Is there a reason then that it hasn’t gotten its own life as a single release?

That’s a good question, because for me, and for the longest time, I thought, “Oh, this is the catchiest song I’ve written in a long time.” I don’t know why I didn’t choose it to be a single. With singles, though, that’s a whole different kind of game to play. I guess you just put out what you like the most, but you can’t put ’em all out! They’re all just kind of gut feelings, so I don’t know why it wasn’t a single, but I’m happy either way.

I believe that it can be just as special to see fans gravitate towards a more ‘deep cut’ of a song, so that they get to say that they discovered it in a way.

Yes, that’s true.

To talk about touring, many people know that you have already played all around the globe, but what is it like to be stepping into the shoes of a frontman? To be taking center stage, leading the pack, and approaching your own headline tour?

It is exciting. I think that with singing, it probably takes more focus on stage, and I think you probably have to be slightly more mindful of daily choices.

Why is that?

Because it is at the end of the day. Singing good and playing good at a show that falls at the end of the day means that everything you do leading up matters. You kind of have to preserve some stuff and probably go to bed on time.

[Laughs] Just a different preparation than shredding on guitar?

Yeah. Playing guitar means I’m just showing up and being a side man, which I’ve been doing for a long time. You could have all kinds of stuff going on and you can still just put a guitar on and play for 90 minutes.

That’s true!

I’m excited to do something new, though, and live music isn’t easy – neither is keeping people’s attention. I’m looking forward to seeing what it takes.

It sounds like you are approaching it well, and I think that this is a great album to be doing that with. If you look back on growing up and tinkering with instruments and music and bands, is Come June the debut album that always thought you would have written? What would Young Mitch have thought about this record and this release?

I think Young Mitch would’ve made something along the lines of an acoustic album at any point, so that’s pretty consistent with myself. I maybe thought it was just gonna be bare bones, like one acoustic and one vocal track. I was kind of obsessed with a handful of albums that were stripped right down to that, so I guess this is a response to my own self having been around nothing but pop production for the last long while. What excited me was the opposite in this sort of moment, and I’d never worked with a producer on my music. I’d always done it on Harry’s, but only Harry’s, so in that sort of scenario, I got to be more of a fly on the wall sitting on the sofa until it was my turn. I was just doing a lot of listening – listening to other people do their bits and listening to other things as the songs were coming together. This time I was kind of intimidated to take on the role as the artist with the producer, but it all made sense once I did it. It was then that these little tracks that I was collecting turned into more filled-out songs, while still saying what they were supposed to. I guess that was a bit of a surprise for me: trusting that you can just let go of control and look at whatever’s gonna happen without getting in the way of it happening.

I love that you’re hinting at the core values of these songs being evident – producer and all. Come June is Mitch through and through, right? You were just building out a bigger musical world for it all without changing the heart of each song in any massive way.

That is always on my mind. When I’ve been in the studio doing my bits on the last three Harry records, I’m always thinking about this. When I’m recording something, I think, “How is this going to work when we play it live?” A perfect example is [Harry Styles’] “To Be So Lonely.” I played this tiny guitar in the studio and replicating it live was rather complicated because I would go between this tiny guitar on the verses and then electric on the choruses. Knowing that and already being in that sort of mindset when going into making this record, I knew that I wanted everything to translate well going straight from me to the studio to the stage.

Having that forethought from that experience is everything.

Not having that moment of, “Oh, let’s figure out that song now, because who the hell knows how it’s gonna get worked out.” This album should just play as itself, so it’s a bit easier.

It’s wonderful to know that this has become a bit more of a hands-on process for you, especially going into your own record. You have worked with Harry and you’ve worked with your very talented partner Sarah [Jones], and you also wrote for the country artist Cam, too. For you, how has the ability to comfortably work with the people around you affected the music you’re making?

Well, I use not so many people and I keep those people pretty close to me. I mean, my whole life with Sarah is very ‘together.’ We’re more or less inseparable. Anything I’m doing is being heard or watched by her, which is really helpful to me as opposed to the way that some people go off and do things alone.

I remember hearing a long time ago that the artist St. Vincent went on this loneliness experiment and wrote a record just completely shut off from anyone. I quite like having ears on, whether it’s good or not. I find it all helpful. Sarah also knows way more music than I do, so she’s like, “Oh, that reminds me of this,” and I’m like, “What’s that?” And then I listen to and learn and it keeps it all going around.

Even working with Rob – she introduced me to him. We’re all very good friends now, but that suggestion of him producing this is why everything sounds the way it does. You know, she said to me, “Go work with him,” and that’s because she probably knew that we’d get along and everything would come naturally. We’re very particular, so I couldn’t just do it with anyone. I don’t know for sure, but those decisions stress me out [Laughs].

To have someone knowledgable like Sarah in your life is certainly a blessing, even if you had not built a life with her, and her suggestion of collaborating with Rob Schnapf clearly worked out. A lot of these songs have quite lofty builds – intros, fades, and instrumental moments that draw them to a close. I can’t imagine that to be simple, but it sets a beautiful stage for each track to follow. I’m glad they came out the way that they did with you and Rob and Sarah sharing in the musicianship… and the fun times hopefully had, as well.

For sure. Rob has made a lot of records – many being very important records over the years. I learned more about him while working with him [on Come June]. I started out not knowing that much about him, and as we’ve become closer, I’ve listened to a lot of stuff he’s done. It’s no wonder Sarah suggested him, because this music right in line with the stuff he’s known for… I guess that helps! [Laughs]

I would think that could very well make a difference in the output. Now, Mitch, in regard to finding influences and gathering them, can I ask what were you listening to when putting this record together? Does anything or anyone specific come to mind?

One day Sarah asked me if I’d ever listened to this guy José González. I hadn’t. He has more than two records – three or four maybe, but the first two of his I went and got. I listened to those over and over and over. For the most part, his records are just one vocal, one guitar. I think being in pop world for so long, putting his music on had me realize, “Wow, I didn’t realize you could do that.” I mean, duh, of course you can, but it was just such a like dumb realization that had such a large effect on me. “So that’s what I want to do then! It’s like the only thing that would be more simple than this is instrumental music,” [Laughs] and then from there I got really into him.

I was listening to another guy: a sixties folk artist named Bert Jansch, as well. He was a Scottish guy that moved to London in the sixties during the folk boom. Those two guys were kind of the fuel [of Come June].

José González, Norah Jones, the Decemberists, a little bit of Jason Isbell, Neil Young, boygenius, and Joni Mitchell were some comparisons I subtly noted during my very first full listen of the album.

Oh, yeah? I never listened too much to Joni Mitchell. It was not because I don’t like Joni Mitchell – I just never really put it on. The others, though, wow. I mean, growing up like a guy like Ben Harper had a large effect on me, my playing, and then probably songwriting, as well. I’m really happy that Sarah and myself have become pals with him and his family. Now to be bringing Harris [Harper, daughter] on the road, too? It is really exciting. She hasn’t put that much out, but she’s just made a record, so she’ll be playing some fresh music on stage just before me. When I heard her, I immediately thought, “Oh, this would be a perfect evening to me.”