Q&A with captivating folk singer-songwriter Sean Healy

  Image credit: Yun Wu Seeso Studios Shanghai

The gentle strumming and sincere vocals from folk artist Sean Healy have the emotional force to capture the listener within seconds of listening. The Irish singer-songwriter shared his debut single ‘Drift Around’ this week. Due to be officially released on the 22nd of February, the single was written by none other than Sean, of course, and the final mix and master was executed by renowned talent Sefi Carmel (David Bowie, Phil Collins, Michael Bublé). We are in awe of the substance and simplicity in this single. Sean captivates the attention of the room, making time stand still for the duration it is played.

We chatted with captivating singer-songwriter Sean Healy below.

Pre-save ‘Drift Around’

Looking back, what were some of your earliest entries into music appreciation? And music production?

I can vaguely remember being brought to a traditional Irish music bar as a young kid and sitting outside a circle of musicians playing together. I must have been about five or six years old. I remember being sucked in and totally engrossed by it, after that I learned the Bodhran for a couple of years, which is an Irish drum. I can remember a few early experiences like that. The next one that springs to mind was probably a couple of years later, I was in my friend’s living room and he put on his dad’s DVD of Rory Gallagher doing a live acoustic performance. It was the first time I had heard his music and I was glued to the screen, entranced by it. I got a Rory Gallagher CD and listened to it many many times over. Around that time I went to a music shop to buy another Rory Gallagher CD and a Bob Dylan greatest hits CD caught my eye for some reason, I bought that instead of a Rory Gallagher one. That was another world for me, I put it on in the CD player in my room, the first song was ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ which pulled me into another dimension, as did every other song on the CD, and so have many other Bob Dylan songs since then. I remember my dad playing Thin Lizzy in the car when I was a young kid too, which I really liked. I got into bands like Dead Kennedys, Nirvana, Jawbreaker, and many others through my brother when I was quite young as well. There were also a lot of small gigs in places like parish halls and community centres around where I grew up, so I saw a lot of great local bands quite early too.

As for music production, I always tried to record music on whatever was available as soon as I started playing it. And dabbled a little with different kinds of equipment when I was a teenager, but not that much. When I went to college, I chose music technology as one of my subjects so I learned some basics about recording and producing music there.

What was the highlight of working with Sefi Carmel on your debut single?

It was when he said he liked the song and wanted to work on it, haha. Working with him was very fluid, I felt that he got the vibe pretty quickly so, given his talent, I didn’t give much direction. I gave him a few general reference tracks as a “very vague reference” but left the style he wanted to go for up to him, and the result was even better than I expected.

Take us through your songwriting process. Are there any particular steps you take when putting music together?

The first step for me is to find the time when I don’t have other things that I need to get done, that’s the most difficult. Then I start to play and when something that interests me comes along I write it down and continue to develop it. Sometimes I write the music and the lyrics as I go along or sometimes I’ll write more of the music then add the rest of the lyrics. It’s kind of a weird process because I never mull over it or plan it. I just write down what comes out if it interests me and then I look at the lyrics and the music and sometimes realize that it describes what I’ve been feeling or thinking much better than I could have explained in conversation.

What gets your creative juices flowing?

First of all, having the time to write, usually, the feeling of wanting to write music is already brimming over by the time I get to that point. Listening to music and connecting with it is probably the biggest thing that makes me want to write. I guess writing is a good way for me to figure things out so that probably drives it too.

As a musician, it becomes apparent that there is a huge difference between the art and the business. Is there anything about the music scene that you would personally change?

As I’ve been living in China for the last few years I’ve seen different good points and bad points in different places, like different cities in China and what I remember from when I was in Dublin. One strong point that I have seen in China that I would change about Ireland is the attitude I have seen towards the business side of things. 

I have met many people in China in music and animation who create art because they love it and immediately think about how they can share this art and see if there is a way to make it financially sustainable. This allows them to share it with more people, get more people involved, and have more time to do it. I remember sitting on an airplane with a Chinese guy who has been in the animation/ entertainment business for a long time, he was telling me about his ideas about art and the movie series he’s making. He told me that his aim is to create art and share it around the world to help people understand and connect with each other and then they wouldn’t be willing to go to war. He explained that the first thing you need to do is establish an income for yourself then he outlined more practical steps about how to make it all work, including the financial side so you can build platforms for people to share art. It seemed a little overly simple, but I have seen him put it into practice over the few years that I’ve known him and I’ve come to respect this balanced approach. 

Another example is a musician that I knew when I was in Shanghai, called Xiao Hai, who also took a balanced approach in this way, from the beginning he thought about how to make it work in a practical way and eventually got the chance to open a small basement music bar. He played his music there most nights and often had other musicians come and play too. I used to go there and play pretty often and it slowly built up, now he has opened a bigger venue called Gaslight. Within the group of musicians who came there, most of them had a practical view and did things that they loved by taking care of the practical business side of things. 

