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Pandemic still creating challenges for many artists, says Séan McCann

The former founding member of Great Big Sea says he is excited to play songs from his latest album, 'Shantyman' on August 10 at Halifax's The Carleton
SeanMcCann photo
Sean McCann

For Séan McCann, coping with the past two and half years under the pandemic as an independent artist has proven to be a big challenge — both mentally and physically.

“It’s been hard,” notes the former member of Newfoundland’s most famous folk rock act, Great Big Sea. “Prior to COVID, I could easily string together seven or ten dates in the East Coast.”

While those live performance opportunities certainly dried up with the onset of COVID-19 lockdowns and tightened public gathering restrictions, surely live gigs would sprout up aplenty once restrictions began lifting last spring.

Not necessarily so.

“We may be at a phase where we are able to do live shows, but the reality is that there is a huge back up and many venues are not ready yet, or will not return, so it’s been a struggle,” admits McCann.

“The back log is a thing that not many people are talking about, but there’s a back log of two years now, so the result will make it hard for new acts, or new projects, or new records to find their way into venues.”

McCann notes the demand is so much greater than it was in 2019 that smaller markets that might host two or three shows a month can easily support ten.  Factor in staff shortages and potential audience members still hesitant about public gatherings and the challenge for artists expands even more.

“The economics and the math are challenging right now for people like me,” adds McCann. “(But) one wise man once said to me years ago, ‘there’s only one thing worse than being in the music business, Sean, (and that’s) not being in the music business.’”

McCann isn’t complaining mind you. A veteran performer since the early '90s when Great Big Sea exploded on the scene playing in pubs on St. John’s famous George Street, he’s thankful he is able to line-up shows, and particularly play a mix of Celtic-inspired songs and traditional sea shanties from his latest album, Shantyman at Halifax’s The Carleton on August 10.

“Those songs kind of got me through the second winter of COVID,” says McCann about his six-solo album dedicated solely to sea shanties — a genre of music that saw a renaissance of sorts when the seagoing worksongs became a viral trend on social media platforms during the height of the pandemic.

Having been around since at least the 1600s, shanties originated to assist sailors perform hard labour in unison. McCann notes that is partly why shanties were an ideal way for people to push through pandemic isolation.

“I’m sure the kids had no idea what shanties were. They were just drawn to earworms,” says McCann. “But the fact that these are songs that are specifically designed to help us do difficult things by working together and in harmony — that can’t be an accident, that’s too big of a coincidence for me to call it that. There’s something serendipitous about it (and) I think shanties came back for a reason and they came back to help.”

McCann is no stranger when it comes to appreciating support to get through challenging times. Well-known for his philanthropic work since leaving Great Big Sea, he was even appointed into the Order of Canada in 2019 for his work in mental health advocacy.

Of course, he didn't find his path easily. After leaving the band and admitting a long dependence on alcohol was masking the pain of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, McCann found support from his wife Andrea Aragon (with whom he co-wrote a book titled, One Good Reason) and their sons to overcome his own personal struggles.

Today, his shows are filled with life-affirming messages of hope, love and uplifting music, and the sea shanty forms the ideal representation of that hard work.

“I needed a new outlet so Andrea suggested ‘why don’t you start singing,’” recalls McCann about rediscovering his love for shanties during the pandemic. “I started to do it in the mornings after my coffee, I was literally belting out these sea shanties in my office (but) the physical act of singing these songs out loud really helped me — it boosted my morale.”

The longstanding “shantyman” in Great Big Sea, McCann has long mastered the art of the sea shanty and his skills are well represented on Shantyman.  Not only does he cover such classic sea shanties as Rolling Sea and Chariot on the album, but he gives them a modern lift in part with help from supporting players like Hawksley Workman, Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson and multiple ECMA award winning Nova Scotia-based musician, J.P. Cormier.

“Rolling Sea and Chariot — those are the ones that people love to sing,” notes McCann, clearly looking forward to playing to Halifax audiences at The Carleton. “(But 10,000 Miles Away is) a yearning song about wanting to be close to your loved ones, and so to get to sing it live now and be like, ten feet away from people — there is real power in it.”

For more information on Séan McCann, visit his website.

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