Sean Rowe knows he cuts an imposing figure. He boasts a bouncer’s build, a biker’s hair and a voice lower than Johnny Cash with a head cold. “It can be intense,” he says, with a laugh.
So imagine that one day a guy like this shows up at your house to perform. That’s what’s been happening periodically over the last year, while Rowe has been on a promotional “house tour.” Conceived in the retro-trendy troubadour tradition, the tour found Rowe reaching out to fans through Facebook to play free shows in their living rooms.
“It can be awkward for invited friends or family members who don’t know me,” the singer says. “Suddenly, this hairy, bearded dude shows up and starts playing. And I don’t water down my songs for these shows at all.”
The intimacy and rarity of Rowe’s songs can prove jarring or entrancing, depending on your point of view. Either way, they’ve been getting him a lot of attention. He deserves even more for his new album, “Madman,” which widens his sound significantly.
The first thing listeners will notice about Rowe is his vocal pitch. He’s a baritone — a rarity outside of country music. The voice isn’t just deep in register, but also in character. Like the best baritones, Rowe can sound sinister or sexy, sage-like or sweet.
Part of his depth has to do with age. Though the upstate New York-based singer didn’t release an album until 2011, he’s staring down the barrel at 40.
Rowe thinks that’s an advantage. “When you’re young, you have issues,” he says. “Being older, you’re wiser about your next move.”
The singer didn’t land a significant recording contract until he was 36. He signed with the boutique Anti Records, which issued the “Magic” LP, recorded by Rowe on his own. The home approach explains that album’s stripped-down brand of art-folk. You could hear the woody rattle of his acoustic guitar’s surface, the waxiness of its nylon strings and the reverberations of its hollow body. Sean Rowe didn’t have a significant record contract until her was 36. Anthony Saint James Sean Rowe didn’t have a significant record contract until her was 36.
Rowe’s lyrics paid special attention to nature, drawn from his youth in Troy, N.Y. “I grew up in the woods, foraging or catching snakes,” he says. “I loved it.”
Rowe used that love for one of his day jobs before he got his break. He worked with kids in after-school programs about music and nature. He also had some terrible jobs. “I put the liners inside the caps of medical test tubes for eight hours a day,” he says. “I lasted three days.”
Meanwhile, Rowe played local bars, honing his sound. After recording “Magic,” the singer quickly set about making another. This time he had enough of a budget to pay session musicians. The result, “The Salesman and the Shark” (2012), added exotic instruments, like a string octet (for a touch of chamber folk), a Casiotone (for some 1980s synth touches) and a vibraphone. Female backup singers gave the songs a hint of Leonard Cohen, already evoked by Rowe’s gravelly voice and poetic lyrics.
Rowe’s latest album features some faster, louder songs. “The influences on this album come from when I was a kid,” Rowe says. “I grew up with soul music and primitive blues, from R.L. Burnside and John Lee Hooker.”
The album features more personal lyrics, including “My Little Man,” an ode to Rowe’s 3-year-old son. Remarkably, the song isn’t clichéd. “I’m part of a tradition in songwriting that’s careful to say something from a different angle,” Rowe says. “The picture doesn’t have to be dead-on. You can go around the back and get the same results.”
Rowe’s general desire to switch things up also dictated that home tour. As he puts it: “What can I say? I’m attracted to oddity.”
Mike Powell is a traveling storyteller and prolific writer who garnered international attention with his song “Twenty One Rounds” written as part of the Acoustic Guitar Project. He has toured with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and shared the stage with David Lindley, Martin Sexton, Shooter Jennings & many more His sound is honest, songs are heartfelt and his shows are real.