August 23, 2019

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Saved by a song

When former Great Big Sea guitarist was drowning in drink, music was his life preserver

(David Howells photo)</p>

(David Howells photo)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/4/2018 (480 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On a particularly bleak day several years ago, Séan McCann went out and bought bottle of Lagavulin whisky. He set it down on the kitchen table, and stared at it for over an hour.

“I knew if I drank it, I’d lose my family,” the former Great Big Sea guitarist recalls.

McCann, 50, was three months into his sobriety at the time, and he had started having nightmares about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his priest when he was 15. He no longer had alcohol to dull that incredible pain.

“And I really wanted to drink,” the Newfoundland-born musician says. “That was the hardest time of my life.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/4/2018 (480 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On a particularly bleak day several years ago, Séan McCann went out and bought bottle of Lagavulin whisky. He set it down on the kitchen table, and stared at it for over an hour.

"I knew if I drank it, I’d lose my family," the former Great Big Sea guitarist recalls.

McCann, 50, was three months into his sobriety at the time, and he had started having nightmares about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his priest when he was 15. He no longer had alcohol to dull that incredible pain. 

"And I really wanted to drink," the Newfoundland-born musician says. "That was the hardest time of my life."

His first guitar, affectionately nicknamed Old Brown, was hanging on the wall, right where it had been hanging since he decided the Great Big Party was over. And so, he made a choice. 

"Instead of picking up the bottle, I picked up the guitar — and I wrote my first song as a sober person." 

That song is called Stronger, and it ushered in a new era in McCann’s life. He shed his identity as the hard-drinking guitarist in Canada’s foremost party band, and embarked on a solo career that has already been more prolific than he could have imagined. 

“Instead of picking up the bottle, I picked up the guitar — and I wrote my first song as a sober person.”

For a long time, McCann believed, as many artists battling addiction do, that writing songs and being sober were mutually exclusive.

"Actually, one of my biggest fears when I stopped drinking and using drugs is that I would lose whatever that was," he says. "I was always under the influence. And you can tell that from the Great Big Sea catalogue, because the majority of the songs are literally about having a good time.

"I figured that was my muse or something. But as it turns out, it wasn’t."

In 2014, McCann released Help Your Self, a personal recovery album he recorded with Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett. "That’s when everything broke open," he says. "That record really resonated with thousands of people. It was a lot of, ‘I know that song.’ That song is my mother. That song is my husband. That song is me."

Help Your Self was followed up quickly by his second solo album, You Know I Love You, in 2015. That album was the first to get McCann back out on the road since leaving Great Big Sea.

(David Howells photo)</p>

(David Howells photo)

He relished being able to play smaller, more intimate rooms, "places where you can really connect with an audience face to face," he says. "Just me and my guitar and my bodhrán and my 300 songs.

"I’ve found that the best version of myself exists in that time and space. I’ve been really lucky following my real muse, which is music. It’s the best place for me to be for my mental health and well-being, and I think it has a really positive effect on the people who show up."

"I’ve been really lucky following my real muse, which is music. It’s the best place for me to be for my mental health and well-being, and I think it has a really positive effect on the people who show up.”

McCann wrote his latest solo album, 2017’s meditative There’s a Place, while on tour. "It’s almost about music as religion, if religion is intended to explain things that are unexplanable and bring us together as people."

Great Big Sea brought people together, too, although it wasn’t always in the healthiest sense. 

"We became the reason to go get smashed, the reason to avoid dealing with your problems," McCann says. "I think there’s a place to let go and have a drink, it’s not about that.

"But a brand is a dangerous thing. You build a brand, and then you have to carry it around. That was our image. Every night was Saturday night."

A sample Great Big Sea rider would look something like this: a bottle of rum or scotch, four bottles of wine — two red, two white — and 48 beer. "That’s every. Single. Day," McCann says.

"The reality of that, over time, there’s nothing helpful or positive about that," he says, adding that there’s nothing to get into but trouble when you’re spending weeks in a van with a bunch of guys. "It not the kind of situation where you learn another language." 

Building human connections has been important to McCann’s recovery, which is why There’s a Place is something of a response to social media and the focus it pulls in our daily lives.

“I really do feel compassion for people who are trying to quit. People drink and use drugs for a reason — the big message is, you have to face whatever your reason is. Whatever your reason is, let’s talk about that. You can’t move forward until you do. "

"I have two kids and I’m constantly competing with screens," he says. It’s not just young people; he’ll be at his son’s soccer games, and the bleachers will be filled with parents looking down at their phones.

"And I’m a victim of the likes, too," he says. The problem, to McCann’s mind, is people shrugging off social media with a ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ because they can’t imagine life without it. 

"People think it’s too late for the conversation, almost. That’s how addictions have been treated, and we let them run until it becomes a real problem. I can see the problems starting now, and the biggest problem is no one is talking about it. In the mental-health world, they’ve just started to refer to a thing called ‘digital addiction.’ They don’t know how to treat it, but they’re starting to call it that."

A possible solution, McCann believes, can be found in connection. Not the kind of hyper-connectivity promised to us by social media, but the face-to-face interactions when we put down our phones — which we use as an escape hatch from our day-to-day lives, or perhaps from something darker.

McCann is now a sought-after speaker and advocate. Connection is the cornerstone of McCann’s metal health and addiction work. "I believe the cure for alcohol addiction is connection. Love, compassion and connection," he says. 

"I really do feel compassion for people who are trying to quit. People drink and use drugs for a reason — the big message is, you have to face whatever your reason is. Whatever your reason is, let’s talk about that. You can’t move forward until you do.

"The other simple message is, if the guy from Great Big Sea can sober up, if he can walk in here and tell us his story and is still sober when he walks out of here, if that guy, given his level of temptation, can be sober, anyone really can."  

On Nov. 9, McCann will be seven years sober. In those difficult early weeks of sobriety, McCann thought music was the problem. It was too much of a temptation, too inextricably linked to the demons that haunted him.

But performing music — the thing he thought was hurting him, the thing he thought he had to avoid — didn’t just get him sober. It’s kept him sober. 

"These shows that I do are my meeting. I don’t go to AA meetings; I have issues with higher powers," he says with a laugh. "I’ve created my own meeting. A meeting is where you share truths with people, and you move forward, and you get stronger.

"Music is that strong. It brings out the best version of me: the sober, strong, present, awake, compassionate version of myself. You wouldn’t find any of those qualities in my drunk, hungover self. Definitely not." 

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca  Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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