A pinecone plummets, narrowly missing your music editor’s head. The same crisp October wind that shook it loose stirs up a swirl of dry, brown needles shed by the tall trees shading our chairs. Once in a while a car zips by on the road out front, totally oblivious to the natural drama playing out in Sean Rowe’s Wynantskill back yard—and the wild delicacies it has to offer.
“If I want it, I don’t have to go far to find it here,” says Rowe (rhymes with now). “Just looking around right now, I can see about 50 or 60 edible plants. There’s a black walnut tree across the road, and I’ve been gathering nuts from it.” Plucking a specimen from a bucket filled with them, he demonstrates how to grind off its fleshy, green outer covering with the sole of his boot to reveal the rock-hard inner prize. “You have to use a hammer or something heavy to crack the nuts, they’re really tough. But they’re great roasted.”
In literature and film, it’s been said, there are four major types of plot conflict: man versus man; man versus nature; man versus society; man versus self. To varying degrees all four appear to rage within the life and music of Rowe, a 37-year-old singer-songwriter endowed with an astonishing gift for darkly poetic, metaphor-packed narratives. “Surprise,” from Magic (2011, ANTI- Records), makes for a fine example: “My city shakes its head at my wilderness / My heart has built a mind for itself / I found a little shelter inside of a sickness / And I’ll be waiting for the icicles to melt.”
And then there’s the impossibly deep voice Rowe’s words are couched within: a cavernous baritone that easily engulfs those of two of his chief influences, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash. But, perhaps unexpectedly, if you’ve heard him sing, Rowe maintains it was some voices of a far higher range that made the earliest musical impact on him. “My parents always had pop albums on vinyl and 8-track, and the Beach Boys were my favorite,” he says. “The space they created with their music and their voices is just amazing. Growing up, listening to records wasn’t so much of an escape for me. It was more like a meditation.”
Rowe was raised mostly in the Troy area, where his family is deeply rooted. “Everyone on my mom’s side played or sang, mostly just for fun,” he remembers. “I sang in my uncle’s church group for a while. One of my uncles was a pretty serious jazz pianist, but he gave it up to become a doctor. I’m the only one who’s ever really pursued music professionally, and my family’s been really supportive.” His father bought him a bass guitar when he was 12, and at first the aspiring musician wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. “At that point I hadn’t been exposed to enough music that really showed the role of the bass,” explains Rowe, adding, with a laugh, “I guess I thought it was just another kind of guitar, basically.” By 14 he’d also picked up the acoustic guitar and was soon playing, bass and singing in a succession of high school bands. “I was terrified of singing, it wasn’t something I wanted to do at first,” he explains. “I only really started because the singer in one of the bands I was in quit showing up for rehearsals.”
His interest in nature also began early on, thanks largely to the close proximity of the Catskills and Adirondacks and visits to natural history museums that sparked an obsession with Native American culture. “I would just go get lost in [the museums],” Rowe says. “I studied everything about Native American life and customs that I could.” At 18 he discovered Tom Brown Jr.’s guidebook The Tracker (Berkley Books, 1986), which led to his taking several demanding courses at Brown’s tracking, nature, and survivalist school in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. He majored in natural resources at Ohio’s Hocking College, but a more profound wilderness learning experience would come in 2007, when he spent almost a month alone in the woods of Cherry Valley. With only a knife and the clothes on his back, Rowe lived for 24 days in a shelter built with his own hands from grass and pieces of scattered earth, subsisting on a regimen of nuts, plants, and “squirrels, chipmunks, mice, insects, whatever wandered into my trap. Surprisingly, some of that stuff isn’t bad—really good in some cases. Bitter greens are pretty vile tasting, but they’re incredibly nourishing. [The period] was probably the most powerful experience of my life. It was hard, but also really fun. I’d do it again if I could.”
While at Hocking he became a singing-and-songwriting machine. Spurred on by deepening connections to the music of Otis Redding and Bob Dylan, he worked up a clutch of songs that would later make it onto his studio recordings. “Hearing Redding’s voice for the first time was a defining moment,” Rowe says. “He was such a great singer, but with his songs it always feels like he’s on the same level as the listener; it’s conversational, he’s not out to deflate you emotionally. With Dylan it was another kind of revelation, because for me while I was growing up ‘folk music’ had taken on a negative connotation. The only folk I’d heard was this washed-down stuff that people from my family’s church played. As great as his reputation as a lyricist is, I think Dylan’s still underrated. So much of [Dylan’s art] is in how he chooses the words and in the way they flow in the song. And to me it’s a plus that he’s not a virtuosic singer, because it puts the focus on his words and makes him more real as a performer.”
