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Interview: Sean McConnell on songwriting, touring the UK and Secondhand Smoke

We caught up with the singer-songwriter during his recent visit to London.

Sean McConnell
Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

Sean McConnell may have released his debut album, Here In The Lost And Found, back in 2000, but it’s only recently that he’s come to the attention of many fans in the UK.

He performed her for the first time in 2016, and since then has supported the likes of Ashley Monroe as well as working with Brett Young, Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley and Brothers Osborne. His latest album, Secondhand Smoke, was released earlier this year and has been winning rave reviews.

During his most recent tour of the UK, supporting Ashley McBryde, I sat down with Sean to talk about the album, his love of the UK and how he approaches songwriting.

It’s been a few months since we last spoke to you – what have been the highlights for you since then?

Mostly writing songs, being back in the States and writing some songs. I’ve done some touring, just gearing up for whatever this next record is gonna be. Trying to figure out what that sounds like and in the meantime writing songs for myself and other people and doing music [laughs].

Since you were last here you’ve released your latest album Secondhand Smoke. Has there been anything about the response to the album that’s surprised you?

I think the reaction to it – one of the things that I noticed was people kind of adopted it faster than my other records. Normally when I put out a record it would take a couple of tours to see people singing the songs back. With this record, the very first tour people were already singing the songs back from the audience. So that was encouraging and exciting. It made the tours a lot of fun. So yeah, I feel like people took to it more quickly.

It’s your 13th album – what helps you to stay fresh and inspired? Is being able to explore different sounds important to you?

Yeah, sometimes it is sounds. Lately production is what keeps things exciting for me, like finding new tones or a different sonic landscape to explore. But the songs are always just in there and they need to come out, and so it’s a very seasonal thing. I’ll write a record and then I’ll kind of lay low for a little bit and then I’ll start feeling, maybe a year or so later that a new batch of songs feel like the next record.

Do you find that you’re able to write whilst you’re touring? Or is it something you tend to keep separate?

I can and I have. It depends on how busy the tour is. Often if I’m touring by myself and I have long drives, then I’ll tend to write a lot because I’ll be thinking a lot during the drives. But if I’m with a band or it’s just a lot of travelling – like over here there’s just so much trains and planes and this and that – there tends to be a little less writing on tours like that.

Has your approach to your songwriting evolved with this record?

I think it comes from the same place. Maybe the older I get the more I’m trying less in the sense of I’m not trying to force a certain idea or subject, but just kind of let something organically happen and see how that pans out. So maybe that comes with age, I don’t know. It’s changed over the years but the core of it still feels the same as it always has.

You’ve mentioned you’ve been working with other artists as well. Have there been any particular favourite collaborations in your career?

Yeah, I’ve worked a lot with Little Big Town this year. We’ve written a lot of songs with them and that’s been really fun to not only write the songs but to get to know them better. So I’ve spent a lot of time with them writing songs for this new record of theirs that’s coming out. Yeah, there’s someone new every day. Being in Nashville it’s never boring. But yeah, they’re definitely a band I’ve spent a lot of time with this year and there’s been a lot of fun.

You also recently put out a version of Don’t Wanna Write This Song with Brett Young – how was working with him on that?

It was great. We wrote that song I think the day before his last day of recording that record, so I was grateful to get that opportunity last minute. And then for him to invite me to do the acoustic version and the video was really kind of him. So yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I’m really glad that the song made the record.

Do you approach writing for other people in the same way as writing your own music?

I think I used to separate it more than I do now. I try to write everything from the same place, just so it feels more honest. I think that it makes for a better song if I put myself in that spot. And then I’ll know pretty early on, in the middle of the song, if it’s a song that’s for me or a song for another artist. Or if I’m sitting with another artist like Brett or Little Big Town, then obviously it’s a song for them. But I still try to write from a place of experience and honesty.

What can people expect from a Sean McConnell live show?

I don’t know. A honest performance, y’know? I get up there every night and I try to give everything I have and find that place that just speaks honestly and sings honestly. So yeah, you can expect a guy and a guitar and stories. That’s what I do.

You were here playing The Long Road festival in September too – how did you find that?

I loved it. I thought it was so much fun. I really enjoyed it and I thought for such a young festival it was well put together and fun, and I loved all the artists that were on the bill and I enjoyed the sets that I played. It was a blast, it was a lot of fun.

Do you approach those festivals differently to a solo show?

Every night is different. I kind of get to the venue and feel what’s going on. If it’s a particularly rowdy crowd I’ll change up the setlist a little bit. But if it’s an audience that’s there to listen, normally I play a different setlist most nights but it’s the same selection of songs that I pull from. So yeah, it depends on how I’m feeling that night and how I feel the audience is. And then it could change once I get on stage and actually am interacting with the audience, and just make some different calls.

It’s your third trip to the UK this year – what keeps you coming back?

The audiences are so respectful and hungry for the lyrics and to really show up and listen and enter into the experience, which makes our job as musicians fun and easy. We just get to get up there and sing our songs. So it’s a big gift to the artist for the audience energy to be like that. So I’ve found that to be very common over here, which is really nice. And I love the travel, I love meeting different people, I love eating new food. I love all of it. Every time I’ve been over here it’s been a great experience.

Have there been any shows over here that have particularly stood out for you?

I’ve played a lot of great shows. I was in the Netherlands and played a great room – I can’t remember the name but it was my first headline show in the Netherlands, and you never know what to expect. But it was a great crowd and it was awesome. So that’s definitely a good memory for me.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Ooh, the song I wished I’d written… I don’t know that I wished I had written any songs, just because it’s so personal. It’s like saying, ‘I wish I had that child’ [laughs]. Someone else’s child! I don’t know. There are a lot of songs that someone like Bruce Springsteen had written, but I don’t think I wish for anyone else’s songs. I don’t know if that’s the answer you were expecting [laughs].

You’ve mentioned you’re working on new music – can you tell us anything about that?

As soon as I know, I’ll let you know [laughs]. Because I’m just getting started and I have no idea what it’s gonna sound like or what it’s gonna be. I’m just in the zone where I’m going into my studio and exploring what that next record is going to be about and sound like. So yeah, we’ll see.

Is that the focus for the next few months?

Yeah. I mean, there’s always touring. It’s always a balance of touring and writing and recording, but definitely that will become the main focus for this next half a year or so, is figuring that out.

Sean McConnell’s latest album, Secondhand Smoke, is out now.

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