Sean McConnell is without question the most buzzed about artist to hit this scene in the last five years, and with good reason. His mix of songwriting ability and musical talent is in a league of its own. Sean’s 20 Questions are some of the most genuine and revealing we’ve ever done. He took each question to heart and seemed intent on giving the most honest and thorough answer he could to each question. It’s something I think will truly come across as you read this interview. Find out what it’s like to co-write songs with Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, how Christianity informs his art and what it’s like to have MacGyver as your bass player.
1. Since the release of Saints, Thieves and Liars in 2010 you’ve been very busy with promotion and touring behind it. What’s on the horizon for Sean McConnell in 2011 and beyond?
My philosophy is work your ass off, keep your head down, and the rest is up to God. 2011 will bring more touring, expanding to new markets, building our existing ones, a few more singles off of Saints, Thieves and Liars….driving, driving, driving…more songwriting, and hopefully starting a new record at some point. It’s what I’ve always done and you just hope that each year it gets bigger and bigger.
2. Your introduction to the Texas scene came from your affiliation with Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers among others. How did you hook up to write with those guys? And, what do you enjoy specifically about working with each of them?
My publisher, Alicia Pruitt, is good friends with both Randy and Wade. She introduced me to both of them and got us together to write. It’s really as simple as that. I became really good friends with both of them over the years and have written a lot of songs I am really proud of. After a while, Wade invited me on the road to open a few shows for him and to see what the Texas music scene was all about and it just clicked.
I like writing with Randy because it is easy, not in a lazy way, we just don’t over think it. I think every song we have written together has only taken a few hours at the most. It just kind of flows.
Wade is just one of the best guys you will ever meet. He has quickly become one of my dearest and closest friends. There isn’t enough time for me to even mention half of the things Wade has done for me, my career, and our friendship. I wouldn’t even have come to Texas if it wasn’t for him. He’s just one of the good guys. Musically, I really respect Wade for always writing songs that mean something, especially in a scene where sometimes there are more rewards for just being a party band. I feel like Wade is careful about what he puts out into the universe. That says a lot about someone.
3. Name association:
-Wade Bowen- True friend
-Cody Canada- Rock star
-Adam Hood- Soul
-Bruce Springsteen- Power
-Jason Eady- Down to earth
-Mike Eli- Smooth pop country voice
-Randy Rogers- Raw
-Stoney LaRue- Voice
-Paul Thorn- Entertainer
-Jason Isbell- Great
4. Despite your emerging popularity, I’m sure you still have nights where you must win the crowd over. What’s the most appealing part of this challenge? What’s the most exciting part about breaking into new markets and clubs? What’s the most frustrating thing?
There is something exhilarating about the challenge of winning over a room that doesn’t know, or care who you are. You kind of get this ego that says “I’m about to kick you in the face!” musically speaking of course. It forces you to put in that extra energy, sing those extra “wow” notes and own the stage more. If you don’t believe in yourself they sure as hell aren’t. It’s interesting to see crowds, and even venue owners and sound guys, treat you one way before you play and then treat you differently after the show. You have to prove that you have it.
It’s been truly amazing to see the growth. In two years we have seen places where we used to pull out 5 or 6 people turn in to 5 or 6 hundred. It’s just amazing to see the fruits of your labor.
5. You grew up in the folk coffee-house musical environment around Boston, then spent several years in Atlanta, and on to Tennessee. What was your favorite part about each place? And, do you think they each play a part in the music you make?
They definitely all play a part in the music I make. Whether it’s the music I heard, the people I met, or what was on the radio there, there are a lot of things that just stick with you and form your sound and your stories.
My parents, being in the Boston folk scene, were always playing amazing folk music in the house. Joni Mitchell, Dylan, David Wilcox, Shawn Colvin, Harry Chapin, Springsteen, these are the voices that shaped my early musical world. Not a bad place to start! I will always be grateful for that exposure. This is where I learned that lyric is central. The story is what makes the song. The rest is just support.
Atlanta gave me the opportunity to start playing my music out. Coffee houses, open mics, churches, talent shows, house shows. I had a few steady gigs that really built up my fan base through my high school years. Atlanta is where I cut my teeth.
Tennessee is where all of this early training was given a chance. I signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell my senior year of college. I was now getting paid to do what I had done since I was 11, writing songs. This proved to be a very successful start and I fell in love with it.
It truly is a dream job. Tennessee is also where I started working with Alicia Pruitt of Warner/Chappell publishing. She and I have been working on building this whole thing from the ground up since then. From my publishing to my artist career, she has been there every step of the way. This was a huge turning point in my career.
6. During your live shows you often manage to master the best elements of acoustic charm and full blown rock n’ roll at different points during your set. Is it hard for you to flip that switch back and forth? Is showcasing your music in both forms a necessity for you?
