In today’s louder-is-mightier world, it takes guts to be quiet. But when the right artist summons the courage, strips down, and finds the right songs, one voice and one guitar can make an all-consuming roar.
“I’ve just always been a sucker for acoustic records,” Sean McConnell says. “The bare bones, the stories, the chair squeaking, the fingers gliding across strings. Hearing the sound of the room it was recorded in. A lot of the music I grew up listening to was like that, and I’m drawn to it. It’s like home base.”
With his anticipated new album Undone, McConnell makes a triumphant return to home base. The 11-song acoustic collection captures the singer-songwriter’s two most arresting skills: room-shushing story songs and gut-punching vocals. The project is an inspired re-recording of last summer’s Sean McConnell, with the addition of a new duet, “Nothing on You,” written with and featuring the peerless Lori McKenna.
Last year’s eponymous album garnered serious praise from Rolling Stone, No Depression, Lone Star Music Magazine, and more, and when asked why it deserved an acoustic revisit, McConnell doesn’t hesitate. “The main reason is I’ve just always known I wanted to have an acoustic version of these songs ready for people to hear,” he says. “It’s the kind of collection that really calls for it. I could hear it in my head the whole time, that this record had a second life in a different soundscape.”
Listening to McConnell’s rich tenor deliver his conversational explorations of roots, discovery, longing, and loss, it’s hard to imagine a performer or songs more capable of standing on their own.
McConnell is young, but he isn’t green. Since releasing his first album at 15, he has toured relentlessly, playing everywhere from Harvard Square coffeehouses to Texas hole in the walls. A loyal fanbase thousands deep has long-since discovered the devoted road dog whose voice quiets boisterous bar rooms easily, and with soulful dignity.
Music has been part of McConnell’s life for as long as he can remember. “My mom was a singer and my dad was a guitar player and songwriter,” he says. “They’d play in coffeehouses and I’d go along and watch them perform, and seeing that lifestyle showed me that music was an option. Seeing my dad painstakingly writing songs had a huge influence on me, and gave me license to feel like I could enter that world.”
By the age of 10, McConnell had become proficient on guitar and was writing his first songs. “I fell in love with the instrument first,” he recalls. “Learning guitar gave me a feeling of uncharted territory laid out in front of me.” When McConnell was about 11, the family moved from Massachusetts to Georgia, where he stayed until heading to Middle Tennessee State University just outside of Nashville for college. Nashville proved a good fit, as an impressive mix of mainstream heavyweights, pop stars, and Americana stalwarts began cutting McConnell songs: Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Meat Loaf, David Nail, Brothers Osborne, and Buddy Miller are a mere skimming of that ever-growing list.
His supportive family background helped to instill the confidence and drive to pursue his muse early on. “I started playing in middle school, doing any gig I could get just to get my chops up,” he says. “By high school, I would be doing local gigs and really promoting them, bringing out a couple hundred kids to my shows a few times a month and starting to make a decent living at it. That made me think that maybe I could do this in other towns. So I started traveling around the southeast a little bit, and there was always enough progress to take things to the next level. While I was in college, I did a lot of college touring, just me driving all over the United States in a Toyota Corolla. It was hard work, but it showed me that I could do it.”
McConnell continued to record as well, self-releasing nine projects before last summer’s self-titled album, which was his first collaboration with a label, Rounder. Undone continues his partnership with the roots music haven.
“It’s a real storyteller record, and it’s pretty autobiographical,” McConnell says. “I’m learning how to be more honest and understated in my writing, and I wanted to match that sonically and vocally. When I look at this collection of songs, I see a lot of nostalgia, and looking back on sacred moments. I’m kind of nostalgic and reflective by nature.”
Lonely piano kicks off the record on “Holy Days,” as McConnell explores that distinct blend of captivity and freedom that defines youth. He highlights the track as a favorite, noting that it’s the most different from the original version. “We were rolling tape as I sat down for the first time to learn it on the piano,” McConnell says. “When I was done, I popped out into the control room to take some notes and then give it another go, but when I heard it playing back through the speakers I fell in love with what we captured. It has a sort of charming clumsiness for me. I can hear myself stumbling on all these odd little accidental notes because I didn’t know what I was doing, and it resulted in a performance I couldn’t recreate.”
McConnell treads similar ground on “Ghost Town” as he haunts streets, parking lots, and names left behind to grow up. Stunner “Queen of St. Mary’s Choir” traces McConnell’s personal history to gritty, poetic perfection, proving it’s often a writer’s most obviously autobiographical work that resonates most deeply with audiences. One of many showcases for McConnell’s breathtaking vocals, “Babylon” features accompanying keys and bemoans the confusion that unfolds when things fall apart with heartbreaking clarity.
“I’m really attracted to songwriters who just put it out there honestly, and I feel like I’m getting back to basics and expressing things in a simple, direct way on this album,” he says. “I’m just trying to learn how to be a more honest storyteller, trying to get my mind in a place where I’m not actually thinking and the music’s just kind of happening naturally.”
Sweet “Hey Mary” is a guitar-driven charmer, while “One Acre of Land” is a moving offer to build real love that lasts. Performed and written with McKenna, the sparse and gorgeous “Nothing on You” captures the eclipsing power of love. “We laughed as much as we sang,” McConnell says of recording the track with McKenna. “It just took a few passes, and that was it. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish, and it’s a real thrill to have it be a part of this collection.”
Writing better songs than ever before and singing them like no one else can, McConnell is now in a place that can’t help but feel like fate. “From a very young age, I just knew that I was gonna spend my life making music,” he says. “I never really questioned it, so I just forged ahead and didn’t let anything stop me.”
Early writing and recording culminated in the summer of 2015 with the band’s independently released EP “Days and Nights”. The EP earned them supporting slots for national acts such as Drive-By Truckers and Kurt Vile in addition to festival performances at Firefly, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and SXSW among others. The band was named “Best Emerging Artist” at the 2016 Big Easy Awards in their home town of New Orleans.
Motel Radio’s atmospheric, harmony-driven sound and unique dual frontman arrangement garnered the attention of Roll Call Records, who released their EP ‘Desert Surf Films’ in September 2016.