Losers & Sinners
This is probably the only CD - EVER - to reach GOLD status - 7,500 copies in Ireland - without being distributed, except by the artist. Sean was dubbed 'Ireland's Wandering Minstrel' by the media as between Jan 2,000 and April 2,007, he travelled all Ireland singing to audiences as small as one, selling over 10,000 CDs. A wandering minstrel for the 21st century. The doorbell rings. You're in the middle of cooking the dinner, helping at the kids with their homework and you've had a hard day at the office. You answer the door still clenching the Sabatier that you were using to slice the tomatoes for the salad. There is a stranger standing there with a guitar on his back and a bag on his shoulder. He introduces himself as a wandering minstrel and if you let him tells you that he is writing his own songs and promoting his own CD from which he would be delighted to sing you a random track.... ....... ON YOUR DOORSTEP. At first you are a bit taken aback but quickly recover your composure and say that you'd love to hear a song and you call the children so that they can share the experience. You are a rare human being. Sean O'Neill is too, certainly inasmuch as since January 2000, Sean formerly a highly respected photographer, has work five days a week as Ireland's wandering minstrel, selling enough copies of his debut CD, 'Losers and Sinners' to earn a wage and finance his writing and was described by Hot-Press journalist, Stuart Clarke as a 'one man music industry', indeed Stuart reckons that Sean could well have reached the lower end of the charts had his sales been monitored. Read on as Sean takes time out from his busy schedule to do a rare interview with himself... his interview is fairly old now and some of the info is no longer accurate, but it's a good introduction to the wandering minstrel... How does one become a 'Wandering Minstrel', I mean is it something you always wanted to do? I always wanted to write songs and I tried but anytime I sat down to try it didn't happen but I always knew I eventually would. It just took me a long time to get started, like forty-seven years. So what took you so long? I don't know. Maybe I was afraid that if I wrote them then I'd have to sing them and I was terrified of singing in public - I mean in front of anyone - and if I had written a song, I would have taped it secretly and hidden it and lived in fear of somebody finding it and passing it around and having a good laugh. In fact this did happen once but it was only the start of a song and it was crap. And what changed? I got over my fear of singing in public. How? I made a conscious decision to go busking. I'd separated after a long marriage and was living on my own for the first time in my life and had a lot of time to pass. The guitar was a great companion. Friends who heard me persuaded me to sing at an 'open mic' night in Galway, where I had just moved to and I did. So that was it? No, no, not at all. I went up on stage and sang a Guy Clark song, a John Prine song and did a very short poem of my own. When I came down I was sweating more than Christy would be after a two-hour gig and while people were telling me I sounded great I didn't stop shaking till the following day. That was June '98 and I decided that I was ridiculous and that the best way to start doing what I wanted to do was to go busking. I allowed myself some breathing space and promised myself that I would before my birthday in late July. So that was it? No, not quite. I chickened out and it was six days after my birthday before I hit the streets and I had a ball. You'd written no songs then. Did you sing the standard busking repertoire? Not really. I didn't learn a bunch of busking songs. I am a big fan of John Prine and Guy Clark and I'd do a lot of songs by them that I'd been singing for myself for years. I'd always open with a song called 'Stuff that Works' by Guy Clark. It had I nice slow, long guitar intro. That I could play and I felt that by the time the words came around that I'd have to sing because it would be even more embarrassing to stop and put away the guitar than to start singing. So when did you start to write? A month later. I brought my guitar to Scotland, left my cameras and my car behind and went hitch-hiking and busking and came back three weeks later with two songs. That was a start. It was and it continued. By November I'd written twelve songs and made a 4-track tape 'Smug and Sanctimonious Songs' which I gave to about twenty friends. The sound quality was awful. By the end of January, I'd written about thirty, I'd keep a Dictaphone under the seat in the car and on a long journey leave the radio off and I'd often arrive at my destination with a new song. 