By Robert Blood
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and musician Sean Patrick McDermott, who performs 7-10 p.m. Thursdays at Jersey Lily Saloon, 116 S. Montezuma St., 928-541-7854. He also performs Fridays regularly at The Point Bar & Lounge, 114 N. Montezuma St., 928-237-9027. You can purchase his EP, Small Songs, via CD Baby, Spotify, and iTunes.]
How did you end up performing as Sean Patrick McDermott and how did you end up in Prescott?
Well, that’s my name. I’m not sure why I use my full name for music, but I think it sounds nice. I came out to Prescott a couple of years ago and have been playing music and working at Peregrine Book Co. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I went to music school in Nashville, Belmont University, for two years, which was kind of a crazy place. I went with a bunch of friends, and some of them are studio players now. … Being in that environment, seeing all those incredibly driven people working toward a goal, it helped me contextualize music in a different way as far as being a songwriter and trying to produce music as a kind of product. So, after I was there for a couple of years, I went back to Texas, and had visited here a couple of times, and ended up in Prescott playing music and selling books.
How did you get started playing in Prescott?
I was fortunate when I came out here to immediately start playing a weekly gig with Nick Canuel. He performs as Nicolai and he’s in the house band at the Jersey Lilly Saloon, Little Larry and the Drive. We’ve been doing an acoustic duo at least once a week, sometimes twice, since then. It’s really great to learn how to perform with another musician that way, to keep everything tight between two people. I’d had regular solo gigs, but learning how to do that as a duo is something different.
Taking a step back, what were your early experiences with music?
I don’t have a musical family at all, but my parents noticed I liked instruments, so I had a toy keyboard, a little toy Casio. Was it 48 keys? Something like that. By the time I was in fourth grade, maybe 9 or 10 years old, I got started playing, which is kind of late considering how early a lot of people start. I started playing piano and got a background in classical theory. I did that for maybe five years with a teacher. I started playing flute in the sixth grade. I was really into jazz at the time and I was going to be a jazz flute player because that’s cool, right? I couldn’t play a reed instrument, which is why I didn’t go the saxophone route. So I played flute for five years and ended up hating it. I learned I don’t enjoy monophonic instruments. It’s got its range and that’s where it is. So, about halfway through high school I started playing the cello. At that point I’d already been playing guitar for a little bit. I picked up a guitar in eighth grade, mostly because my two best friends were better piano players than I was and I wanted to be good at something. There’s that whole girls-like-guys-with-guitars thing, too. Since I picked up a guitar, though, that’s been the focus. It’s the one instrument for me that feels fluent and expressive.
Did you start playing while singing immediately?
I didn’t for quite a long time. My friends were quite good, so I never felt the need to. But once I got decent with strumming, I figured it was time to learn. At the time, if you were a guy with a guitar, it was a lot of John Mayer covers. I had no control whatsoever when I started. I asked my voice buddies, and they helped me discover that, for one thing, I had a falsetto. I actually didn’t think I had one — I distinctly remember discovering that in my front yard one day. So, I started singing in high school. Just being around people singing all the time who are good it sort of focuses you. You learn right away when you’re the one who’s off and you try to match what they’re doing.
It sounds like you were surrounded by an awful lot of music in school.
Our high school had an amazing musical theater program. We swept the state awards every year, no question. Our winter musical had a budget of $60,000. I’m pretty sure that was just from the parents of kids who’d gone there when they were younger. It was a very successful program.
You had a lot of enthusiasm for music, as well, obviously.
It was something that no one had to tell me to do. When you’re in orchestra or take private lessons, they’ll tell you, spend X amount of time on scales per day and to always practice with a metronome, really fundamental things like that, that I didn’t do as a 13- or 16-year-old, but I always played. I had friends in that classical world, though, who were religious about it. For me, it was an exploration. I wanted to be able to do a thing — to play a song or to play the guitar a certain way, and I kept doing it until I figured it out. That’s definitely the slow way of learning, as far as musical pedagogy goes, you learn a lot of things along the way that way, exploring on your own. … I know it’s an aside, but the way that music is taught in school is extremely behind our understanding of how musical learning works. It’s not something people argue about; everyone knows it and the school curricula are just slow to change. Now that I’ve been through it and explored and learned more, it’s really obvious. You’re taught to read key signatures and recognize flats and sharps without knowing how or why they’re there. You don’t understand the meaning between the symbology and the sounds you’re creating. You just reproduce the music that’s on the sheet. That’s a really weird approach, when you think about it.
Did you start creating your own music as a kiddo, or did that come later?
None of us were really in bands. Actually, we were all sort of independent players and writers. I would say I was trying to write early on, all of us were, but in the hopes of competing with each other. We played a game — actually, it’s a game that Jason Mraz does with Bob Schneider — where one of us picks a phrase and everyone in the group tries to write something that uses that phrase. We all kind of helped hone each other’s music with that. We did that every month or so, a group of four of us. … Feedback is always a good thing as a writer. Most of the time, your opinion of your own work is not going to be representational of the way it affects other people. … The first time I recorded myself was probably to audition for theater. I sang a Sinatra song, “The Best is Yet to Come,” and I remember listening to that over and over again to correct myself. That’s such a weird song. I didn’t record any of my own music until many, many years after that. I was getting pressure from friends and family and people at shows to record my own songs.
