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Interview: Mitch Rowland

11 December 2023

Photo by Emma Swann

When I told my 18-year-old daughter I was going to interview Mitch Rowland, I was given very strict instructions to not ask any questions about Harry Styles and, as you’ll note, I followed those instructions.

Rowland grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, which is where I live, and we share a handful of common acquaintances. We’ve frequented the same venues, been fans of the same local bands and, as it turns out, I saw one of Rowland’s Columbus bands, Total Navajo, when they opened for Nikki Lane in 2012. A year later, Rowland would head to L.A. where he dreamed of launching a music career while working at a pizza shop.

In 2016, Rowland’s roommate, Ryan Nasci, an audio engineer who worked with Styles, invited the guitarist to fill in on a recording session with the former One Direction singer and the rest, as they say, is history. In this case, history is co-writing a number of tracks, including “Sign of the Times,” “Golden,” “Watermelon Sugar,” with Styles which led to a Grammy Award for “Best Pop Solo Performance” in 2021, and becoming Styles’ touring guitarist which has taken the former Ohio resident around the world.

Shortly before the global pandemic put the world on hold, Rowland began writing and recording the songs that would make up his debut solo album, Come June, which was released this past October. Recorded with famed producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith, Kurt Vile, etc), Rowland’s taken a step away from arena-pop and delivered a minimalistic, singer/songwriter-style album with hints of indie folk and Americana that features backing vocals by Styles (“Here Comes the Comeback”) and lap steel by Ben Harper (“All the Way Back”).

After geeking out about common connections and the Columbus music scene, I shared with Rowland how he first caught my attention.

I hate to say it but when I saw a picture of you roll through on my X timeline, I absolutely judged a book by its cover. Long hair? Check. Mustache? Check. Looking like a ‘70s singer/songwriter? Check. And, after listening to the album, while it’s not totally a ‘70s singer/songwriter showcase, would you say that era of songwriters was influential in how you approached songwriting?

MITCH: The short answer is yes, but I don’t know. I think everything kind of seeps in. It’s not that obvious when you listen to my record but, in making it, I kind of lived by the thought of “What would Bert Jansch do?” I can’t play a quarter of what he can do, but I aim for that. “What would Jose Gonzalez do?”

I saw Bert close to when he died. He was opening for Neil Young, and I saw him in Cincinnati when Neil was doing the Le Noise tour. I didn’t know a thing about Bert, but I sat up in the balcony watching down on this guy that was playing solo. I was very moved by the unknown. I would say that his music was definitely the most important stuff in my head when I was making the record.

I won’t ever ask an artist who their influences are but here’s my analogy – I know what a Chipotle bowl tastes like and I often have the desire to try to replicate that at home. I know it’s not going to taste the same, I don’t have the same ingredients or maybe I’ll throw something in that Chipotle doesn’t have, but I base it off Chipotle. When you’re writing songs, do you have something in mind that you want to use to fuel your own creation?

MITCH: A song like Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend,” certainly the woodiness of that song is something to strive for depending on the day.

I wanted the album to acoustically resonate and what that meant to me was having upright bass throughout the whole thing. Not to totally copy Bert, but I love how in some of his musical situations he was very on board with not plugging anything in, whether it’s [Jansch’s band] Pentangle or a solo record. You come up with cool stuff within those limitations.

Apart from any musical influence, I think minimalism was kind of my other main influence and stepping out of pop production, or any production, I thought I was going to be putting out a bare bones vocal and acoustic-guitar type album. I was really happy to stay on that train of thought but then that kind of opened up the opportunity to work with a producer on my terms for the first time, not as a side man. I kind of opened back up to the world of production, but in a much different way than I was used to.

I appreciate that it was minimalism not because of budgetary reasons but because that’s what you were going for.

MITCH: I think breaking things down to its most simple form helped me distinguish my voice more, like, “How am I going to get these songs apart from anything else I’ve helped write?” And, dreaming up a bunch of small songs was the best thing for me to do, small meaning simple arrangements and, also, sonically, the way they sound, not having too much going on.

