“Newfoundland is a beautiful, dangerous place,” laughs Great Big Sea’s Sean McMann, about the locale that forged his band’s sound. Part shanty reel, part chiming pop, part sweeping folk, ten albums in, the little band from the island that was a shipping and fishing outpost between Mother England and Canada has let its isolation protect their individuality.
A self-governing trio, they recognize that to keep their identity, it is critical to stay off the assembly line of modern pop music. Though one of Warner Brothers Canada’s biggest acts — and having spent time on Sire Records in America, home of Talking Heads, the Ramones and the Pretenders — theirs is a relationship that defies current business models.
“When they signed us, we’d already sold 20,000 records (a large sum in Canada) . . . and we were 3,000 miles away,” Mr. McMann explains. “At this point, we’ve been there longer than most of the employees, watched ’em come and go. And we’re almost too far away to bother with.”
You don’t bother with a band who regularly sells out hockey rinks in a land where hockey is king. Nor do you question a power-acoustic group that can stomp punk through a no-brainer like Oh, Yeah, then turnaround and give you the elegiac Banks of Newfoundland or the lean pop tale of a young man trying to make a better life and a future for the one he loves in another land, Dream To Live, that is indeed shining and ardent.
With Fortune’s Favour, produced by the enigmatic Hawksley, the band is fusing those signature elements with a vibrance and energy that makes old sailor songs and standard pop forms fresh and engaging. It’s nothing new, just refurbished to a whole newer level of immediacy and excitement.
“The fact that we know how this is gonna sound, what we’re not gonna do . . . that’s not good. We asked him to bend us a little bit, but not so much that we break,” Mr. McMann says. “He’s fearless, always willing to try anything and he keeps everything, so that keeps the energy up.”
Though Great Big Sea — Mr. McMann, Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett — have found a way to weave the traditional music of their homeland, a rugged place where the shore is jagged and the winters are fierce, they refuse to use the whistles, bouzouki, fiddle, banjos or accordions as self-conscious embellishments or strict folkloric weapons. Like Los Lobos, Great Big Sea builds on their heritage in a way that empowers the forms, adds a touch of personal authenticity to their music, and imbues the whole thing with some pretty far-flung emotions.
“I wrote Heart of Stone, I was homesick I guess,” Mr. McMann confesses of the haunting ballad about what we take with us when we die. “My anxiety sometimes is dying without having time to say good-bye . . . It happens you know, when you’re on a bus speeding over the mountains in the winter.”
While a certain sense of stuff happens inculcated into the culture — “the song England, when the ship breaks up on the ice, literally for people who came to Newfoundland, that happened and they had to walk on the ice to safety” — it also sparks a serious desire to live while the living’s good.
“If the winter’s gonna come,” reasons the man whose bandmate produces Oscar-winner Russell Crowe’s band, “what are we gonna do about it? Sit around and mope? Or get out there? Because trouble passes, like weather. If that, why waste energy on ‘I screwed up?’ What are we gonna do? Take to drugs? Take to drink?”
The manly voice on the other end of the wire chuckles. They’re not only too smart for that, Great Big Sea has things to do. “We’re all very ambitious,” he says. “I was 22 when I first picked up the guitar . . . We started late. I’ve got a degree in philosophy. I can read. My mind works. We’ve all been to university. We want to make the most of this, and we have . . .
“We’re already aberrations, you know. People are sheep sometimes. They have basically good intentions, but you have to consciously do something else if that’s what you’re after — and help them understand that, which is what we’ve done.
“It’s like the songs. It’s important to have songs that are sad — just as long as they aren’t songs about nothing. You get all these beeps and blips and decorations and icing, but there’s no cake. It might sound great, but they’ve lost the heart.
“Dance, Dance,” he says, referring to a Great Big Sea song, “is what it is. Maybe not intellectual, not spiritual, but this right where that guy is. It’s about a guy who wants to laid, get drunk and doesn’t wanna get caught. It’s pretty simple . . . and it’s pretty perfect.”
With the downstroke pumping like a locomotive and the euphoria bubbling out of the pennywhistle, it is exactly that moment of being 17, alive and on fire with the prospects of what love and forever can be. And so it is, for the Great Big Sea, somewhere on the road chasing Fortune’s Favour into the night and across a nation that’s not yet surrendered its hockey rinks, but is coming to the table with more fans every single tour.
Great Big Sea performs Tuesday, August 19, at Outerland at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport in Edgartown. Doors open at 9 p.m.