Sean McConnell on selling songs without losing your soul 

click to enlarge Sean McConnell, with Garrison Starr & My Sister, My Brother - Friday, Jan. 24, 8 p.m., Lulu’s Downstairs, 107 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, $12/adv, $15/door, all ages, lulusdownstairs.com - JOSHUA BLACK WILKINS
  • Joshua Black Wilkins
  • Sean McConnell, with Garrison Starr & My Sister, My BrotherFriday, Jan. 24, 8 p.m., Lulu’s Downstairs, 107 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, $12/adv, $15/door, all ages, lulusdownstairs.com

On his 2019 Secondhand Smoke album, Sean McConnell makes no secret of the dilemma faced by songwriters who make their living by writing hits for other artists. “I’ve put my name on songs I’d never sing,” he admits in the first line of his song “Shaky Bridges,” which includes lyrics about deals with the devil and buying the world for the price of your soul.

“That song was me just checking myself,” says the singer-songwriter, who has written for the likes of Little Big Town, Tim McGraw and, yes, Meat Loaf. “I’m a traveling singer-songwriter — you know, I write my own songs — but I also write songs for other people here in Nashville. And when music becomes the way you make your living, you have to be careful that commerce doesn’t jeopardize your muse, because that’s something that can happen. And so I always want to be true to my art first, and to be sure that, no matter if I’m writing for myself or somebody else, it comes from a place of honesty and truth.”

The son of two folk singers, McConnell grew up in Boston and released his debut album in 2000 at the age of 15. Secondhand Smoke is his ninth, and in some ways, his most personal. On its title track, his warm tenor vocals and understated guitar work bring to mind classic singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Nick Drake as he describes the hesitant reunion of a father and son: “He had seven years of silence on his face,” he sings, “I tried 70 times seven to erase.”

“I don’t mind telling you that that whole song is true,” says the songwriter, when asked. “It’s about me and my father, and there’s nothing exaggerated or written just for, you know, the sake of poetry. And it’s because of that, I think, that it’s connected with a lot of people. It’s one of the songs that, after every show, one or two people will come up and be like, ‘Man, you could have written that about me and my dad.”
The song’s atmospheric black-and-white video includes shots of McConnell putting Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu album on the turntable and sitting back to listen while staring at its gatefold sleeve. There’s also a fleeting glimpse of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album. Both were in steady rotation on his parents’ stereo while he was growing up.
“I learned how to finger-pick by listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Teach Your Children Well,’” he says. “And with Bruce Springsteen, you know, I have home videos of me lip-synching to ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ when I was 7 years old.”

When it came to such a personal collection of songs, it only made sense for McConnell to take the same approach to recording them.

“Around 80 percent of the record was just kind of me tinkering in my home studio,” he says. “This was the first record where I played almost everything myself, and produced it and engineered it. So I could record when inspiration struck, and take as much time as I needed. And because of that, I think the soundscape is a lot more experimental, and I don’t think it could have been the same record without that process.”

While McConnell handled all the vocals, guitars, drums and synthesizers himself, he also brought in a string section and recruited The McCrary Sisters to do backing vocals.

“Working with them is pretty magical,” he says of the Nashville gospel quartet. “They kind of just show up, and you watch them find their parts in like two seconds. They’re kind of humming, kind of talking, kind of just telepathically doing what they’ve always done. Then they get behind the mic and just do their McCrary Sisters thing.”

For McConnell, it’s those kinds of moments that continue to make it all worthwhile. “I used to worry more about being labeled a songwriter versus an artist, and what percentage of which I was. But I think, these days, it’s just more about creativity and ending up where it’s supposed to be, you know? I go through seasons of being on the road pretty heavily, doing 170 shows a year, and then I’ll be home and I’ll have a lot of time to write and I enter into that world. It just kind of ebbs and flows to where my energy goes.”


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