In Session: Sean Rowe

TROY – With a voice to match his stature, songwriter Sean Rowe booms and croons his baritone voice over a myriad of genres. Those listening would be hard-pressed to find another that sounds similar to Rowe, as he continues to entertain audiences, night after night, with his ambitious music. Continuing a steady touring schedule, Rowe is stopping through on August 19th at Caffe Lena.

I had a chance to sit down with the artist prior to his performance. We cover a range of topics, from songwriting to AI, and more. Continue reading to catch the interview below.

Lucas Garrett: Sean, I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to sit down and talk. How’re you doing today?

Sean Rowe: I’m doing good, buddy. It was a pleasant surprise hearing the show (at Caffe Lena) sold out. That’s always a good feeling.

LG: Yeah. So, I gotta ask, when was the point in your life where you were like, “Alright, this is what I want to do, this is what I’m meant to do,” and then throw everything behind it?

SR: That’s a really good question. I knew when I was under ten that I wanted to do music for a living, but it wasn’t until I got out of high school, I’d say, and going into college that I thought I could actually, practically, do it. I knew it was going to be a huge part of my life, but I didn’t know I could actually pay the bills with it and do it full-time until I was just out of college. That’s when I felt that way.

LG: Have you ever looked around during that ride and thought, “Wow, this is actually happening.”

SR: Yeah! I grew up in Troy and remember the feeling of when I think it was in the early 2000s, I was mostly playing bars, cafes, that kind of thing. I remember the feeling when I was able to leave my full-time job – which had nothing to do with music – and go full-time music because I had enough shows. They weren’t particularly all the kinds of shows I wanted to do. It was a lot of bars, and a lot of those were getting old.

LG: I think we’ve all been there.

SR: Yeah, you know what I’m saying. I knew I was only going to be able to do that for so long. I definitely did not wanna be one of those guys who’s playing covers in a dive bar for the rest of his life.

LG: Hahaha.

SR: I’d rather do something else. Once I saw that I’d actually make enough money going full-time – even though it wasn’t all the kinds of gigs I want to do—it was such a good feeling.

LG: Has it gotten any easier over the years, or has it gotten harder?

SR: It’s definitely gotten easier in the fact that I only play the places I want to play. That came with having a really good team around me: a booking agent, and a manager, and all that. There’s definitely things that have always been hard. Since COVID, everything has been up in the air as far as how you’re going to consistently pay the bills because we don’t know how it’s going to work out with music in the way it’s consumed now. The technology and AI…

LG: Right.

SR: … just as they are starting to change the entertainment world in terms of film and writing.

Photo by Amy Klemme

LG: I’m not a fan of that at all. I don’t like what’s coming.

SR: I hear you, man. It’s very strange; talk about Brave New World. What seems like is coming around the pike is nothing that seems good. It’s going to be a really interesting kind of real wild west time.

LG: I feel like they’ve made a lot of movies for people to watch about this kind of thing.

SR: Hahaha. It’s crazy, right? It’s in popular culture now, but it’s also like, “Hey, this stuff is happening.” It’s not science fiction anymore.

LG: Your last album came out in October 2021. There’s a lot of amazing stuff on there. My personal favorite is “To Make it Real.” I want to hear how you wrote that song because there’s a lot going on in that one. Do you say, “OK, this is what I want it to sound like,” or do you do that in the studio?

SR: There’s not really any formula…

LG: From my standpoint, that would be a hard song to write on your own in your bedroom. There are so many moving parts.

SR: The way that unfolded is pretty much how they all unfolded. I wrote that song with an acoustic guitar – just me. I had those as demos. When I went to record it, all the musicians you’re hearing… just about all of them. Not every single instrument, but for the vast majority of what you hear outside of my guitar and voice, they were all new musicians. I hadn’t met them until we started recording with them. That’s what I wanted to do because I wanted to see what would happen and challenge myself a little bit.

We had ten days, and the musicians that played on it, we all huddled around in Wisconsin at this studio called The Hive. I would play the song once for them – I didn’t want to play it too many times because I didn’t want to stifle something creative that might’ve happened in the moment of hearing it, and intuitively going somewhere with it. We just went, “Here’s how this goes,” and they were competent enough where they could just hear it and have an idea of where they would want to go. Then it was just a matter of directing what they were bringing, marrying that to what I was hearing in my head, and finding the balance.

LG: That song, in my opinion, is one of your most – instrumentally and vocally – ambitious songs you’ve put out there.

SR: Definitely.

LG: I know I’m a baritone myself. Was it hard for you to stay up there vocally that long? That’s a very high-vocal song.

SR: It’s almost at the point of breaking in my range. I did that purposefully. I like that when I hear that in singers that really push their voices. It’s not always as pretty as it could be, but it matches the sentiment of the lyrics; the mentality of what’s happening lyrically. I like that, but I couldn’t sing it any higher. Haha, you know what I mean?

LG: Do you ever play that song out?

SR: I think I may have played it once or twice. It’s not because of the vocal. I have a habit of finding these bizarre tunings that is very hard to recreate in the moment on stage, unless I had a completely separate guitar. Sometimes I’ll actually need to change the thickness of one or two strings because they just can’t take it.

LG: I don’t know if you ever listen to him, but you know who else used to do that? Nick Drake.

SR: Oh yeah, I’m a big fan.

LG: He has these wild tunings.

SR: Absolutely, and you’re sort of stuck with that because you get used to changing your fingers around to fit the tunings. Then, you can’t really do the same things on a standard guitar. I need like ten different guitars on stage with me, all tuned to specific tunings.

LG: I think we all need ten guitars, don’t we?

SR: There’s an argument for it.

