Sean McConnell’s A Horrible Beautiful Dream examines the complicated relationship between hope and fear in an era when it’s all too human to blindly sacrifice one for the other. With songs that have taken time to mature fitting naturally among more recent and climactic emotions, McConnell delivers a diary of his ongoing search for both answer and question, filling the space in between with tone and reverb. McConnell has earned a sterling reputation among Nashville songwriters, penning with and for a variety of artists including Little Big Town, Wade Bowen, Ashley Ray, Randy Rogers, Tim McGraw, Chris Knight, and many, many more. His ability to wring the best qualities from a song and those he writes with has also made him an in-demand producer, a role he’s managed during the COVID-19 pandemic while champing at the proverbial bit for a return to live performances. A Horrible Beautiful Dream showcases that anticipation, inventories the regret of taking the previous life for granted, and makes amends to tomorrow.
AI- One of the main things that kind of jumps out at me and it’s probably because it’s something that I’ve dealt with so much, particularly in the last 18 months and maybe all my life– fear is something that you tackle on several songs. “Nothing Anymore” and “What the Hell is Wrong with Me” take two different approaches. I love the line, “Some people just wake up and feel like they’re okay.” I’m aware that must exist. But I think, like you in the song, I don’t know that I’ve experienced it. Tell me something– was one of those songs written before the pandemic and one after?
SM- They were both written during the pandemic. But I will say that they would’ve been written whether the pandemic happened or not! That’s just my lane in life. I was born that way, and it sounds like you might’ve been as well! When that line popped out, I really laughed hard at it– but also it’s a real thing. It’s like, man, I see these people, I feel like they might just wake up and they’re like, “Alright, let’s do this!” And they feel good and not really afraid on a general basis. I wish I could say that about myself, but it’s part of who I am, I guess.
Is it your own personal brand of therapy to work that stuff out in your songs?
It’s one form of it, yeah. I need a lot of therapy, but that’s definitely (laughs) one major part of my own therapy for sure!
I’ve had the opportunity to speak to numerous people that have worked with you in different parts of their career and yours, and that also seems to be something that you’re very good at helping other people with as a facilitator.
I feel really fortunate that I get to write with other people and enter into their world. As a writer and as a producer, I really enjoy spending some time with somebody and hearing what they want to say, and wrapping my mind around it. And then also bringing any experience from my own life that pertains to that subject into the writing room or into the recording studio. Whether I’m makin’ a record or just talkin’ with somebody over a beer, I like gettin’ down to brass tacks and figuring out what people are and what makes them tick and what they love and what they hate and what they’re afraid of!
Brass tacks. You get down to those with the song “The Wonder Years”. One of the hardest parts of growing up is finding the holes in the facade and in the notions that you’re exposed to growing up, ideals you build for yourself out of heroes, in books and movies, and in songs. Nobody prepares you for that part. I think you just figure that all out yourself. That to me was what comes from that song.
That’s definitely a big part of it. It’s the disillusionment of many things– people, history, the systems that we exist in. I think if you get old enough and if you’re open to questioning and studying things, you find a lot of things that just aren’t true or that change or evolve over time. And yeah, it can be jarring for sure. It can also be liberating at the same time.
You mentioned working as a producer earlier. That’s something I think I read you’ve concentrated on quite a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending more time with your family was another thing. Do you think that the music industry has changed in that regard? And by that regard, I mean family. I think there will always be road warriors who are happier on the highway, writers who would rather work all night, but as a whole, so many people within the music business– performers and in all different facets– have had an opportunity to be home with their families. And while I think the outside world made that a struggle, inside, being home and with the people that you love in a capacity that you never had before, do you think that that’s going to change going forward and remain part of it?
I think it depends on what your goals are. There’s a lot of people I’ve talked to that do feel that way. After this year and a half, they’re gonna dial it back a little bit and try to balance some things. And while I can see that and I think that I will do that on one level, I still think that if you want what I want, which is to show up and sell out a theater in whatever state I step my foot into, you still gotta pound the pavement. As soon as I can safely do that, that’s what I’ll return to. But I do still enjoy writing and producing, and one thing I’ve taken away from the pandemic is I do love those as much as I love performing. So I will find a way to make them all happen. But I don’t think anything is a substitute for just getting out there and hitting the road!
I read interviews where you’ve talked about how music is always on your mind. Something’s either in your head that you need to work on or that you are working on something, that it’s a constant avenue for you to travel down.
Yeah, that is true. I think that it serves me well a lot, and on a personal human level, I’m constantly working on being able to be present in the moment without any to-do list or thinking to the future or the past. In a lot of ways, it serves me well because I do get a lot done. And in a lot of ways, I wish I could sit still more and just be present without thinking about the next project.
You’ve got 13 tracks on A Horrible Beautiful Dream, and I believe you did nearly all the heavy lifting, but there are a couple of co-writes. Which ones were those and who were they with?
