Mitch Rowland with special guest Harris Harper
Even as a little kid, singer-songwriter Mitch Rowland was obsessed with guitar music. He will never forget how it initially hit him, sitting in front of the first jukebox he ever saw, letting the sound wash over him. He was four years old, growing up with his family on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio. “My dad had a friend who was single but owned a house,” he says. “And instead of normal furniture in his living room, he had a pool table and this vintage jukebox in the corner. You’d stick the quarter in and it would fall out the bottom and you could just keep putting on songs.” Rowland was instantly fascinated with bands like The Black Crowes and Aerosmith, and would listen to their singles over and over again.
The beautiful, introspective folk music on Rowland’s debut album, Come June, can be traced back to that jukebox, which inspired a lifelong exploration of why he loves certain sounds, and how to make them himself. Although Rowland already has impressive songwriting credits to his name, as one of Harry Styles’ collaborators on major hits like “Watermelon Sugar” and “Golden,” Come June is truly the beginning of the most important chapter yet in Rowland’s artistic evolution.
By the time he was five and his older brother got a drum kit, Rowland already had the urge to play. “My brother would kick my ass if I tried to sit behind his kit while he was home,” he says, “so I had to get my time in when he was out with friends. From there I was self-taught, just by playing along to records.” He started with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and then added some of those Aerosmith and Crowes tunes to his repertoire on drums, and then began teaching himself guitar, alone in his bedroom. By college, he had started experimenting with writing his own songs, but still yearned for a sense of direction.
Cut to 2008, and Rowland is at an arts festival in Columbus, playing a game where you spin a wheel to win tickets to different upcoming concerts. “Out of all these shows, it landed on the Black Crowes, and I won two tickets,” he says. “So I asked my dad if he wanted to go with me. I hadn’t listened to the Black Crowes since I was a kid, so it seemed like something fun to do. But then it turned into a show that really grabbed me, where I had to go listen to everything they’d ever done. And I got really into wondering, ‘Why do I like the sound of Rich Robinson’s guitar so much?’ And that was how I discovered the world of open tunings. Because sometimes Rich is coming from Keith Richards’ world of playing open G, but then if you read enough interviews with him, he cites Nick Drake as his gateway into open tunings. And so that became my gateway into Nick Drake and other artists like that, as well. And I think all of that goes back to the jukebox.”
Rowland started putting songs together after that Black Crowes show, spending countless hours in his bedroom, playing and playing and playing, figuring out his own sound. Then, in 2013, Rowland decided to move out to Los Angeles, following a friend who was heading out there to be an engineer. “If you would have asked me back then, I don't know what I would have said I was planning to do,” he admits. “The goal was to play music, but I was kind of in the slow lane.” He looked for work as a dishwasher, applying everywhere in LA, “but I had no dishwashing experience,” he says, “so I couldn’t get hired.” He eventually found a dishwashing gig at a pizza place, but continued to feel stalled in his career as an artist. “The music thing just wasn’t happening for me,” he says. “There was nothing for me to hold in my hand, until I started working with Harry.”
That was 2016. Rowland was living with an engineer friend, Ryan Nasci, who was involved in the early sessions for Styles’s self-titled debut solo album. “One day, Ryan says, ‘Look, we need a guitar player – so-and-so couldn’t make it.’ The producers had heard some of my bedroom recordings, and that got me in the door,” Rowland says. “And then Harry came in and it just clicked, and next thing I know, we're just sitting around drinking beers, putting the ideas into a computer.” Rowland says the energy that first week with Styles felt like a little explosion happening in the room. “I knew I had to lean into the kind of playing that makes me sound the best,” he says. “I had to show off what I had learned from all those years in the bedroom teaching myself how to play this way. It all came out in what I was doing with Harry.” “Meet Me In The Hallway,” the album-opening track from that debut Styles album, is in one of those classic open tunings – open D – and once you know what Rowland’s own songs sound like, you’ll start to really hear his trademarks in these Styles collaborations, as well. “I think Harry allowing me to be myself as a guitar player and writer is really why I was able to include these moments that are actually quite revealing of what I like to play,” he says.
When the ideas for Come June first began to arrive, back in 2019, the concept of putting out his own album as an artist was just a glimmer in Rowland’s eye. The wistful, organ-led title track, “Come June,” was the first one he demoed, and then set aside for many months while he was on tour with Styles. The pandemic brought an unexpected stretch of time at home, and the solitude he needed for inspiration to strike. Rowland and his wife, drummer Sarah Jones, who also plays in Styles’ band, split their time between LA and the UK, where she’s from. As a musician herself, and Rowland’s most trusted adviser, Jones was the perfect audience for those developing tunes, encouraging him to nurture the emerging songs, and to finish and record them. As the months passed, the ideas began to flow, and soon Rowland had enough for a full-length. Early on, he had a few aspects of his vision already in focus: “I wanted the songs to be short and not to have crazy arrangements,” he says. “I wanted everything to count.” Rowland originally thought he would keep the album to just vocals and guitar, to evoke the delicate minimalism of classic folk albums he loved, primarily from Bert Jansch.
Jones had recently played drums on Kurt Vile’s album (watch my moves), and she suggested Rowland might hit it off with that LP’s producer, Rob Schnapf. One of indie music’s most influential sonic craftsmen, Schnapf’s credits also include albums by Beck and Elliott Smith. Rowland and his band Jones on drums, Schnapf’s engineer, Matt Schuessler on upright bass, [fill in other band member names here] – went on to record Come June’s twelve tracks at Schnapf’s Mant Sounds studio in LA for several weeks in 2022. “I was nervous to go into the studio and have it all be on me,” he says, “because I’d never worked with a producer in that way before. With Harry, I’d be on the sofa until it was my turn.” Rowland says he shared about his nerves with none other than Ben Harper – who contributes backing vocals and lap steel on “All The Way Back” – and Harper offered enthusiastic reassurance. “He said, ‘Oh, you're gonna love getting with a producer. It's gonna be so good.’ And he was right! I just didn’t know it yet. It was a good lesson in letting go and trusting the process.”
“Here Comes The Comeback” was originally inspired by a commission from Rowland’s publisher to write something uplifting for possible ad placement. “Sarah’s always egging me on,” he says. “We got out the laptop and she started tapping out the drum part and I came up with this chord progression I thought was kind of Wilco-ish, and it came together so fast.” Initially, he sent the song to Styles, and they bandied back and forth about which of them should record it. In the end, Rowland decided he wanted to keep it as his own. And this version, which is buoyant and melancholy at the same time, sounding like it came from an early Sixties time capsule, proves he made the right choice.
Although Rowland is quick to demure that his career has been charmed by some right-place-right- time kind of luck, as well as the support and advocacy of his friends and collaborators like Styles, his authentically humble nature is a part of what makes the beauty and fragility of the songs on Come June so evocative. The album is an impressively well-considered opening statement from an artist who has been hiding in plain sight. “When I finished the album, I felt really proud,” he says. “I wasn't using the record label to fund this thing. It was all out of my pocket. And I’m so proud of what we made. That’s something I’ll have forever.”