STORY: PAM PARDY GHENT for the Newfoundland Herald
— SÉAN MCCANN —
The powerful voice behind such Great Big Sea classics as ‘England’ and ‘Safe Upon the Shore’ shares why he left Great Big Sea, how he overcame his greatest life challenges, new album & what’s next ...
Séan McCann’s life is an open book. While he hasn’t been out in the media pouring his heart and soul out to the world, he is more than willing to answer any question asked of him. Like, is his wife happy to have him hanging around underfoot now that he’s no longer touring with Great Big Sea. He smiles, then gives a little wink. “She is delighted,” he says with a huge laugh, one that shows it’s never all sunshine and roses when two people used to spending time apart are suddenly always together. Still, McCann says he loves being available. “I always respected her and I knew there was a work load, but I really didn’t know. It’s like some dude saying they know what it’s like to be pregnant. No you don’t. Just being a single mom, there is no harder job, and I know that now. And I’m happy to be home. It’s not why I left the band, but it sure is a fringe benefit,” he shares.
WHY LEAVE GBS?That’s the question many want answered. Nearing the end of the band’s 20th anniversary tour McCann tweeted; “This will be my last tour with GBS and I fully intend to enjoy every fucken second and leave the stage with nothing but LOVE in my heart” and “So come on out to say goodbye, and save the Last Dance for Me.”
Fans were shocked, but he says his bandmates shouldn’t have been. “I told the boys I was leaving, that I wanted to get out of the band ... I told them that a year ago. There was no reaction, which kind of hurt a little bit,” he shares.
“PEOPLE DESERVE TO KNOW”
Then, after a year of no reaction, McCann says he felt obligated to share the news with fans. “I had one leg left of the tour and I was like, people deserve to know. If any one wanted to see me, now is your chance. I didn’t want to torpedo the tour or anything. I didn’t do press, this is that interview. But I was looking for a reaction that didn’t come (from Bob and Alan). In all fairness to them, minimizing my departure is smart brand protection. I don’t know, we have not
had any discussion since, but they should not have been surprised.”
And did he end with love in his heart? He’s trying to get there, he says.“I’m going to have fond memories, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in Great Big Sea. I’m sad that I feel strongly enough that I would leave something like that. It’s not an easy decision. It took me years to come to, but I think I wasn’t satisfied with Great Big Sea not responding. I didn’t even make the news on greatbigsea.com,” he laughs, a little. Is there hurt feelings? Perhaps. He hopes they can get past that, eventually. “I hope we can get through that. I’m certainly emotional about it, but I still believe that it is the best for all of us and I have no indication that anyone disagrees with that. No one said, don’t go, so I think we all want this,” he says.
“IT WAS MY RELIGION”
McCann candidly shares his personal reasons for saying good-bye. “The reason I’m leaving the band is because I’m not happy there. I think we will all be happier as a result (of me leaving.) I will be and the boys will be. We don’t share the same vision, we don’t agree on a whole lot of stuff right now and after 20 years, that’s to be expected, I’d imagine, and I think that everyone really needs to be happy, that’s what we’re supposed to work towards in life, being happy, I think. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to anyway after much thought. And a bottle of rum is not going to make you happy for very long. So how do you get real happiness? You make the necessary changes. And for me, it’s leaving Great Big Sea.” McCann says he’s still proud of what he, Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett accomplished. “I put my heart and soul into it, it was my religion for 20 years, and if we were all in agreement and pulling in the same direction now I’d still be there. But we’re not, and I think that’s why I’m not confident I can engage further.”
As McCann lingers in The Herald’s office, layers are removed, and a rawness is revealed that is anything but simple.
On the fascinating, if troubling, cover for Help Your Self, an image that includes his name on a headstone, he shares; “I was raised a Catholic, unfortunately, and by that I don’t mean to insult any Catholics. As I’ve aged and now that I have children of my own, I found I have problems with indoctrination. I’m 46. When I was growing up, priests had way too much power and it was accepted. I have a problem with blind faith and the control that they had, that religion had. I have some damage. And to speak of the fire again, when I think back, Great Big Sea had 20 years of my life, but the damage was done way before that.”
McCann says he started to dig in to uncover what exactly he was unhappy about. “I can’t blame Alan and Bob for my unhappiness. I go back further and I find, yeah, there’s a lot of messed up stuff that happened there, so that speaks to the cover. It’s a shot of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a grave yard and it’s got my name on a headstone that I put up there and it’s like me saying, ‘I’m done with this.’”
