With 10 independent albums to his credit, Sean McConnell released a self-titled album on Rounder Records in July. Produced by Ian Fitchuck and Jason Lehning, the release marks the first time that he’s partnered with a label. Another first: A debut appearance on the Grand Ole Opry will take place Sept. 9.
The Boston native moved to Marietta, Georgia, during his junior high school and eventually to Tennessee to attend MTSU as a music business student. Over the past decade, McConnell has been writing for Warner/Chappell, securing cuts with Brothers Osborne, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, and the series Nashville, among many others.
McConnell visited MusicRow to discuss his new project and future career plans.
MusicRow: Why was Rounder the right place for you at this point in your career?
Sean McConnell: This record is more me than anything else I’ve put out there. I made it before Rounder and I wanted to reach as many people as I could with it.
There’s definitely a big difference knowing you have a team of well-equipped, smart, well-connected people around you with the same goal and are genuinely passionate about releasing your music. They’re able to open doors and speak your name to dozens of people you might not necessarily be talking to. A lot of in-the-trenches doesn’t really change much though. You’re still playing your ass off, traveling, gaining followers.
Describe the song selection, writing and production of your Rounder project.
I wrote half the record in a week. I booked a cabin for myself at a Tennessee State Park with the intention of writing. The minute I walked in, any pressure I felt went away. The older I get, my mantra is “Don’t overthink it. Just write what’s in the room because a song will be written if its supposed to be.” It’s all there, I just try to open myself up to that.
All these songs were solo writes. They came out of nowhere, which is a good litmus test for myself. My favorite songs are the ones that happen without thinking. They ended up being really autobiographical, about where I’m from, or being a kid, or my wife and daughter—really personal stories.
We recorded at the Sound Emporium Studio B. I intentionally wanted a small team. I wanted the sound to be sparse, like the songs are. I didn’t want the wall of sound.
Talk signing to Warner/Chappell and the significance that had on your songwriting.
Warner/Chappell came along 10 years ago when I was just out of college. As a 21-year-old, knowing I could make a living doing what I do everyday was exciting. Alicia Pruitt stumbled upon my music. They understood the type of writer I was and let me create out of a space that was honest and organic, not necessarily the five-day-a-week schedule. And that’s not a bad way to write, but it was not my process. But I would write every day if I could.
I had done a handful of co-writes before Warner/Chappell. I wouldn’t even have known what the term was. They introduced me to the weekly calendar and seeing who I worked well with. Over the years, I definitely found a core group of people I hit it off with. And they were really understanding of my desire to write a lot by myself. I enjoy writing with Jason Saenz, Barry Dean, Lori McKenna, Ashley Ray, there are so many but those are the ones that come to my head.
Your Grand Ole Opry debut will be September 9. Does the Opry have a different significance for someone with a singer/songwriter background like yourself?
I’m really honored we’re at that point to get to play the Opry. Songwriting is the core of what Nashville and country music is about. I’m from more Americana/singer-songwriter background, but I feel like those genres share the same soul in the storytelling aspect. Even though my music is not outwardly country, I feel like those worlds are cut from the same cloth.
Around 40 percent of your cuts are with Texas country artists Eli Young Band, Randy Rogers or Wade Bowen. What do you make of your popularity with artists from that region?
Wade Bowen is one of my best friends. We met through songwriting and quickly became good friends. Probably six years ago we started writing, and he invited me to open up for him. I had never really heard of the Texas scene and what was going on down there. I was dumbfounded. It’s like another planet! Texas is a huge part of my touring now so that explains running into Randy, the Eli Young Band. At the same time we were touring, we would write. It’s a brotherhood that I’ve been accepted to—guys like Stoney LaRue and William Clark Green.
What are you most excited to recently be involved in and what do you have coming up?
I just produced a gospel record for Wade Bowen, [Then Sings My Soul: Songs for My Mother] that was really fun. I’d love to produce more but it’s really a time thing. Then there’s the Opry and touring. I’ll end up doing around 170 dates this year.
Religion and spiritual references are made throughout your songwriting. What significance does that have on your life?
Those terms are so loaded. Even the term religion means totally different things. I grew up with a deep appreciation of the mystery. [My song] “Praise The Lord” is a pretty good synopsis of my answer to that question and a rejection of black and white, small-box way of thinking. I’ve always been obsessed with faith, God or mystery—that is the word I would use these days. It comes out in my music all the time because that is life to me. Everything is spiritual, there’s no escaping that for me.
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