LG: More on your lyrics. We talked about the music, but there are so many profound… I love metaphors. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to say plainly what I’m saying. I tend to hide behind metaphors a lot. When I’m listening to your music, there are so many things out there I’ve never heard before, but you instantly know what it means. Take, for instance, “Who are behind the makeup, but one-way glass afraid to break into a thousand shards.” How the hell did you come up with that one?

SR: Hahahaha. Well, I really appreciate that, man. I think about a Tom Petty… not an exact quote, but the sentiment he was getting across where he said there was something spooky about songwriting. There’s something magical about it. When you can say something, it’s almost like space in between the words that’s sort of implied. It’s kind of spooky, you know what I mean? There’s a recognition that – not everybody – when a lot of people feel the same way about a line, and you look at the words in the line if you take the literal meaning of it, it’s something different. But if you find the space between the lines and it has power, I think that’s way more exciting than coming right out and saying what you’re saying. That’s the space of songwriting to do that. I think if there’s good poetry, it should do that. It should take you somewhere. There are other states of being that it’s really good to be direct and say what it is, exactly what you’re trying to express. In this space of songwriting, I think it’s really, really interesting to find those places in between.

LG: I also think that if the person listening hasn’t experienced what the song is about that it might get lost on them, you know?

SR: Definitely. And that’s OK, too. As much as I value the lyric – and, obviously I do – if you can just get the feeling… get entranced by the overall feeling and the emotion of the song, that transcends everything. That transcends language and everything else. The lyrics are an extra layer.

LG: Does it take you a long time to write a song?

SR: Not always! Other people say this too – and I think there’s some truth to it – it’s usually the ones that come very fast that feel the most right and feel like you’re, in a way, channeling your subconscious somehow in a way that’s really truthful. Otherwise, I think the more you have to edit and stuff – you can get a great song out of it – it does leave me with a feeling of… if there’s twenty to a hundred edits to a song, what’s to say there shouldn’t be twenty more or a hundred more?

LG: Right, and at what point is that song no longer what it was?

SR: Yeah, right. I certainly don’t keep everything. Hahaha. There’s a lot of stuff I just write and realize… one of the tests for me is if I feel like I’m really saying something, then I’ll just wait. If I come back to it a couple of days later, and if it’s cringey in any way, then I’ll know there’s more… I have to really dive into this more. I’m not saying it in the way it needs to be said, you know?

LG: I want to talk about something that a lot of people have experienced. I want to know if you have as well. Is there ever a time that people want you to play a song, and you think, “Eh, I don’t want to do that…?”

SR: Yeah. It’s kind of like a balance, a little bit. I have to feel it out situation-by-situation. If it’s just people shouting out requests from the audience, it might just be a practical thing. I might not be in the tuning for that. Or, there are some times when I feel like I can’t get behind it in the way that I want to, emotionally, and then I might not play it. Or, if I really haven’t rehearsed it at all in a long time. I can easily forget the material. So, those would be some of the reasons. I try to accommodate when people ask me to play a song. I totally get it – I would want to hear songs that I most resonated with most from an artist.

I think what is foremost in my mind is people want the best show, and they want to be moved. The way that I do that is I feel moment-to-moment. I have a setlist but I never follow it in the order that I put it on there because I know it’s going to change depending on how I’m feeling about myself in the moment and the audience.

LG: Your records are a full-band sound. When you play out, do you miss not having a band behind you?

SR: That’s a good question. I’ve always longed for the right situation to be able to do both. To be able to have solo songs and then have songs that are backed up by the band. The last few records have been going in blind with these musicians that I don’t know. It’s great for a record, but it’s very hard – as most bands will probably agree – to go out on tour with a band, period. For a myriad of reasons, and one of them being the economy today. It’s hard to be able to make a living that way, but it’s also hard if you’re not completely gelled with the other people that you’re on stage with and you don’t have a history with them. You might not be able to go to the same places musically. That kind of chemistry takes a while. It takes a while to develop that. So, that’s why I’ve been solo. Also, there’s a certain power in presenting the songs for the kind of stuff that I do – a lot of it is lyric-based and story-telling… it comes across in a certain way if you can pull it off live with one person. I do like that, but it would be sweet to have the option of being backed up occasionally, too.

Sean Rowe performs on Mountain Stage.

LG: Well, you gotta work on that, man! You gotta get a band!

SR: I know! I know, I do!

LG: I was talking about songwriting with someone, and they said, “Take any song you’ve written. If you can’t give a good performance on that with just your instrument and nothing else, then the song might not be that great.”

SR: There’s a lot of truth to that.

LG: It really made me look at the way I write songs.

SR: Yeah.

LG: It doesn’t work for all genres of music, like African rhythmic music or world music. But look at all the great artists over the years, like Tom Petty, and I know you like Otis Redding. You can play all that with a guitar.

SR: I think that’s a really good point, and I hadn’t thought of it that way. You’re totally dead on. When I think of songwriting, I’m thinking of the folk tradition… the verse-chorus, and some kind of content in the song where there’s drama or a conflict. Then, there’s these other styles – a lot of which I really love, like Afro-beat and other world music types like you’re saying—even Otis Redding. Talk about the most simple, direct lyrics you could ever come up with. In the wrong hands, Otis Redding songs would be god awful.

LG: Yeah.

SR: Lyrically, they’re just cheesy emotive stuff. But the way he delivered it, it did not matter what he sang at all. So, yeah, it’s not exactly a black-and-white thing, but for the most part, when you talk about Americana, folk tradition stuff, I think that it’s true.

LG: Alright, Sean. Thank you, and I’ll see you on the 19th!

SR: You got it, buddy. Thank you again.

LG: Have a good day.

SR: Alright, take care. Bye.

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