“I’m a new artist. No one knows who I am.”
That seems like a funny thing to say from a founding member of legendary Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea. For 20 years, Séan McCann and Great Big Sea traveled the world, promoting Gold and Platinum albums, playing for hundreds of thousands of fans. People knew who they were.
“I didn’t let people know me. I was the Shantyman in Great Big Sea. That was a character, an act.”
During the latter part of his time with the band, McCann realized he had developed a problem with alcohol, and needed to make changes in his life. In 2013 he left the band, and last year he moved his family from St. John’s to Ottawa.
“I have always loved Ottawa, and Ottawa has always been very good to me. I was in a position where I had to make some big changes.
“Being in Great Big Sea, probably the biggest party band in Canada, and living in St. John’s, which is definitely the New Orleans of Canada, I really felt there wasn’t much for me to do at home. I didn’t have much work to do there, and I was also vulnerable. Being in Ottawa, like many Newfoundlanders, I left for work. I can go do the NAC, I can drive to 60 to 70 shows in Ontario alone. That enabled me to work weekends, which is good for my family. I’m not on a tour bus anymore.
“Ottawa always punched way above its weight with regards to Great Big Sea. Ottawa was our biggest city, even though it’s not the biggest city. We did better in Ottawa than we did in Vancouver or Toronto. I don’t know why that is, but Ottawa took a shine to us. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences my whole life, coming here for 25 years. I took [his wife] to Ottawa because I knew it was very much like Minneapolis (her hometown). Same size, lots of agriculture, lots of water, rivers, lakes… We spent a weekend here and she loved it. She loved the fact that our kids would still be in Canada. It feels like the right move.
“If you start to wonder if you have an alcohol problem… you do.”
While McCann is now in recovery from alcoholism, his road there has not been easy. Being used to so much success in his life, his first few attempts at quitting were failures, which weighed heavily on him. It was his family’s love that gave him the strength to quit for good.
“I’m 49 now, and when I was 40 I started to have blackouts. I used to drink a lot and thought nothing of it. It was just normal for me, and I thought I was quite good at it, actually. I started to have issues. I couldn’t remember what had happened the night before. It happened once, then twice, and then it started to happen [more frequently]. I thought ‘what’s happening?’ So I talked to a doctor friend of mine, Googled “alcoholism”… If you start to wonder if you have an alcohol problem… you do. When I Googled it, there’s a questionnaire that comes up, and I passed that with flying colours. I tried to just quit, but it was not that easy. I failed, and that quite depressing for me, because I wasn’t used to failing.”
“Like many alcoholics, I ended up embracing a higher power. Except in my case it wasn’t a god… Or maybe it was… In my case it was my wife who intervened and loved me enough to give me an ultimatum. She said ‘Hey man, you’re done. You’re killing yourself, and we’re not going to stick around for this.’ That was the straw. That’s what I needed to hear. I needed a good threat. That was November 9th, 2011, and I’ve been sober almost 5 years.”
In Great Big Sea, the band’s job was “to bring Saturday night to every night of the week into every city we went.” The lifestyle that went along with that was not one the newly sober McCann could continue with.
“On the last North American tour, I was there 16 months, and by the end of it I’m like ‘guys, I can’t do this.’ I don’t regret it, it’s not like I didn’t try. There’s a lot of work that I’m proud of in the band. I think I left at the right time. And no one seemed to be too upset over it. I think it was the right time for everybody. I think it had run its course, to be honest.”
In 2014, McCann released a solo album called Help Yourself. The songs on the album functioned as a form of therapy for him, facing his problems by singing about them.
“I’ve learned that a secret can kill you. The only way to defeat a secret is to tell it.”
He released the album not knowing what kind of reception it would get. But he began to receive messages of support and thanks from all over.
“People started to respond. All sort of saying the same thing. ‘I know this story.’ ‘I know this song, this song is my mother.’ ‘I know this song, this song is my daughter.’ ‘I know this song, it’s my lover, my friend, it’s me…’ I realized I was not alone, and that this was a big thing and affects many more people than were willing to admit, because it’s stigmatized.”
Séan also speaks as a mental health and addiction advocate, and preaches “music as medicine.” He’s calling his current tour the “Road to Recovery” tour. It seems playing music and telling his story is his medicine, and it’s a medicine he won’t soon stop taking.
“The road has no end. That’s something you accept. I’ll be an alcoholic for the rest of my life. Whether or not I choose to remain in recovery is up me. And that’s day to day. For some people it’s every hour. We’re made of more than just blood and bone. We’re made of music. That’s a very hard thing to describe or define. But we know it’s in us. “I’m not sure what the end will be. I really don’t. But I do know I’m heading in the right way.”
Fans might be disappointed to hear that McCann seems comfortable ruling out the possibility of a Great Big reunion. But his heart just wouldn’t be in it.
“It’s healthier for me, if you look at the setlist… It’s kind of funny, the stuff that I do now, I would feel kind of ridiculous singing “Old Black Rum” or whatever. If I have any regrets it’s that Great Big Sea was in a position to say a lot of things and never really did. We sort of said the same thing over and over again if you look at our catalogue. We did write some good songs. I still sing “Ordinary Day”, I still occasionally sing “General Taylor”. I take requests. My message is ultimately very positive, [his show] is not this big deep dark thing. I take requests, but sometimes they’re just the wrong ones.”
If you’re a Great Big Sea fan who hasn’t seen Séan’s live show, rest assured, you will be encouraged to sing.
“You’re not going to get out without singing. That’s going to happen. I try to reach out and grab your heart, and squeeze just a little bit, and then let it go. I want people to leave lifted. And not in that temporary ‘I got nine beers in me’ way, I want them to have the lift that’s sustainable. It doesn’t go away. The buzz that doesn’t wear off. That’s where I am.”