Head Games with Stephen Cooke (feb. 14th 2014)
It’s the dead of winter, the Great Big Sea has frozen over, and Sean McCann is striking out on a new path in the digital wilderness.
The Newfoundland balladeer’s new recording Help Your Self is his first official project as a solo artist after parting ways with trio members Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett last year, and the songs—produced by Joel Plaskett at his Dartmouth studio New Scotland Yard—chart the course that led to this new crossroads.
“This is how I got to the path, and I’ve still got a path in front of me,” says McCann, fresh from having a morning jam session with his kids, on a snow day in St. John’s. “And I’m lucky to have that, if I hadn’t made those choices, my path would have come to an abrupt end, there were reasons for sure.”
Currently only available as a download via his website greatbigsean.com, Help Your Self shows McCann in a deeply confessional mode, with Plaskett guiding him from the soul-searching cry of Help Me Mother to the title track’s primal scream set to a Bo Diddley beat. There are lyrics about leaving behind what’s been holding him down, and reinforcing the things that make life worth living.
And he pinpoints the catalyst for all these changes to the moment he decided to quit drinking.
“I found myself feeling less and less happy, and I couldn’t figure out why,” says McCann, who depicts an inherited battle with the bottle in Red Wine and Whiskey. “I figured that was the best way to deal with it, instead of trying to hide in a bottle from it, and through that process, I began to figure things out.
“Great Big Sea wasn’t the cause of my unhappiness, but it was a place for me to hide, and it was a great enabler for me to indulge myself in habits that weren’t allowing me to get to the bottom of things and start to deal with them.
“I haven’t figured out everything, but I feel like I’m on the right path.”
And it’s not like he took the decision to strike out on his own lightly. McCann says his frustrations lay more with the music business than with the band, and after pouring his heart, soul and body into working on the 20th anniversary Great Big Sea box set XX and the long bout of touring that accompanied it, there wasn’t a clear plan in place for where he, Doyle and Hallett were going to go next.
“I have a lot of respect for those 20 years, and lot of respect for Alan and Bob,” he says. “But at the end of the day it’s a partnership, and if you’re not in agreement—certainly given the state of the music business today—it’s not a situation you want to be in where you’re not all focused on the same direction.
“If I was the disagreeable one, or the one with differences, I decided I should remove myself from the situation, and no one disagreed with that, we all thought that was probably for the best.”
So while Doyle continues to travel and collaborate on songwriting with artists like Russell Crowe and Jimmy Rankin, and Hallett produces and manages other Newfoundland acts, McCann returned to the one thing he knows best: writing and performing songs. Help Your Self is his third album, and it felt like the time to do something as different as possible from his past work, and he found a willing partner in crime in Dartmouth rock and roller Plaskett.
Last January, McCann came across the Cabot Strait and spent 10 days in Dartmouth with Plaskett, his Emergency drummer Dave Marsh, guitarist Clive MacNutt and singer/pianist Erin Costelo. They took a retro approach, recording to analog 2" tape in the former downtown Dartmouth fur coat cold storage vault, trying to capture the kind of energy found in vintage Buddy Holly records and ’70s power pop.
Now, without the usual music industry infrastructure behind him, McCann is soldiering on alone, reaching out to fans via social media and pointing them to greatbigsean.com to try out the tunes and buy them if they like them.
He doesn’t expect Great Big Sea-sized sales, but on the other hand, the record should at the very least make its money back since he’s the one selling it and making more than just a few cents on the dollar. McCann also plans to keep the ball rolling once he hits the road to play some shows and festivals when the weather turns more favourable.
“Even though it’s a very personal record, as sincere and open as I can be about me, it seems there’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung, and people have connected with it,” he says. “Aside from using labels and management and so on, I’ve walked away from the machine, because I’m a contrarian probably at heart.
“I took it to Facebook, where I haven’t really spent a lot of time before, and the response there was huge. People understand my story, they’re blown away by the fact that I’m willing to tell it, and they relate to it. Now I know I’m not alone and that keeps me engaged, because they all have something to say and the feedback has been all positive, which is not what I expected, to be honest.”
STEPHEN COOKE ARTS REPORTER The Chronicle Herald Halifax NS