Ask Seán McGowan if he sees himself as a political protest singer, and you get the sense he takes it with a pinch of salt – “I have been called that before, but then I also got called a beardy wanker in a bar the other week” he laughs. In an age where politics is as unfashionable as it has been for some time, your average man on the street might be hard pushed to name even a couple of protest singers these days – longstanding activist Billy Bragg is the obvious one, while Paloma Faith had left-wing Guardian columnist Owen Jones as a support act on a recent tour – but other than that, there’s not a lot that springs to mind. But McGowan disagrees. “Enter Shikari, Sam Duckworth (of Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), Grace Petrie, Onsind, Tim OT, Rob Chapman, Itch (of The King Blues) are just a few of ‘em – all on different career levels but all pushing an important message”.
Like it or not, McGowan is probably in there amongst them. “With wallies like Nigel Farage knocking about we’ve got to pay attention and keep that bunch out” he insists, “I don’t want the Conservatives either”. Don’t however, picture him on a soapbox putting the world to rights. As actual politics go, he’s not the most outspoken, preferring instead to speak from his own experiences, relating to the everyday man. “I try to focus on the social issues and connect that way, with specific stories. Mine and my friends lives. I wanna make a difference to people and want to connect. It’s therapeutic”. And it’s a theme that has clearly resonated through his work so far. His 2012 EP ‘The Peoples Music’ was a hard hitting narrative of lost pipe dreams, peer pressure and of a country’s disassociation with its youth. The stories he tells on that record are his, and there’s an honesty that strides out from his music that’s hard to ignore.
It was that honesty that grabbed me the first time I saw him, by chance on a hazy, hungover Friday morning at Glastonbury 2013. In the baking heat of a packed tent, songs of pub brawls, pretending to be Matt Le Tissier and of small town life struck a chord; and it’s that straight up, down the line view on life that seems to be at the core of his ethos. “I’m Seán. I’m 22. I come from Southampton” is his introduction to this interview, “I write songs and play gigs. I like football, advent calendar chocolate and I have size 9 feet”. His motivation for making music is just as simple – “Anything and everything is the short and cliché answer. I just call it how I see it. Storytelling, basically” – and it’s a method that has found him in company with some well known names along the way. “I’ve made some great friends who have been really vocal with their support. They’ve given me a leg-up to push on from. Glastonbury is a highlight. Supporting Billy Bragg at the Brighton Dome was mental. Touring with Sam (Get Cape), and having Frank (Turner) feature on my song ‘Come Unstuck’ was pretty cool.”
And it’s with Sam Duckworth that McGowan has been working on new material for a full debut album, though he goes on to hint at the difficulties in the realities for an up and coming singer in getting an album actually done. “Half of the album is recorded” he explains, “I put one of the tracks ‘The Apple Core’ on Soundcloud. I am desperate to get it finished but for various reasons and commitments it’s not possible just yet. Which sucks, a lot. I’ll get it done at some point and hopefully it’ll be worth the wait”. I go on to ask him about the full band sound he’s opted for on the odd occasion, and whether we’ll see more of that on the record. It’s the same honest and up front reply, a practical approach belying of his years. “I’ve always wanted to have a band with me. The album will have full band songs on it. If I can afford to take the band on the road I will. You can’t take three guys out of work to come and play shows for you without paying them. That’s not how it works in my opinion. Everyone has other commitments and what not. If the money is there to pay them, I’ll have ’em with me”.
Aside from the work on a new record, 2015 has been a slow one so far by his own admission “I always find the first few months of the year to be really slow work-wise. Fortunately it’s starting to build up and get busier now. I have a tendency to go absolutely mental when I’m not touring or doing something productive”. That productivity has certainly upped a gear in recent weeks, as at the time of writing McGowan has just started a nationwide tour with London based band Skinny Lister as their support act, in promotion of their new album ‘Down on Deptford Broadway’, “It’s all fun and games now a tour is round the corner” he exclaims, “Skinny Lister are excellent. Full of energy, stories and good times and I’m well up for playing in front of their crowd. I think we both fall under a similar broad genre branch. Folky, punky…I can’t wait to hang out with the band and the punters!” As main and support act combinations go, it’s a tantalizing mix; the organized chaos of Skinny Lister proceeded by the raw intensity of Seán McGowan. I guess it’s up to you decide if he has something useful to say, or if he’s just another beardy wanker at the bar.