It’s been three and a half years since Rowan Niemisto released his electro R&B masterpiece Gradient. In those three years, Niemisto says he was preoccupied with his first “big boy” job at Detroit’s NPR station, WDET, where he works as a sound engineer and the occasional cameo as a voice actor for various underwriter advertisements. The Rowan Niemisto who voices ads for the local pet daycare and arts university feels like a completely different person than the sultry singer-songwriter that authors and performs his latest EP, Once Again. But maybe that’s part of what makes him so appealing. Besides his universally loveable voice, relatable lyrics and nostalgic/soulful arrangements, Niemisto is just like us. He’s a regular adult with a nine-to-five job who doesn’t have any dreams of grandeur, but picks up the pen whenever he feels moved.
“I just like making music and putting it out,” Niemisto puts it plainly. “I’m not trying to be the guy that makes it if that makes sense.” And it would, if his voice and guitar playing weren’t so goddamn angelic. Your everyday casual guitar strummer just can’t write the kind of music that Niemisto creates. With Once Again, he builds a world of hurt and healing, love and loss. His voice careens over a bed of masterful guitar playing and effortless live arrangements, which were recorded in a single studio session.
After three years of writing and ripping up forgotten songs, pandemic downtime fueled Niemisto’s latest body of work. “I had an excuse to dig my heels in and get it done,” says Niemisto. “I had no real excuse about time commitments or whatever.” And while collaborating felt impossible to most of us during the pandemic, he says that recording with a few of his friends was surprisingly easy.
They set up some glass walls so they could see each other, went into the studio, slapped on masks, and pretty much improvised the entire EP. Niemisto came in with skeletons of songs already written, but he credits the band – Jacob Sigman (keys), Junho Kim (bass), Huntley Chamberlain (drums) and Jonah Grey (synth on “Once Again”) – for helping shape the sound of the record. “I’ve been playing with these guys for years,” explains Niemisto, “so I kind of know their style and I had trust that they’d be able to put their own spice on it and have it come out the way I wanted more or less.”
If the way he wanted it was Isley Brothers meets badbadnotgood, then they definitely succeeded. Once Again serves the listener an all-too-familiar cocktail of unrequited love, longing, and heartbreak. But there’s something about Niemisto’s soothing voice and nonchalant melodies that makes lost love feel it’s not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new one. It’s not that he’s constantly suffering from a broken heart, but more that the morose melodies are the ones that come most naturally to him when it comes to songwriting.
“For some reason, I find it easier to write songs in minor or songs with melancholy feels,” Niemisto muses. “Especially with lyricism, if I try to write something uplifting… it always just feels a little tacky or forced to me.” Fair enough, especially seeing as warm fuzzy feelings were definitely in short supply this year. And even though Niemisto admits he’s “sticking to the clichés,” he has a way of writing about them that feels new.
Like in the first few words of the record – “Tell me how long, how long has it been?/Since that night we took each other in?” – reflecting on a fleeting night of a romance as an act of care and compassion instead of a flippant act on desire. Especially during a pandemic, the idea of a “one night stand” can feel careless at best and guttingly consequential at worst. To think of a night of random romance as “taking each other in” is a refreshingly tender outlook, and one we can all daydream about in these solitary times.
Whether you’re ruminating on love lost or longing for that Tinder crush that you’re too scared to meet IRL, Once Again gives us plenty of possibilities to ponder, and reassurance that we’re not alone.