Monday, August 30, 2010

Jeff Rowe

Maybe it’s safe to assume that most artists think more with their hearts than with their heads.

Take musicians: Here are individuals who take their talents on the road with no promise of a place to sleep, money for fuel or food or emergencies, or even a sense of safety. They bring with them their instruments and each other; too often, they return with (and to) less than what they left with. It takes a certain sort of person to set out on this sort of “irrational” adventure, let alone live for it—one who places passion above a stable place in conventional society.

This is where Jeff Rowe might differ from most musicians. Sure the singer/songwriter is passionate; sure his solo debut, dubbed Barstool Conversations, is as emotional and personal as an acoustic self-portrait should be. It’s just that Rowe has been in those bands before, the ones piloted by passionate hearts, and he’s ready to learn from (rather than repeat) his mistakes.

Rowe started his musical career in BoxingWater. “We were kind of a melodic hardcore band,” he explains, “Real political, real young, and we were real idealistic also. We were like best friends, all from the north shore of Massachusetts, and used the music as a vehicle to see the country. We never got the point where we were sustaining ourselves by playing music, but we tried. We toured and played really crappy shows across the country, but through those tours, met the most amazing people.”

One such amazing person was Joe McMahon, whose band Smoke or Fire became buddies with BoxingWater. “They had met Tim Barry [formerly of Avail] on a whim,” Rowe says. “He told them, ‘Ya’ll should move down to Richmond. It’s cheap down here and you guys can live off of music.’ We were just floored at the fact that they had met Tim Barry because we were all Avail fans; they’re like a defining band for me. Then, a month goes by and Joe’s like, ‘I think I’m going to take Tim’s advice; I think we should go down to Richmond.’"

BoxingWater followed Smoke or Fire down to Richmond, but Rowe felt homesick almost immediately.
“I’m a real Northeastern person and started missing stuff that winds up getting lost in the mix when you live somewhere else, like sarcasm,” he laughs. The rest of his band mates remained in Richmond (and would later become Landmines), but Rowe moved back to Massachusetts and started writing songs with his best friend Bert. Though the project started as a mere musical outlet for two bandless band members, it eventually evolved into the acoustic duo known as Tomorrow the Gallows.

"That was my first foray into playing acoustic music,” Rowe explains. “We did the same thing we did in BoxingWater on an acoustic level: we released a record and went on tour.”

Except Tomorrow the Gallows found much more success than BoxingWater. “With Tomorrow the Gallows,” Rowe says, “we were a little bit safer. We weren’t trying to tour the country. We wanted to play in the Northeast and rally the troops, so to speak, and it worked out. Once we had a base of people who would come out to see us play, we just started spreading out. We were a little older and our experience of being in punk-rock bands prior to that made us a little more adept.”

When Bert decided to move back to his hometown (to potentially takeover his father’s business rebuilding old barns), Rowe found himself bandless once again, but this didn’t stop him from playing shows. One night, he found himself at a club in Boston called the Abbey Lounge. “It was a dive bar to the max,” he snickers. “There weren’t very many people there, and the people that were there didn’t really seem to care, but that didn’t seem to affect what I was doing.” Strumming and shouting, sweating beneath the stage lights, something clicked in Rowe that night that inspired him to pursue his solo act more seriously.

“You would think it would happen when people were listening and being encouraging,” he continues. “I think it was the lack of encouragement, the turned backs of the people at the bar that made me think, ‘I’m just going to sing a little louder…’”

In a sense, this was the start of Jeff Rowe the singer/songwriter—the solo artist—and the start of Barstool Conversations. But Rowe didn’t dive at this idea without considering his previous experiences on the road—both the places he has been and the people he has come across along the way. It’s these previous experiences that prepared. “I think of all the traveling from back in the day,” he explains, “and all the folks that we met, and some of my friends that are in bands—they do pretty well and are well known. Seeing their ups and downs in a non-objective manner, I think that stuff prepared me for this.”