It’s not hard. It’s very natural. Music is just emotions conveyed. Obviously we all experience a wide spectrum of emotions. For me, sometimes that takes the form of an intimate acoustic song, sometimes it looks like a loud rocking screw you song. There is an energy that an intense and quiet solo acoustic song gives that a loud full band song can’t and vice versa.
This used to confuse me. I used to feel like I had to choose. Am I a singer/songwriter type of artist or a rock act? I have come to a place where I understand and celebrate that I don’t have to choose. I am both of those artists. I like that. Who wants to go see a two hour show of songs that all sound the same? Life is not black and white…neither is music.
7. You and your band got into quite the prank war with Johnny Cooper’s crew. The most legendary prank wars in Texas Music involved Cross Canadian Ragweed and Reckless Kelly several years back. Have any of those guys given you pointers? And, what is the most outlandish idea y’all have had but were unable to pull off? Also, is it true that your bassist Craig Landschoot is actually MacGyver?
I have heard of those prank wars but I haven’t received any pointers from those guys. I would tell you our most outlandish idea but then I would have to kill you.
And yes, Craig Landschoot is actually MacGyver. We have been trying to conceal his identity but you have now blown his cover. Give him a paper clip, a nine volt battery, and a pitching wedge and he will prove it to you.
8. You’ve had the good fortune to have your songs cut by artists like Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley. Is it surreal to hear your words come out of the mouths of superstars? And, without giving specifics, has there ever been a time when someone cut one of your songs and you were disappointed in the way it turned out?
It is very surreal to hear these famous voices sing my music. It is really rewarding. To know that my song is literally reaching a million more people through someone like Tim McGraw is very satisfying. Everyone makes the songs their own so it’s always interesting to hear.
9. You are based out of Nashville, as is Will Hoge. Both of you have sounds that aren’t specifically Texas or Red Dirt, yet you both have been embraced in this scene. What about your music do you think makes the fans down here accept you so openly and willingly?
I think people everywhere, including Texas, respond to honesty and I think both Will and I are honest in our lyrics and in our delivery. On top of that, I was brought up on Americana and folk music. These genres definitely play a huge role in the Red Dirt scene and I think people respond to that. I truly believe that good music is good music no matter what genre it is. I think Texas has played a huge role in teaching me that lesson.
10. Several of your songs have a spiritual air about them, and you’ve been known to cover “Amazing Grace” at your shows, which can often lead to the coolest musical ministry around. How does your Christianity inform and shape your music and career?
My faith is my identity. It is the biggest part of who I am. Everything stems from it. So, it would stand to reason that it would find its way into my songs. If you are writing music from an honest place your life is going to show up in your lyrics. My faith is my life. I am very careful about what I put out into the universe lyrically and otherwise. There are two sides battling, I want to be a voice for the good side.
This also affects how I act on and off stage. It’s not as much a dogmatic moral code as it is a response to the joy and understanding that spring from my faith. People often ask me if I am a Christian artist. This is just another annoying label to me. Not to mention that the word “Christian” has come to mean so many things socially, politically, and otherwise that I despise and don’t stand for. It’s sad really.
I could go on and on about this (laughs). I am a Christian and I am an artist. It’s not a genre, it’s just me. A lot of people can’t handle that answer. A guy asked me a few months back if I would ever put out a gospel record. I told him they were all gospel records. I’m not sure he got it.
11. Let’s say your entire music collection is wiped out and disappears from iTunes. What is the first album you purchase to start the rebuilding effort?
Wow! What a great question…I’m going to go with David Wilcox Big Horizon.
12. Favorite touring memory of the following towns and clubs:
-Dallas- Our last show of 2010 at Hat Tricks. One of my favorite venues. The crowd was just amazing and the evening was magical.
-Gruene Hall- Walking out on stage for my first headlining show and seeing700 people in the crowd! I was blown away.
-Lubbock- Big Es BBQ before and after every show (laughs)…it’s true.
-Houston- Sharing the stage with Wade, Seth, and Cody for the Dosey Doe acoustic show.
-Brewster Street Icehouse- Opening for Ragweed. The place was packed and there was just this amazing energy in the air.
-College Station- My very first show was at Schotzi’s. Our audience was the bartender and the sound man. We decided to have fun instead of being down on ourselves, so my friend Matt Price, merch guy at the time, grabbed a tambourine and played from the merch table all night. We had such a blast and just laughed at how ridiculous it was. Great memories.
-Cheatham Street Warehouse- Wade and I played an acoustic show there a few months back just the two of us. We swapped stories and sang on each other’s songs all night. It was truly special. The crowd loved it and we loved it even more.
-Austin- We played the Parish Room a few months back. For my encore I unplugged my guitar, stepped away from my mic and sang completely acoustic. You could hear a pin drop in there. It was a very special moment.
