Séan McCann Radiates The Joy of A Man Awakened

On Friday, May 5th, Séan McCann will be bringing his stories and songs to Meaford Hall, presented by Irish Mountain Music as part of the Grand Reopening Event to celebrate the balcony renovations and re-opening of the Opera House.  He’s going to love it.

A founding member of Great Big Sea, he spent twenty years in the music business touring the world in one of Canada’s most popular party bands.  When he left the band in 2013 it wasn’t an amicable situation.  At that point a trio, it was pretty much impossible for the other band members, Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle, to carry on without him.  But it was something he had to do.

There were several reasons.  He was already heading off in another direction, having released his first solo album, “Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes” in 2010, and around that same time he realized that he had been an alcoholic for most of his life and he managed to quit.  That naturally created tensions in a band whose song lyrics, as he’s said, are 90% about drinking.  “The longer I’d gotten sober,” he told CBC at the time, “I realized that Great Big Sea was one of the many things that really weren’t working well in my life.”   But it wasn’t just that he was odd man out in a band in which “every night was Friday night”.  When he sobered up, he was like a man awakened, and he began to face a lot of truths that alcohol had previously helped him to bury.  He began to see the big arena shows as something of a cheat for the audiences.

“I want to instill joy in people through my songs,” he says, “and get them to sing.  But I want the words to mean something.”  He was looking for “a deeper engagement, less superficial.”

Of course alcoholism is not something you just shrug off and throw away like an old coat.  Overcoming it and regaining your life is an ongoing struggle and it involves facing a lot of painful truths and finding a way to glean strength from every day.  “When you face the truth, it frees you,” he says, “There’s a joy in facing your problems.  I’ve found a way to write songs that help me stay sober.  My being open and singing is my therapy.  Music keeps me out of trouble.”

Along with dealing with some personal issues, he began to see in a clear-eyed way, for the first time, that the music industry was falling apart.  “I’ve learned that there is a lot of denial.  There’s no way to actually monetize the actual product, which is music.”  He approached his post-Great Big Sea career as a small business owner, finding a way to make a living while at the same time being true to his personal values which were increasingly coming into focus as he recovered from his years in the bottle.

Three years into his sobriety he released “Help Your Self”, a record produced by Joel Plaskett that represents a credo that he has learned to live by.  He has taken on complete control of his career, acting as his own manager and booking agent (saving 35% of his gross income in the process), a change that has allowed him to become more of who he really is.  “You can eliminate unnecessary things,” he says.

So one day he found himself driving through Meaford, having come from Owen Sound, and he noticed this beautiful concert hall in the middle of town, with Dan Mangan up on the marquee.  He went in and introduced himself to Susan Lake and asked about playing there.  She showed him the Opera House and he saw a perfect venue for the type of audience connection he’s looking for.

Music is a very big part of who he is.  “When you’re born a songwriter you can’t change that.”  He sees the changes in the music industry as a downturn that has “separated the wheat from the chaff” and it’s a good thing.  “If you pressure art, art gets stronger.”  While the infrastructure of international record labels is going the way of the 8-track cassette, the quality of the songs, he notes, is getting better.

“Music is too important to lose.  It’s been emancipated.”

It is connecting through music with an audience that matters most to him.  He hates to see concerts where people are not even listening, too busy taking selfies on their phones.  And he considers big arena shows to be antithetical to good quality music.  “I will never play a hockey rink again,” he says, “It undervalues the audience.”  Instead he seeks out smaller venues, festivals and concert halls where the audience is there to listen and there is the real opportunity to share something meaningful with the audience.  As his own manager and booking agent, it’s an element of quality control that is in his own hands and he makes the most of it.

In a February interview with Nation Valley News, he said he prefers to play small venues in rural communities. “I find it’s just a great way to really interact with people, really close and intimate, face to face, and get people singing. With the advent of social media, people, especially in rural communities, have a tendency to not go out and stay home — pour a glass of wine, get on Facebook and kind of think that they’re out. In many ways … the devices that are supposedly connecting us, we seem to know what everyone’s doing all the time, but we’re less and less interested in going and facing that person. A small hall is a great place to bring community together.”

“I think if we lose that desire to gather as humans, we’ll lose a lot.”

So one day he found himself driving through Meaford, having come from Owen Sound, and he noticed this beautiful concert hall in the middle of town, with Dan Mangan up on the marquee.  He went in and introduced himself to Susan Lake and asked about playing there.  She showed him the Opera House and he saw a perfect venue for the type of audience connection he’s looking for.

“I heard that’s how Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings used to get their gigs,” he says, “They’d see someplace they would like to play, and just go in and ask.”

It worked for him.  Having lined up the gig, his friend Steve Poltz introduced him to Liz Scott and he has partnered with her to help promote the show.  “I always like to partner with someone local if I can.”

“I love being in small towns where people actually listen to the music.”

He has been touring on his own, just his guitar (his beloved “Old Brown”, a time worn Takamine guitar with a hole in it, the only guitar he has ever played) and a bodhran hand drum, driving himself to gigs in his little Subaru.  But this time, he’ll have help.

“I met Chris Murphy about six months ago,” he says, “and he’ll be coming to Meaford with me.”

Although Chris is from Kingston, Ontario, his soul resides in the Atlantic Canada.   “Some say they have left their heart in San Francisco; mine has been left on Fogo Island, Newfoundland,” he says.  He and Séan discovered a musical affinity and they have been touring together through this winter and spring.  Along with their musical tastes, they share a belief in the power of sharing music with an audience.

“It’s important to be in the present,” says Séan, “I will only be in Meaford for a few hours.  It’s a beautiful town and I want to make the most of it.”  Those hours will be spent on the stage at Meaford Hall and the people who fill the seats to listen to his songs and stories will experience some of the joy that emanates from a man who has learned how to exorcise his demons and see the things that matter most in this world.

The show starts at 8 p.m. on May 5, tickets available at the Meaford Hall Box Office.

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