Interview: Séan McCann on Healing, Honesty, and Saying Goodbye to Great Big Sea

Séan McCann is back. One of the founding members of Great Big Sea, Séan left the group in 2013, saying the band’s booze-heavy, party-heavy lifestyle was taking  its toll. Now, he’s releasing You Know I Love You, his second solo effort, and touring the country in his first ever solo tour. Before he stops at the Gordon Best Theatre on October 24, I had a chance to talk to him.

For over 20 years, Great Big Sea have been an institution of the Canadian folk scene. They seem like the essence of the Newfoundland lifestyle: the wild, consequence-free spirit of dancing, partying, and, notably, drinking. “We were the best party band in Canada,” Séan McCann recalls of that time. “Every night was Friday night for us.”

Séan McCann

Two decades in, and with a child on the way, Séan realized he needed a change. He admitted he was an alcoholic and had to leave the band. He went public, too, speaking across the country and to the media about his struggle with drink and with a childhood history of sexual abuse.

But music didn’t leave Séan for long. Less than a year after leaving the band, Séan teamed up with producer Joel Plaskett for a solo album, 2014’s Help Your Self. It felt like a particularly raw, defiant, electric portrait of life in the immediate aftermath of Sea.

Now, on his new record, You Know I Love You, Séan seems to be returning to the joyful Celtic folk sounds of his past – only with an added uplifting, inspirational optimism. It’s the kind of feel-good messaging that could easily come off as hollow sentimentality, if we didn’t know all that was behind it.

Séan’s happiness is a hard-fought, hard-won happiness. It’s that particular brand of a happiness that may be familiar for anyone who’s been through something terrible and come through to the other side. It’s the willful happiness of a man who’s doing his best to be OK. Life can be good, Séan wants us to know, as long as we keep working to make it so.

I recently spoke to Séan. Here’s what he had to say.

It seems like a simple question, but, after the last couple years, I’ll ask it anyway: how are you doing today?

Today I am very happy because I have nothing left to hide. The weight of denial has been lifted from my brow. I am wide-awake and ready to smile again.


Séan McCann (photo credit: David Howells)You’ve been quite open about the struggles you had in the Great Big Sea years. What do you think when you look back on that period now?

The Great Big Sea environment was an unhealthy place for me. I am very proud of our accomplishments and I really wish we had come to a better end but I loved the band too much to stick around and watch it self-destruct. Anger is the enemy and life is short. I wish both Alan and Bob nothing but well.


Throughout your career, your love of Newfoundland folk music has shone through. What is it about that style that speaks to you?

I appreciate its honesty. Folk Songs are real stories that come from real people. It is the sound of sincerity in a superficial world. Today’s “hit songs” tend to last a week on the world’s timeline and are then heard no more. Folk Songs have been with us for hundreds of years. Real “hits” are the songs that stand the test of time.


On your past couple albums, you’ve been recording (and co-writing) with Joel Plaskett. How has that been?

Joel Plaskett is made of Music and he has dedicated his life to its pursuit. He is fluent in everything from folk to indie rock and is not afraid to dance with both partners at the same party. Joel is an excellent listener. He was able to hear the very personal things I was trying to say and make sense of them for the world.

What can audiences expect from your show in Peterborough?

I am a survivor. I believe that I have been granted a second chance at life and I do not intend to waste it. I am fully present and I have so much to share with the good people of Peterborough. Expect nothing less than my very best at The Gordon Best on Oct. 24th.


And finally, a question I ask all touring acts coming through Peterborough: name the top 5 things you know about Peterborough. (If you run out of things you know, please feel free to start making stuff up.)

1) Peterborough is home to The Gordon Best Theatre, one of the coolest little rooms in Canada and I will be singing my heart out there on Saturday October 24th.
2) Peterborough has an awesome folk festival and I would love to come back and sing there next summer.
3) Peterborough is the birthplace of the world’s greatest hockey player: Bob Gainey.
4) Peterborough girls are pretty.
5) The Petes will win the Stanley Cup this year.


See Séan McCann live in Peterborough on November 26, 2016 at Market Hall (more info).

Séan McCann’s music is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.


Séan McCann photo credit: David Howells.

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