Singer-songwriter Sean Rowe has been working on his new album Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights for several years at this point. Bred from the decision to pave a new path for himself and his sanity, the record marks a point-of-no-return that renders itself in his fully realized body of existential introspection.
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Released October 8 as Rowe’s Fluff & Gravy Records debut, the 11-track collection is the product of Rowe’s unrelenting journey of self-discovery and acceptance. He credits therapy and a guided ayahuasca retreat with helping him to reach this understanding. The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights captures the serenity he found in his most vulnerable state after stripping back layers of anger and learned defenses.
The illustrious title is gleaned from the first single, “To Make It Real.” The pivotal line—All this darkness / dressed in colored lights / Everything is wrong / But you look so damn beautiful tonight—evokes the paradox between the past and present state of things. Many of the album tracks echo sentiments and scenes from the space between.
Produced by Troy Pohl—whom he has known since he was in his early twenties while Pohl was still a teen—and recorded in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at Brian Joseph’s studio, Hive, Rowe’s new record is among his most personal projects to date. The studio, which is situated on a remote acreage of rolling green hills, was chosen so that they could work with the Grammy-winning engineer, Brian Joseph (Bon Iver), as well as its proximity to a group of musicians that Sean came to admire from Anna Tivel’s remarkable album, The Question.
That group includes drummer/percussionist, and producer Shane Leonard, along with Jeremy Boetcher on bass, and Ben Lester on keys and pedal steel. Courtney Hartman was flown from Colorado to provide background vocals and guitar. Chris Carey provided additional bass, while John DeHaven, Jeff Nania, and Joel Yannuzzi made up the album’s brass section.
“I went to Wisconsin not knowing any of the people who were playing on the record, including the engineer, and I had never even stepped foot into the studio before,” Rowe tells American Songwriter while discussing his new album. “But that was on purpose. I wanted to completely start from scratch, to create something on the spot. And so I was going into that environment with these songs that the band had never heard—everything was fresh and new. I was sort of banking on the weirdness of it all that it would create a kind of environment that had this element of risk in it and excitement that possibly something good would come out of it.”
By checking out of his comfort zone and surrendering conscious control, Rowe was able to tap into the instinctual intricacies of the creative process.
Rowe and his intentionally selected team recorded the bulk of the project over the course of 10 days at Hive. Once he returned home, he and Pohl continued work on the album for the next few months. “I didn’t get a good sense of what the record was until maybe, maybe coming back home from Wisconsin and just sitting with what we had,” says Rowe. You have an idea of what you want going into a record, and then sometimes it just takes a different turn and becomes something that you know, you weren’t expecting.”
Adding and tweaking a few elements here and there, Rowe felt he had it where he wanted it to be, just in time for the pandemic to hit last spring. Shelving the project, and diving into other writings, The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights feels distant to Rowe’s present self —an unintended consequence that bolsters the album’s titular sentiment.
Unlike almost every other record process, every song he intended to record for this album made it on the final tracklist. He likens these songs to a Polaroid picture—documenting emotions seen through the aperture at the exact moment the camera shuttered.
“It’s all a reflection, you know, all of these songs are a snapshot in time where I was at the moment that I wrote the song, they really don’t have anything to do with where I am right now,” he explains. “And that’s what is strange for people. Because when you hear a song, it’s new for you, as a listener, you think, Oh, my God, wow, this person is going through. But really, that stuff happened a long time ago, some of this stuff years ago.”
“What Are We Now” introduces the incongruence of his per view looking both inward and out of a world he isn’t meshing with. Lyrics detail his defined refuge: You can’t feel your enemies while you’re running from yourself/Soon all your favorite records will be calling you from the shelf.
The eccentric “Squid Tattoo” is about a romantic relationship but in the non-traditional sense. Lyrically, Rowe details an envisioned future with a fictional partner. This song was one that required additional tweaking before landed a spot on the roster.
“It’s nobody’s fault really, it was just so much in the territory of Tom Waits that we had even though it sounded really good initially we had to pull some things from it and rearrange it,” says Rowe. “No musician wants to come across this like a copy of something. At best, you wear your influences, and it’s obvious, but you don’t copy something verbatim. There’s nothing great or original about.”
The standout lyric, Now I love you/But I can’t believe you’re from Ohio defines the track with humor. Rowe says, “I’m really not trying to offend Ohio’s sensibility here. But, a good line is a good line.”
Similarly, “To Make It Real” wears influence with veteran poise. Channeling Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Rowe employs his growling vocals for a personal interpretation of the echoing questions shouted toward the sky. He’s desperately grasping for something familiar in the face of troubling uncertainty.
“To some degree or another, all of my songs seem to be about relationships,” he says. “I don’t mean that to say a romantic relationship necessarily, it’s just all about the relationship to everything—to nature, or to my son, my body, my mind, my partner. The inner world is the most fascinating to me.”
Even within the considerable impact of the current socio-political climate, Rowe’s writing remains rooted in introspection. “I tend to not write much politically,” he adds. “It’s not like I don’t have opinions, it’s just that I find that inner life is infinitely more fascinating to write about, because of the mystery involved.”
The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights is available on CD and double-vinyl, as well as all streaming services. Listen to Sean Rowe’s latest LP below.
Photo Credit: Joe Navas