Helping himself

Tara Bradbury
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Sean McCann speaks candidly about life, his solo career and leaving Great Big Sea

When Sean McCann opens the door to invite The Telegram in for his first media interview in more than a year, he sets the tone, unintentionally. Wearing his house slippers and with a guitar around his neck, he offers a smile and a hug and a cup of tea.

Sean McCann poses for a photo during an interview with The Telegram about his new album and his new direction now that he’s out of Great Big Sea. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

If a person can be both wistful and excited at the same time, it’s McCann; he answers questions with sparkling eyes and hand gestures, but you sense that he’s been thinking about things for a while. He doesn’t stumble on his words, but he’s candid.

Last November, McCann announced on Twitter and Facebook, without public warning (though he says he told his bandmates almost a year prior), he would be leaving Great Big Sea at the end of the band’s 20th anniversary tour. He posted the message just before taking off in a plane for a GBS gig in Ontario, and declined to elaborate until now.

Longtime GBS fans could have perhaps guessed it was coming — McCann, like Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett, has had a successful solo career for the past few years, releasing two records: 2010’s “Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes” and 2011’s “Son of a Sailor.” Making the decision to leave GBS was one of the first steps, he says, in his new life philosophy, which has inspired his latest project: a concept album called “Help Your Self,” produced by Joel Plaskett.

The very first step in the journey, McCann says, was giving up drinking, just over two years ago.

“I never went to AA or anything, I just did it,” he says. “Then it was like, why was I so unhappy that I would drink too much? How do I get out of that? I like to talk through stuff and I’m a way better communicator in song and lyrics.”

Over the past five years, McCann says, he found himself focused on different things than his bandmates, and it became a source of frustration. He struggled to get his ideas in line with theirs, but in the end, it didn’t work.

“What I’ve learned is you can’t make anybody do anything, and you have to accept what people want. I had to let go of that control, and that certainly was a part of the reason why my drinking escalated. There were a couple of years where it just got a little out of control. I had so much to live for, so I looked at my life and said, where am I really making no progress? It was in Great Big Sea. Having said that, I’m proud of everything Great Big Sea has accomplished until today.”

McCann, Doyle, Hallett and Darrell Power (who left the band in 2003) founded Great Big Sea in the mid-1990s. The band grew to become one of the province’s biggest exports, and last year, released “XX,” a greatest hits compilation celebrating their 20-year career. The collection took two weeks to go gold.

Leaving the band is like getting a divorce, in more ways than one, McCann says, and he’s having a hard time letting go.

“Maybe me exiting that band will be the best thing to ever happen to it,” he says. “When I was the most useful and the most happy in Great Big Sea was when I could contribute songs and we did a lot of work, but that faded away over the last five or six years. The stuff I was interested in went away.

“I’m not comfortable delivering the same message over and over. From what I hear, from smart people who are business people, branding is all about staying on message and Great Big Sea has been really successful at that. I’m not as interested in that anymore.

“I worked really hard on the box set, that was my whole year, and that was part of the process when I decided, you know what? When you start making box sets, we’re checking out. I still have a hard time with it, and some days I still can’t believe I’m leaving that financial safety nest, but I want to find something else I can do.”

He hasn’t had much conversation with the other guys in Great Big Sea, but insists they’re not enemies, just ex-partners. He chuckles when he mentions his departure from the band didn’t make it to the news section on their website.

“My departure was really met with silence. There was nothing. That hurt a bit,” he says. “I don’t know what the reason is for that, but fair enough. Maybe feelings were hurt, I don’t know. I’m over it now. I wish them the best, I honestly do, and knowing Bob and Alan, they’re already well on their way.”

Friends with Plaskett, it was a year ago last November — when Plaskett was touring Newfoundland — that McCann played him some songs and told him how he had sobered up. Instead of a multi-track album, Plaskett saw a concept and a story, and McCann was willing to tell it in musical form.

“Help Your Self” will be released digitally on Tuesday, talking a walk down a path of unhappiness and denial and ultimately finding its way out the other side to a place of strength and happiness. It’s all true, McCann says. He survived and his family is together because of the choices he made.

McCann surrendered to his producer when it came to the producing of “Help Yourself,” and there’s a definite Plaskett-ification to the sound. Look for hints of Great Big Sea and you’ll find them, but they’re subtle; in the form of a bodhran, say, under an electric guitar riff. McCann’s voice has even taken on a different tone from that which it had in GBS; stronger in places, warmer in others, and unapologetic.

The album is retro rock ’n’ roll-sounding, with tracks like “Fire,” “Hold Me Mother” — which McCann calls the heart of the album — and “Red Wine and Whiskey,” his farewell ode, he says, to alcohol.

The whole 33-minute album was recorded on two-inch tape, leaving no room for mistakes, which would have involved literally splicing the tape. That was intimidating, McCann says, but he feels it upped his game so he sang better, out of fear of screwing up.

McCann released the title track from “Help Yourself” on his website a couple weeks ago, and followed it up with a YouTube video, recorded on iPhone and put together himself on his computer. He has also posted snippets of a documentary of behind-the-scene footage from the recording of the album, which he plans to release in full within a few days of the digital record. Having chosen to forego management or a label, McCann says it’s another aspect to his new do-it-yourself attitude.

“I forced myself to learn (how to make video). If I’m going to continue creating songs, I better learn how to record them myself better, and I’d better learn how to share them and create the content,” he explains. “I’m not worried about the commercialism of it anymore, because I know it’s not going to end up on MTV. I want to remain engaged and I want to see where that road takes me.”