In Ireland and the UK, I have sometimes seen what seems to me to be an illogical negative view towards what people see as “business”. I don’t really know where the line is drawn. I’ve come across people running gigs that I’ve played in Ireland who told me that they don’t get involved in the “business”, while they are running a gig, I’m like, is running this gig, not business? I think for every artist whose art is shared there is always an element of “business”, being carried out by someone, the question is who?

On the other hand, the standard and focus on art that I’ve seen in Ireland and the UK is so high, when I go to see a small gig in Ireland I’m often blown away by how high the standard of music is and how tight bands are. From what I’ve seen in Ireland, people are exposed to art and music from a very young age and it’s given a lot of importance. In China kids and teenagers often have a lot of pressure to study and less time to explore other things, adults also have a lot of different kinds of pressure. In my experience there’s not as much importance put on art and music here in general, this is getting better and I think will improve more in the coming years.

Studio work and music creation or performing and interacting with a live audience, which do you prefer?

I think the starting point is writing the music and the next step is sharing it, especially playing it live. It’s hard to say which I prefer because to me they feel connected. There have been times when I’ve only written songs and not shared them for long periods, and after I had written quite a few songs when I sat down to write, I just didn’t feel like writing anymore, I felt like finding a way to share them. I think the recording is alright, it’s like clearing out the cupboard. Playing live can be great when I see people looking like they connect with the music, that always feels surprising and very satisfying. The whole process is kind of like a wheel spinning I guess, you don’t just spin it halfway and keep doing that, spinning one half over and over, you want to keep it spinning around.

What is the most memorable response you have had to your music?

Two memories come to mind, one is when I was sixteen I was playing in a band and we put on a gig in a small hall. Many problems arose when we were organizing it and the few days leading up to it and the day of the gig had been quite stressful. I didn’t look at the crowd much for the first couple of songs, then I looked up, and everybody was dancing and really into it. I was a little taken aback and surprised, there was kind of dim, atmospheric lighting and it was an enjoyable &, intimate gig. It was really uplifting that people had helped so much and come along to the show and that so many people seemed to be so into the music. Another time I was playing a gig in a venue called Yuyintang in Shanghai it was a gig/ art exhibition. Before I went on I was introduced to an Irish guy who was a DJ and really into music, I had been chatting to him in the venue and before I went on stage he said to me “Go for it”. I went on with the knowledge that at least one person would be paying attention so I played as well as I could. I can’t remember how long I had been playing for when I looked up and saw that people looked really engrossed in the music, staring at the stage, that show really sticks in my memory.

What’s on your current playlist?

I’ve been listening to Frank Black, The Mountain Goats, Amy Winehouse, a little Smashing Pumpkins, and Charles Bradley in the past week or so.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you in the near future?

First of all, I’ll be releasing the song “Drift Around” along with an animated video on the 22nd of February and after that, I will keep working towards releasing more music. Many things are up in the air because of restrictions with Covid, so I’ll have to see how things play out. I hope to start doing gigs as soon as possible, maybe in Ireland/ the UK or maybe in China.

You have mentioned that you wrote this single about reconnecting with the energy you had before and rising above life’s many challenges. What has been the most important stumbling block in your life so far? 

Mmm, it’s hard to say, I haven’t really thought about that before. I guess a couple of things that I have had to work on and some that I still do. The first is getting a balance between everything, I have a tendency to fix on to one thing and focus totally on that, which I think is not an effective or positive thing to do. I try to keep a good balance between relationships, work, music, some exercise, other interests, etc. I guess it sounds typical but over time I realize that having a good base like that helps put everything into place. 

Other than that, I guess before I had to work on a view of myself and believing that I knew enough and was able to do things. Part of me would worry that there was always something that I didn’t know, and in some way, I would lose the value that my own perspective and ideas had. Over time, I’ve seen the positive things and also problems and mistakes in my own ideas and perspective and learned that it’s okay to have those flaws and fail at things. And that doesn’t take away from the things that I got right, that I can assess what was right and wrong from an experience or project. And that it didn’t turn out as I planned doesn’t necessarily mean everything I did was wrong or that I can’t do it. I guess you could say I’ve learned to see those kinds of stumbling blocks and lack of knowledge/ mistakes as part of a necessary process.

I guess another thing would be keeping a belief in positive things and that things can turn around/move forward during a situation that is not going well. Maybe it’s not right to say not going well, just not going in a way I’m comfortable or familiar with may be more accurate. I’ve had to work on that, like swimming in a storm, when you can’t see anything, you’ve got to keep direction anyway. The more storms I’ve swam in the better I can keep direction and become more comfortable. Then you can take on more difficult storms, and have the struggle again, hahaha. And maybe any results or situation aren’t the things I should worry about, just worry that I keep going. 

Famous last words?

That’s all folks.

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