On the song "Night," from Sean Rowe's forthcoming ANTI- debut, Magic, the singer turns his rich, unnerving baritone to a moment of childhood innocence. Back then, he muses, you could fall "like a floating leaf," and the earth would "look up at you and smile." Rowe's deep, magical voice is nothing if not wise and experienced; he knows full well that after the innocence comes the fall. This ability to conjure dueling emotions - the elation of childhood versus the bruising of real life - marks the arrival of a skilled lyricist and songwriter.
"Night," a conversation between an ailing father and son, and "Wet," written from the perspective of a boy watching his mother go through hell, wrap tales of troubled childhoods in the deep protective warmth of Rowe's voice. The voice and plaintive melodies comfort the listener, just as Rowe himself sought comfort in two constants throughout his nomadic, latch-key boyhood: nature and music.
"It didn't really matter what I was listening to," he says, "I would just listen to whatever I could find around the house, whether it was the Beach Boys or REO Speedwagon." Getting lost in music was his survival instinct, a sort of "meditation," as Rowe refers to it. In the kitchen, his mother would have to fight the melodies in his head for attention. "I'd just be in the corner, humming, making up songs," he says, adding with a laugh, "I was a weird kid."
But his mother was used to a house full of melody. "Everyone on my mother's side of the family played or sang, mostly big band era, the classics, but folk, too," he says. "And my uncle was always giving me harmonicas, which I would sell for candy."
For Rowe, an avid naturalist, his love for the wilderness dates back as far as he can remember--back to when he first fixated on the Native American images on his bed sheets as a little boy. He fed this fascination with trips to natural history museums with his aunt. "I would just go get lost in there," he remembers. "I studied everything about Native American life and customs that I could." These days, Rowe communes with nature on 30-day wilderness treks, for which he takes along nothing but a knife and the clothes on his back. "I feel sorry for people who are afraid of nature," he says.
Magic was recorded in the small upstate town of Troy, New York, in a studio above the space where Sean's grandfather once ran an Italian restaurant. The recording process, as he describes it, was intimate and incredibly specific. Brushes of fingertips on strings, hushed breaths, even the darkness of the studio seeps its way into the record, enhancing its live, trembling feel. "I wanted to create an abyss, something to take you far away, a dark but familiar space for people to get lost in," he explains.
Rowe's honest and haunting songwriting have already earned comparisons to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks phase, for his abstract lyric phrasing, and the way he crafts an experience of emotion, rather than telling a linear tale. Most powerfully he brings to mind Leonard Cohen, with songwriting which tends to build into powerful, yet vulnerable, cathedral-like monuments of sound. The song "American," with its yearning strings and earnest piano bring chills and a catch in your throat.
Magic is Sean Rowe's homage to what he believes in, to what he finds magical in the world. The themes of love, innocence, sex and nature prevail in its heartfelt, crafted songs. On the ambient, deeply resonant closer "The Long Haul," Rowe's voice crackles with life. "And I never hit the spring so hard/ a newborn song on an old guitar/ and I know what it means to be alive," he sings. And like the most evocative, important works of art, Magic begs the question of its listener: What makes you feel alive?