Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Sean Rowe Tells His Tale Of "The Salesman And The Shark"
Sean Rowe's Magic was one of my favorite records of last year. It was his second full length (his first was his self-produced 27, now out of print) and it marked the true arrival of a singularly unique songwriter with a voice that evokes wonder, mystery, and awe. Not surprisingly, names like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits often got name-dropped when discussing the album and attempts to describe his live performances. One listen and the uninitiated quickly learned why.
Listening to Magic stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it, and has proven to be a record that only etches itself deeper into how I listen to records across the board with every listen. When I saw Sean perform at the Mercury Lounge in NYC around the official release of Magic, armed with only his voice and two guitars, it was one of the most stirring and enigmatic sets I've witnessed anywhere (just check out the video of his NPR Tiny Desk Concert or listen to his Daytrotter live session for some proof).
On August 28th, Anti- Records will drop Sean's new album, The Salesman and the Shark. I really enjoyed interviewing Sean regarding Magic last year, and I have to say that I was absolutely thrilled to speak with him again to dig deeper into his songwriting processes, his experiences in the wilderness, and the making of his new record. It's my pleasure to share our conversation with you to coincide with the release of The Salesman and the Shark.
Can you discuss how reading the naturalist Tom Brown's The Tracker ignited your passion for nature and wilderness?
Sean Rowe: It was the first book I've read that actually spoke to me. Early on I had a real yearning to get close to nature in a more direct way than just observing it. I wanted to participate in it and this book fueled the fire for sure.
How has your passion and interest in naturalism, your experiences at Brown's Wilderness Survival School, your experiences at Hawk Circle Wilderness , and eventually and your deepening philosophy of living "off of the land" has paralleled and inspired your musical trajectory?
Sean: Performing and writing music has always been a huge part of my life as well as connecting to the land. I've always attempted to seek out raw experiences, whether that be from music or nature.
I was inspired by Tom Brown and Jon Young to get off my ass and participate in nature early on, and at the same time, I was inspired by Muddy Waters and Otis Redding to play music that is from the heart. It's all about raw experience. All these things are part of the same little world that I roam in so they must fit together at some point.
Your last album Magic, seemed to be very influenced by these experiences. Can you discuss how these previous experiences directly influenced the writing and recording of Magic?
Sean: A lot of Magic was written while I was living at Hawk Circle in Cherry Valley, NY. I wasn't performing much at the time. My focus was on survival during that year (2007) and I was learning and testing my primitive skills set: how to make fire, food, shelter, and water from little more than what I could find out there.
I was not new to these skills. I had been playing with them for years but this is where I really focused on getting proficient with them. There was some down time, and I used some of that to write Magic. The farmhouse I was living in with the other students had a beat up acoustic lying around. I remember the action on the guitar was pretty awful but I did mange to write with it.
How has the writing, recording of Magic (as well as subsequent touring) prepared you/ influenced you for setting out for the new record?
Sean: It all feels like a progression from one record to the next. Magic was a pivotal point for me. It was the first recording that I felt like I really had focus with. As an artist you tend to be hard on yourself with your criticisms and I'm definitely no exception. I mostly hear what I would have changed with that record. But then again, I think it stands out from what was coming up around it. I certainly didn't feel any pressure to put out a masterpiece. But it does have a certain presence that I'm proud of.
Were there elements from that record that you wanted to expand upon?
Sean: Yeah, with Sharks, I wanted to go deeper with my voice and get a bit more free-flowing with it. I feel like my voice is always expanding in a kind of natural progression anyway. I suppose it should be like that. It's hard for me to hear early tracks and demos of mine and get into the vocals at all. It's really a live thing. You appreciate it best in the moment. It's like that old saying: "You can never step in the same river twice".
Were there aspects of Magic that you felt were resolved and that you wanted to leave behind from the new album?
Sean: There was a huge vast open space with Magic that certainly was intentional from both the direction of producer Troy Pohl and myself. I just naturally like that aesthetic. I like music with a lot of holes in it. The simplicity speaks to me somehow.
But on Sharks, I felt like I wanted to lose a bit of the somber rigidity that Magic had and get a bit more playful with the instrumentation. Still, I'm careful not to get so gratuitous with filling the track that the essence of the song is lost. There is a balance there. You've got to be tender with it.
Did you have a preconceived theme for the new record?
Sean: Not really a theme but I was hearing it as an epic piece. Kind of like a rolling sonic landscape that you would hear on a film soundtrack. One of the big inspirations for this record was Scott Walker especially, Scott Walker IV. There's a real abyss to that piece and it certainly had an effect on me.
When did you begin working on the new material?
Sean: Over the last couple years of touring.
Can you describe your songwriting process both lyrically and musically? Do you begin with lyrics or music first? How do these come together, and even influence the direction of your work?
Sean: I usually come up with the melody or the chord structure first. Then it's a matter of trusting yourself to figure out what the emotion in the song is saying so you can pull the words out of there. It's pretty hilarious to hear the very first demos as I'm usually "singing in tongues" with mostly nonsense words. That's how it usually works for me. It sounds odd but it actually feels quite natural.
If you trust your own process, you might come away with something. It doesn't always work but the spine knows when it's right. Sometimes, many times actually, I have felt as if the songs are somehow revealing themselves to me as if they had been gifted from some other being, from some other place. It's some kind of mystical experience at best and at worst it's a painful extraction process that can get frustrating if the gates are closed.
What were you listening to during your writing and recording of The Salesman And The Shark that you found significantly inspiring?
Sean: Yeah as I mentioned earlier, Scott Walker IV was a big influence especially on "Long Way Home". Also, an absolute favorite of mine, Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen had some of the most tasteful and subtly strings throughout that sometimes you really forget they're even there at all. "The Ballad of Buttermilk Falls" has that kind of feel. Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends was also an influence.
There's a lot that inspires me: people, animals, books, films and everything between but there's only certain instances that I'm motivated enough to capture them in song. My songs are not necessarily about me but I'm usually in them in some way. I usually show up to make a cameo.
What are some of your non-musical sources of inspiration, and how does this feed into your work?
Sean: There are some writers, some progressive re-wilders that inspire me like Derrick Jensen and Michael Ruppert. Those guys are doing some tremendous work to raise awareness of the upside-down world we live in. People still living with the land as their ancestors have always done. Those kinds of indigenous people inspire me. As did Geronimo, as did Black Elk, as does Russel Means. These are all people with true vision.
You recorded The Salesman And The Shark live at Vox Studios with Woody Jackson. Can you discuss your approach and goals for the new record sonically?
Sean: This time, it was a real immersion for me. I work best like that. We spent 3 weeks in August of 2011 to record 18 tracks. Some of the arrangements are very sparse and carefully left to breathe. There are others like "Horses" and "Downwind" that are a real departure from the last record. I think there's overall a bit more dynamic to this one.
What's next for you in 2012?
Sean: A hell of a lot of touring. I've had a long break and now it's time to pay the rent.
What have you been listening to lately?
Sean: I've been addicted to The Survival Podcast with Jack Spirko." It's the best podcast out there and it's helped me immensely on the long drives after the shows.