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Singer-songwriter Sean Rowe is equally at home deep in the woods or baring his deep, soulful voice in local clubs

Photo by:
Joe Putrock

By Erik Hage

Sitting on a bench in Washington Park with Sean Rowe, watching the geese flap around in the lake shallows (and the occasional rodent scoot by), it occurs to me that our natural location, hemmed in by the urban atmosphere, just might be an ideal spot for a chat with the singer-songwriter, as it echoes the twin themes of his life (his “paradox,” as he calls it): his longtime fascination with the wilderness versus his communal need to share his urban blend of acoustic soul with downtown denizens.

And Rowe is no mere dabbler in either world. When he graduated from Troy High a little over a decade ago, he went straight into a wilderness school in New Jersey run by famed tracker-survivalist-author Tom Brown. There, in what the rest of us would perceive of as a sadistic act of attrition, the students were stripped of their gear on a daily basis (day one: no tent, day two: no sleeping bag—you get the idea), until it was just them and their wits, getting real intimate with nature. “The whole idea around this class was going into the woods as if you were naked, as if you had nothing,” Rowe remembers. Sans equipment and sans food, the students learned, among other things, how to build various shelters and graze on nature’s bounty.

At the musical end of his personal spectrum, anyone who’s ever heard Rowe do his thing—delivering his poetically charged tunes in that surprisingly deep, soulful rumble—can attest to his seriousness of purpose in that area. But beyond that, Rowe also recently received recognition (and a nice chunk of change) in the form of a songwriting grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. A friend had actually picked up an application for him and encouraged him to apply, but Rowe had initial doubts. “It was the kind of thing where it seemed like it was for classical composers or jazz people. Serious cats, y’know? And with me not even reading music—[I thought] it was a long shot.”

As part of the process, Rowe submitted three songs from his CD 27 (recorded last year), along with printed lyrics and a bio. Six months passed, and his hopes had dwindled to the point where he had nearly forgotten about the whole thing. Then a letter arrived indicating that, out of nearly 500 people in the Music Composition category (most of them from New York City), he had won a prestigious NYFA fellowship worth $7,000.

The recognition came at a good time, as it followed on the heels of some uncertainty. Rowe had recently gone away for a two-semester stint at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, to pursue a course of study that he hoped would mold his wilderness passion into a teaching vocation. “The school was very unique in that it offered a degree program in ‘natural interpretation,’” Rowe recalls. “It’s kind of like taking all the natural sciences and making them teachable to children or adults that have very little knowledge of the science of nature. They were hardcore science classes, but there was an element to them that was geared toward teaching it [on a hands-on level].” In fact, most of his classes were outdoors, in the surrounding Appalachian wilderness.

Despite the relatively isolated setting, Rowe couldn’t toss a stick without hitting another singer-songwriter. There were numerous musicians and only a certain amount of clubs, leading to some fierce competition for stage time. “I used to frequent this open mic that had a two-week signup. A two-week waiting list . . . for an open mic!” he exclaims. Though Rowe was discouraged by the scarce performing opportunities, the time he spent in tiny Nelsonville provided him with an invaluable woodshedding period. “It was probably the most prolific time for me as far as songwriting goes,” he claims. From that period, he was able to distill every song on 27, including his fellowship-winning compositions. Ultimately, however, things didn’t quite “take” at the school. Rowe says he also missed the Capital Region and the performing opportunities it provided. “I decided to come back to Albany and dedicate myself as much as possible to what I do best.”

One place that journey has landed him is at the Lark Tavern, where he performs every other Monday night as the Sean Rowe Project, which is actually a duo with Marco Haber on percussion. A recent Monday eve performance found the two playing to a packed room of followers, many of them quite vocal, yelling out requests for Rowe’s songs. Onstage, deep in the groove—in casual T-shirt and shorts, fingers nimbly working the fretboard, that big voice just sort of rolling out of him and hips unconsciously shimmying a little—Rowe seemed most at ease, as if the stage, like the woods, were simply another natural habitat.