Do you think 10 or 20 years from now, you’d might want to take these songs and go the opposite direction, fully flesh them out and have an orchestra or something play behind you?

MITCH: I don’t know. I think it stems from, I want to say Harry’s world, but, also, any world that I’m in, when I’m making something and recording it, I’m always thinking ahead of how it’s going to be done live. I like it to be a pretty effortless switch from the studio to the stage.

I heard a story from someone who made an instrumental record, they added strings and all the stuff to it and made it huge and spent a load of money just to realize, “Oh, I’m going to start over again and just get all that shit out of the way and it’s just going to be one thing.” And that’s what ended up coming out.

Are the songs on Come June older or were they written in a compressed timeline in the last few years whenever you had a moment?

MITCH: They were all written right before they were recorded with the intention of all of them staying together. I didn’t overwrite anything, everything that happened wound up on the record. It’s such a slow process, I don’t write in a hurry so I don’t end up with all this excess stuff. Once I realize that this is something I really enjoy playing, I wind up turning it into a song and it’s very intentional. “Okay, that’s finished, let’s put it on the pile.”

Is there an easy part of songwriting and a hard part? Is it easier to write guitar parts than coming up with lyrics or vice versa?

MITCH: Music always comes first, that’s always really easy. I wouldn’t say any of it is hard. I only write when I need to so there is a level of ease. I don’t force myself to write through writer’s block.

When you’re writing lyrics, is there anything that prompts you, like maybe reading something or seeing a street sign or watching something on TV?

MITCH: Lyrics come from anything. You always have your net ready to catch something but sometimes I try to take myself out of the song and insert other people into them. Maybe part of me is in there, part of something else is in there, part of someone I don’t know is in there. They’re all just things you interpret.

I try not to let myself write about something that has already been done so many times before. The world doesn’t need another song about relationships. If you happen to come up with one, fine, but I just try to keep my head as open as possible to anything I’m affected by or unaffected by.

Do you think of Come June as a story with a start and an ending? Is it your hope that people will listen to it in full, all the way through, or do you consider it a series of short stories that maybe aren’t related at all but are grouped together under the title?

MITCH: I know that people will click around and maybe only ever hear one song. Some people don’t even pay attention to order, or don’t care, and that’s fine. I made it for the person that puts it on and flips it over, the kind of way I’d want to listen to a record. [Producer] Rob Schnapf and I, once everything was finished, we’d play with the order. Rob’s really good at that. I made like a hundred different track listings and could never get it right. I think we found a perfect order. I don’t know what people think once they get to the last quarter or an album. Some people don’t even get that far.

The song that sets up “Come June,” “Goes With Everything,” is a nylon-string guitar song and it’s probably the smallest song on the record. If I think about the album for half a second, it’s just a thought that glances off of my brain, if there’s one thing that I think about in that flash, it’s that song actually. I can imagine it being the most insignificant song to someone on the record.

You can’t really control which side of a record will be a listener’s first exposure to your music. They could start off my listening to side B. Is that something you were thinking about when sequencing the album?

MITCH: Totally. “Bluebells” and “The One I Love,” at one point I thought I had a problem because I thought, “Oh shit, I have two songs that start with drum beats.” “Bluebells” was always an opener in my mind so I thought, “Okay, that can start side A” and then, “I’ll take the other one [“The One I Love”] and start side B with that.” If you put them on the same side, you might sound a bit redundant but keeping one for each side is a bit more intentional.

When did you move to L.A. from Columbus?

MITCH: I moved out here ten years ago, in September of 2013, but I had a bit of a detour and I lived in London for four years. I met Harry in 2016, we made the first record of his and when the album cycle got to the live stuff, I took a trip to London and was supposed to come back after a few weeks. I met my wife [Harry Styles’ drummer] Sarah. She had lived there for 15 years but that was a reason for me to stay. And, it was an amazing thing to get to do in life, living in a city like that.

Did you move to L.A. to pursue music? Was that the dream?

MITCH: Yeah. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I still don’t know how you do it. The claw machine just went for my head and picked me up and put me somewhere else. Somebody had asked me for advice and I said to Rob later that day, “What do you tell someone?” They’re in their 20s and they want to be told, “You should do this” or “You should do that.” And, Rob jokingly said, “You should tell them to work at Town Pizza where you used to work in L.A. Go wash dishes.”

