Sean McCann: “That’s Where Music Lives Now”

I haven’t figured out yet if my face-to-face meeting with Sean McCann – one that took us over a year to arrange – was a rare moment of finding a kindred spirit. Or perhaps we’re all starting to think the same way. Anyone who can move from the death of the music business to climate change to voluminous, winding memoirs in an afternoon conversation is my kind of person.

But McCann, former lead singer of the Canadian group Great Big Sea, is indeed thinking like so many of us these days. He’s running away from a collapsing music industry, toward a simpler road where expressing himself and connecting with like-minded musicians and fans isn’t first assessed by a board room of music executives to see if it’s a viable business plan. “The music business in my mind is almost like an alcoholic being in a state of denial. The music business is in a state of denial. No business should continue to call itself a business when it doesn’t generate income enough to support its people.” As tenuous work, closing venues, disappearing record stores, and grasping for the brief attention span of the cell-phone user become the norm for all of us, he’s showing that these can actually be positive developments toward a healthier relationship with creativity.

I met Sean at a tiny club in downtown Toronto, where we spent a sunny fall afternoon chatting. I won’t fall for the conventional interview opening by telling you what he was wearing or what he ate, but it’s worth mentioning that he looks healthy and happy – themes that permeate his second solo album, You Know I Love You, a recent independent release. After a series of life-changing decisions – to give up drinking, to leave Great Big Sea, to make public his teenage experience with abuse, and to move from his St. John’s home to Ottawa – he’s ready to just be settled and focused for awhile.

The end result, an unconventional CD package that includes original art by Meaghan Smith paired with full lyrics and transcribed melodies for each song, represents McCann’s new relationship with music. It is one that should be an experience, he advocates, all-encompassing and received with as much attention and affection as went into producing it.

Too often, he was guilty of “dialing it in” while with Great Big Sea; using the band’s raucous concerts and party lifestyle to check out artistically. The group’s mandate to include all traditional instruments and several traditional folksongs on every album – “Every song had to have a fiddle tune or an accordion part in it, which became maddening all the time, because sometimes it didn’t call for it” – also alienated McCann at times; at one point, he arrived with a set of reggae songs to propose for one of their albums, partially in jest, partially as recognition of some of the influences he had neglected during his GBS time. “Write for the band you’re in,” he was told.

Now, cast out with all the freedom in the world, the ground has shifted under McCann, leaving him potentially vulnerable. I first encountered him (aside from jumping for two straight hours with several beers in my belly at his shows during college) when he wrote me to request a gig last summer. I woke up to his email, and had to re-read it several times. Is this a joke? I wondered. Why did he want to play the 85-seat club I booked in Calgary?

Turns out that was exactly what he wanted, a chance to connect with fans on a more direct level. While being independent means doing everything yourself – tasks once left to a major-label crew, like booking gigs, lining up online ticket sales, promoting shows, arranging interviews, and driving your gear to the club – it also means he’s far more invested in creating an intimate connection with his fans from start to finish. That means playing at tiny clubs instead of a crowd of 10,000. “I’m really digging on the small,” he says, “Because the experience is intense. If you want people to think music’s special, then you gotta make it special. You can’t fake that.”

It also means maybe talking about climate change during a show.

“I looked at my RRSP portfolio,” he told me, “And I started to become more aware. And I said, okay, there’s a divestment movement. I told my finance guy I want to divest from oil and gas, I want to go into clean energy. And he said, ‘It’s 70% of your portfolio. 70%!’ I had to sign a letter so his boss wouldn’t fire him for doing it.” A trained philosopher who was doing graduate work in ethnomusicology before Great Big Sea took off, he’s constantly challenging those around him. During one of those sessions with his financial advisor, I wondered, did he cause some existential angst? Perhaps.

He treats music the same way. “Put music under duress and it responds. And it’s almost like, the more resistance there is to what you’re doing, that’s a sign of success. You’re doing something that people don’t want you to do, then do it. Go. Resistance to me is a sure sign that you’re not doing something wrong in many ways.”

The end result is a tour that will take him across Canada, much of it via his 2003 Honda Element, which he’s packed with a crate full of CDs, his gear, and several audio books to keep him company. He’s a big fan of sharp writers (Bukowski comes to mind), those who don’t mind the occasional tangent (think Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace), and those with a hopeful message (you’ve got it: Naomi Klein).

Hope drives songs like “On My Way (But I Don’t Know Where)”, a song one might expect from McCann, where a folky, shimmering backdrop anchors his earnest voice. And others like “Set Me Free” use regretful lyrics and the guitar’s undercurrent of rhythm to build tension to an unexpected key change midway through, all of which suggest the hope that journey offers. Still others are a little shocking, if you’re a longtime McCann fan. “Mind Made Up” is a tight pop song with floaty backing vocals and snappy piano interjections. “This Life is an Ocean of Love” isn’t as syrupy as the title suggests; instead a strong bodhran accompaniment and sparse textures illuminate his deep coastal roots. I’m into the title track, mainly for the unyielding comfort its simple lyrics offer.

Turns out we’re of the same mind. Obviously, when there are kids to raise and mortgages to pay, earning money is a priority. But if you start with that in mind, you’re bound to fail; McCann knows that no good creative work comes out of chasing the big bucks: “You gotta start before the money, or the money won’t be there later!” he says, and I have to say I agree. Such a position is hard to maintain when the landlord is banging down your door, but it makes for a much more fulfilling connection with your artistic work.

McCann retreats to isolated places where he’s surrounded by nature when he has to write. In the in-between times, he’s found that the most vibrant spaces for live music aren’t in the heart of urban scenes, where rent is skyrocketing and low-income artists are being forced out. It’s on the edges of cities, where the urban meets the rural, where tiny community theatres and clubs draw some of the most fervent music fans. “That’s where music lives now.”

This fall will find McCann in some of those tiny places, playing to audiences of 65 or a couple hundred, a far cry from the shrieking stadiums he stood in front of through the height of Great Big Sea’s fame, but one that’s bringing him far more peace and contentment. Just like his new tunes. “It’s very direct, there’s no artifice. It’s just, you know I love you, you know I care, it’s the simplest thing that a mom would say to her son or lovers say for real.”

Find Sean’s tour dates on his site; he’ll be playing across Canada throughout October and November. And if you can’t get to one of his shows, be sure to check out the new album.

Artist Sean McCann