After moving back to Troy, Rowe spent his mid-20s honing his solo-acoustic skills at local open mikes. In 2004 he made his debut with 27 (Independent), whose title is a semiserious reference to his having made it past the age of so many fallen artists (Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Kurt Cobain, et al.). Although the disc elicited glowing press accolades and substantial college radio airplay, Rowe remains dismissive about it today. “I wrote most of those songs during a growing period, when I was still in Ohio,” he says. “Fans still ask for it, which is cool, but to me it was really just a stepping stone.” Nevertheless, the album helped Rowe get out-of-town shows and he hit the trail, gigging across the country and occasionally camping along the way.
By 2008 he was ready for round two, entering a recording studio located upstairs in the same Troy building where his grandfather had once run an Italian restaurant. The result was Magic, released the following year on Collar City Records. Like its predecessor, Magic differs from Rowe’s standard performance format in that it sports a fuller sound; live, he usually plays unaccompanied, often with tastefully utilized rhythm tracks. But whatever the presentation, it’s all about great songs. And on Magic there are many. Like the above-cited, image-cascading love paean “Surprise” and the ominous, “Sopranos” credits-ready “Old Black Dodge.” But perhaps the topper is “American,” a sad, scathing, and highly personal indictment of modernity. Swathed in a loping, deeply gray, and very Cohen-esque setting, Rowe’s wounded stanzas sear like electric shocks to the hearts of a populace both linked through and alienated by technology: “As his love slips away from his work and his home / He puts out the lights and jerks off alone / He’s married to a cancer / He counts on his Internet girl.”
Rowe toured even harder on Magic, making several jaunts to Europe and the UK, where he headlined and supported indie faves like Noah and the Whale. By chance his manager ran into Andy Kaulkin, ANTI- Records’ president, at an airport and passed him a copy of the CD. It didn’t take Kaulkin long to get in touch, and the label signed him soon after, reissuing Magic ahead of more Rowe records to come. And with a roster that also includes such similarly dark, confessional songsmiths as Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, and Nick Cave, one couldn’t ask for a more perfect home. Along the way, Rowe’s also found an eager fan in iconic folk singer Greg Brown, whose songs have been covered by Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, and others.
“I happened to hear Sean Rowe on the radio when I was poking around at home, and I immediately wrote down his name and ordered his record,” recalls Brown. “In the murky, longing tone of his voice and his writing is an unpinnabledownable deal that spoke to me, loud and clear. He sounds billy goat gruff, like a troll with a big soul. His songs fly up and off suddenly, like a wild turkey will, and leave your heart pounding as they go.”
As you’re reading this, Rowe himself is back on the wing, making hearts pound once again across mainland Europe, Ireland, England, and the US. He’s also gearing up for the birth of a son next month, getting ready to record album number three in early 2012, and more touring, possibly with a full backing band, in the spring. A former student of wild-food expert Samuel Thayer, Rowe also serves as an occasional guest instructor for wilderness survival and wild food-foraging workshops at Greenfield’s Kawing Crow Awareness Center, and blogs about nature and his music career for the Albany Times Union and his own website.
One of his postings, concerning wild strawberries, is titled “Never Take the Same Path Twice.” “So many times I will be wandering, walking through old fields or abandoned, wooded areas to just explore,” writes Rowe in the entry’s opening paragraph. “I try to keep my mind clear of appointments, deadlines, and all the other ‘gotta do this’ crap that stabs into my brain constantly. I look for spots that are off the beaten path. I try to make a point to take a route that I’ve never taken before. Or maybe I look in a direction that I don’t usually look. That’s when things get interesting. That’s when I bump into some of nature’s magic. It just happens.”
Sean Rowe will open for the Swell Season’s Marketa Irglova at the Bowery Ballroom in New York on November 30. Magic is out now on ANTI- Records. www.seanrowe.net.