“YOU’RE SIMPLY A LOCUS OR A FOCAL POINT OF AWARENESS THAT IS UNIQUE. THAT’S IMPORTANT. YOU REALLY HAVE TO JUST LET GO, EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK YOU HAVE NOTHING OF VALUE TO SAY. BECAUSE, BY DEFINITION, YOU DO”
Sean McMahon, also known as Workman Song, is a musician living in Brooklyn.
I first saw Sean perform at the Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. Streets Of Laredo’s Dan Gibson accompanied him on guitar. Sean’s brother, Griffin, thundered away on the bar’s great white piano behind. Along with Neil Young and Father John Misty covers, they played a slew of originals from the Workman repertoire. The crowd was enthralled.
It might have been the dim light. Maybe it was the closeness of the space. More likely it was the authenticity in the music, the force of the brother-to-brother bond carrying us all along.
Sean’s sound has a wraithlike and bardish resonance. When belting ballads and sermons, he has a prophetic presence. His lyrics have a knowingness and depth that feel more humble and profound than his 27 years might allow, as if channeled from the dream-journals of some ancient pioneer. He seems a conduit of energy coming from something much larger than his hairy and wiry frame.
A few years ago, after his church told him he could not create “secular” music, Sean left Western Massachusetts and headed for New York, where he has been building his reputation as a passionate singer, songwriter, and guitarist.
A couple days before he headed out on tour with Streets Of Laredo, Sean and I talked at a café in Bushwick.
Lighting things on fire
I. DRASTIC MEASURES
THE JALEPEÑO: What’s it like playing with your brother?
Sean McMahon: It’s awesome. I can be way more emotional in a certain way. There’s a family connection so there’s a comfort.
Kind of like a bleeding heart, secured, emotional expression. He’s super skilled and we know each other so well. We’re from the same genetic cloth.
Little things. He knows where I’m naturally going to pull back, how I’m going to breathe through the rhythm.
THE J: He knows what you’re going to do before it happens?
SM: Yea. And visa versa. He’s so talented.
THE J: Is “Crazy Girl” part of a new album?
SM: It ought to be. The day Father John Misty’s “Chateau Lobby #4” came out, I was all about that. I thought that was a really sweet way to talk about love. That’s how I feel about my romance with my girlfriend.
Every time her birthday rolls around, I write her a few different songs. They’re all kind of in the same vein. “Hop into my Honda I’ll take you for a free ride by the way has anyone ever told you you look like a fish?”
THE J: [Laughs]
SM: So I heard that song (“Chateau Lobby #4”) and I heard the exuberance and the enthusiastic joy of it. I ripped off a motif from that song. It’s fragmented, it’s chopped up, but it’s an ode: “Variations On A Theme By Joshua Tillman”.
It was her birthday track and I just slaved over it. So yes, “Crazy Girl” is in the vein of a record I’m working on right now. I wanted to get all the songs I’ve really liked that are uncharacteristic of the things I’ve done in the past, which are dirty and intense narratives.
I have all this happy and colorful music I want to share and that’s what I’m going to do.
I pulled an all-nighter mixing and mastering the song, and in my coffee-and-endorphin-fueled mania, I ran outside in the middle of a snowstorm at about six or seven AM to compare different masters on the car speakers.
I was wearing long johns, it was pretty cold – the excitement of hearing your creation almost completely finished makes you do crazy things, and I find it very difficult to stop until I’m done, hence the drastic measures.
THE J: Are you a fan of the latest Father John Misty album?
SM: I am. I saw him at WNYC. During “Bored in the USA” I was the only guy to raise a lighter. He blew it out. He played at Bowery on Valentine’s and I was there with my lady. He came out into the crowd and I was one of the many people he hugged.
II . FOCAL POINTS
THE J: How do you go about making your songs?
SM: Each song is usually a way to explore something that I’m obsessed with at the time. I don’t get into the studio that often, so when I do I just kind of purge a handful that seem to express what I want to make.
THE J: Some of your songs deal with themes of transience and pain. Can you expand on that?
