Sea of love: Séan McCann finds renewal in recovery

Séan McCann

Even in a city where the storms roaring up the Eastern Seaboard of North America send residents scurrying to bars and taverns for respite and refuge, Séan McCann had a reputation.

The Ties That Bind UsSt. John’s, the capital and largest city of Newfoundland, is the easternmost city on the North American continent, on the eastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, overlooking the cold blue of the North Atlantic. There, McCann told The Ties That Bind Us recently, alcohol provides a respite from long, cold, wet winters of gray skies and limited sunlight, and those who reside there celebrate their hardiness with a culture that rivals that of a city like New Orleans.

“We’re big drinkers in our culture, and there really is no taboo against getting loaded or passing out,” said McCann, who would channel much of that vivacious energy into the folk ensemble Great Big Sea, which he co-founded in 1993. “It was just par for the course, and there was no negative social consequence for that kind of stuff. As a result, I was drinking heavily and using drugs and alcohol as much as I could, as soon as I was old enough to get a job. And because there are bars everywhere in St. John’s, I got a job like most people my age — working in a pub.”

There, the combination of culture, music and free-flowing libations seemed like the answer for a young man who stuffed the dark trauma of childhood abuse into deep wells that wouldn’t be dredged until years later, after he got sober. At the time, he said, he only knew one thing: Drinking made the pain stop, and no one could drink like Séan McCann.

“I was an Olympic drinker, a gold medal champion even in a city of professional drinkers,” he said. “And I surrounded myself with the biggest partiers.”

So great was his reputation that within the music and social circles in which he traveled, his last name became an adjective for those who tried to keep pace with him. A peer stumbled bleary-eyed into the light of day, looking as if he’d gotten hit by a truck?

“They’d say, ‘Oh, I got McCann’d last night,’” he said. “And everyone would say, ‘No wonder you’re looking so rough!’ Because that was the reputation: You didn’t want to get stuck with McCann at the wrong hour, because there was no getting away from it.”

Except that’s not exactly right: Others could wake up the next morning with a pounding head and a haggard complexion, but the man whose name had become a descriptor for their physical woe spent every waking hour fighting demons that he kept hidden from the rest of the world. Fans may have discovered clues in the music, and his wife and soulmate, Andrea Aragon, held him in the dark hours of the night when the teeth and claws of that pain threatened to steal his sanity, but in the end, it was McCann who had to find a way to stand on his own.

The origin story of Séan McCann

Séan McCannTo do that, McCann first had to understand the nature of his trauma. The religious abuse he endured as a boy was the beginning, but his family’s refusal to acknowledge the abuse only compounded it, he said.

“I was a victim of severe indoctrination, as was my family for generations,” he said. “Keeping secrets was a big part of our dynamic, our culture, our family life. We were trained to not tell the truth, literally. Secrets were the sacrament of confession you could only share with God in the form of a priest, and even at home, there were secrets in the family.

“I remember I told my mom I was abused, and the first thing she said was, ‘Don’t tell your father.’ That still floors me, and I think that’s still how we function as a family. That’s still our dysfunction — you’re only allowed to say certain things, and the truth is what I tell you it is and no more than that.”

If alcohol soothed the specter of what happened to him, music became an outlet for expression — of pain, to be sure, but of joy and celebration as well. St. John’s, he added, was an oasis of live music, which lived and thrived in the city’s pub scene, and it was exactly what a teenage boy needed in an outlet for the maelstrom of emotions that raged through his wounded soul.

“The music is so brilliant and so social, and it’s in every little bar, and the quality is so high,” he said. “St. John’s is so isolated, that the musicians were forced to become such good entertainers, and when you would walk into a great drinking bar, there would be a great band, or a great duo or trio or solo artist, playing. So I was working in a bar at 18, and seven nights a week, there would be a great band playing.”

He had no musical talent himself, he added, but the sounds called to him, so he bought a guitar, taught himself to play and started singing. He already had a place he could play, and because he worked there, he could also drink for free, and it wasn’t long before alcohol became both his savior and his albatross, he said.