'The Badness', a finalist in last year's Sean McCarthy Ballad Song competition was written in this way between Cork and Galway. It's going to be on my next album, 'Dead Birds and Funny Fish', out in the autumn. Your next album? Tell me about 'Losers and Sinners'. That sort of happened by accident. I was introduced to Peter Vastl, of Aranos, who was teaching sound engineering at Ennis and he invited me to use his home studio to catalogue my songs. I decided to release 'Losers and Sinners' which was the result of a two-hour session at Peters. It's seventy-four minutes long! Nearly, when I first heard the tape of the session, I phoned Peter and said that I was thinking about putting out some CDs. Peter told me that I'd need to cut a couple of the shorter tracks as he had been thinking similarly and the eighteen songs I'd done on the day amounted to nearly eighty minutes - six too long for a CD. A lot of my material is about letting go the reins and 'going with the flow' and I said that if I released it at all I would prefer not to edit or tidy up and that song eighteen was about six minutes long. Peter rang me back and said your album is seventy-three minutes and fifty seconds! I was going to call it 'Tom Waits - eat your heart out'. Tom's albums are usually as long as you get. Returning to wandering minstrelling - where did that idea come from? Medieval times I suppose. It's not a new idea is it? But in the twenty-first century it's a tad unusual isn't it? I would love to think that in ten tears time, Ireland will have dozens of wandering minstrels. There are so many talented people writing and singing really good stuff and playing to small audiences at singer-songwriter nights. Some are waiting for that break that more often than not won't happen. So many people advised me of how tough the music business can be to break into, advised me to learn a good set of popular covers to get gigs in pubs or even to make any sort of decent money busking. I hope that eventually I will be able to earn my living from my song writing and if I don't sing my own songs then who else will? I met Donagh Long, the songwriter at the IMRO annual general meeting in Dublin in September '99. I told him of my hopes to go to Nashville and play the song cafes and to maybe get some interest in my songs out there. Donagh's advice was not to go out without a good deal of gigging experience and not to quit the day job until I was certain that things were happening for me. I haven't been to Nashville yet but I'm getting an awful lot of gigging experience, and the gig is getting bigger. Meanwhile I'm earning my living and writing and getting my songs 'out there'. I look forward to coming across someone singing one of my songs in a pub I'm sure it will happen soon enough. I've made quite a few connections in Nashville and I think in Ireland I've become about the best-known unknown. If I'd begun writing as a teenager or in my twenties I probably wouldn't have chosen this particular way of doing it but as my fiftieth birthday approaches I think I can rule out the Boy Band route. What sort of reaction do you get when you knock on a door? Several times a day really good but I'll often knock on fifty or sixty doors before I get to sing. These days, people live very busy lives and have a huge amount of stress. I think we are living very unnatural lives. I went to Senegal in West Africa for a couple of months early in 1999 and people there, while materially being very poor, had a trust in life to provide what they needed and seemed happier for it. They had time to pass and I wandered around from village to village and while I didn't speak French, Wollof or Arabic much and while my songs were all in English, everybody I met wanted to hear a song and sing me one. It was communication. In the time when our communications are becoming increasingly sophisticated, I feel that the basics are being thrown away. What I do is so far from the accepted norm. These days but surely it's more natural than sitting in front of a screen for eight hours a day or driving a car all over the country merchandising breakfast cereals or even sitting people in front of a camera and capturing a moment in time that is for them the way they would have liked to have been. So offering to sing a song for you on your doorstep is something that you weren't expecting. It doesn't compute with what you know as normal behaviour. The easiest way out of the situation is to plead busyness - the kids need minding, the dinner needs cooking or the paint needs watching while it dries. Maybe about twelve people in a day realise that while this is not an offer they have previously encountered, that it is a worthwhile one and worth postponing the busyness for, indeed gathering the kids together for and risking, at worst, a few minutes embarrassment for something they will remember for a long time. So it's like a mission? I suppose you could say that. Pat Ingoldsby said that I was like a 'walking advertisement for freedom' Have you met any other celebrities in the course of your wandering? I met B P Fallon at the end of a long, tough day. He was fascinated and picked two of the songs that I don't usually sing on doorsteps. Which songs don't you sing? There are three tracks on the CD that I would feel are a bit