Often we find that the best artists are among the best observers. They are able to take the impressions they receive with their own senses, interpret them with great depth of feeling, and transmit that feeling to an audience through their chosen media. But those who open their psychic camera lens wide to the world run the risk of overexposure. They must find means to periodically narrow their focus so they can give an aspect of their environment all of their attention, experience it whole and pick it apart, so they can know it all the way through.
Take Sean Rowe, the rough-hewn singer songwriter whose music has garnered widespread critical acclaim since his career-altering signing with ANTI- in 2010, at the age of thirty-five. For nearly twenty years prior, he cut his teeth playing bars in and around Troy, NY, an experience he described this way:
You start out frequenting the open mics, you scream over drunk jocks who actually think that ‘Nickelback’ or even ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ is in your repertoire. You play for no one on a Tuesday night except the waitress who is listening intently and moved enough to buy a cd with the only tip money she has left. One night, you even finish the set with an evil version of Folsom Prison when a man offers to pay you $40 to stop playing so he can watch the football game on the TV above the stage. You jack those amps to the max and revel in your seething swan song even if you’re the only one there who appreciates it.[i]
Parallel to his life toiling in relative musical obscurity, Rowe sought solitude and mental clarity as a naturalist and survivalist, spending days or weeks alone in the wilderness, foraging for edible plants, sleeping on the ground, communing with the earth (making him a folk hero of mine). In his view, the dividing line between human society and the wild is just a construct, as he told The Rumpus back in 2011:
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.
Strangely, while nature is a huge part of Rowe’s lifestyle, imagery related to it doesn’t factor strongly in his music. Rather, he has mastered a style of songwriting that is highly relatable because it evokes the most universal aspects of human experience in eloquently ambiguous ways. His rolling-thunder baritone lends itself spectacularly to the introspective. He tells stories about people’s inner lives, without delving into too much detail or making the songs too personal. Because of this, I believe Sean Rowe is first and foremost an empath, someone who is uniquely attuned to the inner workings of the people he meets.
Maybe that’s why, when he set out to record six cover songs originally written and performed by female artists, he found himself drawn to Cat Power’s 1998 tune “Colors and the Kids.” Chan Marshall wrote the songs on the album Moon Pix when she was deep in her own period of retreating and refocusing, living alone for three months in a secluded South Carolina farmhouse.[ii] The song’s lyrics describe someone who is no longer finding fulfillment in her music, who is intensely drawn toward other people, but finds the logistics of interacting with them in modern society overwhelming:
I could stay here
Become someone different
I could stay here
Become someone better
It’s so hard to go to the city
When you want to say
Hello I love you
What can someone do whose heart is urging them to seek the fullest kind of intimacy with every person they meet? They can take refuge in the woods, in a farmhouse, in an art form that allows them to express the feelings that are overflowing from them toward anyone they meet. They can throw their arms around all of us from afar, through their music.
Take a listen to my Youtube playlist of all the songs on Sean Rowe’s new EP Her Songs alternating with versions performed by the women who wrote them:
Sean Rowe is currently on tour, and I will be in Hudson, NY for his set at Club Helsinki tonight. Please revisit Old School Record Review next week to read my recap of the show, and later this month for a podcast of my interview with him.