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.”