The HOPE North Suicide Prevention Committee pulled out all the stops for their 10th-annual HOPE Forum, booking Great Big Sea co-founder Séan McCann to play at the Letkemann Theatre April 3.
In keeping with the event’s theme of spreading awareness about trauma and mental illness, McCann spoke candidly about his own personal demons, which include getting sexually abused by a priest as a teenager.
That same priest also introduced McCann to drinking, something that became a much bigger problem for the singer later in life when his folk rock band Great Big Sea became a nationwide sensation.
“As an alcoholic I felt I won the lottery,” he said Wednesday night, telling the audience how popular bands often submit a list of demands called a “rider” to promoters before a performance.
“Every day I would go to work and before every show at sound check there would be our daily rider, which was a bottle of whiskey or rum, four bottles of wine and 48 beer. Imagine seeing that every day on your desk when you go to work?”
Looking back on it now, McCann recognizes that this excessive drinking was an attempt to bury parts of his past that he wasn’t ready to confront.
Even though he managed to get by as a high-functioning alcoholic for many years, McCann said this all changed when he turned 40 and started experiencing blackouts for the first time.
And because the rock’n’roll lifestyle made it virtually impossible to stay consistently sober, the musician said he fell into even deeper despair because of his inability to quit.
It got to the point where McCann’s wife Andrea had to intervene and present him with an ultimatum.
“She sat me down and she told me, ‘That’s the end of this Séan. You’re going to stop drinking right now or I’m gone, because I don’t want to see you kill yourself,’” he recalled. “That was Nov. 9, 2011 and I haven’t had a drink since and I never will again.”
Unfortunately, McCann felt he had to part ways with Great Big Sea to fully commit to this decision, since life on the road was no place for a recovering alcoholic.
After going solo in 2013, McCann started to focus more on advocacy work and telling his personal story through song.
This dynamic came to pass during his Thompson performance, since each musical number highlighted a key moment from McCann’s life.
For example, the song “Hold Me Mother” reflects a time when he was finally really to open up about the sexual abuse he experienced as a young man.
“Red Wine and Whiskey” is a call-back to McCann’s freewheeling drinking days, while “Stronger” is a number he wrote when he was in recovery and almost fell off the wagon.
McCann even found room to play some crowd-pleasing hits from Great Big Sea’s back catalogue, stressing how music played an important role in his healing process.
“It showed me a way to face the truth,” he said. “You can’t dance around the truth and the truth always comes out. We can fear it or we can face it, and music is one of the tools that we can use to face it.”
McCann also took time to thank the event’s organizers for putting together their 10th HOPE forum, which he said is another great venue for the same kind of healing.
“As long as there are human beings who will gather together and sing and talk and listen and care, there will always be hope.”