Interview with Sean Kangataran

Irish folk-musician Sean Kangataran has taken up an unlikely home in Los Angeles since the release of his debut album last year. Music Editor Kevin O’Neill checks out the man, and the album, that was missed by many.

Galway-born, Sean Kangataran is somewhat of a wanderer with regard to his musical home. He honed his craft at home and abroad, playing shows all across Europe. At the time of this interview, he finds himself in the airport of his new adopted home, Los Angeles. It is 5a.m. where he is.

“I came to Los Angeles because it’s where everything happens musically and my favourite writers all lived here.”

His self-titled debut album was released last year but slipped through the cracks in comparison to the major Irish success stories (Villagers, James Vincent McMorrow, etc.) While the album is available in Ireland, it was never officially launched over here. Bloggers have slowly spread the word, while Sean himself has sent the album out to many lucky writers for free.

This lack of immediate success hasn’t hampered Sean’s push toward success, however, as he is keen to make clear. The move, the reviews, it is all building blocks of the bigger picture.

“Because Ireland is such a small country there has always been the requirement that you had to leave and prove yourself elsewhere before it’d accept you, and though the record has been received really well, the reviews have been bland.

“I’ve had a few of my heroes say the most complimentary things about it, ’cause musicians get it, audiences get it, people get it, reviewers don’t. It’s nothing personal, they’re just hearing from a different place. I don’t even read them anymore, and it’d be foolish to place stock in anything anyone ever writes about you, good or bad.”

These “heroes” than Sean mentions are none other than Glen Hansard of the Frames and Ryan Stively of Port O’Brien. Hansard has compared Kangataran to John Fante and Mic Christopher, while Stively has been rather colourful in his praise, likening the Irish troubadour to “a smooth shot of Jameson or Bushmills”, as well as putting him in the same company as the creators of the finest Americana of the modern era: Okkervil River and Sufjan Stevens.

The record lies somewhere within these boundaries. It is “familiar, yet very much unique” in the words of Stively: the passion, the anger and the nostalgia that pour through the album are something we can all identify with. The opening track in particular, ‘Burn It All’, is sang with a David Kitt-style honesty as Kangataran laments his wasted years.

“Welcome back to yourself, it’s been a while since you’ve been home… When I think about all the time that I spent figuring out how to live my life / It makes my head spin thinking about how I lived seven years afraid to live even one.”

The period that Kangataran is referring to is that which preceded his foray into music.

“I would still say that music is very new to me. There are a lot of things I haven’t done. Before I came here (Los Angeles) I spent a year swimming. Just swimming. It seemed like the right thing to do. Before that I was dissecting bodies and teaching anatomy to medical students. That was ok but the smell of formaldehyde wasn’t.

“I did that for four years after University. Before that I was spending all of my time training to be a pilot. My Dad was a pilot. I got as far as getting my Private Pilot’s Licence. I had to work some tough jobs to do that. Dangerous ones. Handling plastic parts in factories with machines that were several hundred degrees Celsius.”

The album was not put together without a struggle, despite the effortless flow of the tracks.

“The “old” record that I made last summer was unusual in that I was at my happiest whilst making it, and the busy drums and brass reflect this, but the material itself was very sad. I wrote that album because I had to, and though it came from an unhappy place there really isn’t all that much emotion in it. It’s just a delivery of statements.”

Song-writing is a craft, and a difficult one. Take note of any number of Kangataran’s contemporaries, pouring out tracks about nothing at all. The album is tinged with a refreshing honesty, however. It feels real, it feels intimate.

“It’s really hard to write something that means absolutely nothing but songwriters manage it every day. Try it yourself. If you were to even write down what you ate yesterday or whom you owe money to and why, assuming you managed to avoid rhyming ‘high’, ‘sky’, ‘fly’, or using words like ‘unicorn’ or ‘sunset’, or talking about someone’s eyes or calling someone ‘baby’, then you’ve written something with more value than most of the shit out there.

“The line that a lot of people have connected to in the record is about kissing your girlfriend’s belly and how it’ll one day be a home to your babies, but this coming from a place after you’ve broken up. That’s just an intimate statement of fact.

“It could easily have been a line about how she liked watching lesbian porn when we had sex. Both are each other’s equal and neither of them puts their hand on their heart or tilts their head emotively to get their point across.”

Such a commitment to his craft, and such honesty, has served Sean well in his time in Los Angeles, where he has put together an eight piece ensemble that includes Tom Waits’ bassist and Outkast’s drummer.

“I like telling people that I’ve had good luck, that I am lucky, or whatever, but there’s no such thing as luck. Good nor bad. The people I’m playing with here are with me because I went out and found them. I’ve auditioned a lot of musicians.

“Every day here I am practicing and improving in some way. I can’t make anyone else do that, I can’t even make people care about what they do, and though I can feel dependent on them, I’m not.”

It is striking the difference between Kangataran the musician, and Sean the interviewee. While the record is whimsical and reflective, Sean is much more matter of fact about his scenario. He is not to be swept up in the LA notions of success, while is very measured and calculated about his every word.

“I don’t really care about the common notions of success; I would simply like to have a band that can deliver the songs I write accurately. After that it’d be nice to earn enough to not starve but that’s secondary.”

Sweeping between the downbeat ‘Burn it All’, the bluesy lead-single ‘Hairpin’, the Americana infused ‘Be The Dust’, Sean Kangataran can accurately be filed under the ‘missed opportunities’ category for many writers and music lovers.

As good a collection of folk and indie music as you’ll hear anywhere, fans of the Shins, the Decemberists, Iron & Wine and Sufjan Stevens should find much to adore here.

It is an album that has struck a chord with many who are able to identify with the myriad of missteps, faltering relationships and wondrous notions of what might have been.

Sean is hoping to return to Ireland this year, though it largely depends on money. Until then, he tells me that he and his collective are playing a number of shows around Hollywood, meeting the industry heads (it’s “the nature of the town”) and continuing to rehearse in a mansion that is now the setting for a reality TV show…

Just a normal day for this chanteur.

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