Mitch Rowland might be used to being on stage in front of tens of thousands, but being the one in the spotlight is still something he’s adjusting to. As a co-writer and band member for Harry Styles, he’s won Grammys and performed everywhere from Coachella’s top slot to Wembley Stadium, but now the Columbus, Ohio-born musician is stepping out on his own.
“I think I’d prefer a dimmer on the spotlight,” he laughs gently when NME catches up with him. In conversation, Rowland is soft-spoken and considerate with his words – a feeling that’s reflected in his debut solo album, ‘Come June’, which will arrive in October via Giant Music/Erskine Records. The latter is Styles’ own label and the record will be the first released on the imprint from an act other than the chart-topping superstar.
‘Come June’ is a collection of charming and spellbinding folk songs that began life during the pandemic. At first, their creator had no plans to make an album. “I just made it for myself,” Rowland explains. “It’s all the beginning of a new journey, I suppose.”
So far on this path, the musician has played a handful of sets with himself as the frontman, including opening for Ben Harper in Paris and, yes, Styles at the likes of Slane Castle and Wembley. The enormous venues his boss resides in aren’t typically where you’d expect to hear Rowland’s intimate compositions. “I kept trying to find a reference point for who’s played this type of music in such a big place,” he agrees. “Obviously it’s an amazing opportunity to open that pop show, and Ben’s show was a very different experience too.”
When you were writing and demoing, at what point did you think, ‘Maybe I have something here, this could be an album’?
“I started early on in the pandemic – ‘When It All Falls Down’ was the first song that I completed and I was like, ‘Well, if I can do a song a week, that’s what I’ll do’. Then I was carrying around a little EP when I got to five or six songs – I played it to some friends and management and they were like, ‘This sounds like something’. When I realised I had an EP, I thought, ‘I’m not going to put out an EP – I’ll just turn this into an album’.”
Why didn’t you want to do an EP?
“I didn’t want to do that as my first thing. How many times does someone say, ‘Hey, I made an EP!’? Why don’t you just make an album? [laughs].”
How did those first five or six songs set the tone for the rest of the album?
“These songs were cut from the José Gonzalez cloth – I didn’t know who he was for a long time and then Sarah [Jones, Styles’ drummer and wife of Rowland] pointed him out to me. For the last six, seven years I really dove into the world of production and I wanted to do the opposite. When I started listening to José, and then this Bert Jansch record, I realised, ‘Oh, you can just have a voice and a guitar’.
“I got to the end of ‘Rosemary Lane’ and I didn’t realise until it was over that it was only vocal and guitar – no overdubs, no extra noodling. I found that to be pretty inspiring, and José plays these very melodic riffs, so I started incorporating that… I think everything I was coming up with, I thought, ‘Well, what would José do? If it sounds like José, I’ll keep it’. I don’t think it does in the end, but it helped thread the needle and give me some direction.”
When you went into the studio with these songs, that must have been your first time leading a session rather than being there as a collaborator. What was it like having to take responsibility for the songs?
“I was nervous. In my experiences with producers before meeting Rob [Schnapf], I was the guy on the sofa – ‘I’m gonna be here until you need me’. I was very comfortable in that role. I took Sarah’s recommendation with Rob because she’d just worked with Kurt Vile, who’d been working with him, and she’s basically right about everything. I took a case of beer to the studio not knowing how it was gonna go and it was great. He’s a perfect fit for me – it felt like we were just hanging out.”
You’ve said before there was a similar vibe when you first went into the studio with Harry – do you find that relaxed, casual atmosphere leads to better songs?
“Yeah definitely – and I didn’t know much about either of them before working with them. But I think that helps. I walked in, Harry walked in, and I think I might have mouthed off to him – I didn’t say anything ridiculous, but only having a little bit of awareness is a good thing. It certainly helped in both situations and, in those two instances, we just got straight to the music.”
‘Come June’ is being released on Giant Music and Harry’s label Erskine – at what point did you start speaking to him about working together and releasing this record?
“That came about when I was showing Jeffrey Azoff [Giant Music co-founder and Styles’ manager] the demos, and it clicked with him on a personal level. He put me in touch with one label and then those plans fell through and Jeffrey mentioned Giant, and then he presented the idea of a co-release because Harry’s never put out music on Erskine other than his own. It’s nice to know they have my back when it’s not to do with Harry.”
You were toying with giving the song ‘Here Comes The Comeback’ to Harry – why did you ultimately decide to keep it for yourself?
“Mixed feelings, I suppose. When I made it, I was kind of embarrassed by it and I didn’t think it was something for me. I didn’t hear the strengths in it at the time. Sarah said, ‘Play it for Harry’ and I was like, ‘No!’ Then about 24 hours later, I sent it to him and immediately, he loved it. Every time I saw him he’d be playing it off his phone so I thought, ‘Hm, maybe there’s something in it’. Eventually, we were making part of ‘Harry’s House’ and he’s like, ‘Can I have it?’ So I did hear him sing on it and it stayed like that for a while, then he put it on the shelf and no one talked about it so I asked for it back.
“I was still in this Bert and José bubble and that didn’t belong in there at all – it’s like putting a square in a triangle hole. So I think I eventually caved in a little bit and thought, ‘Well, it can be more than just this thing I’m forcing it to be’. I kept hearing his voice on it when it wasn’t there, though, so I was like, ‘It’d be fun if you came back on it a little bit’, so I think he comes in on the second verse and stays in for a little bit.”
Sarah seems to have played a big part in this album, whether that’s physically playing drums on it or just encouraging you and inspiring you. What impact has she had on this record?
“She has an impact on everything. I didn’t have the confidence to start making an album, but it was her nudging me, and then she was like, ‘Here’s José Gonzalez – now go in there and don’t come out until you’ve done something’. She’s like my own tastemaker – she likes to say, ‘You’d be fucked without me’. And she put me in touch with Rob, which was massive. She plays a huge part.”
What do you hope people take from this album?
“I hope it just helps people. If it doesn’t do anything now, maybe it will have a moment in 30, 40 years – who knows. I think the thing I get out of music more than anything is just company – if I’m feeling alone, my favourite music makes me feel less alone, so I can only hope this does that to someone else.”
Mitch Rowland’s new album ‘Come June’ will be released on October 17 via Giant Music/Erskine Records