SM: The Lamb EP, I released six songs on that. But we (Sean, along with Kev Grossman, engineer and co-producer) recorded twenty-three or so. All had my first few years in New York stamped on them. There are a few factors involved in my time arriving in NY.
One, it was the first time I really moved away from home. And two, it was the period after I had abandoned a church that I was working for in Western Mass.
I guess also I was writing for myself because I didn’t have a band so I was trying to write things that would be sufficient with my own voice and guitar.
So yeah, transience and pain, that was all kind of existential, religious pain, because I really looked up to St. Francis. And I found it really difficult to have the courage to strip off my clothes in the town square and become a renunciate.
I even struggled with the idea that I was so reliant on having a guitar. I had an enormous amount of cynicism towards religious institutions. They’re not really digging on St Francis. They’re not gonna teach you how to do that (renunciate/become a saint), because none of them do it themselves.
That’s probably why there’s such a weird metaphysical visionary thing crossed with this pain and shame motif [on The Lamb EP]. I was living in theology and prayer and Eastern Orthodox ascetic writings on hesychasm, which are all about emptying yourself and your imagination.
I was writing songs and I was trying to figure out what my vocation was, given that I really wanted to become a renunciate. But I moved to a city, which is kind of the center of the evil empire. It was this really weird dramatic issue in my brain, very real.
That’s what the music is for me. It’s the final value statement.
It’s kind of purgative. It’s a way for me to reconcile. I’m not St. Francis, but I am talking about, or through, this shit.
It’s me being stuck in this indecisive place and refusing to let it be a crisis.
THE J: You refer to some of your songs as sermons, discussing what you observe going on around you. Are you challenging your listeners to think with new perspective, to take risks in that sense?
SM: When I was kid I was always quiet, but I was a screamer. I was a screamer from the beginning. I wanted attention, but for whatever reason I ended up being the one that swallows his words to make room for other people.
So I always had this fantasy of being in the middle of a family argument, standing up, and having this big, righteous moment saying: “This is the way it ought to be, you guys are all fools.”
It could just be pure fantasy that comes out in a narrative voice.
I do feel like I have the opportunity to step up to the plate.
I am challenging myself, first, when I write the song. And I’m challenging myself by knowing I can share it with the crowd. That is my vocation. I was trying to enter the ministry to be a pastor and I am attracted to that.
THE J: Is that something you still want to do?
SM: I bounce back and forth for various reasons. I probably wouldn’t get recommendations. I also have to walk far enough down this journey to figure out what’s realistic because I love making music and we’ll see if that satisfies.
That’s what I’m going full-tilt on. I can build something.
THE J: Music seems like a good way to start some a conversation. What’s compelling about creating and sharing it?
SM: I love writing songs and making a statement. The thing that gets me really really high is being in the studio and recording and crafting the whole thing. When I write a song, I hear its entire landscape in my head but until I get into the studio, it doesn’t actually happen.
That’s the thing I love the most, that process. What I get out of writing the songs themselves is, which may be an uninformed statement, I feel like I’m saying things that aren’t being talked about well right now.
I feel like I should be playing these songs at churches, and in some ways the dialogue is with religious authority and paradigm in this country. But, I’m playing at bars. That’s one disconnect.
I definitely have some prophetic delusions. To me, it’s just reason. Poetic reason.
We’re not taking care of our birthright if we’re not taking care of one another.
What’s the point of thinking about the nature of the cosmos if you can’t even see past your nose?
THE J: Self-reflection. It’s like prayer, in a way. You’re asking yourself certain questions, working toward some ideal.
SM: That’s probably the best way to put it, writing these things is prayer. But I’m very self-conscious. I’m aware that in order to perform it as it should be, I have to come out of myself and be more comfortable with that sincerity. It’s crazy introspective and prayer-based.
THE J: You’re exposing this personal thing, and expressing it outward, and you’re brave enough to accept how it’s received. A lot of artists seem to thrive on that uncertainty.
SM: A lot of artists tend to break their own ethical boundaries. I could just preach on a street corner, but I don’t have the nerve.