Response so far has been good. His social media followers have picked up on the “Help Your Self” mantra and run with it, posting pictures and examples of ways they help themselves in daily life, from yoga and dance to photography to finding their inner child. Pre-sales of the album are steady, and McCann feels like he’s in a good place. He’s happy and feeling fulfilled.

He’s got at least another 30 songs written and has shared them with Plaskett, who’s interested in collaborating with him again. This time, it’ll probably happen in dribs and drabs, McCann says, until they can get time to sit down together. His goal over the next little while is to learn from people like Plaskett, and continue writing songs that are sincere and genuine. Insincerity “drives me crazy,” he says.

“I don’t know where this will go, but what’s important to me is this reality,” he explains. "That there’s truth in it and that I’m saying something that means something larger. Is it brave or is it insane? I don’t know. As proud as I am of being in Great Big Sea, that’s not the only legacy I want to leave behind.

“If all this is, ultimately, is a bad habit, then I think it’s one that’s worth keeping. If it makes me money and if people are interested enough in this record to pay me to come and play these songs, I would be delighted.”

You can listen to the title track from “Help Your Self” and purchase the album at Watch the video for the song on McCann’s YouTube channel:

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Great Big Sea

Geographic location: Ontario, Newfoundland, Red Wine

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Recent comments

  • Vernon Clarke
    January 26, 2014 - 20:48

    Why does it always happen when things seem to be on the right track and going great breakup is always the result...Not only for great Big Sea but before them it was Figgy Duff featuring one of Newfoundlands greatest singers Lavern Squires and when it seemed that they were on the verge of greatness bang breakup...Anyway it was good while it lasted hopefully you made the right decision Goodluck

  • Political Watcher
    January 26, 2014 - 10:39

    Can't blame him for leaving; he was the most talented in the group and had the best vocals. With Doyle's ego as of late I can't see how anyone can stand to be around him for more than five minutes. Besides, since he hitched his wagon to Crowe's Australia is now home to the most talented people he knows (his words). Best of luck Sean, I look forward to your solo career.

  • Jo Hogan
    January 26, 2014 - 10:16

    Hey Sean, Congratulations and best wishes to you in your future endeavours. I always thought you were the best vocalist with GBS. God Bless you and I hope you have a rewarding, fulfilling financial career.

  • Nit Picker
    January 26, 2014 - 09:00

    Help Your Self and Help Yourself have different connotations, the former being counter-productive to the latter.

  • elaine burden
    January 26, 2014 - 06:28

    Congrats to you for getting out of the GBS umbrella & getting your life on track, & that is what it's all about, #1. No disrespect to the band but I thought you were the best vocalist of the group, but failed to get the applauds you truly deserved. So onward & upwards & only hope good things & success follow you.

  • Eddie McCann
    January 25, 2014 - 21:18

    Sean, I went through some of the same problems as you. I never went to AA but was considered a binge drinker. When I drank, at times, I drank a lot. It put a lot of hardships on relationship, friendships and my job. I blame it and how it amplified the anger on losing my first marriage and it almost cost me my second one before it even got started. I was an angry person from events of my childhood and adolesence, some of which I have no memory, that carried on and grew in my emergency response career. I couldn't wait for days off to have a drink. My new wife comes from a very strong Christian family, from Bonavista. Without their help,the help of my parents, friends and co-workers, turning my life over to God, who knows where I'd be now. Despite what people think nothing is possible without God's help and all we have to do is ask with a true heart and He puts into work, people to listen, counsel and help us heal. I have since been diagnosed with PTSD( post traumatic stress disorder) and life is getting better because of God's direction and help. I know we haven't talked in years because of comments I made about you and the band that didn't go over well with the band, you or the family. The past is the past. Despite the differences we had I always promoted the band,bragged you were my cousin and knew how to play before you..haha. I glad you're recovering, I wish you all the best on your new endevours and pray for you and your family, that God touches your lives like he did mine and my sister's with the help of very good parents, husbands,wives, children and friends. God puts people in our path for reasons, all we have to do is recognize it. The more we pray and read, the clearer that comes. Take care cousin and all the best.

  • wavy
    January 25, 2014 - 13:49

    For me, this article confims many suspicions. In bands, you have your "rebel" and "your quiet" one à la Lennon and Harrison, respectively. Reading between the lines from his own comments as well as comments below refuting some of his claims, sounds to me like McCann was "the whiner", with no shortage of ego to boot.

  • Alison
    January 25, 2014 - 12:35

    Obviously a difficult time for Sean but have to call him on his remarks about GBS not announcing his departure on the website - when he announced his plans to leave on Facebook, he said he didn't want to talk about it with media until the new year but to focus on the GBS tour instead. A statement on the GBS site would have promoted something he asked not to talk about - can't have it both ways. BTW, the GBS site is now promoting Sean's newest project, a sign of support for the next step in his career. The B'ys have your back Sean, and we all want the best for you.

  • jen hoover
    January 25, 2014 - 12:26

    so VERY inspiring! so proud of you & your accomplishments!

  • Ryan McCallum
    January 25, 2014 - 10:44

    Very interesting stuff. Many thanks to Sean for shedding some light on what many of us had heard rumors about for over a year. I know we all wish him the best in everything he does moving forward. Thank you for the memories over the years with GBS, and here's to all the new ones to come!

  • Mike Kennedy
    January 25, 2014 - 10:36

    I am glad to see at least some reason for Sean leaving GBS, I wish you success in your endeavours and I look forward to the release, best of luck to you .

  • Anne Tenaglia
    January 25, 2014 - 09:26

    Thanks for publishing this. We've been wondering with much interest, what the back story is. I sense there's still more in that head that hasn't been said, but I appreciate this much. I wish Sean well in his endeavors and hope he has found his sweet spot, career-wise.