Great Big Sea, however, became his escape vehicle that got him out of that coastal town’s orbit. While St. John’s has produced a long and storied line of musicians with ample talent, many of them never put the work into breaking free. Once McCann met his bandmates — Alan Doyle, Darrell Power and Bob Hallett — he realized that together, their combined talent and aspirations could set Great Big Sea apart.

“We were huge fans of a lot of bands and influenced by a lot of bands, quality wise, but at our age, we didn’t know why they weren’t successful,” he said. “That’s when we realized they didn’t have the energy, the smarts, the determination to get off the rock and do what it took. While we were nowhere near the most talented musicians — I mean, we were good singers and entertainers — we were determined to be successful. What we wanted to do was to be big, and we started from that perspective.”

Before the band ever landed its first recording deal — with Warner Music Canada, which released the multi-platinum “Up” in 1995 — the band members sat down and hammered out a two-year plan for the band, and that kept McCann and his bandmates on course.

“We were the ones that were the most determined, willing to take the risks, willing to do anything to be successful, and that’s what differentiated us from the pack,” he said. “That was the skill set we relied on — our energy and our determination. And when we started, we had a lot of fun, too.”

Sailing the Great Big Sea of fame

To break out of St. John’s, the band had to get out of St. John’s — and so once that classic lineup was established, Great Big Sea hit the road, playing as many as 300 dates each year in those early days.

“We were just killing ourselves in the back of the van, and there was a whole lot of marijuana and booze,” McCann said. “We used our reputation as this party band from Newfoundland, and we capitalized on it. We took Saturday night and put it on sale, and arguably we were the best at it in Canada. We delivered.”

While Great Big Sea certainly had its share of followers in the States, it’s difficult to describe to the uninitiated just how cathartically celebratory the music was and how endearingly patriotic the band seemed as a uniquely Canadian entity that tapped into a primal connection of Old World sounds. In much the same way as the Dropkick Murphys turned their rock ‘n’ roll take on Irish music into an American workingman’s institution, so too did Great Big Sea for the denizens of the Great White North.

But along the way, the lifestyle catered to McCann’s consumption of drugs and alcohol.

“Every day we went to work, our rider included a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of rum, 48 bottles of beer and four bottles of wine,” he said. “Everybody wanted to drink with us, and we were happy to oblige, because there were no expenses incurred to us. As far as consumption goes, it comes with our culture, but when you combined that with our access to alcohol, and the fact that we all encouraged it, it was a recipe for disaster. The more money I made, the more booze I could drink, and the more drugs I could do — and the more unhappy I became.”

There were bright spots, of course: Meeting Aragon on one of the band’s U.S. tours, for example, was one. Growing up in Utah with a Vietnam vet father who suffered from his own substance abuse issues and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Aragon herself was coming out of the grief of a marriage that had ended, and together, the two wounded souls found one another.

“When we met, he was a much better drinker than I was, but we were both pretty good drinkers who spent many years at it!” Aragon told The Ties That Bind Us. “I know I had glimpses of this really deep, kind of tortured individual, and I was drawn to that. Because of my own path or not, I saw something there that was really emotional and deep and lovely, but I would only see glimpses of it — usually when he was really drunk.”

Still, their love blossomed, and in 2005 they tied the knot, giving birth to their oldest child a year later. For Aragon, news of her pregnancy was the life-changing moment she needed to stop drinking. Her husband, however, didn’t follow suit.

“He just kept going out and having friends over until 3 or 4 in the morning, and once I actually had the baby, I had to do a lot of the raising of him on my own, because Séan was on the road, or home in bed because he had been up all night,” she said. “It started there and just got worse and worse and worse. When he was awake and was on and was being a dad, I could see that brilliant human being and think, ‘Yes! This is who I loved!’

