“The harder I worked, the more icing there was on the cake” – as his new album A Horrible Beautiful Dream is released, SEAN McCONNELL talks about why he needs to stay busy to feel “complete”
Today (August 6) sees the launch of Sean McConnell’s latest album, A Horrible Beautiful Dream, via Soundly Music. All 13 songs on the album were born during the pandemic, something that singer, songwriter and producer Sean himself describes as being “…the tipping point of so many things right now, so obviously that bleeds over into art and music”.
Featuring guests and collaborators Natalie Hemby, The Wood Brothers, Dan Tyminski, Audra Mae and Fancy Hagood, the album is both powerful and questioning. Those that are familiar with Sean’s music will know he’s never going to dish up anything that could remotely be described as “country pop”, instead we have the thinking songs he does best. The ones that make you want to listen again somewhere quiet, to hear those lyrics again and again, that question the honesty of what you believe and make you want to search your soul.
Personal favourites were As The Curtain Came Down – the story of the musician’s last act before live gigs were put on hold; Nothing Anymore for the questions it asks; Leave The Light On, which is beautifully touching; and The 13th Apostle – best described as the most upbeat of the collection.
He penned 11 of the album’s 13 tracks on his own, and co-wrote the two others and, having listened in advance to the album, it was a pleasure to spend time talking to Sean from the home studio where he not only writes and records his own music, but is also a go-to producer for many more top names. McConnell has written for Christina Aguilera, Michael Franti, Brett Young (including Young’s double-platinum hit Mercy), Tim McGraw, Brothers Osborne among many others. ALISON DEWAR writes.
AD: Sean, thank you for making time to talk to Six Shooter Country. First up, what an amazing album. For someone who hasn’t heard it yet, give me your take on what makes A Horrible Beautiful Dream so special.
SM: Hopefully the songs (laughter). I was already thinking about what the next record was going to be and when Covid came and everything got turned upside down, I think it gave all of us a lot of time, and a lot of evaluating about what is important to us. It kind of automatically cut away the fat from our lives and made us dig deep into not only what is important, but what we believe and what we think and how we exist in the world.
So that only added gasoline to the fire of what I was already writing. Then if there are blessings from what we’ve all been going through, one of them for me was time with my family and time to be home, and in the studio and creating, more time I’ve ever had in one place than for many years.
A big part of this record was the time to create it, as well as time to produce other peoples’ records which I wouldn’t have had time to do if I was out on the road.
AD: Songs like Nothing Anymore, Leave The Light On, I Built You Up – I was interested in the impact of your faith on some of the writing.
SM: Yeah… my records are pretty heavy with echoes of faith…my faith – or lack of faith – questioning, rethinking things, the baby and the bathwater and all that. I think that as we get older and we walk through…a lot of healthy adults rethink things that we were taught. What do they mean to us now, what’s real to us and what’s not, I feel like Secondhand Smoke had a pretty big, big dose of that and I think that A Horrible Beautiful Dream has an ever bigger dose.
I don’t think this is a pandemic record but I do think that it forced us all – myself included – to evaluate what are we doing here, what’s going on…
AD: Do you think you’ll ever get to the point where you’re able to answer any of those questions?
SM: (Lots of laughter) That’s a good question! You know, I don’t think that anything will ever be black and white because that’s just not reality, our lives don’t work in black and white so why would faith work in black and white ways.
That doesn’t make sense to me any more and I think there’s a freedom in that for me, in that the non-answer is almost an answer. I’m more at peace now with mystery. Mystery used to be an enemy to me and now it’s my solitude, it’s my sanctuary, if that makes sense.
AD: I guess if there was an answer it would be easy.
SM: Yep, I think so.
In June, Sean and his wife Mary Susan, were featured in a moving interview in The Tennessean newspaper. They talked about adopting their daughter Abi from Ghana in West Africa. Born with profound cerebral palsy, Abi is now 10-years-old and both she and Mary Susan take centre stage in the video for Price of Love, which was set on their farm. Sean tells us more.
