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Interview: Sean McConnell discusses the making of Secondhand Smoke and performing in the UK

We caught up with the singer-songwriter ahead of his support slot on Ashley Monroe’s London dates.

Sean McConnell
Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Sean McConnell made his second trip to the UK last week to support Ashley Monroe on her two sold-out shows at London’s Bush Hall.

The singer, songwriter and musician is gearing up for the release of his new album Secondhand Smoke, which is out on Friday 8th February, and he’s pushing himself sonically into new territory. The album is the follow-up to his critically acclaimed self-titled 2016 record.

Before he took to the stage at Bush Hall last Tuesday, I sat down with Sean to talk about his new album, discuss his creative process, and to find out about his experiences performing in the UK.

Where did the concept and the inspiration for Secondhand Smoke come from?

Records with me normally after I release one, like the self-titled record that came out two years ago, I’ll tour it and as I’m touring and as life’s going by I’m writing songs. Then there comes a point where I look at the collection of songs and I see some sort of thread that runs through the collection. That’s when I know that’s the sound of the next project. For me that started happening with songs like Secondhand Smoke and Greetings from Niagara Falls. There is a sort of searching emotion that was happening and so I just kept leaning into that. When I started recording, sonically I tried to match those emotions. It’s a little bit of a departure sonically from the last collection. It just grew organically like that.

Your voice sounds incredibly soulful on this record. What influences have helped you to bring that side of your talent out?

I’m always a fan of a soulful vocal and I’ve always been a sucker for putting on an Aretha Franklin record or Ray Charles… all the greats. They’re all on my record player at home. I’ve always just been drawn to that music and I often lean that way live throughout my sets but it doesn’t always make its way onto records. This time I think a few of the songs definitely bend that way, where there’s a little more soul on there.

Sean McConnell

Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

One of the things I always like about your songwriting, and particularly on this record, is it feels very personal like on Shaky Bridges, but it’s also very relatable. I listen to it and it moves me and I feel quite emotional about it, and it’s not even about me. How do you manage to strike that balance between sharing as much of your personal side as you do but also making sure the listener can relate to it?

I think that my philosophy with that is the more personal I get, the more relatable it is, even if it’s more detailed to my specific story. I think emotionally it strikes a stronger chord with the listener, even if it’s not their exact story. I don’t personally subscribe to the philosophy of don’t be too specific or else you’ll alienate your audience. I find it to be the opposite. I don’t ever worry about that. I just write what’s true to me and then it seems to relate better to the audience.

You’re prolific as a songwriter and you’re written for lots of artists as well. How hard is it to decide what songs to put on an album when you’ve got a wealth of material to choose from?

I think with this Secondhand Smoke I would say there might have been 30 songs that I was excited about for the record out of however many I wrote that year… I don’t know maybe 100 hundred or something like that. Then out of those I’ll pick maybe the best 15 to try to record and then by the end of the record, two of those didn’t make it. They just weren’t working so it kind of whittles its way down from having 40 or 50 songs I’m excited about to actually only these (songs) work together. There’s 13 on this record, which is a pretty big number for a record these days to have 13 songs on it. I got to a point where I couldn’t take anything away without feeling like it was deleting from the record.

Is there any song on this record that evolved in a way you didn’t expect when you recorded it?

Secondhand smoke surprised me a little bit sonically. In my mind when I wrote it, it was more of a straight down the middle picking folky acoustic song. When I picked up the electric and put it through some different pedals and some amps and started creating this droney almost very low thuddy loop style vibe behind it, it opened up the emotion of the song and made it more vast. That wasn’t really something I planned on and (that happened) a lot on this record (where) it wasn’t the way I heard it in my head but I just kept following these little trails of little hints of my heart and then it just went somewhere else.

There seems to be two ways to find an audience for musicians these days. You either force yourself into the boxes dictated by radio or you do your own thing and connect with an audience via streaming. Which has worked better for you?

Just doing what I like and doing what feels true to me. I don’t think that I could do the other option, which is try to figure out what people want and then give them that. I think that’s a little more of a business decision than an art decision, which doesn’t make that one better than the other, but just for me my goal is to write what’s inside of me, put that out in the world and then hopefully people love it and I can continue to do this. It starts with me just needing to say something.

Do you think the shift to a direct-to-fan relationship, thanks to social media and the way the music industry has evolved, is a better way to go than having a bunch of business people making all the decisions for you?

Yeah for me it has been and I think for many independent artists. It’s that weird time in the world where no one’s paying for music but yet that same technology allows you to put music out into the world completely by yourself and reach potentially a massive audience. It’s an interesting time to be an independent musician but it’s a very powerful time to be an independent musician.

Sean McConnell

Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Country and folk are two of the genres where there’s still a demand for physical products whereas other genres are reliant on individual track streams. Does it worry you that there’s an increasing emphasis on tracks or do you think there will always be a demand for albums in some genres of music?

I feel like the type of music that I create, I think the fans of that type of music tend to want an album still. More so a vinyl these days, which is obviously seeing a resurgence. I think that’s because people still crave a time to put on a record and get lost in a musical world. How big that is who knows? But I think that if you’re willing to travel and go on the road and continue to create music, maybe you won’t get rich, but I think you’ll be able to pay the bills and do what you love and that the most anybody could ask for.

When people are only listening to a handful of tracks and not consuming the album in the way you intended, from start to finish, is that frustrating for you?

No, not really because I feel like once you do make the record you believe in and you put it out there… there’s a songwriter that I love his name is David Wilcox and he said something once that stuck with me, which was he made his record and then he envisioned it like birds in a tree. When you’re done you just tell them to fly away and go land wherever they’re supposed to land. It’s not in your hands anymore. I think that music does a really good job of finding who it needs to find so I don’t worry about that too much.

I’m very much still a person that sits with a booklet and reads the lyrics when I first hear an album. It’s how I’ve always consumed music and it makes me sad to think that may go away one day…

Yeah me too. It would make me sad if that went away but I just don’t think it will. I think there’ll always be enough people like us that enjoy that.

What plans do you have for the rest of the year?

I’ll go home in a couple of days. I’ll fly home and do a festival in the States in Florida. I’ll be home with my family for a couple days and then a pretty strong four months of doing a headline tour for Secondhand Smoke and an opening tour with a band called needtobreathe, mostly on the West Coast. Just a lot of shows and promoting this record for the next four or five months.

Might we see you back over in the UK for some headline shows before the end of the year?

We’re hoping that’s the case. We’re doing as much as we can here and then hopefully that’ll stick a little bit and we’ll have the opportunity to come back and do some more shows and hopefully some headline shows before the end of the year.

This is your second time performing in the UK. We have a reputation for being attentive and being familiar with album cuts rather than just singles. What has your experience been like?

That is my experience for sure, which is so fun because if you have to step in front of an audience that’s loud it’s almost a non-starter. You can’t do what you’re supposed to do. I feel like when you step in front of an audience, like the past couple of nights have been, it just allows us to do what we love which is perform and feel like our words and music are being heard and felt. Everyone over here has given us that gift for sure.

Sean McConnell’s new album Secondhand Smoke, available to pre-order now, is released on Friday 8th February 2019. Watch the video for Secondhand Smoke below:

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