Tue, Feb 4, 2014.
Some people gradually change over the course of their life, maybe grow a a little more mellow, or give up on some wild ways as they age. Some make big changes. And then there are those who turn their life upside-down, inside-out, all at once, and come out quite different. Sean McCann, best known as a founder of Great Big Sea, is definitely one of the latter. "I stopped drinking two and a half years ago, I've decided to leave the band I've been in for 20 years. I'm 46 years old, and I've decided to make the changes," he announces on the line from his home in St. John's. Not that any of this would come as a surprise if you've heard his new album, Help Your Self, released at the end of January. All these things, and more, much more, are out in the open, in the highly personal lyrics of the new album.
Help Your Self is also surprisingly different musically from anything McCann has been involved with before. You'll barely recognize the guy from Great Big Sea, with the rock and songwriter tunes throughout. What you will hear is the signature work of Joel Plaskett, who agreed to come on as producer for the album, and became the galvanizing force behind the intense burst of music and lyrics from McCann. . "I'm really happy to work with Joel, my dream producer for a long time," says McCann. "He really got what I wanted to do, he really brought "Joel" to the table, and I trusted him 100 per cent. There's a real power to certain people, and he gave me the kick in the arse that I needed He said let's do it."
What they did was put together the story of the dramatic change in McCann's life, "my personal story and my troubles and ultimate triumphs," as he describes it. It isn't a vane statement; these are very brave admissions, serious and big questions, and finally, a new outlook after he's faced some demons. "It's my story, very personal, but Joel believed, and I guess I learned, I'm not alone in it. I told him what I'd gone through, the changes, sobering up, and he saw in me a determination to change, and managed to focus that into the album. I think music is therapy, what makes sense in my life, and Joel understood that."
The central cut in the collection is called Hold Me Mother. It covers all the themes of his life; his introduction to music from his mother, growing up in a Catholic family, starting to drink, having his own family, and all the moral searching he's gone through. "I call it the heart of the record," confirms McCann. "People were saying 'Why are you leaving the band?" I'm not angry at the band, was the band the reason I was drinking and angry? No, the band was where I hid. I had to walk through the fire. That song goes to the places where I was scared to go, without a bottle of scotch. It's the hardest thing to do, that song is as raw as can be. It's about growing up, losing things, mistakes are made. It's about as heavy a song as I've ever written. It took a song like that, and this whole record, to move me further than I have in 30 years."
Leaving Great Big Sea is discussed in detail in Wish You Well, a classic break-up song except it's a band, not a lover: "I don't to start a fight, don't care who was wrong or right, but I'm not gonna waste another Saturday night pretending we're all right." McCann is quick to point out it's not a personal attack in any way at his bandmates, but more at the music business in general, and he was thinking as much about Steve Jobs, Apple and iTunes changing that business as he was about leaving the band when he wrote the song. He says the split came a year ago: "Last January, we sat down, we'd done a big tour and made the box (the 20th anniversary collection, XX), but we couldn't agree on a number of things. We weren't going in the same direction, and its not a good time (in the music world) to not be focused, so I just felt it was the best thing for all of us, and we all agreed, that I remove myself."
So now, McCann has pretty much started over, but in a way he wants. "I'm a company of one. I can trust me, barely," he laughs. Although he's released two of his own albums in the past, he considers this the real start to his solo career. He's putting Help Your Self out the way he wants, without a record label, as a digital release, but only through social media (no iTunes). Now he knows exactly who is buying it, and often, what they think of it. "I've sold a lot of them, in just five days. It's connected with a lot of people. I read their comments, and I'm thrilled with the response. It's immediate, and that type of connection is what has been missing in the music business." If all goes well, he does hope to press the collection on vinyl, especially because of Plaskett's production. "It was recorded on 2-inch tape, the old fashioned way, and it sounds beautiful. If I get my money back, I'll press it on vinyl. I'm about half-way recouped now." Not bad for the first week of release. He's also pretty surprised at the level of interest in a tour. "I don't want to be in another band, but I want to tour. There's been a lot of requests since the album came out. I want to get out on tour and tell the stories, maybe some time when the snow melts."
Mostly though, McCann is thrilled with the way the album turned out. It's something he feels he had to do, especially now that he's no longer hiding, in a bottle or a band. "I think you have to hear it beginning to end. To get to the end, the light, you can't ignore the dark. If you don't acknowledge the bad things, you diminish the power of the good ones. The dark is there, and sometimes its horrible but to deny its existence is foolish. I really wanted 'real' right now. Maybe my next one will be dance or something. But I guess I went too long without having this realisation. Artists who aren't afraid to take you to the dark sometimes, they're the ones I admire."
You can find the new Help Your Self album for sale, as well as the original demos for the songs, at McCann's website, greatbigsean.com.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).