Interview: Sean McConnell – Process and Inspiration

Sean McConnell has been putting music out there for a couple of decades now and as a Nashville songwriter of some reputation, he has penned hits for all manner of artists including Brad Paisley, Meat Loaf and Christina Aguilera to name just a few. It’s on his own records though where you will really discover his true identity, and latest record Secondhand Smoke is a great place to start. Thank Folk for That sat down with him before his recent Manchester show to find out more….

Have you seen the film ‘Almost Famous’? I’m going to steal William Miller’s opening question at the end of the movie… What do you love about music?

There are so many things that I love about music. The first thing is the writing of a song, which is so exciting, the process of it and that’s what first made me fall in love with music. I learned to play the guitar and at the very same time I started writing songs so the creation of something out of nothing is intoxicating.

You’re telling personal stories, so I assume it’s cathartic as well.

Yeah, it’s cathartic but it’s also creating something out of nothing that is so fun to be part of.

The world has changed since your first record at the turn of the century. Has your process of making music changed?

I think one of the things that’s changed for me is that I create a lot more in solitary, in my own studio and this last record was my first where I did it almost completely on my own. I engineered it, produced it, I played most of the instruments so that is different to entering a studio with five musicians and having the clock running, so that’s changed for the last record and probably the next one too so that process is different. It’s not better or worse, just different. I think there is still nothing like entering a studio where there’s a live band and you’re all going down together.

Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

So, has technology given you that freedom?

Yeah, absolutely. The ability to record at the quality that we can now in our home studios on a not crazy budget is definitely new.

What were the benefits and negatives of releasing independently when you were younger?

I don’t know if I would consider them negatives… I don’t know if I was ready for my career to evolve faster than it did. I’m grateful for the organic, slow maturity of my career because I think that as I’ve been growing as a musician I’ve been growing as a person, whereas if you get it all in one shot, I don’t know if I could have handled that in a healthy way but as I get older having more people involved to help get the music out there is a positive.

America has these musical hot spots geographically… You live in Nashville which has this incredible musical tradition. What kind of influence has Nashville had on you?

It’s had a big influence as a songwriter and just the musical community that it is. I started writing songs in Nashville twelve or thirteen years ago and there is a strong work ethic there that teaches you to wake up and try writing a song every day, which I think sharpens your tool.

Is it competitive then? Is that what drives you?

I think it depends on your state of mind. There are people who probably consider it competitive and who are like ‘if I don’t get this somebody else will’ but my personal philosophy is that there’s room at the table for everybody and if we all do our specific thing, then there’s nobody who is going to do exactly what I do.

When you sing “I’ve put my name on songs I never sang” on ‘Shaky Bridges’, is that regret I’m hearing?

I wouldn’t say regret. It’s just a statement about how I’ve come close to that line a few times when music becomes your business it can be tempting to create music that maybe you don’t believe in or that you’re not proud of. I think there’s been a handful of times where I’ve been in the position where I could have done that and it’s just a reminder that the most important thing for me, my career and my music is to be as honest as I can be and to create music that’s inside of me and wants to come out and just to make sure I’m doing it for the right reasons.

Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Secondhand Smoke has quite a tender, elegiac aesthetic but the song ‘Rest My Head’ feels more sinister. What’s going on there?

So ‘Rest My Head’ originally started as a song for a movie about Billy the Kid so that’s where a lot of that language came from and that’s where my mind was when I was writing it and as I wrote it more I loved the melody and the energy of it so much and it’s not about Billy the Kid anymore, I kind of morphed it a little bit but that’s probably where some of that rebellion and edge is coming from.

Listening to your records, I’ve picked up some subtle nods to Springsteen both lyrically and musically. Have I imagined them?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m a huge Springsteen fan and I have been since I was a really young kid. I saw him on Broadway recently. He’s definitely one of my all-time heroes.

On ‘Wrong Side of Town’ you reference Nirvana. What were the first records you really remember obsessing over when you were younger, and can you see an imprint of these in your own material?

Music in general when I was young was more like folk music… Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash. My parents were musicians and that’s what I was brought up on and then when I was in high school there was a lot of Nirvana, Bush, Smashing Pumpkins, Cranberries, Counting Crows, Wallfowers that were a big influence on me.

So, if you were stuck in a musical decade, which one would you choose?

Maybe the seventies with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor and Harry Chapin and things like that. Early Springsteen too… that would be a good one!

For Brits, I think the country/Americana genres are quite evocative, even cinematic. Do certain films or filmmakers inspire your music?

It’s not something that I’m as familiar with as maybe I should be. I love watching a good movie or series but I’m not as familiar with who creates them as I should be.

When you write then, do you think visually?

Usually when I write I’ll sit down with a piano or a guitar and a melody will come first and then that will evoke a certain emotion and I’ll starting singing about that, but then if that puts me in a certain place I might starting ‘seeing’ that and explaining it in detail but it’s rare that I’ll sit down and be like ‘I want to write a song about this place in time.’

The Guardian recently included an article titled “The 30 best films about music, chosen by musicians”. What’s your favourite film about music?

That’s tough… I don’t know if it’s my favourite but one that was instrumental in getting me excited about music would be ‘Crossroads’, which looking back on it now as an adult, it’s kind of a cheesy film but when you’re a kid it made me want to play the blues and made me want to play the guitar so I would consider that an influential movie.

Finally, to steal a Guardian Q&A question, what is the most important lesson life has taught you?

That’s a big question… I would say to be present, to enjoy the present moment and not be looking in the past or towards the future for anything because then you’ll miss what is going on.

Questions from Iain Fox