“But he just never stopped. Then he would make these huge proclamations and say things like, ‘That’s it. I’m done drinking,’ and I would see it last for a week, and then someone would be having a party, and he would have to go. Then he would get depressed because he was failing, and I would be disappointed, and it was just this vicious cycle.”

Séan McCann and Andrea Aragon: Love conquers all

Séan McCannAs his drinking its toll, the more tensions grew in the band, and the more in danger their marriage became. Aragon stuck it  out, she said, for a number of reasons: “50 percent of it was fear of leaving and the fear of me not being strong enough to leave; 25 percent of it was fear of failing, because I had been married once before; and the last 25 percent was thinking, ‘I know if he can get sober, we can do this.

“That was a low 25 percent, because he had said it so many times that he was done, and I just didn’t believe him,” she added.

Finally, in 2011, Aragon gave her husband an ultimatum. By that point, Great Big Sea was one of the biggest acts in Canada, having been won numerous accolades, sold millions of records and topped radio charts numerous times … but by that point, McCann realized that no amount of money or success would buy him the peace that was so elusive in his troubled heart.

“I told him, ‘You can’t have another drop to drink, or I’m walking out with the boys,’” Aragon said. “We had been at our lowest place: He had been blacking out, and everything had become increasingly horrible as he was drinking more and more, and I didn’t want the boys to see that. They were getting old enough that they were starting to notice things, and I knew if he didn’t stop, I would have to leave.”

“And I knew she was serious,” McCann added. “Being in a band gives you certain skills, and for Great Big Sea, I was the main writer, and I did a lot of the grinding work behind the scenes as a highly functional alcoholic. So I was able to assess the value of her ultimatum in practical terms, and I had a real clear sense that this was it. I didn’t doubt her.

“It was almost like I needed this shake, this slap across the face, because then I became keenly aware of the real consequences, and I made the decision to stop. I was able to do it, but it wasn’t easy, and for the first while, I was successful out of sheer stubbornness.”

Like many alcoholics, McCann thought that the booze was his only problem. Stripping away the thing that had become his anesthesia and his memory block since he was a teenage boy, however, allowed the painful memories of his childhood abuse to come roaring back, like churning, debris-filled floodwaters over pastoral countryside after a dam has crumbled.

“When he started sobering up, he was not a nice human being, and in fact, he started getting really nasty,” Aragon said. “Some of that was because he stopped drinking and smoking at the same time, so there was a whole lot of detox going on. But we also still had our own marital issues we were dealing with, so we had to work through those, and Séan had to come clean with himself and understand why he started drinking, and why he kept drinking for that amount of time.”

“I don’t think I would have been so successful without doing the really hard work,” McCann conceded. “I stayed sober long enough to get to that stage, and then I was strong enough to deal with that. And now it’s something I think about, but I’m not worried about it anymore.”

Séan McCann: Out of the darkness

The year before he got sober, McCann released his debut solo album, “Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes,” and followed it in 2011 with “Son of a Sailor.” While he dabbled in 12 Step recovery and other methods of sobriety support, his religious scars ultimately led him to carve out his own path, which involved mending his relationship and growing closer to his wife and finding other activities to occupy his hands and his mind.

“The guitar and I became really close in a meaningful way, and I started working on other types of songs,” he said. “I had been writing drinking songs for two decades, and Great Big Sea was a brand, so when I got more personal, the guitar was a great help to me. I started running again and redirecting this boundless energy, so I took up sea kayaking, because I had to work my body out, and there had to be risk involved.

“And then I started to seek out places where I could do work to a purpose that didn’t involve me. I started working with Easter Seals, and the more I talked about sobriety, the more I was asked to speak at rehab centers and local hospitals. My heart was open, and I started to let these things affect me and ultimately turn me into a human being again.”

Learning how to embrace his humanity — his past and his present, his pain and his joy — wasn’t an easy process. Like others who emerge from beneath the storm clouds of addiction, McCann felt empty — hollowed out, the hallways of his soul carved into rough corners and sharp angles. But by getting outside of himself and finding reward in being of service to other human beings, he found a purpose.