SM: The Price of Love music video was done by some amazing friends of ours, Alexa and Stephen, they are the ones that had the vision for the video and showed up at our farm and told us what to do and where to be. We knew going in a little of what the game plan was, it’s like a record you have an idea but when you’re actually doing it, the process itself informs you what is actually happening. They are fantastic producers and directors and videographers, they did such a beautiful job of that video, me and my wife are selfishly grateful to have like a moving scrapbook of the last 10 years of our lives.
AD: Did Abi enjoy it, it looked like she was having fun.
SM: She did have fun, but there were some times where she wasn’t. It was a 4am start day and it was kinda cold outside, so that part it wasn’t fun but the rest of it she had a good time and she really liked it.
AD: Your piece in The Tennessean was the first time you’ve really spoken about going to Ghana and adopting Abi…it must have been incredibly special for you to go out there and bring her back. Are there any family members or siblings that you can stay in touch with?
SM: That half of the story, we always say we’ll leave for her to decide what she wants to share, but there is no biological family to be known of. We do speak often about the beauties of Ghana and the strength of the people there and we tell her a lot about the experience of how it was to be there with her and to remind her of the amazing culture that she comes from. Maybe one day we will get to go back there with her.
AD: Talking about travelling, you’ve been to the UK plenty of times, we would have seen you at The Long Road in 2019. Now you’re back on the road in the US (starting August 5), are you making any plans for coming over here?
SM: Like the rest of the world, we’re watching and waiting to see how this pans out but as of now, we’re in talks already about planning a tour over there, I want to get back as soon as safely possible.
AD: Going back to the album, I’ve noticed during the pandemic, so many artists have brought out one EP after another, whereas you’ve gone down the full album route. Do you feel fans deserve a bit more, or is it just that you’ve got so much material and, because you’ve got the time, it made sense to pull it altogether?
SM: It’s probably a little bit of all of that. I’ve released EPs in my past and I don’t know if it’s just me or if other people feel this way, but I just think they get lost in the shuffle, as opposed to a full on record. I think an album has more staying power and it enters the conscious of the listener with a little more importance. I may be making that up but that’s the way I feel about them.
Also, I’m just such a fan of putting on a record and entering into this world and letting it take me where it wants to go. I feel like an EP doesn’t normally allow enough time to do that for me, at least at the pace I want for people to experience it. My last two records were double LPs because I just want people to sit down and be patient with them.
AD: I think that’s right…every collection of songs will always have its own personality and if you only have 5 songs, you can be…I love that…but then it’s gone. It’s a relatively short moment in time, whereas when you really listen to it, it’s great and gets inside your head. I think all the fans will be wowed with this one.
Tell me about some of the work you’ve been doing with other artists. You were on Drake White’s Wednesday Night Therapy recently and obviously you’re doing a lot of work with other people.
SM: Yeah, again when tours got cancelled, we really doubled down on the studio and created a space with lots more opportunities for people to come and make records. Since we moved into the other place and made this entire house into a studio we have done, I think, six or seven records of other people’s projects. Yeah, it’s pretty fun, it’s become a tradition… an artist will come and they’ll stay here for two weeks, live on the property and we’ll write and record, or record songs they’ve already written, but a lot of times there’s a lot of writing involved. It’s been an amazing way to continue to be creative in this time where everything was kinda put on hold.
I’ve worked with a lot of other artists, a lot of what I do is just writing*. Drake was here and we wrote a song and that was great, and I played his amazing livestream that same night – unbelievable, what a great idea. *(AD: Sean is pretty modest – he’s a Grammy-nominated songwriter with the Little Big Town hit The Daughters among his many credits).
AD: So, if I sat at the end of your farm track one day, who could I expect to see pottering by…
SM: Oh man, one of the cool things about A Horrible Beautiful Dream is that a lot of the guests who ended up on it were people who I would say are like fan turned friend. Like, I’m such a fan of The Wood Brothers, I met them while touring, so they came over and sang on 13th Apostle; then Dan Tyminski, who’s just one of the greats. We’ve become really close over the years, we were here writing another song and I just showed him some of the record and that’s how he ended up singing on As The Curtain Came Down.
And he’s also playing mandolin on 13th Apostle, ‘cos he was just here. That’s one of the fun parts of having the studio, it just creates a community of creatives that are around. You know, you’re writing another song and then it’s like ‘let me hear this’ and let’s put a mandolin on that.
