How Séan McCann beat back demons and saved his own life

Newfoundland and Labrador musician Séan McCann has overcome his share of crises since he helped form Great Big Sea.
Séan McCann, one of the founders of internationally-renowned band Great Big Sea, told The Current that he's faced down a number of demons in the last few years, including alcoholism. (Anthony Germain/CBC)

Musician Séan McCann has overcome his share of demons since he helped found the iconic Newfoundland-based band Great Big Sea more than two decades ago. 

One of them is alcohol. Another is sexual abuse.

On Friday, McCann talked candidly about both on CBC Radio's The Current, and acknowledged how much his life has changed with his recent turn to sobriety. 

"[This] might seem weird to people, but if you've had an issue with drinking, you find that you miss an awful lot, so I just feel like I'm completely present for the first time in my life," he said during a wide-ranging interview with guest host Anthony Germain. 

'He was a charming fella. He charmed his way into my life, into my family.' - Séan McCann, on a parish priest who abused him

"The main thing is that I'm living my life every day. I'm not deferring it. I feel every single thing that happens now." 

Life on the road for more than 20 years was rich turf for someone with a predisposition for alcoholism. 

McCann, 47,  was never one to pass up a drink — until three years ago.

He said it wasn't really the band, or the life on the road, however, that fuelled his addiction.

McCann traces the root of his problems to another demon, one from his teenage years: sexual abuse. 

Big changes to get sober 

Before making what he calls "thorough and complex" changes to his life, McCann had lived much of his life on the road with Great Big Sea, where every night was like a Friday night. 

From the beginning, he said, "it was soaked in rum."

"We didn't take Mondays very seriously ... didn't slow down at any point — but that was the nature of the band. We were a great live band, and it was the band you'd come out to celebrate with," McCann said. 

"And whether that was a Tuesday in Brampton, [it] didn't matter. It was still Friday in Brampton if we were there on a Tuesday." 

Séan McCann was a co-founder of Great Big Sea. The band released its first record in 1993. (Great Big Sea)
​McCann said each member of the band handled the partying and drinking in their own way, but once he realized his situation was out of control, he took steps to correct it. 

He said the band's issues weren't necessarily about the booze.

"Our issues were more about business — and an even bigger demon than alcohol — which is money," he said. 

"And those things are kind of what tore us apart in the end as friends. The struggle with those issues and we really disagreed on where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do ... but we stuck together, and largely because of money, and for too long — and I think that's what escalated my drinking. It wasn't so much the 'Friday night factor' as much as I was hiding from issues."

McCann released his newest solo record, Help Your Self a year ago.

"I put the record out online by myself independently, and it slowly grew and struck a chord with a lot of people, even though this was a very personal record. My line in the sand. You know, I'm going to change, I'm going to do things differently, I've learned a lesson, here's what happened, here's where I'm going," McCann said.

Revelation in Ontario sparked awakening

McCann said that a lot of people  seemed to connect with that message, and as a result, he was invited to speak at a number of events.

In 2014, he was asked to speak in London, Ont., at an event that was coordinated through Addictions Services of Thames Valley.

"I said, 'I'll come talk to you, [but] I'm not going to be reading a script. I'll sing some songs and talk about my path, my journey, and where I've come," he said.

At that point, McCann had been sober for two years. 

"The longer I'd gotten sober, I realized that Great Big Sea was one of the many things that really weren't working well in my life," said McCann.

Two years ago, Séan McCann made Help Your Self with Joel Plaskett. The record was released a year ago. (Sean McCann website)
"But there were other things — and I was reluctant to face them because they were hurtful and painful, and I didn't really know how to face them. So I kept deferring them, even though I was sober."

McCann said while he was in the audience waiting to speak, he was profoundly moved by the words of a man who spoke before him.

His name was Paulie O'Byrne, who had been sexually assaulted by a minor hockey coach in 2006. 