“Going in and sitting down with people who were dying and making them feel better had a really positive effect on me,” he said. “Being able to help some people stop drinking … being able to help people who are seriously disadvantaged … that sense of purpose helped me become a lot less selfish, and the more I’ve done it, the better I’ve felt.”

“I credit him 100 percent with having the (courage) to stay sober, because I can’t imagine doing a full stop that one night, and then having to relive the atrocities of his past,” Aragon said. “But when he did, it was a huge weight. You could see his shoulders straighten up a little bit, the worry come off his face a little bit more. It wasn’t easy, and I saw him allowing himself to feel every single feeling. The band was not going through a great time, and Séan was coming to terms with what happened to him. We were coming to terms with it as his family and still trying to make it as a couple, and we had young boys, but I saw him not stopping, not giving up, not going back to drinking, and that was everything to me to keep going.

“The more he allowed himself to feel, the more real he became. This really strong, stoic man was allowing himself to feel happiness, complete happiness with the kids and the dog, and when he felt complete misery, he could walk through that and be in that space. It was just so powerful and so gorgeous.”

Ever the entertainer, McCann can’t help but lighten the seriousness of the subject matter with a droll observation.

“Sobriety is sexy,” he pointed out.

Off of the Sea and onto dry land

Séan McCannIndeed it is, but to fully embrace it, he had to make some hard decisions. Part of his recovery involved making a clean break from that past — including Great Big Sea. Before the band embarked on its 20th anniversary tour in 2013, McCann informed his old friends and bandmates that the jaunt would be his last. Looking back, he added, he would have done it differently and stepped away even before that tour. The environment wasn’t an ideal one for a guy two years into his sobriety, and it was unfair, he said, for him to place expectations on his old friends to make it such.

“I had been in a bus with 10 guys for 20 years, and just because I sobered up didn’t mean the bus did, and that created friction,” he said. “We had issues anyway, but we had probably run our course, and at a certain point, it felt like the heart was out of it. I think to a certain extent, that contributed to my drinking for a couple of years. I did care deeply about it, because it had been a lot of work — a lifetime of it.

“In fairness to the guys, I had tried to sober up before and failed, and maybe they were waiting for me to fail this time, and that’s why nothing on the bus changed. Maybe I expected that because I had sobered up, everybody else would sober up, but that’s not how it went down. What really happened was that I was alone on that bus, and that was a very painful way to be alone.”

He's still asked, often, what he misses about his time with the band, and while it’s been seven years since he last set foot on stage with his old friends, the pain of the end still resonates. There was anger and contention, and even today the disassembly of a brand like Great Big Sea occasionally involves litigious confrontation. Whether those friendships will be mended, ever, remains to be seen, but McCann said he’s unsure what he would have done differently.

Aragon, however, isn’t so uncertain. If he’d stayed part of Great Big Sea, she said simply, he “would be dead.”

Instead, he began to focus on chronicling the second chapter of his life through music. In 2014, he released the album “Help Your Self,” a stark document of his battles, and in September of that year, he was at a recovery breakfast at which he was scheduled to speak that changed everything. Former NHL player Paulie O’Byrne went on before him, and when O’Byrne told the story of being sexually assaulted by a minor league hockey coach, McCann folded his prepared remarks, placed them in his pocket and spoke his truth for the first time.

“What I saw was a person who, in front of everybody, confronted his fear and didn’t catch fire and wasn’t destroyed by it,” McCann said. “The way he handled it, you could tell he felt better. You can tell people how to do stuff, but when you show them, that’s everything, and he literally walked it for me. I thought, ‘If I don’t do this now, I probably won’t.’”

“He went up and blurted it out that he was abused, and that was one of those little moments in his sobriety that allowed him to see how much being vulnerable was important,” Aragon added.

And so began the part of his recovery journey that moved beyond the bottle.