Artists suppress so much that they start to hallucinate. They need these media outlets, like clay or paint or music, in order to project this repressed identity whose fragments they’re hallucinating.
It’s a weird thing, because what we’re repressing is something that I think is hypocritical. As a self-promoting musician I’m, by necessity, a public figure who, as a citizen, is intentionally taking great pains to maintain a private and humble day-to-day. It’s contradictory.
But you trust the process. You’re an artist because you enjoy process.
If I have this revealing conversation, I’m allowing those two contradictory things to come together.
THE J: Getting over self-consciousness by forgetting yourself. You focus, instead, on how you can be a voice bigger than you – an admirable leap. You could easily wimp out at the idea of being criticized.
SM: I think if you struggle with self-consciousness, part of that process is becoming aware of the value of awareness.
You’re simply a locus or a focal point of awareness that is unique. That’s important. You really have to just let go, even though you think you have nothing of value to say. Because, by definition, you do.
The courage of art is getting people to talk about their experiences, the courage it takes to be a witness.
Everyone is a witness to reality. That’s really all it is. It’s probably the most humble and basic thing to live for, but it’s difficult.
THE J: It takes a lot of effort and energy and fear-facing.
SM: And there’s a lot of misunderstanding, potentially. You’re dealing with millions of other focal points of reality.
THE J: Especially when you bring in words like “religious” and “spiritual”. People may attack or shy away from those. They may argue or shut off, without really looking at what’s being discussed.
SM: Totally. I was in an Evangelical church for a year and ejected myself out of it. But still, I want something out of religion. That’s the third rail.
In order to have us feel love, we need to address spiritual things. There’s a way we can do that without calling it spirituality.
We need to get over the taboo of religion itself. I wonder what will happen with religion in general. Most people in a nonreligious society are probably struggling to figure out if we need it. And if you have a spiritual need, what form should it take? We can put anything into practice, we can create new forms if we want.
THE J: Have you read Joseph Campbell?
SM: I’ve read The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. He provided the key to translating all that stuff. It’s transcendental. Around the time I got into religion, he was definitely the compass rose.
I wasn’t brought up religiously, which is good, because I was able to come at it with an open mind. I was able to bathe in it, rather than get beaten down by a hailstorm of the details. So I could ascertain the meaning a lot better.
An artist’s reputation, that’s what I want. As a person, I want to do meaningful things. I’d like to have brought together some kind of community that’s going to do some good.
THE J: What made you move toward religion?
SM: My first year of college I went on the internet to purchase a legal alternative to marijuana. I smoked a gallon of it. Turned out to be this thing called salvia divinorum, which threw me on my ass into another dimension. Probably the seventh or eighth or twentieth dimension. I thought that was crazy.
I didn’t love it by any means. I never was into psychedelics. I didn’t want to being doing that, and I was very surprised to find that I had just done it and was stranded in another dimension.
I remember learning about the different worlds in Hinduism and Buddhism and the visionary experiences in Christianity and Judaism and I thought, “maybe I’ll start studying that now…” to get a grasp of what other people who have experienced that thought about those experiences.
So, initially, it was just the material I wanted to study in order to understand the images I saw and, in turn, the nature of consciousness.
THE J: You talk a lot about love. Is love an endless resource?
SM: It’s an endless resource that you don’t want squandered. So I definitely use that word tactfully. Just like a cuss word. I’m not gonna throw it in indiscriminately.
In that song “When People are Better Than You”, the final lyric is:
“You can never love enough and I ain’t wrong.”
It’s such a simple statement. It’s probably the 153rd lyric, because that’s a sprawling song about everything.
The way I looked at that lyric was me turning around and slapping myself in the face for singing the rest of the song before that. That was the device. “Good for you, thanks for saying all that, but here’s the point.” I could have said a lot more but just thought I’d cut the cord and shut up.
But yes, endless resource, definitely. Cosmically speaking. That’s the underbelly and fabric in everything. It’s the secret thing I’m preaching through everything. And there’s so many ways you can tell the story.
