Sean Rowe has a voice and a style that stands out in popular music. His voice is deep — really, truly deep — fine, and often doleful. He's a baritone troubadour who sings of roads not taken, regrets and the dreams that shake you awake at 3 in the morning.
After years of working bars, road houses and more bars, Rowe is playing concert stages and winning over critics for his story-songs and that remarkable voice. But, as he tells NPR's Scott Simon, he wasn't always so proud to be a singer.
"I was terrified of my own voice, and not because of the tonality of it," he says. "I was very introspective; I sang for myself, mostly. And when I started going through the teen years and all the baggage that comes with that, I got really self-conscious. I got self-conscious of hearing my voice on a tape recorder, and I would erase everything before I would show it to somebody. My practice tapes were basically only music."
Rowe's new album, The Salesman and the Shark, was recorded at the historic Vox studio in Los Angeles. Recording in L.A. and performing in New York are odd fits for Rowe, who says he prefers the rhythms of nature and the outdoors.
"It's a bit of a paradox for me. I do enjoy aspects of the city: I love the arts, I love people. That's about where it stops," Rowe says. "There's an energy in the city that doesn't sit right with me.
"I have spent an extended period of time in nature — the longest was about 24 days," he adds. "I slept in a shelter that I built. I was hunting, I was trapping primitively and I was consuming a lot of wild plants. And that was a tremendous lesson — in humility, bit also in nature connection."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Sean Rowe has a voice and a style that stands out in popular music. His voice is deep - I mean, really, truly deep - fine, and often doleful. He's a baritone troubadour of roads not taken, regrets, and the dreams you can get at three in the morning.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGNS")
SEAN ROWE: (Singing) There were songs in the trees. There were signs all around me. There was a band playing softly as the day was slowly dying. I put my hand inside. I pull a green stone from my pocket and I watched it go...
SIMON: After years of working bars, roadhouses, and more bars, Sean Rowe is touring concert stages now and winning critical acclaim for his story songs - and that remarkable voice. His new CD is "The Salesman and the Shark." Sean Rowe joins us now from the studios of WAMC in Albany, New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROWE: Well, it's my pleasure.
SIMON: And this song we begin with, "Signs," is it a song about your father?
ROWE: It is, although I didn't quite know that at the time until later. And a lot of times that happens, that I'll write a song and the meaning of the song, for me, it isn't apparent right away. It takes some time to get at what you're trying to say. Sometimes you just don't recognize it right away. So that took some time.
SIMON: Well, tell us what that's like. So, you begin to write certain phrases and then you realize, oh, this is about something?
ROWE: Well, I was a really odd kid. My earliest memories that have to do with my own music was me in the kitchen and just sort of rocking back and forth, standing there in the corner by the refrigerator. And I would just make up these melodies, you know, and hum these nonsensical songs, you know. And I could do that for hours and days and months and years. You know, and that's how I started writing, as kind of an odd way to get into it. But I didn't have any formal training, although I did come from a background of musicians in the family. But that's how I sort of learned. I was sort very introspective.
SIMON: Let's listen to a clip from another song, if we could, "Flying."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLYING")
ROWE: (Singing) There was a time I could not cry, but that never lasted long. For seven years, I could not dream but now that's done. There were songs I could not sing, words I could not know. Oh, but they found me on a bridge and it broke my heart...
SIMON: May I ask what's the story behind this song?
ROWE: The story is a feeling of basically relearning everything you thought was correct and owning it, you know, coming into it in a really positive way. You know, for seven years I could not dream but now that's done, that's over. The dream was what may have been some kind of a nightmare at the time is over, and just by your perspective, that's what changed, nothing else, really, just your perspective. And that happens to me on a daily basis. It's not like now I've overcome everything that I've been trying to struggle with, - or that I've been struggling with for years, and now I've come to this place where I don't anymore, and that's not true. It's up and down, you know, but it's that feeling that I wanted to capture.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SALESMAN AND THE SHARK")
ROWE: (Singing) I've been sitting up drinking all the words I've said. There's a shark on my ceiling and a salesman in my head...
SIMON: You have this, as we know, this utterly remarkable deep voice. And I wonder what it was like to begin to develop that voice when you were a kid.
ROWE: I was terrified of my own voice. And not because of the tonality of it, but because I was embarrassed to be a singer. You know, I was very, like I said, when I was a kid, I was very introspective and I sang for myself mostly. And when I started going through, you know, the teen years and all that, all the baggage that comes with that, I got really self-conscious. You know, I got self-conscious of hearing my voice on a tape recorder and I would erase everything before I would show it to somebody. So, all, you know, my practice tapes were basically only music, guitar, and I would overdub on my voice 'cause I was really embarrassed by it. That sounds weird, I know, but it took me a long time to evolve and to actually enjoying singing for other people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ROWE: (Singing) You're a hypnotist, like a highway in the night. I know it's red outside but I'm stuck in black and white. If I could talk to you, if I could get to you, if I could break the beast who's (unintelligible) you, I'll give back the ghost of winter to the snow...
SIMON: You're very proudly a country guy.
ROWE: Yeah, for sure.
SIMON: What's it like for you to record in L.A., play in New York City?
ROWE: It's a bit of a paradox for me because I do enjoy aspects of the city. I love the arts. I love people. And then that's about where it stops. I mean, there's an energy in the city that it doesn't sit right with me.
SIMON: Well, could you tell me about your time in the woods? 'Cause I have read you will go into the woods for a month at a time with nothing but a bowie knife.
ROWE: Well, that does sound rather romantic, and it's partly true. I have spent an extended period of time in nature. The longest was about 24 days. And I, for that amount of time, I slept in a shelter that I built. And I was hunting, I was trapping primitively. And I was consuming a lot of wild plants. And that, it was a tremendous lesson, a lesson in humility but also in nature connection.
SIMON: With a vast respect for what you do, what's the diciest thing you ever made yourself eat?
ROWE: Well, I had things that surprised me, one of them being mice. And eating the whole entire mouse, it sounds really disgusting, but when you put it over the coals and it singes off all the hair and turns black and cooks everything, it's not too bad. It's not outstanding, but it's not bad. And when you're really, really hungry, then it seems like the most delicious thing you've ever tasted.
SIMON: Sean Rowe. His new CD is "The Salesman and the Shark." Thanks so much for being with us.
ROWE: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGNS")
ROWE: Well, the great blue sky was moving with his bike. As he flew past, the dollhouse color draws the testing signs of life...
SIMON: And if you hurry, you can hear all of Sean Rowe's new album at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.