You can sum up the journey of Seán McGowan, the son of the smith, with the title of his first EP on Xtra Mile: Graft & Grief. Work and stress. Life at the anvil and hammer, bearing the brunt of life’s weight. Since 2009 he’s been at that grindstone, gathering stories and carving melodies while working late nights in bars between shows armed with just an acoustic guitar. Somehow the perpetual “new artist”, even as others adorned with that title come and go, and Seán is still at it allowing the songs to pour forth like the finest lager.
After two EPs, 2011’s McGovernment and 2012’s The People’s Music, he really became “one to watch” in 2013 around Brighton’s The Great Escape festival, and tours with Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly., The Rifles, Beans on Toast and Frank Turner followed. In early 2014, Sam Duckworth (Get Cape) helped Seán piece together his first double A-side single and would continue to be his go-to producer to this day at Sam’s own Amazing Grace studios. ‘Come Unstuck’ (featuring Frank Turner on backing vocals) and ‘Swings & Roundabouts’ emerged, and he spent the rest of the year on the road with Sam in the UK and Rob Lynch in Europe. After releasing the Look Lively EP in early 2016 and touring with Grace Petrie and Recreations (Sam again), he released breakthrough single ‘No Show’ and embarked on a sold-out full-band UK tour. He signed with Xtra Mile in 2017 before releasing his EP Graft & Grief in September. But all of this may not have happened, because Seán was struggling with doubt.
“I was getting to that age where all my friends had proper jobs and were moving out or going on holiday and I get a little bit down about all that, you know,” he explains. “I’d been cracking away at this for so long and I wasn’t sure if it was right for me anymore. And that’s not even down to thinking I deserved more opportunity. It’s tough to go away on tour and the having no money thing is an issue when you want to exist.”
It wasn’t until he spent time (starting in 2015) touring with rum-fuelled punk-folk sextet and now-labelmates Skinny Lister – a riotous test of your touring mettle, however long you’ve been on the road – that Seán felt ready to tackle the hard work, to keep at his craft. It was the confidence boost and the inspiration he needed to plough into his songwriting and keep touring.
Growing up in the dockers town of Southampton with strong working class friendships informed Seán’s morals and politics, as well as his work ethic. With deep family ties to London’s Shepherd’s Bush area, a stint living in Camberwell while recording Graft & Grief in 2017, and coming from an Irish family – whose name translates to his debut album title, Son of the Smith – his voice is one of authentic young working class Britain. Whether in the lyrics of his songs or the aspirations he holds, even his musical influences ranging from Mike Skinner of The Streets, Kate Tempest and grime to Billy Bragg, Seán has more to say about ordinary people than a lot of singer-songwriters of his age and standing.
With this at his core, he first encountered the forefather of punk-tinged political folk, Billy Bragg, in person in 2013 after being given a slot on Bragg’s Left Field stage at Glastonbury Festival. Since then, Bragg has given him advice and opportunity. “[Billy] gave me a voice, a direction, he’s kept me out of a lot of trouble. It’s been massive for me and touring with him [in 2017] was a dream come true.”
As Seán has travelled further and wider, he found his songs seem to resonate with people across the whole of the UK and even in places like Ireland and Germany. “You learn a lot about different places, see the similarities,” he says. “Everyone’s plight can be kinda similar.” And with songs like ‘Cuppa Tea’, ‘Porky Pies’, and ‘Mind the Gap’ springing from his debut album, that can only be a good thing for Seán, and for his listeners. “The current social political climate, I think it’s too hard to ignore now. People are looking for answers [or] they’re looking for an escape and I think that validates this sort of scene. It has a place in people’s day-to-day, you know?” And what that translates to is being on the road, gigging, meeting people, interacting, finding out where they’re from and what makes them tick. Seán’s building stories to be told. His songs are like siren calls, guiding people from their minimum-wage jobs to rock that will take them from their lives for a bit, or reflect it back to them, regardless of dialect or outlook. Songs about drinking and failing, incredible friendships, hating work, laughing at dickheads, shaking our heads at society’s apathy – we’ve all been there and they’re all here for us now.
In that spirit, Son of the Smith captures everything live. Drums were done without a click-track, each instrument colliding with the rhythm, it feels urgent “like it could tip over the edge at any point”. Sandwiching recording between a full-band tour and going out on the road with Billy Bragg, while off social media and keeping it schtum, it was like keeping a lid on a boiling pot.
First single ‘Off the Rails’ sears along at a decent clap, an e-bow guitar drone thrumming underneath while Seán gives the lyrical equivalent of an arm around the shoulder and kiss on the cheek of his mates for being there for him. ‘Porky Pies’ returns to that cheeky pace too, jeering at commercial bullshit and fakery. ‘Romance Ain’t Dead’ is horn-addled scrabble for passion and love. There are hints of classic Seán on the quieter finger-picked ‘Life Has a Way’ and the affecting arpeggios of ‘Oh My Days’, if more sensitive than ever, but on ‘Local Boy’ he’s really looking beyond his own limits with a delicate tangle of pedal steel and strumming that reflects upon Seán’s growth since spending his youth in Southampton. Rather than sticking to his solo default, Son of the Smith is full of songs pieced together by Sean’s band from the parts he wrote specifically for them. “That was very important. I’ve got so many different influences in my band: my drummer Mike who loves drum ‘n’ bass; Dean Paul, my guitarist, loves John Mayer bluesey stuff; and Jay, my bass player, loves like fuzz and playing fat chunky bass riffs. The concoction of everyone’s style – for years I’ve written songs for me and an acoustic and a lead line so it was cool considering everyone else.”
If a definitive full-band record wasn’t enough, the clearest break from his past recordings with a spine of a concept running through the album is actually one of its oldest ideas: a journey across London between Old Street, Oval and Camberwell, itself a trek through Seán’s current sound. “The city’s breathing,” he begins on opener ‘Mind the Doors’, an undulating spoken word mantra upon a solo acoustic introduction via a bus journey to one of the key refrains to come. The mantra returns, announcing the album’s second half, and this time Seán’s bank card is declined on ‘Mind Your Head’ despite the warm piano promising more exploration. But after the devastating ‘Springhill’ and the flurried ‘Off the Rails’, the drums rumble as a metronome for Seán’s pitch-perfect grime-tinged flow into the six-minute tube journey on ‘Mind the Gap’. He peers out of his misery at the uncaring floods of commuters while lines peel off along the tracks – “keep tellin’ me to mind the gap, as the space between us grows” and “there ain’t no love on the Northern Line”. The final part of the trilogy, it’s the perfect epilogue to a heartfelt run through his life. Over 13 tracks, Son of the Smith is disarming in its scope, surprising in its erudite tackling of life’s challenges, and strong of voice with just a dab of laddish humour – the aural personification of Seán himself.
“Making a living seems like light years away at the moment,” admits Seán. “Which is fine, but if this record allows me to travel and meet people, I just hope it’s something people can relate to, that’s always my aim to make me feel more secure in myself. It feels like I’m doing something worthwhile when I’m on tour, which is quite a necessary feeling we need as humans, innit.” We all have our craft, and Seán’s assured, passionate, lyrical grasp of where he’s at, where we’re all at, where he’s going and where we might all end up come the end of the day, is absolutely mint. There’s no denying his doubts were misplaced, and this McGowan could end up soundtracking our social conscience well into next year.