'One Good Reason': The Séan and Andrea story

In April of this year, Aragon and McCann released the book “One Good Reason: A Memoir of Addiction and Recovery, Music and Love,” which has taken up most of the singer-songwriter’s time since the release of his last full-length album, 2017’s “There’s a Place.” That it came out in a year of such tumultuous change around the world, as well as the year during which he’ll mark nine years of sobriety on Nov. 9, is serendipitous — because the work itself is a portrait of the thing that’s become his anchor, in sobriety and life: his relationship.

Even the writing of it, he added, deepened the ties that bind him to his soulmate.

“I put a year aside and wrote it, and I think it was good, but it wasn’t good enough,” he said. “I looked at it and realized something was missing. Well, Andrea had been keeping journals in real time, almost like these victim impact statements, and when I saw those, it changed the scope of the work, and I wanted her to write the book with me.

“I thought her side of the story really belonged in there, because with that balance, it turned it into a conversation, and I thought it would reach more people. It felt complete then.”

It’s important to point out, Aragon added, that while his name may not have been on a lot of marquees during the period between “There’s a Place” and the book’s release, that doesn’t mean writing it was his only endeavor.

“He’s been doing a lot of musical keynotes for various groups, all across Canada, from principal groups to insurance groups to addiction groups, and he infuses music in his storytelling,” she said. “It really engages the audience to come into his story and see his vulnerability, and when you see that happening, and you see people relate to it that it lifts some of the weight off of themselves and allows them to be vulnerable, it’s such a beautiful thing.”

“Where I find my best self, for sure, is in those situations,” McCann added. “I used to play big stadiums, bars and theaters, and now I play jails, gymnasiums and wherever the message is needed. I’ll go wherever the story merits hearing.”

Before COVID-19 dashed their plans, the couple originally intended to do a cross-Canadian tour of independent booksellers. Now, they’re working on the audiobook version of “One Good Reason,” a project that’s in McCann’s wheelhouse: the studio, where he’s finding himself engaged musically again as well.

“I’m trying to find a way to engage in a purposeful and meaningful way with people through the internet,” he said. “I need to make peace with the virtual world, so I’m doing a lot with digital addiction and kids, a lot with bullying, because screens can do a lot of damage. I’m just trying to make my peace with them and put positive things on them.”

Carrying the message to others

Séan McCannAnd once the COVID-19 crisis passes, Aragon believes, fans of McCann’s music as well as followers of his recovery advocacy will be starved for some face-to-face songs and storytelling … and if she can accompany him on whatever trips may come, all the better.

“We’ve been asked to do a couple of keynote speeches together, because addiction does affect everybody, and it’s not just one person going through it,” she said. “Sean’s ability to bring music makes it more accessible, and if we can show how it affects everybody in that orbit, it just brings more people into the understanding of the fold.”

For her part, Aragon’s message is simple: Offer the addict or alcoholic in your life empathy. She’s seen the power of openness and vulnerability and kindness, particularly when people approach her husband after one of his talks and divulge long-held secrets of their own addiction or abuse, and it never fails to move her that those individuals put their trust in him. When spouses and other loved ones reach out to her, she acknowledges their entreaties with the same measure of honor.

“I answer every single one as best I can and with as much openness and kindness as possible, because if they can see me being open, if they can see it’s nothing to be ashamed about, then it’s all worth it,” she said. “I just tell them to look in different areas for strength, and to take care of themselves first, and if I can offer those comforts, then what we went through is worth it.”

And that, she added, is the heartbeat of it all — her husband’s music, their public story and the book that’s a love letter to resilience.

“Our book is essentially a book about hope,” she said.

“Yeah — that if the guy from Great Big Sea can stop drinking, anybody can stop drinking!” her husband added. “If I can do it, anybody can, and we just want to bring people that hope. It’s hard, because being vulnerable isn’t an easy thing to do, but I know for me, if I didn’t chase my truth and make myself vulnerable, I wouldn’t have been successful. And that’s what I tell people: You can be successful, too, but it’s going to hurt a bit, and it’s going to take some work. But it’s so very worth it.”