Sean Rowe released Magic, his ANTI debut, in late February. With an unrelenting baritone that hits deep from the beginning and songs that seem to bleed out straight from his heart, Magic is tear inducing in that wistful tender way.
An active naturalist and forager, Rowe makes his home in upstate New York (articles attribute his home to Troy, but he answered questions from a second floor apartment he has in Saratoga Springs). The Rumpus talked to him about getting zoned out to the Beach Boys to the point that his mom thought he was a “little off,” why he prefers to record in old spaces, foraging for mayapples, and how he was inspired to write his first song on a Fisher Price typewriter after listening to “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.
The Rumpus: Describe the landscape of Troy, NY. What makes it distinct?
Sean Rowe: It’s a very hilly area built along the Hudson River, which as I’m sure you know, is extremely wealthy in its history. For someone interested in Native history as I am, it was an important area for the Mohawk people of the Iroquois and to their neighbors, completely different people, the Mohicans.
Rumpus: Do you know anything about the former business, “The Trojan Tap Room,” that was below the Troy studio where you recorded Magic? Tell me about it and the studio. What was the space like?
Rowe: Actually, that was a bit of a misprint. The Trojan Tap Room was a family restaurant that my cousins owned and ran for nearly fifty years, but the actual studio that I recorded Magic in was not where the tap room was located. Also in my hometown of Troy—the recording studio was once a restaurant called Jack’s, which was owned by my grandfather for some years before the Trojan Tap Room came into being.
The building itself is very old for American standards with layers of paint peeling from the walls, random pigeon vocals from where they all roost on the window ledges and a general creaking and crackling that those elderly structures tend to make when they hit a certain age. I like to record in an environment that has its own built-in character. In fact, a lot of those unintentional ambient sounds were allowed to stay on the final recordings at i think it adds an element of realism which is important to me. I also believe the studio building to be haunted but that’s another story.
Rumpus: I saw you mentioned listening to Beach Boys on 8-tracks and that you could listen to “In My Room” eternally as a seven-year-old boy. What did that song do to you? Why did you listen to it on repeat and where did it take you?
Rowe: I think it was both literally and mentally relevant to me at the time. My room was my sanctuary. I would spend hours in there rocking back and forth on my bed, just listening but not really picking apart the sounds as if to study them sonically as a musician would do. It was more like a mantra. It was a focal point that I could hold in the center of my mind almost tangibly and physically. but it would allow me to daydream and kinda just take off ya know? Now it all seems like I was almost teaching myself how to meditate or something. I probably appeared to be stoned, but really I was legitimately zoned out. I did that a lot. My mother was somewhat concerned that I was a bit, well, off. I think she got used to it though. Many times I didn’t really even need a song to listen to. I would make up my own melodies without words and stand in the corner by the refrigerator and zone away.
Rumpus: When did you write your first song? What was it about? What did you do with it? What were the circumstances?
Rowe: I can give you two answers. I first wrote an untitled song when I was seven or eight using a white plastic Fischer Price typewriter that my parents had bought me for Christmas. (At the time, my brother had told me that Santa was a joke and that mom and dad hid all of our Christmas shit in the attic!) I was inspired to type out my very own song lyrics when I first heard “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. My song started “Walkin’ down the street / and my feet were like meat…” Sorry that’s all I can remember! The first complete song that I wrote when I felt like I could really write a song, was called “Turtle.” It was inspired by a very dear friend of mine, singer/songwriter, Jeanne French. I wrote the song when I was 18. I still like it.
Rumpus: Tell me the story of the opening track “Surprise.”
Rowe: Well I can’t really give you a direct answer on this. Many of my songs are about other people. I don’t write about myself too much. However, on “Surprise” it’s all coming from me and it all happened … just that way.
Rumpus: So, Otis Redding did it for you. Tell me why. Was there a certain song involved?
Rowe: Yeah,”Open the Door.” The guttural pleading and heartbreak and rawness of it all. I had never heard anything like that up to that point and it pulled my own voice out of the depths of uncertainty and embarrassment it had been hiding in as a teenager. For the first time I felt like I could do this, I can be a singer … I want to sing!
Rumpus: What is the role of subconscious in your music?
Rowe: I want to build a story that can go in many directions. I like to write in ways that maybe don’t point to a direct linear meaning, but instead offer a picture of possibilities and a range of emotions. My favorite lyricists have a way of conveying something that hits you like a time bomb, when maybe you are not expecting it. It’s also about the space that you leave—what is in between the words. I really care about them and I want them to be effective. Sometimes the simplest thing is the most powerful.
Rumpus: What’s your favorite food to forage and why? What is the most unusual food you’ve ever foraged?
Rowe: Wild Strawberries! In the Northeast, they are one of the first sweet edibles to come out in the late spring. They are tiny compared to cultivated strawberries, but if you find a productive spot … they set against the fresh green grass like little red Christmas lights and on a hot June day you can put your nose to the ground in any given wild strawberry patch and the smell is intoxicating! Hands down, my favorite. I could spend and have spent hours on end harvesting them.
As far as unusual, most of everything I forage is unusual compared to cultivated food, but some of the least known wild food just happens to be some of the best tasting and most nutritious that you could find anywhere. i.e. the mayapple, a native, low growing forest understory plant with leaves shaped like an umbrella, which produces a ripe fruit in late July/early August that is so sweet and tart and, just generally, outstanding. To Native Americans, the plant was prized as a food source but also respected as a powerful medicinal, as all parts of the plant including the unripe fruit are considered highly toxic and, in some cases, deadly. But when the fruit is squishy, yellow, and ripe, it makes the best tasting fruit leather and jam on the natural market!
Rumpus: Nature is so important to you. Why?
Rowe: What else do we really have? I’m really interested in things that at least appear and feel real. I’m interested in things that are universal to all humans, animals, and the rest of nature: clean air, clean water, food, shelter. What else is possible without these? I don’t see nature as something “outside” of myself. When you think about it, the mentality of “going camping” is a very strange concept. We are always going out to nature. That’s why there is a word called “nature!” It is something to be viewed in a glass case or at worst, a concept to be conquered and tamed and feared.
Rumpus: Are you concerned about a disconnect between humans and nature in our society? Why/why not?
Rowe: We as a collective society today operate as if we move somehow outside of the rest of creation, as if we are the ones pulling the strings and have the power and god-given right to do what we wish with the earth. I don’t expect you to print this, but that is a concept that is completely fucked! We are nature. Why we go on, gnawing off our own hands and feet to be ostensibly more comfortable, is an existential question that will probably puzzle the anthropologist aliens from some far away planet who go on to take over and exploit mankind.
Rumpus: What’s your favorite meal to sit down to and why?
Rowe: I know it sounds far fetched, but I recently had homemade french toast with maple syrup that was prepared with so much voodoo magic that I almost cried. It was so amazing.
Feature photograph © Mark Bond.