After nearly 20 years touring with the Canadian folk-rock outfit Great Big Sea and bringing Newfoundland traditional music and sea shanties with a harder edge to the masses, Séan McCann tested the proverbial waters of a solo career, recording tracks for what would become Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes. The album, a deeply personal work inspired in part by the birth of his sons, enjoyed some critical success, and just short of a year later, McCann released its followup, Son of a Sailor, taking those Newfoundland sounds popularized by Great Big Sea and combining them with a country balladeer aesthetic, accompanied by Kelly Russell and Craig Young as The Committed.
McCann and The Committed will be stopping by Jammin’ Java Sept. 28 as part of a 13-day East Coast tour to promote the new album. McCann spoke to the News-Press about the two albums, as well as what’s to come for his solo project and for Great Big Sea.
LP: What did you take from writing and recording Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes when you were working on Son of a Sailor?
SM: I learned that being in Great Big Sea, we have a lot of fans, and we’re very successful on both sides of the border. I was afraid to [release Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes] because that record sounded so different. It was a different voice, a different theme, and a very intimate record. That’s not what Great Big Sea is about. I was very reluctant, but my manager said I should put it out there. I was afraid it wouldn’t connect with audiences, but it did. They were very surprised by it. I think they were expecting more shanties or raucous anthems – but it did resonate with them, and the response was really good, so I was encouraged. I thought maybe I should make a record that I will want to tour and play, so I just kept writing.
LP: The songs on Son of a Sailor are delivered in fictional narratives, as opposed to narratives about yourself, but do you and your personal experiences come through in these songs?
SM: A lot of those songs use characters with different names, and the “me” is removed, but some of those characters are real and some of them are part of me. They are where I could have been if I hadn’t done certain things to change my ways. I tried to take the “me” out and to replace it with “us,” I guess, and to write songs that I thought would include my experience, but in which I thought the experience would be mutual. The best way to do that is to tell a story about a person, put a name on it, draw a face. If they see themselves, that’s one thing, and if they see another person in it, that’s another. Most of the songs have not a lesson that is taught, but stuff you can take from those stories and characters and relate to.
LP: What is your writing process like?
SM: Like any day off, I could go one of two ways – I can get in all kinds of trouble, or I could put myself to work. I literally tried to keep myself busy. I have two little boys, one is about 6 and one is 3. Before they came along, I had all kinds of time, but never got half as much done. Now, every minute counts. Whenever I see an hour in a day, I’m prepared.
LP: What aspects of the music you make as a solo artist do you think will most surprise Great Big Sea fans?
SM: My role in Great Big Sea is that I’m the screamer guy. I’m singing the screaming rock and roll songs. Every three songs, my job was to blow my head off and do a shanty or whatever. It’s all very powerful singing. But these [solo album songs] are not the kinds of songs you would scream. These are stories from a storyteller. It’s a conversational mode. People ask about shanties on a solo record, but I’m like well, I have the best band on the planet for that. I still do that, I still write songs for Great Big Sea, and I wouldn’t want to take away from that.
LP: Beyond touring for this album, what’s on the horizon?
SM: Great Big Sea is working on a greatest hits record. I submitted 12 songs to those guys for that purpose, and I’m also working on a new Committed record, and I’m a dozen songs into that. We will be introducing some of those songs on the road, and I’m not sure what shape that record will be, but I’ll be using Craig and Kelly again, by pure fluke that turned out to be a great sound. [The tour] will be trial by fire. We have 13 shows in 13 nights, and to date we’ve only done five shows, never two in a row. It will be a test, but I’m sure we’ll come out as a stronger band.
• For more information about Séan McCann, visit greatbigsean.com.