AD: It gives you more freedom I suppose, you’re not booking someone else’s studio and saying you’ve got two days, we need to finish it off. People are coming to you and you’re just embracing it.
SM: Yeah, on the writing side, Karen (Fairchild from Little Big Town) has been over here a lot and then a lot of people you guys might not even know yet who are super talented and awesome people. There’s a young artist called Taylor McCall, who’s probably the second record I produced here. His record is coming out in September, and he’s someone to watch out for. He’s a real talented guy and I think that you guys will really enjoy his music. There’s two songs out from the record we recorded here, one is So Damn Lucky, which is the newest single he and I wrote together, and the first one he released is called Highway Will and the record (produced by Sean) is called Black Powder Soul. (Taylor will be supporting Sean on a series of Texas gigs in October).
AD: Thank you for the hot tip, we’ll check him out. How do you juggle all your time, the writing, the producing, the singing, the gigs (when you’re allowed to) you must be pulled in so many different directions with family as well. Are you one of those people who goes full tilt for days on end and then all of a sudden you need a break now, or do you just mash it altogether and make some family time.
SM: Depending on the season and how well I’m handling it (laughter) will determine the answer to that question. I definitely make time, my family is the most important thing to me so…that’s priority one but, that being said, I am gone a lot. We’ve never really known anything different – I met my wife at a show and I’ve always been touring somewhat. Since Abi’s been home, she’s never known anything other than me having to be in and out.
It’s definitely a balancing act, I feel like it’s four gigs rolled into one sometimes, but I really love it and all the different facets of my career. It’s like I need them all to feel complete. We just find ways to make it all work.
AD: You say you met Mary Susan at a gig. Did she come and do a meet and greet or did you see her in the pit at the front?
SM: (Lots of laughter) Oh, there was no meet and greet at this particular bar I was playing at in college. It was very basic, at this point I was lugging my own PA system to the corner of this little bar and we were both going to college, yeah. And we were friends in class and then she came to a show, we were 19-years-old and we got married the next year.
AD: Did you ever dream at that point that music was going to be your career?
SM: Yeah, technically it already was, in that I was making a living bringing my PA system around and playing wherever they would let me.
AD: You had a big tip jar!
SM: Exactly, the tip jar was keeping the lights on pretty much. I always knew, I think because my parents were musicians, and for a while they did it pretty consistently. I just saw that even if it’s just bringing your PA and being able to play and keep the lights on, I can do that and anything else would just be icing on the cake. And I think the harder I worked, the more icing there was, I guess.
AD: Well you’ve certainly proved it’s not just the icing, it’s the bows, bells and ribbons on top as well.
SM: (laughter) Thank you.
AD: Two last questions to wrap up, I’m interested in social media – you are always good at replying to fans, is that quite a challenge; and secondly, you have your My Sister, My Brother project (Sean’s band with Garrison Starr and Peter Groenwald), is that still ongoing as well?
SM: Yeah, I’m not the best at keeping up with all that, it feels like yet another hat to wear. But I do enjoy sharing, mostly Instagram is the one I enjoy, posting pictures and videos and responding to people when I can, although I don’t always make time to do that, but there’s only so many hours in the day.
My Sister, My Brother, we have written and recorded another four or five songs and we’re figuring out when and how to release that. I don’t have a date but it’s being actively worked on right now.
AD: Sean, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you and fingers crossed it’s not long before you get over here.
SM: Thank you.
(Photos – Alexa King)
Sean McConnell – A Horrible Beautiful Dream – Track listing:
1. I Still Believe In You
2. Price of Love
3. The 13th Apostle (feat. The Wood Brothers)
4. Nothing Anymore
5. The Wonder Years
6. What The Hell Is Wrong With Me (feat. Fancy Hagood)
7. Waiting To Be Moved (feat. Natalie Hemby)
8. I Built You Up
9. Used To Think I Knew
10. Leave The Light On
11. Getting Somewhere
12. As The Curtain Came Down (feat. Audra Mae & Dan Tyminski)
13. Remember You’re Here