There’s… I want to say three or four? I’m not lookin’ at the track listing, but off the top of my head, there is one called “I Built You Up” that I wrote with Bear Rinehart from the band NEEDTOBREATHE. And then there was one that I wrote with Barry Dean and Natalie Hemby.
Is that the one you actually perform with Natalie Hemby on the record, “Waiting to be Moved”?
Yeah, “Waiting to be Moved”. The majority of it was definitely songs that I wrote. Especially for me, I do write mostly by myself. Sometimes there’s a song that just really pokes its head out as something that I need to record.
I’m glad you brought up all the other projects again. You’ve said that this record is not a pandemic record. However, I would have to guess that throughout all of this, you have seen those kinds of projects coming through your studio or been involved with some writing sessions where that has come up. In your capacity as a collaborator or as a helmsman for projects, how have you seen those unfolding?
I would say that in the writer’s room, it’s definitely a hot topic. I don’t think that I’ve produced any records that are specifically a response to the last 16 months or whatever it’s been. Even if it’s simply, I’m co-writing on ZOOM, we start every ZOOM off with like, “Can you believe we’re doing this? What a crazy world!” Even if it’s just small talk before the write, it’s definitely talked about so much. I think that you can’t help it. It’s just like anything else in your life, if you’re an artist, it works its way into your art or your songs. It’s just made people rethink everything, you know? I think that’s a good thing, to be honest. If there’s any blessings of COVID, I think that this time has really forced people to look at many, many, many things. I think that’s healthy.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s been my goal to, in some way, chronicle this time through these conversations that I have with you and other artists and the way that they have processed it and dealt with it. One of the biggest concepts that we’ve discussed is how, if things could go back to whatever normal was, should they?
I don’t think that they should. Now that’s not to discredit the loss. We have to remember, first of all, the people who have died from this and the ways that it’s affected people in that realm. I don’t wish that on anybody, obviously, and I wish I could change that. But the way that it’s made us focus and look at our systems and our personal lives and our family lives and our business and how we treat people– that is a part of us evolving as a culture and a country and as people and as souls. These things happen. History is full of moments that make humans look at themselves and their fellow man in a different way and reevaluate. I think that’s a good thing.
I spoke to your friend Garrison Starr a couple of months ago when her new album was coming out– and I coulda talked to her all day! I’m sure you know just how much fun she is to engage! We briefly touched on My Sister, My Brother, the ongoing adventure you have with Garrison and Peter Groenwald. What’s on the horizon there?
We’ve written more songs, we’ve recorded more songs. We’re all three very passionate about that side project. We do have more music coming out. I think we all have solo projects and other things we’re into, so it’s just a matter of when and how, but we’re always actively writing and making time to record. I’m really excited about what’s in the future for My Sister, My Brother!
“As the Curtain Came Down”. That has to be about your last show before the pandemic. And if it’s not, then it’s still the finest encapsulation of what I think every single player and fan has felt for months and months!
Now that song, I can say is a hundred percent pandemic approved! That’s a direct result of tours being canceled. This has only happened to me maybe two times in my life, but I woke up, and I had dreamed that song! It was a melody and most of the lyrics I had dreamt about. I woke up and ran over to my studio and I recorded like a piano vocal of it. I would say it was probably like 70% done in my dream, and then I finished it when I woke up! It’s a thousand percent about my last show and if I would have known… I would like to say I didn’t take the road for granted, but we do. We bitch about it and we complain about the travel and the green rooms and this and that– and then when they’re gone, I just remember thinkin’, “I would pay a lot of money to be in a really dingy green room right now, drinkin’ a beer and waitin’ to go on stage!” It’s absolutely about the canceling of the shows and what we’ve been through. I got my first show back on August 5th in Nashville before I head out to the rest of the US and I can’t wait! I can’t wait for it!
Are you worried?
You know, I am! I’m not overtly worried, but I think that the last 16 months have conditioned us to absolutely be worried about goin’ out in public’s a mental hurdle for sure. Especially with the numbers going back up. My wife and I, we have conversations about these things and we take it one step, one day at a time. If we feel like it’s a bad call, we’ll have to address it at the time. But at the present moment, it feels like a good time to get back out and dip our toes in the water!
You say “As the Curtain Came Down” came to you in a dream, and it had a very immediate effect on you. You were able to jump right on that and take advantage of that feeling. I would’ve thought that had the potential to be the perfect song to close out the album– but then you have lucky number 13, “Remember You’re Here”. Was that song as immediate as it sounds?
That song was a sleeper. It almost didn’t make the record, and I don’t remember what brought it back to my consciousness. There’s a philosophy that the first take is always the magic take, which isn’t always the case, but I do think a lot of the times it is, so I pulled out a microphone onto the porch and I recorded it. Just one microphone and me singin’ and playin’ at the same time. Something brought it back up to my memory and I listened to it and I was like, “Man!” “As the Curtain Came Down”, it seems like a given that it would end the record, but something about it ending with just me and a guitar on a porch… The title of the record comes from that song, and I think it’s a really special moment for the record and a great way to close it out.