-Little Rock- My first experience hearing Bob Schneider when I opened for him at the Rev Room. Absolutely mind blowing
-Wormy Dog- Completely losing my voice at one show. Memorable for the wrong reason. (laughs)
13. In the spirit of Randy and Wade’s “Hold My Beer and Watch This” acoustic tour, what’s the worst song you’ve ever written?
It’s called The Bottom Line and that’s all you are gonna get out of me. (laughs)
14. Your cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” has been one of the most buzzed about covers to ever hit this scene. How did you come to start covering that? And, do you have any other gems hidden away that you plan on unveiling soon?
It’s just always been one of my favorite MJ songs. I am a huge fan and always will be. There are some gems in the works!
15. You learned how to play guitar and write songs from your father, so it is probably safe to assume he was your earliest and most powerful musical influence.
Yes! Not only did I learn directly from him, but also from the amazing music he exposed me to. That was equally as instrumental…no pun intended.
16. Stories behind the following songs:
-Lie Baby Lie- I remember playing it for my wife and saying that I didn’t like it much. She told me I was crazy and that I should definitely play it out. To this day it is our most popular live song. She is the smart one.
-So Far Down- I co-wrote this song with Marc Broussard. I have been a fan of his for a long time. It was an experience of a lifetime to get to go spend a few days with him and write songs.
-In My Arms Instead- The bi-product of Randy and I being stuck in a depressing hotel room on a rainy day feeling tired and worn out. I think it shows.
-Caroline- I wrote this song after watching a Dr. 90210 marathon during a bout of insomnia. True story.
-Tell the Truth- This is such a universal topic, almost everyone has been there or knows someone who has.
-You Love Me So Good- Just a simple song about a deep love. It’s a thank you song to my wife for loving me so good.
-Let’s Just Fall in Love Again- After hearing this song, my dad said it was going to be a number one hit. And it was…in Norway. True story.
-Interstate- Another Randy Rogers co-write. Same hotel room. We make that a habit. Don’t want to ruin our luck.
-Somewhere Beautiful- I just wanted to explore the emotion of wanting to let someone learn from your mistakes so they don’t have to make their own. It really asks the question of if that’s even possible.
-Mr. Whoever You Are- I really see this story unfold every night. It is my version of looking for love in all the wrong places.
-Saint’s Heart in a Sinner’s Skin- Just my own story and my own struggle. The angel and the devil on your shoulder. The mistakes we make, the guilt we feel, the forgiveness we desire. I have had so many people tell me that this is their story.
-Gravity- I wrote this one with the amazing Deana Carter. It really was given to us. It just fell out of the air…no pun intended again (laughs). It is one of my favorite songs I have ever written.
17. Any bitterness toward Daniel Radcliffe for landing the role of your lifetime, Harry Potter?
No, in the end it just wasn’t meant to be. His audition was just way more convincing than mine. He really just understood who Harry was better than I did. There will always be the “what if” though.
18. Rapid fire:
-Aerosmith or Boston? Steven Tyler all the way…forever and ever…amen!
-Best rapper from Atlanta? Group X
-Favorite restaurant? Margot’s in Nashville
-Worst driver in your band? It’s a toss-up between my bass player Craig and me. It’s a question of what’s worse…ADD or road rage!
-Least favorite: load-in or load-out? Definitely load out!
19. This might be hard for a kid originally from Boston who grew up with the sounds of Harry Chapin around, but as our musical litmus test, we always ask 20 Question first-timers this question…what is your favorite George Strait song and why?
I’m going to be honest with you and the readers…I don’t know much George Strait. I know he’s a huge deal but he’s just not part of my history. Please don’t stop listening to my music. (laughs)
20. You are building your career the old-fashioned way by touring and getting a grassroots following built up solidly behind you. This seems to be the way the music business is headed. What do you feel makes this approach more apropos in the year 2011 than the old-fashioned major label, big-budget video type approach?
We are getting to a point where the old machine doesn’t work unless you are the golden child of your label. I have so many friends who are just sitting on a shelf right now. There is no artist development, no patience, no thinking ahead of the trends, and no allegiance. I have made a choice to do it this way so that I can be proactive, make the records I want, create the career I want, steer my own ship, and be inventive.
If you are willing to hit the road, the grass roots approach is truly an option in this day and age. We take simple things like Facebook and Twitter for granted. iTunes and other online retailers allow you to sell your music all over the world. I know these things are old hat to my generation but they are so powerful. They are our marketing and promotion.
I like being hands on anyway, whether that’s in the studio or on the road. I like being in the trenches. It’s exciting and keeps me on my toes. It makes the victories that much more enjoyable. It’s like cracking open a beer and looking out at the lawn that just took you forever to mow. You did this with your own hands. You lie down at night and know that you gave it everything you had. The rest is up to the big man. I trust that and it has proved to be a good compass for me.