Were there other musicians that worked there?

MITCH: It was run by musicians. I mean, Rob jokingly said that. I don’t know if you know L.A. very well, but a lot of people I knew were in cool bands and even got to play the Echo, or the Echo Plex, which would be more grand. Everything was a challenge. “How do you get a show there?”

Does it ever blow your mind that 10 or so years ago, you were opening a show at a little club in Columbus and maybe 15 people showed up and now you’re playing with one of the biggest pop stars in the world and headlining huge arenas?

MITCH: Everything along the way has been mind blowing but also getting the chance to be on a record label for once and putting out stuff that I made. A lot of the people I made the record with have become really, really good friends of mine.

It’s amazing to be in these huge rooms and huge stages and realize that a lot of people won’t get to experience that but everything in between is just as significant, like making this record with Rob and meeting Matt Schuessler, who plays bass. They’re all in the band as well. So, yeah, I don’t know how I managed to do that.

Your 2024 tour includes a Columbus stop at the Newport Music Hall which holds something like 1,700 people.

MITCH: Right up there with having my mind blown was playing at Rumba Cafe [capacity, 200 people] with the Buffalo Killers. That was a “I can’t do better than that” type moment. They’re still one of my favorite bands. Andy Gabbard is the reason I play Firebird guitars. He probably doesn’t know that. On this last Harry tour, we were sort of shadowing The Black Keys, which Andy is now a part of, in Europe and getting to see them play these insanely huge rooms was a lot of fun for me. I would make sure I’d be at every Buffalo Killers show in Columbus.

Do you know Andy personally? Did you develop a relationship with him back when your band was opening for the Buffalo Killers?

MITCH: I was too shy to get to know them in Columbus but, over the internet, have sort of become pals, which is nice.

You were seeing shows in Columbus, were you ever traveling to Cincinnati or Cleveland to see concerts?

MITCH: Every now and then. We saw Crazy Horse on the rail at CSU [Cleveland State University] in like 2011 or 2012. I went to school at UC [University of Cincinnati] for a few years but, oddly enough, I never went to Bogarts. I don’t know why. I would walk past it every day, I used to buy rolling tobacco next door. I did go to the Mad Frog. I was listening to The Black Crowes a lot in those days and I couldn’t believe that Marc Ford ever played a show at the Mad Frog. I never saw him but I was like, “Wow, he was here.”

Not sure how we’re doing on timing, you’re on The Jimmy Kimmel Show tonight. Do you have to go or have you already recorded that performance?

MITCH: We recorded it a few days ago.

Are you having a little watch party?

MITCH: I don’t know how I’m going to watch it. Maybe it’s online. Someone will tell me how I can watch it.

The album came out in October and your headlining tour starts in late February and runs through March. Does the solo stuff ride out through next year or do you have to balance it, or even set it aside, when Harry is ready to start writing the new album?

MITCH: There are no other plans with Harry right now so it’s going to be this stuff for all of 2024. Stuff will be spread out, we want to try to do some festivals and sprinkle those in as they come.


2024 Tour Dates

2/25/2024 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
2/26/2024 – Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theatre
2/27/2024 – Pioneertown, CA – Pappy and Harriet’s
3/1/2024 – Houston, TX – The Heights Theater
3/2/2024 – Dallas, TX – Kessler Theater
3/3/2024 – Austin, TX – Antone’s Nightclub
3/5/2024 – Madison, TN – Eastside Bowl
3/6/2024 – Atlanta, GA – Terminal West
3/8/2024 – Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
3/10/2024 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
3/11/2024 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
3/13/2024 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg
3/14/2024 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
3/15/2024 – Philadelphia, PA – TLA
3/17/2024 – Toronto, ON – Phoenix Concert Theatre
3/18/2024 – Detroit, MI – Magic Stick
3/19/2024 – Columbus, OH – Newport Music Hall
3/21/2024 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
3/22/2024 – Minneapolis, MN – Fine Line