In other words, bury the past and move on? Sure, he says with a smile. But no one can say it better than McCann himself. “I think when I see a statue or a piece of religious art, a suffering saint or a Virgin Mary with her hands out, I often wonder if they’re saying, ‘don’t ask me. Help yourself. Try a little harder. I can’t do everything.’ I often wonder where God taps out and goes, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need a friggin’ coffee’,
McCann’s latest solo album, Help Your Self, which will be released Jan. 29th, features powerful, moving, original tunes that McCann penned and recorded over the last few years. Songs that were inspired by what he was going through in the band, and in life.
“This album, it’s me, and my life. And the fires that I’ve worked my way through. I’m not going to blame Great Big Sea for any of my problems, it wasn’t. If anything, I think I used it as an escape, as a place to hide.”
One track, For a Long Time Now, was a song he wrote for his wife. “She has stuck with me through thick and thin,” he says with obvious admiration, but other songs are just as personal. McCann explains: “The whole record is a document of how far, how lost, I was and then I finally hit the wall and said, ‘I have just got to get out of this and the only way you can move forward is to stop what you’re doing. Really, you can only drink so much or do so much drugs or bury so much or just not face issues. I found, ok, this is going to hurt a bit, but I’ve got to get there. And I did. I walked through that fire and came out the other side. It was hard, certainly part of that fire was leaving a band I’d been with for 20 years.”
McCann says he’s relearning how to do things musically all over again. Anyone who preordered the album have already been subject to the beauty that is McCann’s latest creation, including bare-bone tracks and touching lyrics. They also get the “uninterrupted” version of the album, a feature that lets you experience the journey from beginning to end. Plus, there’s a video, shot with an iPhone, that features Joel Plaskett and McCann doing what they do best, making music.
“It’s kind of like it’s a story,” he says of this album. “It’s a concept record and it flies in the face of logic. I offered it up for sale with the orignal demos that I made in my green room ... it’s a challenge, can you stand it? Can you sit there and listen to the whole thing uninterrupted? It’s like watching a movie. I hate it when I have to get up in the middle. I want to watch the whole thing. I just think it’s cool, now that I’m not part of the music industry per se or I’m not engaged with labels and management. It’s a cool idea to make this just about the music,” he says.
Will he continue to sing England and Safe Upon the Shore? Absolutely, he says.
He wrote that England for his wife, when he was on tour far away from home. “I was sitting alone and lonely ... and I was really missing home and I started to write the lyrics and I go, Newfoundland is populated by people like me who were somewhere they didn’t necessarily want to be because of work and they are missing home, and so I think I managed to connect personally with a rich history there. So yeah, I’m proud of that song and I’ll never stop singing that.”
McCann demonstrates how “into” singing that song he can get, squatting low, veins popping, muscles tense. If you’ve seen him sing it live, you know that intense look. “You know I’m into it when I’m down like this, I’m trying, really hard. I lose it. I’m that guy. I’m gone for a great song,” he laughs.
REAL. RAW. HONEST.
The interview rolls on, topics are covered, and much is shared, but there’s only so much time and so much space in any magazine. But our conversation will be with this writer for a very, very long time. McCann was real. He was raw. He was honest. Did he have a problem with alcohol? Yes, he freely admits. “Most of my friends do, too, but then Newfoundlanders are all ‘sociaholics’ I like to say. When I started to become frustrated in my life and things started to come apart, about five years ago I started to escalate, and when you are unhappy, you do things, and that’s where I went to. Prior to that I was a fairly successful drinker, or so I tell myself, but you never are and I ran into some problems. I’m a father, I have kids, and I didn’t want to go there. I’m not ashamed of that, it happens to a lot of people. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t do anything about it. And I did,” he shares. The song Red Wine and Whiskey off his latest album speaks to those times.
Anything else he wanted to share with fans?
“I just want to say thanks for listening. It’s hard work to get people to listen to what you create. So thanks for that,” he says. Is he ok? Is life without Great Big Sea still a good life? “I’m in a good place, I think if people listen to this record they will connect with it, and with me. It’s not just me. I know lots of people who struggle, who are un- happy, who try to face their demons and it’s hard. This is the record that talks about that,” he shares.
He’s been there. And he’s survived. And he knows there will be rough days ahead to come. “I don’t really know. I don’t know where life is going to go, but I think I’m stronger now. I know I am. And I feel like I’m better able to deal with whatever is next and I know there will be tragedy in my life and I know there will be pain and sadness but I’m really glad that I’ll be the one facing it and not Captain Morgan.”
Available at www.GreatBigSean.com 30 The Newfoundland Herald February 2, 2014