Great Big Sea
Great Big Sea
Aself-described folk band, the Newfoundland quartet Great Big Sea has a wide following among fans of both traditional and rock music. Their self-defined mission is to perform the folk music of Newfoundland with a modern twist, and in this they have succeeded extraordinarily well. Between their performing debut in 1991 and 2003, the band won no fewer than ten East Coast Music Awards, including those for Entertainer of the Year and Group of the Year. The band's 2002 release, Sea of No Cares, debuted as the best-selling album in Canada, and attracted a wide following in the United States and Europe as well.
Great Big Sea's lineup consists of singer, guitarist, and keyboardist Alan Doyle, singer and multi-instrumentalist Séan McCann, bass guitarist Darrell Power, and Bob Hallett on the fiddle, accordion, mandolin, concertina, and bouzukia. All of them hail from Newfoundland, a province on Canada's east coast. Hallett describes the band's sound as a marriage of rock, traditional Celtic tunes, and what he calls aggressive folk music. Combining tunes that are hundreds of years old with modern sensibilities, the band's appeal has proven ageless, beguiling fans young and old in equal numbers.
Alan Doyle grew up in the seaside community of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, a small fishing community in which music played an important part. Doyle grew up listening to music in church, at school, and at home, where his uncles regularly met to sing Irish folk songs. His mother worked as a piano teacher, instructing local children in the family's living room. It was no surprise, therefore, that Doyle choose music as a career. Although he learned to play the piano and drums, he fell in love with the guitar. When he was 15, he joined the band of one of his uncles, the first in a succession of bands he would join. Doyle met and began to play with future Great Big Sea band mates McCann, Hallett, and Power while completing his undergraduate studies at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland.
Born in Carbonear, Newfoundland, another small fishing village, McCann moved to St. John's at the age of five. He got halfway through a masters degree in folklore at Memorial before his work with Great Big Sea forced him to choose between a life in academia or in music. Fortunately for the group, he chose music. It was, however, at Memorial University in St. John's that he met Hallett, Power, and Doyle. McCann credits his parents with providing his biggest inspiration for his music and his life.
Like Doyle and McCann, Power grew up in a small town in Newfoundland. He was exposed to music at an early age through his father, who sang in a band. Power played in a rock band in high school, and while attending college at Memorial University developed something of a following as a solo artist covering the folk and rock songs of other artists. After meeting his future Great Big Sea band mates, Power focused mainly on playing bass, but he continued to experiment with other instruments, including mandolin, guitar, fiddle, accordion, and harmonica.
Although the group met and is based in St. John's, Bob Hallett is the only member of Great Big Sea who was born and raised there. He too grew up in a musical household, and was encouraged by his parents to play any instruments that appealed to him. A saxophonist in his school band, he also taught himself to play guitar and tin whistle. He later studied accordion, and learned to play the fiddle when he was 20, around the time he met the other members of Great Big Sea at Memorial University. A writer and editor as well as a musician, Hallet wrote the group's early publicity materials and many of the liner notes for the band's albums.
The group formed when McCann left a band called Rankin Street to team up with Hallett, Power, and Doyle to create Great Big Sea in 1991. Doyle credited Newfoundland's rich musical heritage with the group's genesis. As he explained to Scott Mervis in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, before American pop music became popular in Newfoundland in the mid-1960s, "there'd been 10 proud generations of Newfoundlanders who had developed their own plays and stories and songs. By the time I was a kid in the '80s, people would sing a Newfoundland folk song and then an Elvis Presley song, and then maybe one someone wrote three weeks ago. And it was never like 'this is an important one, this isn't.' It was all just music." Doyle explained that the original impetus for the band's music was to challenge the pop music playing on the radio with songs that had a deeper history.
In the year following the group's formation, the group released its self-released debut album, Great Big Sea, which was later rereleased by Warner Music Canada. The group followed its first release with Up in September of 1995, which proved to be the group's breakthrough effort, going platinum (selling 100,000 copies) in Canada a year later. The band released Play in 1997, which hit the platinum mark in only three months, and sold 200,000 copies by the following year.
In 1998 Great Big Sea took home five East Coast Music Awards—Group of the Year, Album of the Year, Single of the Year, for "When I'm Up," Pop/Rock Artist of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year—spurred by the success of Play. That same year, Great Big Sea found a wide audience in the United States with its American debut, Rant and Roar, in support of which the group launched an American concert tour. The group released its fourth Canadian album, Turn in 1999, backing it with a concert tour as well, which produced their first concert album, Road Rage, in 2000.
The group released its fifth studio album, Sea of No Cares, in February of 2002. The album hit the number one spot on the Canadian charts in its first week of release, and brought the group's total number of albums sold past the one million mark. They then hit the road in a Canadian concert tour that lasted through much of the rest of the year. The band eventually played in more than 40 cities, reaching an audience of some 100,000 people.
A year after the release of Sea of No Cares, Power, the group's bassist, announced that he would leave to pursue interests closer to home. He cited ten years of nearly nonstop touring and recording as factors in his decision to spend more time with his family.
For the Record . . .
Members include Alan Doyle , guitar, vocals, keyboard; Bob Hallett , accordian, mandolin, concertina; Séan McCann , guitar, vocals, tin whistle; Darrell Power (left band, 2001), bass, guitar.
Group formed in Newfoundland, Canada, 1991; released self-produced debut album, Great Big Sea, 1992; released Up, 1995; released Play, 1997; won five East Coast Music Awards, 1998; released debut album in the United States, Rant and Roar, 1998; released Turn in Canada, 1999; first concert album, Road Rage, 2000; music featured in the film (although not on the soundtrack album) Shipping News, 2001; Power announced his departure from the band, 2001; released Sea of No Cares, which topped the Canadian charts, 2002; nominated for seven East Coast Music Awards, won five, 2003.
Awards: East Coast Music Awards, Group of the Year, 1998, 2003; Pop/Rock Artist of the Year, 1998, 2003; Album of the Year, 1998, 2003; Single of the Year, 1998; Entertainer of the Year, 1998, 2003; Video of the Year, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Warner Music Canada Ltd., 3751 Victoria Park Ave., Scarborough, Ontario M1W 3Z4, Canada. Website— Great Big Sea Official Website: http://www.greatbigsea.com.
In 2003 Great Big Sea won five awards at the East Coast Music Awards, winning Album of the Year and Video of the Year for Sea of No Cares, Pop Artist of the Year, Group of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year. They had been nominated for seven awards—more than anyone else. Meanwhile, the members of Great Big Sea planned to keep doing what they do best—playing folk music from Newfoundland. As Doyle explained to Scott Mervis in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "It would be foolish of me to suggest that some of the songs we learned didn't have origins in southern England or southern Ireland. But our role in the world is be a Newfoundland folk band."
Great Big Sea, self-released, 1992.
Up, Wea International, 1996.
Play, Wea International, 1997.
Rant and Roar, Sire, 1998.
Road Rage, Rounder, 2000.
Turn, Sire, 2000.
Sea of No Cares, Zoe, 2002.
Billboard, June 14, 2003.
Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario), February 17 2003, p. B2.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1999, p. 28.
"Great Big Sea," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 15, 2003).
Great Big Sea Official Website, http://www.greatbigsea.com (September 15, 2003).