In short (and as some highly convincing Marvin Gaye covers attested) Rowe’s got soul. Not the affected kind, but the kind of deep, burnished stuff that certain singers just have in their fiber, whether they’ve lived the hard life on the Delta or simply grew up in Troy, mucking around in the woods and fronting a rock band with high-school buddies. And that was where Rowe started, playing bass in a youthful rock band and becoming the singer largely by default. “I felt like I could hold a tune and sing backup but we really wanted a cool lead singer, like all of those big rock bands,” he laughs.

When their own Eddie Vedder never materialized, Rowe took up the lead-singing duties, capitalizing on a resonant gift from puberty. “That surprised me, when my voice changed. Everybody in my band was like, your voice is like really low, man. What happened?” (Sitting next to Rowe on the park bench, I can actually feel the timbre of his voice vibrating—strongly—through the wood as he speaks.)

Eventually forging out on his own as a solo acoustic act, Rowe turned from his rock foundations and began to find inspiration in soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. “Even on the records, they’re, like, sharing with you. And you get into their zone and you don’t want to leave; it’s like home. And I’ve always wanted to give that feeling to other people, and the only way to do that, I think, is to be really honest with your sound and what you’re putting across there. In my experience, you don’t have to be technically the best at what you’re doing, but you have to be distinctive . . . and honest.”

Hooking up with percussionist Haber has been an important recent step in getting his music across. It’s a fruitful combination, in that the two musicians both have vast individual capacities (hence a duo being dubbed the Sean Rowe Project). Rowe has those resonant pipes, ornately groovy tunes and busy guitar work, while Haber has a uniquely AfroLatin- and Middle Eastern-influenced style of open-hand drumming that makes one drum sound like, well, a bunch of drums. Four months back, Haber happened to catch Rowe’s set at Justin’s. They randomly ran into each other the next day and, as Rowe recalls, Haber said, “I have this technique that I do on the drum, and maybe we should just get together and see if it works.”

At the time, Rowe was content doing the solo thing, away from the headaches of dealing with other members. But as soon as he heard Haber he knew it would work. The next night they played a gig. “I gotta be honest with you,” Rowe says. “At first I was little bit jealous because when he’s up on stage and his hands are going—everybody just stares at him, you know? The guy’s got one drum. The thing with him is . . . he doesn’t pound on them, so it looks like he’s tapping on water. He’s amazing to watch and the sound that he puts out is so big.” The arrangement also worked out for Haber, who had just about given up on things musically in Albany and had been preparing to head back to his native New York City.

Thinking about the marriage of Haber’s percussion style and Rowe’s tunes, one can’t help but notice an aboriginal or indigenous undercurrent to Rowe’s life, from his kinship with the wilderness to what looks like an ancient depiction of a salamander or lizard tattooed down his forearm. He first was inspired by the natural world as a kid, when his aunt Mary took him to the New York State Museum here in Albany. “There was a scene there with a Native American with a spear and he was on this cliff with a deer at the bottom. The deer is still there, but they took the Native American out.” For some reason that image made a huge impression on him, serving as a sort of personal archetype. (“I still have the picture,” he notes.)

Nevertheless, his peacefully primitive forays into the woods are occasionally punctured by modern reality. Not long ago, he constructed one of his primitive shelters (a concealed, underground “scout pit”) in the North Greenbush woods. Three days after completing it and camouflaging it (Rowe likes to occasionally sleep overnight in the ground), he received a phone call from the local police, who said, “We got a phone call from the guy who owns the property behind the school [who saw Rowe digging], and he said you were building a, uh . . . grave out there?” The police had ventured out to investigate the man’s claims but they couldn’t find the pit. “Yeah, that’s the idea, it’s totally camouflaged,” laughs Rowe. He was able to clear things up with the authorities, but, he notes a little dejectedly, “I think that was my last underground shelter.”

The Sean Rowe Project will play Bailey’s Café in Saratoga tomorrow (Friday) night at 9 PM and the Lark Tavern on Monday from 7-9 PM.

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