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Singer-songwriter Rowland goes from dishwasher to Harry Styles’ band

Phone call paves way for unexpected journey

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: February 29, 2024, 6:02am

ANAHEIM, Calif. — For singer-songwriter Mitch Rowland, the day in 2016 that everything changed started like any other: Get up in the morning at the house he shared in Mount Washington, Calif., then head down the hill to Town Pizza in Highland Park for another day of dishwashing.

Then his roommate Ryan Nasci called from a recording session he was at with Harry Styles, who had not yet made his solo debut. Could Rowland get there ASAP to replace a guitarist who hadn’t shown up?

“Somebody said, ‘One, we don’t have a guitar player now,’ and ‘Two, we have nothing to lose by calling Mitch,’ ” Rowland says of the informal way that fate reached out to tap him on the shoulder that day. “So I got my shift covered for the day, went in, and sparks flew.

“We all got on, and the rest is kind of history,” he says. “But it wasn’t supposed to happen. Like a lot of things.”

Rowland laughs thinking back to that day eight years ago. It came three years after he’d moved from Ohio to Los Angeles with his college friend Nasci. He’d had a vague notion of getting into the music business, only to end up scrubbing melted cheese and tomato sauce off plates and pots and pans in the back of a pizza parlor.

That one unexpected day with Styles in producer Jonathan Bhasker’s pool house studio led to co-writing credits on nine of the 10 songs on Styles’ 2017 self-titled debut album. It also led to an ongoing role as Styles’ lead guitarist on all of his solo tours, as well as on Styles’ 2019 album “Fine Line” and 2022 album “Harry’s House.”

When “Harry’s House” won the 2023 Grammy for best album, Rowland took one home for his contributions to that record.

But now, with Styles between albums and tours, Rowland is stepping up to the front of the stage from his usual place behind his superstar friend and collaborator. “Come June,” his solo debut album, arrived in the fall. His first-ever solo tour kicked off in San Francisco on Sunday.

“You know, when that comes up, I have to say I couldn’t make it happen again,” Rowland says of the way all this began. “It was just too random. And I happened to be prepared, as should everybody, when opportunity sneaks up on you.

“But, oh man, it’s terrifying when I think about the chain of events that happened.”

Finding his sound

Rowland started work on his solo debut in 2019, though at the time it was just one song, “Come June.” He says he almost didn’t include it on the record that shares the title at all, though.

“I kind of discarded it when I started (the album),” he says. “I decided, ‘OK, I’m going to make more of like a folk record, and ‘Come June,’ by no means, fit onto that track listing.

“Then towards the end … ‘Well, is there anything else I can throw on here?’ ” Rowland says. “And I reapproached the old recording and I made it fit in the end. So it was the first song written, last song to be recorded.”

The indie folk nature of the record is clear from the moment the needle drops. The mostly mid-tempo songs emphasize Rowland’s guitar and gentle vocals. There’s a similar ’70s feel shared with many of Styles’ songs, though here the vibe is softer, hushed, peaceful.

“I’ve always gravitated towards finger pickers,” Rowland says of his main guitar style on the album. “I guess when it boils down to what excites me the most, I think a lot of British folk makes my ears perk up the most.

“I saw Bert Jansch open for Neil Young on the Le Noise tour (in 2010),” he says. “I was probably 20 at the time and I was equally blown away and kind of confused. I knew this was having a large effect on me, but I kind of filed him away, Bert. I just wasn’t ready.”

A decade later, thumbing through albums in a London record shop, he came across Jansch again and dove in.

“I think ‘Rosemary Lane’ was the first record I brought home,” Rowland says. “The needle lifted – I listened to the whole thing – and it was only at that point I realized it was just guitar and vocals the whole time. No overdubs or anything, almost as minimal as you can get. Just one instrument and he kind of creates a band around the way he plays.”

In the studio

Rowland continued to work on the album in fits and starts after 2019. The pandemic gave him time to write, and when Styles went back on the road in 2021 for most of two years to promote “Harry’s House,” Rowland wrote during breaks while in Pasadena or the English countryside where he lives with drummer Sarah Jones, whom he met when she joined Styles’ band, and their son who turns 3 in March.

It was Jones who suggested he ask producer Rob Schnapf to work with him in the studio, Rowland says.

“To be honest, I feel like I’m the last person to find out about Rob,” he says of Schnapf, whose credits include co-producing Beck’s debut single and album, “Loser” and “Mellow Gold,” four albums by the late Elliott Smith, and records by artists such as Richard Thompson, Guided By Voices and Kurt Vile.

“When she said Rob, I said, ‘OK, cool. He’s hands-off? Great,’ ” Rowland says. “I didn’t know this music I guess fit right into his wheelhouse.”

Schnapf also played on “Come June,” and ultimately agreed to join Rowland’s band for the current tour.

“So Sarah’s on drums, Rob’s on guitar,” Rowland says. “I’ve hijacked like Rob’s whole life. I roped his wife into tour managing. Matt (Schuessler), who engineers for Rob, he’s gonna play bass. He played upright bass on most of the record. Then the last guy I hijacked was Rob’s intern, who’s going to be more of like a utility guy on Mellotron and some guitar and vocals.

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“So yeah, I stole everyone while I was in there.”

At center stage

Rowland says he does get nervous at times on stage or in the studio, but notes he was free of anxieties the first time he met Styles in 2016.

“I didn’t know who Harry was,” he says. “I didn’t know he came from a boy band. That is just not on my radar. And he’s going solo, which also isn’t on my radar.

“I knew some of the people in the room already, just from this and that,” Rowland says. “In a way, I was kind of playing to them more than this guy I’d never met before. And it quickly turned into hanging out.

“Harry was going from producer to producer at the time, trying to get any traction towards making this first record. And to me, I just kind of saw us as like a ragtag dodgeball team. And it worked.”

Studios have always felt more comfortable. Performing live? Not so much, Rowland says. And the live debut of his own songs in May 2023 at the Slane Festival at Slane Castle in Ireland?

“Yeah, definitely if you want to talk about nerves,” he says. “That was our first show. Sarah and I were still on tour with Harry (who headlined Slane). He asked me if I wanted to do it – and how do you say no?

“So first, I said yes, and then second, I had to quickly figure it out,” Rowland says. “I can’t just sit and play a guitar by myself to 80,000 people. That’s nuts. So I didn’t do that. That’s kind of how Rob and Matt came. It forced us, or forced them, to decide if they wanted to play in this band and continue doing it.”

Rowland and his band played a record release show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in October, and a second showcase in Philadelphia a week after that. And that’s it, until this tour.

“I, for the most part, would only go see shows in venues like this growing up,” Rowland says of the size of theaters his cross-country tour will hit. “So I think there’s going to be sort of a comfort level baked into being on the stage this time instead of in the audience. That’s a very familiar space to me. Much more so than the bigger places we have been playing (with Styles) for a while.”