To record his record, Rowe hoped to balance cost with competence, and considered Lance Koehler at Minimum Wage in Richmond, VA to be the best for the job. BoxingWater recorded with Koehler, as did Rowe’s principal influence Tim Barry and his former band mates Landmines. “It was a good excuse to visit friends,” Rowe says, “and the studio is actually cheap compared to most studios. So Minimum Wage—it’s a truism.”

Rowe also contacted some of his friends to fill in his songs with piano and other instruments, including Joe McMahon. “He’s really opinionated in an honest way,” Rowe admits. “I kind of wanted him to look over my shoulder a little bit.” Rowe hadn’t planned on asking McMahon to do back-ups—“I hadn’t really planned-out back ups,” he says with a snicker—but his best friend found himself jumping in on track after track. “He was like, ‘I kind of hear this harmony on that song while you were recording it,’” Rowe tells, “so I asked him, ‘Do you just want to try to do that harmony?’ and he was like, ‘Yep.’ And it was like that for the whole recording process.

“Even on a couple of songs that have drums,” Rowe continues, “Lance, who was in the engineer’s booth, was like, ‘Uh, do you think I can play drums on this?’ So he’d go down and play drums.” Besides the piano, which was planned out a bit before hand, and Rowe’s singing and strumming, all of the instrumentation was constructed and recorded in the moment.

Barstool Conversations may have been recorded spontaneously, but the record itself sounds careful and developed, though raw and real. More than anything, though, the record sounds intimate—not in a weak way, or in an invasive one; instead, his songs seem inviting and inspire a sense of solidarity, as if Rowe’s successes and woes, his happiness and heartaches are also the listener’s.

“An Island’s Point of View”, for example, is confident and peppy and possibly the simplest song on the record. Above the scratch of his acoustic, Rowe roars about his struggles, but peppers it with a sense of accomplishment. “I’m from a long line of forgetfulness,” he sings, “I’m from a long line of people doing time / I’ve got a long fight ahead of me / I’ve got a long fight, but I know my balance will withstand.”

In contrast, “Dead Authors” is a stormy ballad, but darkly beautiful. Rowe’s guitar is strummed with the subtle delicacy and rhythm of raindrops on a roof as piano chords boom with the resonance and power of thunder. “Mama’s gonna lose the home where we grew up, and it breaks my heart,” he sings. “Daddy’s not around. Hell, he never was worth the salt anyways / I’m a man right now and, if I’m not, I’ll never be / It keeps me up at night / wondering / the anger.”

“The song on the record that really stands out for me is ‘Dead Authors’,” Rowe admits. “I think it’s because it’s real definitive of what I was going through. It was about my mom, my dad, my home.” These songs are about the highs and lows of life; they’re merely told through Rowe’s perspective and experiences.

High or low, though, there’s a reoccurring theme to Rowe’s music. “In a sense,” he says, “it’s about how you can take a lot of punches but you can still stand. That stuff plays an epic role in my life, and it weighs heavily on me, but I’m doing what I want to do. My parents lost their home, but they’re still standing too.”

It’s fallacious, perhaps, to assume that all artists sacrifice common sense for passion; it’s possible that they aren’t even ends of the same spectrum. Still, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Rowe and his Barstool Conversations because, after the relative “failures” of BoxingWater and Tomorrow the Gallows, Rowe is still standing, still strumming, still shouting out his heart. Except he’s applying the lessons he’s learned from his previous experiences, from every night spent on a stranger’s floor, from every friend he’s met and will never see again, from every stolen slice of pizza, from every empty gas tank and every trashed transmission and every icy interstate—from every “irrational” adventure an artist has on the road.

It begs the question: Is Rowe thinking with his heart or with his head? Or Both? And which one is better than the other?

Claiming that there aren't very many landlines left in Boston, Rowe recorded these songs in the kitchen of one of his friends on a sunny late summer evening about two weeks before the release of his debut record.

"An Island Point Of View" appears on Rowe's 2010 record titled Barstool Conversations. "Bikeage" is a Descendents cover; the song originally appeared on the 1982 album Milo Goes to College.

Visit the Rowe's website for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.