And that became Small Songs?
Yeah. I had written a set of probably 12-ish songs that I was consistently playing during my live sets and I liked they way they worked in that environment. If I like playing one of my own songs, it’s a sign that it’s got something going for it because that’s usually not the case. So many of the songs were literally short songs — two long verses and maybe a half-chorus thing, pre-chorus, chorus, and that’s all there was. So they’re typically around two-and-a-half minutes, which is a little shorter than a typical pop song. I didn’t feel like I needed to write a bridge or force a key change. … So I had all these songs and was getting pressure from friends and family, so I decided to just demo them. I figured it’d be a good way to promote my own music. It’s a physical thing to hand to people, to show them, and I can sell them at shows. So I sat down with Dylan Ludwig at Raven Sound Studios in March or maybe April of 2017, with the intent to hammer out all these acoustic demos, slap a cover on it, and sell it. I wanted to have six or seven songs from the set that sounded the best. Things were going well and I decided to record a song I’d just written called “Sarah,” and it involved using an electric guitar. I needed a tremolo bar on loop, so I added a layer and, hey, that sounds good, so let’s add another, then Dylan says he hears a shaker in there, so OK, and eventually “Sarah” turns into this 12-track, full-band song with harmonies and bass. So it became, hey, we can’t have this whole acoustic demo with one fully realized song. So we started adding stuff to the other songs. Nick came in and laid down drums and bass under everything, which is an odd way to do it, after the fact, but we were lucky and we were tight enough that it worked fine. Dylan is an amazing engineer and made everything fit just right.
What was it like revisiting those acoustic songs in terms of full-band arrangements? Was it challenging or different than you expected?
Actually, most of them were written from the beginning as full arrangement. When I write music, I always have that in mind and figure out how to play it as an acoustic piece later. That’s just part of my writing process. So, no, it wasn’t difficult to fill out the arrangements at all. I’d always heard different instruments and harmonies and things like that. It was nice to add guitar solos where they needed to be. … So, I realized that, as it was coming together, I should look online and see how this distribution thing works. Luckily, from taking classes at Belmont, I knew what to look for from a legal standpoint. I ended up taking the easiest route, through CD Baby, and was able to get everything the way I needed it and get on Spotify and iTunes. Advertising that you’re on those platforms lends a legitimacy to your music, which isn’t something I was anticipating. When I tell people at shows that they can find my music on Spotify or iTunes they’re impressed, even though all it takes is $70 and knowing where to sign up. It’s nice to be able to direct people to my music, though. … Small Songs came out Sept. 1, 2017. It’s $10 for seven songs, six of which I wrote, and one of which is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” which was a room recording that just felt really good.
Where and when can people catch you playing around town?
I’m with Nicolai at the Jersey Lilly Saloon 7-10 p.m. every Tuesday night. I’m usually at The Point three out of four Friday nights, 7-10 p.m., too, and usually with Nick, as well.
You’ve been playing Prescott a lot. How does it compare to other places that you’ve gigged on a regular basis?
As far as I can tell, Prescott has a pretty healthy balance between great, kick-ass dancing music at certain bars on Whiskey Row and more indie, eclectic music at places like The Raven or The Point or, sometimes, Granite Mountain Brewery. You don’t get everything here, but there’s a lot going on for how small a town it is, and the quality is really high. … Demographically, there’s the older crowd who wants to hear soul and some classic rock ‘n’ roll, which is what I learned to play growing up. I’m always down to play some Ray Charles, too. The other demographic is … let’s say Sedona-types? They’re more of a spiritual crowd and want more contemplative music. There’s that dichotomy every time you play in Prescott, and you have to learn how to please both groups as an entertainer. I know not to play all my sad songs in a row — and I write and play a lot of sad songs — just from a crowd/attention standpoint. You get a feel for a room, and it’s a balancing act on any given night. I do play some of my own music from time to time, especially by request, but it’s not always something that works. … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played “Moondance.” People are always excited to hear it, always excited to jump up and start dancing, though, so I’ll keep playing it. As an entertainer you feed off of that.
Any parting thoughts or plugs?
Yeah, actually. I’ve got a full band project. We’ve been practicing off and on for a while now. It’s called Alehouse and it’s a four-piece with guitar, keys, bass, and drums. Starting in March, we’re going to start performing pretty regularly, once a month or so, probably at The Point, so look out for that.
Sean Patrick McDermott performs 7-10 p.m. Thursdays at Jersey Lily Saloon, 116 S. Montezuma St., 928-541-7854. He also performs Fridays regularly at The Point Bar & Lounge, 114 N. Montezuma St., 928-237-9027. You can purchase his EP, Small Songs, via CD Baby, Spotify, and iTunes.
Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.
Tags: Alehouse, Belmont, CD Baby, Dylan Ludwig, iTunes, Jersey Lily Saloon, Moondance, Nick Canuel, Nicolai Canuel, Peregrine Book Co., Raven Sound Studies, Robert Blood, Sean Patrick McDermott, Small Songs, Spotify, The Point Bar & Lounge