By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat 7-24-13
Besides being an extraordinarily resonant Americana singer/songwriter, Sean Rowe is in the rare, fortunate position of knowing the sound of a tree falling in the forest.
A devoted naturalist as well as a performing songwriter whose album The Salesman and the Shark is getting widespread praise, Rowe once spent 24 days completely on his own, foraging in a forest. As a teenager in upstate New York, he had read The Tracker by naturalist Tom Brown and eventually attended classes at a survivalist school.
As a result, he has been there when trees fall.
“It’s pretty loud,” he says with a laugh, during a phone call from a tour stop in England. “I was camped out for almost a month a few years ago and that was one thing I was really surprised at. When you’re out there alone, it’s very common – it happens all the time.
“We’re not usually in the woods for one lump sum to realize how many trees are falling, but, yeah. The trees didn’t know I was there. I fooled them.”
Rowe, 38, is so knowledgeable about the outdoors that he has written a nature column for the Albany Times Union. But he has also long tried to carve a career out of his love of music — writing personal, shrewdly observational and sometimes ruefully romantic songs for his burnished, unforgettable baritone voice.
For Rowe, finding a following has been like a long, slow walkabout in the outback. But his break came in 2011 when the taste-making Anti- label acquired rights to his self-released Magic album. Last year, he recorded The Salesman and the Shark for Anti-.
Listen to The Salesman and the Shark in its entirety via this YouTube playlist:
It has been heralded as one of the year’s top Americana albums for its gritty, soulful, deeply introspective — yet forcefully melodic — original songs like “Bring Back the Night,” “Downwind” and “The Lonely Maze” (about his pursuit of nature).
Critics and listeners have found his strong singing voice astonishing.
“My voice has been pretty low since in high school — it wasn’t very common to have a baritone voice in the era that I was growing up,” he says.
“So I was sort of on the fringe because of that. And also, I don’t really like my voice that much and didn’t really consider myself a singer. I wanted to be a really good guitar player and songwriter instead.
“But when I was 18 and started listening to Otis (Redding), I got such a good feeling singing along to those records that it gave me the boost I needed to develop my voice. And then I began the slow process (of) really learning to sing. I have to feel I’m letting it happen rather than forcing the sound out of my voice.”
At the local tour stop this week, which will be Rowe’s first appearance here since Salesman jumpstarted his career (he thinks he’s played here once before), he will be appearing solo, with his amplified acoustic guitar. Yet the album has notable arrangements and accompaniment for Rowe’s songs — strings, brass, percussion, electric guitar and background vocals. There’s even whistling. Some of the songs, like “Joe’s Cult” and “Horses,” outright rock.
Rowe regards his recorded sound as “organic.”
“When I think of organic music, I think of a very simple effect to create the sound,” he says. “I try to keep it as simple as possible. The process and instruments used are pretty much non-digital, for lack of a better term. It’s just guitars and acoustic instruments, occasional drums and percussion, vocal, strings. All of it was done in a nonsynthetic fashion.”
Rowe’s 24-day survival quest was in 2007, and the demands of his blossoming music career do not leave time for another anytime soon. (He also became a father in 2011.)
“I was really fortunate I was able to do that,” he explains. “I don’t have 30 days now to dedicate to total wilderness living. But I just learned so much from that experience.”
Rowe still finds time to get away from it all for more brief encounters with nature. Those short respites are enough now.
“There are parks all over the place,” he says. “Just going by myself and being alone with some facet of the natural landscape is enough to take me back to a place where I have some kind of balance. And I do a lot of foraging. I have a lot of fun doing that on tour or when I go back home.”
SEAN ROWE played Molly Malone’s in Covington on July 25 with Justin Paul Lewis. Tickets and more info: magus-music.com.