intense to sing at these one-to-one gigs, the title track is one. When I first began I would ask someone to pick a random number from 1-17 and sing that song, then someone cried when I sang 'I Can't Hear You' and so from then I began to ask for two random numbers which allows me to use my discretion to choose the one I feel most comfortable with for the audience I have. The Beep picked 'Losers and Sinners' and also the longest song on the album, which I don't usually do and also told me that as he was given so many CDs at work that it was very unlikely that he would purchase. I told him that if he didn't that I would gladly give him one at his workplace but that as his home was my workplace if he wanted one after the song it would cost him a 'tenner'. I sang him 'losers and Sinners' 'That's a really good song.' He said. 'Thanks,' I said, 'I've got lots more.' He bought a CD and took a few photographs. A really nice guy, I also sang for Mary Black. That must have been a bit nerve-racking. Actually it wasn't at all. I didn't realize that it was Mary Black until a neighbour about six doors away asked me over a cup of tea, after I'd sung a song, sold a CD and done an encore, if I'd sung at the first house. 'Yes.' 'And?' 'And what?' I asked. 'What was she like? I mean did you not recognise her?' She was very open to listing to a song and asked me for a short one as she was in a hurry. She and her children and even the family dog were a lovely audience. Do you ever get doors slammed in your face? No, about as rude as people get is peering through a window and just not answering the door. There is quite a lot of 'fear and loathing' about and it's understandable and a lot of people assume I'm looking for a handout and it's an ongoing challenge for the ego to deal with that but I don't think I've had a day since I began that I haven't met someone who has made my day worthwhile and a couple of times a week I meet someone who tells me that I've made their day. How do you get about? Mostly by bus, occasionally I have the use of a friend's car. And what if it rains? There are wonderful things called umbrellas. I have one attached to my guitar bag, which I always have with me. But surely not if it's stormy? I work a five-day week between Monday and Saturday. If a day in the week is impossible to work, I go out on Saturday. I've worked in the snow and it's rarely that I'd get more than one day when I can't. If I do I write or if the previous week was also bad I panic and look out for better weather. Talk about 'Dead Birds and Funny Fish'. Will you continue with your door-to-door marketing with this album? Yes, if I need to. It'll be a different album in that it will feature other musicians and singers, mostly people I've met by knocking on their doors who have offered their help. It's going to take more than two hours in studio to do and I'm aiming to do it on a budget of ten times that of 'Losers and Sinners'. Which according to your sleeve notes was £30. Yes, I've come across a highly recommended studio where I can record for fifty pounds a day and I reckon I should be able to get a CD recorded in six. Two to get my own stuff down two for backing vocals and further instrumentation and two for mixing. It'll be a challenge but I hope to have something that I can send out to some of the less mainstream radio presenters and anticipate getting some airplay. I'm also looking into the possibility of getting a distribution deal and so you might be able to buy a copy in your local neighbourhood record shop. Are you doing many gigs apart from your doorsteppers? I got my guitar wired up a few weeks ago and am happy to play anywhere. A couple of nights each week I play at singer-songwriter gigs and I'm very interested in doing supports for other artists. I did a half-hour opening slot for Sonny Condell in the Lobby in Cork recently and will be doing some headline gigs to launch the new album. So do you think it'll be long before you are up there with the other guitar legends? I'll never be a guitar legend. My playing is not extraordinary - it gets better as I go but my strength is in my song-writing not guitar licks. What about Nashville, is that on the cards? Very much so. What I'm doing now is my practice for Nashville. My daughter is studying at Trinity and until she finishes, in two years time, I'll probably stay very much in Ireland. Also I've become a grandfather twice over in the last year and it's nice to be available for baby-sitting now and then. Ok, it's your birthday, I'm your fairy-godmother and I'm granting you a wish to knock on anybody's door and sing them a song, who's it going to be? John Prine. If somebody can't wait for you to come knocking can they get a copy of your current CD anywhere else? CD BABY!!!! Sean, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Will you sing me a song? Certainly. Pick two numbers 1-17. ............................ CONTACT If you would like to contact me you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.