"Totally moved me and it totally shook me. I knew then that I could face what was really bothering me since I was a teenager."

McCann had just met O'Byrne that morning, and was amazed at his candor while talking to the audience about what McCann called "some really nasty stuff."

"He'd been through so much more really than I'd been through. He got up there and was so brave and so sincere — and he was just so open about it — and seemed to benefit from that," he said.

"And everyone in that audience, there was 600 people there in London, were listening."

"It's still not the kind of thing you want to face. The truth is hard to see when you close your eyes ... and it's easy to close your eyes. Something clicked. His words had that affect on me."

It was in that moment of revelation in a London auditorium that McCann knew he wasn't alone.

The wolf

McCann said when he was 15, he was befriended by the local parish priest. It was a relationship that continued for the next four years. 

That priest also gave McCann his first drink of alcohol.  

"He was a charming fella. He charmed his way into my life, into my family," he said.

"His motives were eventually revealed ... it was a horrible situation. We were best friends, and I thought the world of him. He was a very charismatic man, he could do no wrong. Which is the story you hear over and over again."

It's still not the kind of thing you want to face. The truth is hard to see when you close your eyes ... and it's easy to close your eyes.- Séan McCann 

McCann said the priest took advantage "of a situation."

"Our relationship became about booze, and my parents didn't know. I mean at the time, [I thought] 'I'm drinking with the priest with the support of the church behind me.' There was no wrong in it, until it was," McCann said.

"When something like that happens, there's a sense of betrayal and you lose so much trust in people. For me, I buried all that. I didn't want to face it. I felt like I was stupid, and I buried all that as deep as I could. And part of the shovel was red wine and whisky. And then I buried it and I joined a band, and I buried it there. It was a way to medicate, but you don't live life in that situation."

'Excellent parents'

McCann said he'd never told anyone, including his own parents, about the abuse he endured at the hands of the priest, whom he referred to as "the wolf."

"The only person I told later in life is my wife Andrea. She stuck with me, and we've been together for 10 years. She's a beautiful girl and we have two lovely children together," he said.

"It took me a while to tell her, and I did it in dribs and drabs, but she figured it out and called me on it."

McCann said he realized he needed to sober up "and get back in the game and be awake."

"I was a good father I think, but in retrospect, how good can you be when you have a hangover every Saturday morning?"

​McCann's parents did not have any idea what their son was going through.

Séan McCann says he has been sober since November 2011. (Stephen Andrews)
"They fell under the same spell that I did. It was a great thing to have the priest coming over all the time. You were being shown a favour by the almighty church. It was a different time in many ways, and again it doesn't lessen the sense of betrayal that I felt after, but they didn't know," he said.

"Nobody knew, and maybe I should have said something, but I was young. I felt stupid. My parents were so good, they were excellent parents — and I know lots of kids who had really bad parents. My parents were sober parents, my parents loved me. They thought that the influence of that priest would be nothing but good for me."

McCann said as a young teen, he was quite interested in spirituality.

"Which is probably why I fell under that spell. The problem with organized religion, in my opinion, and blind faith, is that the church has become a haven for people who are predators."

"If anything, what happened ... and about coming out in London, I feel like I have my parents back for the first time in so long. [I] truly have them back as my parents — because it's all out there now."

When his parents were finally told the truth and apologized, McCann said the anger and resentment were gone.

"Everything kind of blew away, and ever since then, everything has gone brighter and brighter."

Saying yes to The Current

McCann said he consented to come on The Current because he was asked "in the right way — for the right reasons."

"There was a lost of interest in the local press and some national press, but it was all salacious to be honest with you," he said.

"It was all detail-driven, and what happened and whatever. Honestly, I'd rather not talk about it, and I wish it just would go away. But I've owned it now — it's not something that owns me anymore."

When asked if he could impart any advice to someone who is undergoing abuse, McCann said "You are worthy for help."

"I think one of the big lessons that I learned is that you're not alone."


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