Great Big Sea 'Safe Upon The Shore'

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Thursday, July 8 was a day of firsts for SÉan McCann, Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea. It was the first time, in 17 years, all three sat together for an interview with The Telegram.

It was also the first time they had held a hardcopy of their new CD, "Safe Upon the Shore." The album is scheduled to hit store shelves July 13.

Great Big Sea  Submitted photo

Thursday, July 8 was a day of firsts for SÉan McCann, Bob Hallett and Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea. It was the first time, in 17 years, all three sat together for an interview with The Telegram.

It was also the first time they had held a hardcopy of their new CD, "Safe Upon the Shore." The album is scheduled to hit store shelves July 13.

A preview copy had been sent to The Telegram. Doyle stared down at the cover - a dramatic image of a young man laid out on a beachfront, with a woman cradling him in her lap. The young man's eyes have a vacant stare. The sea rolls in the background and dark, stormy skies loom above.

Doyle flipped open the CD package and closed it again, looking once more at the cover art. "It looks good," he said, passing it to McCann.

McCann mentions he tried to buy the Grant Boland painting the cover art was based on. "(But) it sold right away for like $11,000."

Although "Safe Upon the Shore" has a look suggesting a collection of folkish tunes based on a hard life on the sea, the album actually throws at you surprising elements of traditional music from the Southern United States.

"Safe Upon the Shore" was engineered in St. John's at Great Big Studios, but also in New Orleans at The Music Shed. Steve Berlin acted as a producer on the album. An instrumentalist himself, Berlin works with the band Los Lobos and can also be heard on Paul Simon's "Graceland."

"I mean, we were in New Orleans and Steve wanted and we all wanted to let parts of that Southern world get on the record. So we made spaces for washboards and Southern harmonica players and a few Bourbon Street trombones," Doyle said.

There were no apologies for wandering outside the realm of traditional East Coast instrumentation.

"It's always hard to add new stuff to old ways, but a lot of it we found really fun," he said. "Like some of the songs were kind of written around that idea. Like 'Hit the Ground and Run' was written to be a bluegrass song and we're not a bluegrass band, but all around we were like, this is going to be a bluegrass song. We're singing a bluegrass song."

The Telegram's interview with McCann, Hallett and Doyle is in the sunned atrium of the Sheraton Hotel, still widely known around the province as the Hotel Newfoundland. Like the hotel itself, the band has sometimes had a hard time bringing the public along with the changes it makes.

"Our audience probably has a more conservative view of the band than we do," Hallett said.

Great Big Sea was never a band of traditional purists. They never committed to traditional music and only traditional music.

While their musical roots come from provincial traditions, they themselves have never spent time touring the small towns of Newfoundland swearing the allegiance to the button accordion.

"We never really toured Newfoundland," McCann said. "I think we did it once years ago. Natalie McMaster, we were the opening act. That was 15 years ago I think."

"That was the only time we ever did the Arts and Culture Centres," Doyle said to McCann, "isn't it?"

"And no one's really asked us to do it. It's kind of funny when people say well, you don't play Newfoundland. Well people don't actually phone us and ask us to play either," McCann said.

"This band is a St. John's band," Hallett said. "This is an export thing. We always looked at it that way. We knew from the beginning, the kind of career we wanted was not going to be playing bars and small pubs in Newfoundland. We wanted to travel around the world with this. So that's where our focus was from Day 1. It's not like we kind of pulled away from Newfoundland. Right from Day 1, by month three, we were touring in England and Nova Scotia and places like that. We never had that kind of (in-Newfoundland) career to pull away from in the first place."

What Great Big Sea has done with "Safe Upon the Shore" is try some new musical ideas. The album includes collaborations with Joel Plaskett, Randy Bachman ("Dear Home Town"), Russell Crowe and a handful of others. There is a Kinks cover and a cover of "Gallows Pole," which the band had performed at the closing of the Juno Awards (not the one in St. John's, the one before).

But for anyone who might feel that Great Big Sea are travelling too far afield from their Canadian coastal roots with "Safe Upon the Shore" ...

"I'd tell them to skip to track eight," Doyle said with a laugh, citing the title track. It is a seafarers ballad, opening with just vocals from McCann and adding vocal harmonies.

"As she drew near, she felt a fear that something was astray/his mouth was slack and his blue eyes stared blindly at the day," sings McCann. "And in a day she turned her gaze from the corpse the driftwood bore/ and the cold, cold sea pushed ruthlessly safe upon the shore."

"I'd like everyone to like the record all the time, I think we all would," Doyle said. "But one of the reasons why we were brave enough to do different things on the songs on this record is we knew we had stuff like 'Road to Ruin' and 'Wandering Ways' and 'Have A Cuppa Tea' and those kind of songs. Like they could have been on a Great Big Sea record in 1994. I'd be more worried about doing a whole record of that. That would bore people more than the new stuff would shock people.

"And you know, the more we go along, the more comfortable I am with the notion of some part of the record and some part of the concert, some part of it is for us. Some part of it has to satisfy us," he said.

"Making the same record over and over again, while there possibly is a chunk of the audience that want that, it's too boring, it's too easy. Not only that we'd lose interest in it and if we're not convincingly selling this stuff live it's not going to work anyway," Hallett added.

And the American south influences do not overwhelm the album, as "Safe Upon the Shore" shows. Several songs on the record were written here in Newfoundland and Labrador in a four-day excursion to Humber Valley Resort on the west coast of the island.

