Here’s a question for you – what do The Man in Black, a sailor in a Sou’wester, The Red-Headed Stranger and a soldier in puttees have in common?
To all outward appearances, very little.
But for Séan McCann, who plays Communitea Café with Jeremy Fisher, Monday, May 2, all four were influential in the creation of his second and latest solo project.
Best known as one-quarter of the immensely popular Great Big Sea, McCann is joining Fisher on a cross-country tour – McCann with Son of a Sailor and Fisher with his fourth studio album, Flood.
The pair go way back, as Fisher has opened for Great Big Sea and chipped in with songwriting.
“Jeremy’s a good friend, a beautiful man and a terrific songwriter,” said McCann from St. John’s last week, where Newfoundlanders have been suffering with long-lasting winter as well.
In heading out on the road to share stages at smaller venues, McCann said the experience will be quite different compared to his tours with Great Big Sea.
“It’s been a while since I’ve crossed Canada like this. When travelling in a minivan, it’s good to have someone like Jeremy along. We’ve always gotten along great.”
The songs McCann has penned for Son of a Sailor are also quite different from Great Big Sea fare in that they’re quieter, more introspective.
“With Great Big Sea, and I love playing in that band, it’s like a hand grenade tossed on the stage every night. They’re big, loud shows and I’m proud to be part of the best band in Canada.
“For these shows, though, we’re taking turns opening and at the end of the night, we bring it together.
“We write and sing well together and we recently did three shows in Nova Scotia and they all ended up big with us playing together. I think the songs are resonating with people.
“With small venues you can have a more intimate connection with an audience and sometimes you leave shows with more songs to write. I thoroughly enjoy it.”
The songs on Son of a Sailor are also a departure for McCann, both from Great Big Sea (GBS) work and from his first solo album, Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes (2009).
“With my own music, it’s like letting my muse run free and chase its own tail.”
Some of the songs for Son were written while on the road with GBS. “On the road, when you’re travelling on a bus, you wake up at nine-ish and you have the whole day in front of you.
“You can get in a lot of trouble, or apply yourself to your trade. I’ve done both with a lot of songs over the years.”
Compared to Lullabies, where McCann wrote from the heart about love and marriage and fatherhood (his wife said the album is the sound of his heart exploding), with Son he took a different tack.
“I have two interests – Newfoundland folk music, which I love, and country music by singers like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams – and I wanted to see if I could combine the two. It’s kind of Nashville meets Newfoundland.
“I think Newfoundland music uses country colours and I think country music uses Newfoundland colours.
“My first album was very, very personal, but this one speaks to larger themes. It’s not just about me, but about people like me.”
With Lullabies, McCann had written about 20 songs and narrowed them down to the tracks he wanted on the album. For Son of a Sailor, he wrote exactly 10 tracks.
“I think I had more focus for this album and it’s very rare for me to be focused. The reviews have been great, but I think people are surprised because there are no sea shanties or party tracks.”
For Son of a Sailor, McCann also employed minimal production values. “I believe if a song is good enough, you should be able to sit down with a guitar and sing a song people will enjoy.
“With a lot of songs, I don’t even hear them. I want to let the song be the song, I don’t want to paint it green because green is the new black. I just want a sincere and honest song.”
“Johnny Cash was like that. He wrote songs from the heart, accessible, without a lot of decoration, just good players.”
Finally, in releasing a second solo side project, McCann is keeping up with other GBS members. Bob Hallett penned a book about his life with Great Big Sea, Writing Out The Notes, and Alan Doyle appeared as troubadour Allan A’Dayle with Russell Crowe in Robin Hood. More recently, Doyle copped a role in CBC’s Republic of Doyle (no relation), where he played a prison inmate heavy.
“Yeah, the pressure’s on with side projects,” admitted McCann. “After Robin Hood, Alan came back with a bow and arrow and a bus is a small space for that kind of thing. Maybe it’s life imitating art? Who knows?”
For his part, Hamilton-born Fisher is a nomadic musician whose do-it-yourself ethic is so strong his artistry extends past making music and playing multiple instruments to producing an accomplished, satirical web series, as well as creating and directing music videos for himself and other artists.
He broke onto the scene a decade ago and Flood, the fourth LP from the two-time Juno nominee, comes hot on the heels of a Fisher-created summer bicycle tour and video side projects.
His first full-length since 2007’s acclaimed Goodbye Blue Monday, the album finds Fisher working with ornate arrangements, with acoustic pop songs fleshed out by a diverse array of instruments.
Flood is the result of a whirlwind writing session during which he cut more than 40 demos with help of a Roland 707 drum machine. Although most of these rhythm tracks were later replaced with real drums, the electronic percussion tracks helped to form the backbone of the album’s upbeat, punchy sound.
“To build dynamics,” said Fisher, “we mixed in mandolins, tenor guitars, open-tuned 12 strings, piano, timpani, and a huge concert bass drum – all acoustic sounds piled on top of each other to create a sort of symphony that could swell in and out of the rhythm section.”
Fisher has written each of his four albums while living in a different city. His bluesy, self-released debut, Back Porch Spirituals, came out in 2001, while he was living in Seattle. The follow-up, 2004’s Let It Shine, was written in Victoria, and spawned the breakthrough single “High School.” His third album, Goodbye Blue Monday, was released while living in Vancouver in 2007. It featured the hit “Cigarette”.
In recent years, Fisher started his own animated web series, For Real with Jeremy Fisher, and has created music videos for artists like Xavier Rudd, Hannah Georgas and Hawksley Workman.