Séan McCann, a former member of Great Big Sea, has made some major changes to his life over the past six and a half years — he got sober, left the successful band and unexpectedly shared his story of childhood sexual abuse at a speaking engagement over three years ago.
He’s also released five solo albums and started touring again, favouring small, intimate venues like Castlegar’s Castle Theatre.
McCann will play the venue on Sunday, April 29, starting at 7 p.m. and he’s very excited.
“I’ve been talking to the owner — Owen, nice guy — and he sent me some photos, and I’m just stoked. I think it’s a beautiful venue,” he says.
“It seems like the right kind of place for where my show works the best, which involves a lot of singing from the audience and from me,” he adds.
Over his career, McCann has produced a catalogue of over 250 songs — including Great Big Sea songs — which makes it easy for him to fill a set list though he doesn’t really bother with one.
“I always write down the songs I feel like singing that day. At sound check, I’ll just try to remember songs. … I think I do that to remind myself that I know enough songs because I’m always a little bit nervous,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s determined by the audience where these shows go and I often take requests.”
In addition to touring his music, McCann also does speaking engagements as a mental health advocate, and that work necessarily overlaps with his music.
“When I do public speaking I share my truth and I talk a lot about what happened and how I overcame it and stuff like that, but I also bring my guitar and I always play five or six songs in the course of an evening of speaking,” he says.
He adds that at concerts he speaks a little bit about his past, but “I’m there to sing.”
On Sept. 26, 2014, McCann spoke at the Recovery Breakfast in London, Ont. and for the first time shared that he had been sexually assaulted by a priest when he was a teenager. In response to the trauma, McCann turned to alcohol and became an alcoholic.
But on Nov. 9, 2011, McCann stopped drinking and that eventually led him to leave Great Big Sea after a final tour in 2013.
“I was sober on that bus and that was, in retrospect, the wrong place for me to be because it wasn’t a very sober bus,” he says.
After that McCann says he and bandmates, Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett, agreed it would be best if he left.
Asked about his relationship with Doyle and Hallett, McCann, who still owns a third of Great Big Sea, says, “I would say it’s fairly non-existent. We meet once a year to talk about our shared tax return in our company, but we … really don’t have a lot of conversation outside that.”
In a video on his website, McCann says, “The first thing I had to deal with, though, when I stopped drinking, was a real sense of isolation. Because in St. John’s, I was the leader of the party parade and I quickly learned that people you drink with are your drinking buddies. They’re not your friends.”
Asked if that’s how he’d characterize his relationship with Doyle and Hallett, he said yes.
“I would put them in the drinking buddy category. We became business partners and … people evolve. Alan wanted different things out of his life, I wanted to be sober. I’m not really sure what Bob wanted. … So we’re on very different paths.”
Now that he’s touring on his own, McCann says he loves playing smaller rooms.
“I miss the Great Big Sea money, but I love what I do in these smaller rooms, in these small towns, where we can sing real songs and there’s a real interaction,” he says. “I won’t play a hockey rink again and I won’t play a bar again.”
McCann specifically looks for venues where the alcohol is sold outside of the main concert area.
“I don’t care if they serve it, as long as the bar is not in the room I’m playing in,” he says.
McCann says it’s because bars are a distraction.
“After three drinks, people really just stay at the bar and they’re talking to the bartender and they become a distraction for the rest of the audience,” he says. “So it doesn’t work.”
Since going solo, McCann has produced three albums he refers to as his recovery records: Help Your Self (2016), You Know I Love You (2016) and There’s a Place (2017).
There’s a Place came out of touring You Know I Love You.
“I found myself touring across Canada and doing public speaking and shows … and I found myself in these smaller theatres, where human connection can happen and that record really speaks to that,” he says. “And as an artist, I’m really torn because I have sons …, they’re 12 and nine, and they grew up with screens, and they don’t know a world without them. And I remember a world before them and I think that I really believe that social isolation and digital addiction are real things.”
McCann believes it’s important to foster face-to-face human interactions.
“If there’s any message to this record, I have found that the best place for me, the best version of me, exists on these stages in these smaller venues,” he says. “Where I can be open and I can have this real connection with an audience in front of me. And I think that’s the sort of thing we have to fight for now.”
He also believes in intergenerational trauma and has been doing some research into his family background.
“I’ve been doing some research into my own family, because I do believe in intergenerational trauma and I do have friends in the Indigenous community who’ve talked to me about it, and I’m starting to comprehend it,” he says.
For his own kids, McCann says he worries less about drugs and alcohol and more about indoctrination, as his family has a long history with the Catholic Church.
McCann says his sons “know the truth about what happened, so far as they can comprehend it and they know that their father quit drinking for them.”
He plans to teach his children about intergenerational trauma as well.
“Problems, when differed, don’t get solved,” he says, referring not only to his own struggle to face what happened to him, but also to Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples and the work of Reconciliation.
“From day to day you feel like you’re getting somewhere and then something like Colten Boushie comes on the news,” he says. “Again, I have friends in the community and I’m now … starting to understand the issue — I think. So far as a White person can. But it affects us all, we’re all human beings. It’s not something that a White person should ignore because it affects me too.”
McCann also credits his friend Gordon Downie with raising his awareness of Canada’s residential schools.
“He really shone a light on this. That was a wake-up call because when he said what he said in the state he was in, I paid attention,” says McCann. “And my Indigenous friends joke, ‘Yeah, it took a White guy for you to pay attention,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s true.’ He was in a situation where he could have done anything, he had a year left to live, and he saw this as the most important thing that Canadians had to deal with.”
McCann also recently collaborated on a song with Cody Coyote, a hip-hop/electronic artist of Ojibwe and Irish descent with ancestry from Matachewan First Nation.
“He’s got some strong words about Reconciliation,” says McCann.
For tickets to McCann’s Castlegar show, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/3330848.