Jan Vanderhorst talks to Sean McCann about Shantyman
At the beginning of 2021, it looked like the year might be described as “The Year Of The Shanty,” given the explosion of TikTok videos brought about by the popularity of Nathan Evans’ performance of “The Wellerman.” In Canada, the man to talk to about shanties is Great Big Sea co-founder Sean McCann, who’s just released his latest album, Shantyman.
“I was the shantyman in Great Big Sea,” he said from his Ottawa-area home. “I got away from the band for health reasons but I kind of walked away from the shanties as well. I was the shantyman in the band because I love them, and I sing them, but I was also doing a Master’s in Folklore at Memorial University. Newfoundland was a place these songs came and never left. I’m an admitted folk nerd, and I stopped my Master’s because the band blew up. I still owe them a thesis. I should send in [the album] and see what they think of it!”
Sean has a “shantyman” file at home with over 80 songs yet to record.
“I was pushing this idea around for many years. I didn’t want to light it up without a focus because I’m on a different path musically [now],” he said. “Then it felt like the right time in the pandemic. I wasn’t getting to sing physically, [and singing] is good for my mental state. Music is strong medicine. Using my body to belt out these songs really keeps me grounded, and I missed that feeling. So I found myself going to the file, picking out the songs, came up to my man cave and recorded all the vocals, guitars and tin whistles.”
At the beginning of the process, there were no thoughts the end result would actually be a record.
“I started to mess with them as if I might make a record but I was still on the fence until my son, Keegan, came up and told me, ‘Dad, you’re going to be famous again! Look, this is amazing,’ and he opened up TikTok and all the kids were doing it. I’m always looking for a reason beyond the reason, in the periphery, for stuff that I do. I’ve learned not to ignore it, and I said, ‘Well that’s it. Maybe that’s the reason.’ Then I got back to work in earnest and became the real shantyman.”
To move the songs beyond being a “personal pandemic project,” Sean felt he needed some help.
He first turned to Hawksley Workman, who produced the Great Big Sea album, Fortune’s Favour.
“It’s my favourite Great Big Sea record and we almost broke the poor fella! But he survived.”
Hawksley provided drum, bass and electric guitar, while J.P. Cormier supplied “unconventional fiddle.”
“I didn’t want it in the ‘Celtic ghetto’ for lack of a better description,” Sean said. “I know he’s fluent in Appalachian fiddle, in world fiddle, he can do it all!”
Rounding out the musical line-up was Jeremy Fisher and Ken Friesen. The last step for Sean was deciding who would mix the album.
“There was always one person I always wanted to work with in Great Big Sea that we never got to work with, and that was Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar), and I’ll tell you why,” Sean said. “I’m a huge Big Sugar fan. They did a lot of live stuff with us, and Gordie was starting to do production work. He was in St. John’s doing a show, and I called a meeting at the local pub and sat down with him with the intent of asking him, ‘What would you do with the next Great Big Sea record? Where would you take it?’ He pointed at me and said, ‘What’s that thingy you play, that little drum?’ I said, ‘That’s a bodhran. It’s a Celtic/Irish instrument.’ He said, ‘I’d take that little drum thingy you play, and I’d make it as loud as fuck!’ With that, my heart leapt. Finally the bodhran player’s going to be the focus! But I looked across the table and you could see the light go out in the eyes [of the other guys]. ‘It’s not going to happen, never going to happen,’ so I knew the gig was over. But I never forgot that conversation. Now I can honestly say that the bodhran is as loud as fuck! It’s definitely there.”
Gordie Johnson also has a featured role in the video for “Shantyman’s Life.”
“Both he and Hawksley ‘showed up,’ Sean said. “They really brought their ‘A’-game to this [album]. They were hired guns but they really brought more than I asked for. They were into it. My publicist, Eric Alper, asked me to get a video. I hadn’t planned this so I threw something together. I asked Gordie, who’s playing guitar on this one, ‘Can you give me 20 seconds of you doing the solo or something that we can use?’ The next day I get reels of footage of him ‘hunting’ with a musket in the woods of Austin, TX! It became very clear that I might be the shantyman singing the song but the real shantyman in the song is Gordie. He gave me a way cooler video than if it was just me.”
For the release of Shanty Man, Sean is only issuing 1,000 numbered and signed copies, making them a collectors item right from the start.
“I’m completely un-funded,” he explained. “I don’t want to rely on grants. A lot of my fans still wanted CDs. We did ask, and they’re more interested in [CDs] than vinyl. So I wanted to offer something that was a special edition. We’re at almost 600 sold now so we’ll sell them all. We passed 500 sales a little while ago. That means I broke even on the record. That’s a big deal without any record label or funding. I’m proudly independent so that seemed like a way to add value to something.”
Digital downloads are also available on Sean’s website, which is proving to be popular as well.
“People are often looking for a way to support artists, and I think if artists have the courage to sell their work again [instead of using streaming services], people will buy it just to support them.”
Last year Sean released a memoir, One Good Reason, which chronicled his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. It also revealed the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest. What made the book unique was that it was co-written by Sean’s wife, Andrea.
“We put it out at the very beginning of the pandemic because we thought the pandemic might last about two weeks, but we were wrong about that,” he said. “We had a national book tour, and it was a best seller for three weeks. It’s available now as an audio book. The book took me a long while to write. It deals with some heavy subject matter, my sexual abuse by a Catholic priest when I was a teenager that led to my addiction. But it’s a happy ending. I’m still here, I’m sober 10 years, we’re still married. The book is littered with songs that I’ve written, and that’s usually the way I deal with things, through music.”
But writing for a book is very different than writing for a song.
“What I’ve been trained to do as a writer is to reduce big things into sonnets with a chorus,” he explained. “To go back and unfold this and work with long form, it took me a couple of years to find my prose voice and start to use those muscles. When it was done, I thought it was good I guess, but I felt it was lacking something. But then Andrea showed me journals she’d been keeping in ‘real time,’ so a lot of the things I’d forgotten because I was drunk and stoned, she had written down in her journal that day, that minute. While those recollections didn’t portray me in a positive light in any way, I thought that they really spoke to the issues. Addiction isn’t just about one person, it’s about everyone around that person. I think by including her voice, the book got really powerful. It had a really strong impact on a lot more people very directly because her voice is there in the first person. I think it’s the story of our relationship surviving in spite of my problems. I think that’s an important positive thing to share with people. Both these projects are labours of love for sure. We’ve kept ourselves busy making dozens of dollars! Sometimes the work is it’s own reward.”
For more information on Shanty Man and One Good Reason, go to seanmccannsings.com.