THE J: Who are your inspirations?
SM: I grew up on the Beatles. Always really into John Lennon solo stuff. When I first started playing music, I was obsessed with Silverchair. When I got to college, I couldn’t bring my electric guitar. All the kids saw my acoustic guitar and asked if I’d heard Dylan and I hadn’t. They showed me him.
The song that hit me was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. From that point on I was like “Oh! Lyrics!” Before that, I just wrote about abstract images. But then I picked up that he was telling stories.
THE J: Anything else?
SM: After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, selections from Cat Stevens, Fear Fun by Father John Misty. Sun Ra. I’m obsessed with Sun Ra. He’s a jazz pioneer. He was always two decades ahead of the curve. He was from Saturn. He’s pretty far out. He was one of those guys with ferocious critical philosophy. He was able to create dissonant music out of gestures.
I like the way he did it. It that had an order that made me feel something, made me see something.
I just watched the Isle of Wight festival where Jimi Hendrix burned his first guitar ever. Holy shit, I’ve seen people do that, but seeing the first-ever guitar-lighting was one of the most amazing things.
It was theatrical and he didn’t even do it that well. It was such a small fire and he had trouble lighting the match, but it looked like he was truly having fun. There was something about it that worked. It was honest and well-communicated.
The J: What do you hope to be able to say you’ve done?
SM: By the end of year or when I’m about to die? I like making cool music. I hope that at some point I get into people’s ears at the right time so that my output hits them at the time I want it to. I don’t have a lot of control over that.
I wish I could actually have people care, and I could be deliberately reckless about my music and make it work. Beck has always done that.
An artist’s reputation, that’s what I want. As a person, I want to do meaningful things. I’d like to have brought together some kind of community that’s going to do some good.
Which is why I wrestle with the pastoral vocation. As an artist, I really just want to be Beck. He’s two steps ahead. I would love that. Ultimately, that’s for other people to decide.
Maybe people will look back and realize I was just two decades off. Horribly, tragically. Not really in the right time but managed to rent a town house in Philly I could trap my band in. Any kind of weird legacy would be cool.
THE J: I hope someone reads this conversation and it makes them want to try to write a song or draw a picture or start a business. To remind people it’s important to try. Through creative efforts, it seems you can get a deeper experience and connection to others.
SM: I’ve been shocked about how many conversations I’ve had with business owners in the neighborhood that inspire me the same way talking to struggling musicians does. It takes a lot of courage. The intentions are almost always pure from the get-go.
And every time I’ve read about an artist, it creates a new room in my brain that I realize I haven’t written a song in yet.
Did you see Father John Misty’s instructions for listening to “I Love You, Honeybear”? These ridiculous instructions for each song, but it totally colors the way you listen to that song.
He’s tapping into something. He’s tapping into our wrestling with sincerity.
I want to write something like that too. It’s off the chain!
THE J: Even if you were the only one he reached and he made you want to do that, that’s a win.
SM: For sure. One of my most triumphant moments was when I was playing with Streets Of Laredo in San Diego and there was this kid there who I used to teach guitar to when he was in high school. His dad was an Eastern Orthodox priest who is also a brilliant painter and he was the voice of reason when the church told me I couldn’t write “secular” music.
He was the guy who convinced me to move to New York. He used to be a painter in the SoHo scene before he became a priest. He was instrumental in me reclaiming myself. Meanwhile, I’m teaching his son, Nico, guitar.
I was in San Diego last July. Nico’s almost 21 now and he told me: “I’m doing music.” His band Paper Days just opened for Mac Demarco. He said: “You inspired me to be a musician. You taught me.” To have that beautiful thing was incredibly humbling.
THE J: His dad, he encouraged you to move toward yourself. To trust this intuition you were being told was wrong.
SM: Yeah, and he coined the term ‘Divine Radar’. You’ll know where you need to be according to that. We all have that. I think he’s talking about intuition, for sure.
You gotta open up to work it out with fear and trembling.
Writing songs makes me fear and tremble. That’s a good thing.