One song to come from that session was "Follow Me Back," written by Hallett, Jeremy Fisher and Jean O'Brien. Hallett and O'Brien sing together in the feathery-light tune.

"That's just one track. One microphone, one track with Jeremy Fisher playing guitar in a cabin in Humber (Valley Resort) with Bob and Jean singing in the room," McCann said. "There's no production involved, Steve Berlin certainly wasn't involved, we just kept that demo. ... There was nothing to mix because there was no tracks to mix. There's only one track. That's old school."

Doyle kicks in his own "old school" simultaneous to McCann, smiling.

McCann said 12 other songs were recorded the same way in the Humber Valley, but "Follow Me Back" was the only one that went straight to the record from its first recording.

"I think it makes for a more honest song, because you don't have time to rethink, 'OK, what's more appropriate, let's decorate this, what would people like to hear?' That's not what happened with that song and I think that's why it strikes a nerve," McCann said.

Hallett said songs sometimes need time and work, "but that one got to its end point very quickly. There's a little bit of serendipity there I s'pose.

"A lot of the ballads we've done too, we put a lot of stuff on top of them. We've really sugar-coated them a lot," he said. "And then, by the end of it, I wouldn't say we were unhappy, but everyone was sort of like, 'Maybe we've driven past the house here.' We just removed the temptation for ourselves on that song."

Great Big Sea has toured throughout the United States in the last year. Their goal of their concerts has remained the high-energy, fan-rewarding marathons the band made their name on through special appearances and television specials.

Doyle said the band has been playing around 40 songs a night. In Chicago, they added solo songs between their two sets - a time normally given to an intermission.

"All told the show was four minutes shy of three hours," Doyle said.

"I'd do that every night if I could," McCann said.

"The unfortunate thing is the audience needs to pee," Hallett added with a laugh.

They are still working out how all of "Safe Upon the Shore" will translate to that live show - what might have to go so the new songs can be added.

Meanwhile, they wait to see how fans will respond to the record's release.

Some of the tracks are already available for download. For another taste, there is a video for "Nothing But a Song," the second track for "Safe Upon the Shore" on the Great Big Sea website. The video was shot shortly before Canada Day, the band said, when Great Big Sea were in Grand Cayman on vacation - they extended from three to six days in order to make a music video.

It was the last chance for vacation time, as trips to the promotional run for their newest CD begins.

"Safe Upon the Shore" as described by Matthew Byrne

The trio leading Great Big Sea told The Telegram they actively seek out new music from all over, including what local artists have hitting the shelves in St. John's.

McCann said he has gotten into work by Mark Bragg and Kalem Mahoney. Doyle gave a nod to Matthew Byrne's "Ballads."

"I just bought Matthew Byrne's record and it's awesome, have you got it? It's really cool," Doyle said to McCann and Hallett.

"I heard him talk on the radio the other day and it said something that rang a bell and I had never heard anyone say it before," he said. "It was cool, about how physically satisfying it is to sing a song. Just physically. I thought it was a really cool thing for a singer to say. I had never heard anyone say it and like 'Safe Upon the Shore,' the title track on that one (nodding to the album) we've done it a few times in concert now and it's, it's very physically satisfying."

Organizations: Great Big Sea, Los Lobos, Sheraton Hotel Humber Valley Resort

Geographic location: St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Orleans Southern United States Berlin Bourbon Street East Coast England Nova Scotia Humber Valley United States Chicago Grand Cayman

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Recent comments

  • amazed
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    I will, as I always have, buy this cd and give it a chance. But I gotta say, after following GBS since their bar days, I haven't particularly wanted to play much of their recent stuff after one listen. I don't enjoy their pop efforts, except for Love Me Tonight, they did deserve to have a hit with that, great song. But otherwise I'm left saying meh with their past few albums. GBS got less interesting when they got a drummer live imo. Plus Sean mcCann's voice seems to be shot, I do not enjoy this raspy sometimes falsetto thing at all.
    I will buy the new cd and hope I enjoy it, however after previewing the tune Hit the Ground and Run, seeing as I don't like bluegrass and the Masterless Men have that covered in NL anyways, I'll pass on that song.
    Good luck to them though. I know they are incorporating more musical influences and that's fine, but maybe a month of playing the pubs at home may spark something familiar but different. The pubs would have to be empty on a Thursday night tho, so I guess that won't happen. :)

    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    I Like the idea of you doing different songs from other places outside of nfld / labrador, I am originalinaly from petty hr. and i love all of great big sea music .I say go for it fans will love it . all the best to you and your familys

  • proud townie
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    well well well, people don't call us to play in NL. If you charged a little less than $70,000.00 plus and played a little longer they might just start phoning. Never spent time touring the small towns of Newfoundland swearing the allegiance to the button accordion. Perhaps if they did they would garner more respect from nl'ers. I'm glad they used Mrs. MacMaster's name, look at her popularity and I'm sure that she embraced her fiddle roots touring Cape Breton, they love her. Too bad you can't say the same for your fellow NL'ers.

  • Jonathan
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Still can't go their music. Like Nickleback, every song sounds the same.

  • Bruce
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Every song sounds the same?

    You might not like them, fair enough, but accusing them of monotony seems like a lame critiscism. They have three different lead singers who sound nothing alike, they use all kinds of different instruments, and perform a wide variety of traditional and original material.

    Nicleback, I can see, they have one singer, and every song is in the same tempo and key.

    GBS has their issues, but I can honestly say predictability is not one of them.