We first saw Sean Michel perform on American Idol when he auditioned with “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” However, that is not even close to who Sean Michel is as an artist. We have seen him perform on numerous occasions and he is an unsanitized, gut-rock Delta blues musician. Sean Michel combines a a soaring voice, ripping slide guitar skills and a fiery passion for God into a foot stompin’, hip swingin’, glory shouting Gospel party.
Sean Michel‘s new album Back To The Delta showcases the power of his music and his message. From the opening track, “When The Saints Go Marching In” to the end, “I Wanna Be More Like Jesus” there is no question that Sean Michel is as true a bluesman as those sharecroppers who walked the dirt roads of the south in the “30′s and 40′s. Every song showcases Sean Michel as powerful a preacher as any televangilist. The middle set of songs, “Hosea Blues”, “The Curse Is Broken”, “My Jesus”, and “He Is the One” is hot enough to give you radiation burns, or should I say, Gospel burns.
Sean Michel was kind enough to do an interview with us on the occasion of the release of Back To The Delta. We strongly reccomend that you go to http://seanmichel.storenvy.com/ and order Back To The Delta.
Interview With Christian Bluesman Sean Michel
One21: Many of our readers have never experienced Sean Michel‘s music. Can you take us back to the beginning and give us the story of Sean Michel the musician?
Sean: I was born down in the swamp, outside New Orleans. I didn’t wanna wait for no hospital, so I came out my momma right down in those river bottoms surrounded by cypress trees adorned with garlands of the hanging Spanish moss. Matter of fact, my family told me some of that Spanish moss got caught up in the breeze and landed right on my face after I was born, so as I had a long beard as soon as I took my first breath.
When you got that big river in you from birth like I did, it aint but a matter of time before you got to express all that soul that pent up inside you. I used to sing and all that as a boy – but it was when the Holy Spirit got involved that I really had something to sing about. A few years after that, I picked up an old guitar for the first time and it was like a crawdad found a mud hole. It felt like home. I been trying to figure out how to make it all work since then and truth be told I’m still tryin to work it out. But for me, the story ain’t really about me bein’ a musician – its about a music that’s bigger than me that done got inside me, and is tryin’ to work its way back out.
One21: Modern music fans have a difficult time reconciling the delta blues of Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker with the modern Christian outlook of comfort and happiness. What inspired you to express your faith through a musical style that is traditionally associated with pain and despair?
Sean: Well, all this music started with the slave songs out in the fields. And as they began to sing gospel songs, they could understand an aspect of the gospel that many of us struggle to comprehend. They were a people living in a land that was not their own, far from their home. They understood the longing for that other place. It was not entirely unlike the Jewish exiles. And it parallels the situation of believers in Jesus nowadays – we’re living in a land that is not where we belong, just like Peter said in the good book. And I think the perfect music to reflect that situation is the blues. I got a real problem with what you termed “the Christian outlook of comfort and happiness”, cause if a Christian is comfortable and happy in this world then it means they ain’t longing for the kingdom come. I ain’t comfortable, and I ain’t happy. So I sing the blues till Jesus comes, and I’ll holler and moan in front of the whole world until the day I see His face.
One21: In today’s music scene, your music is mostly relegated to specialized “blues” clubs or honky-tonks. How do the audiences react to your overtly Christian stance in the setting?
Sean: First of all, we play in all kinds of venues. We play in high churches, low churches, dive bars, juke joints, and just anywhere music is played. I don’t know that we’ve played many honky tonks, actually. We did play a strip club once… but that’s another story. But no matter where we play, its always the same set. By that I mean, we don’t try to water down the Truth just ’cause we’re in a bar and we don’t try to mellow out the rock n’ roll just ’cause we’re in a church. And we find that we have more problems with churches accepting our rock n’ roll than we do bar crowds accepting our faith. I remember a conversation with a guy at a bar in Philly, and he said, “I don’t believe what you believe, but I believe that you believe it.” The sincerity and passion I have for Jesus and making Him known comes through in my music, and I think more than anything, real music lovers just want authenticity. And I think they sense that I’m just being real. And the bottom line is, if you’re good at what you do then that’s all most folks care about. Playing good music makes ‘em give you the benefit of the doubt. The negative reactions have been few and far between and greatly outnumbered by a welcome and warm reception by people who don’t yet believe in Jesus.
One21: How do you think the general public and the mainstream music industry view faith based music?
Sean: I think they see it as a taboo. They don’t want to touch it. They think you have to water it down, use pronouns or vague metaphors. But what they forget is that the most succesful artits back in the day made Gospel records. Johnny Cash, Elvis, Al Green, Little Richard, Sam Cooke… the list goes on and on. So we have this heritage of rock n’ roll and soul music that is greatly intertwined with the Gospel, but the general public – and particularly the “industry – sees them as incompatible. I’ll never understand that. Gospel and Rock n’ Roll were made for each other.
One21: How do you measure success?
Sean: Skip James had a song called “I wanna be more and more like Jesus”. That’s my measuring stick right there. I just wanna be more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more pure. And I want the life I live and the music I play to not only reflect that, but inspire others to pursue the same kind of success. That’s it. For the Lord to look at me and say “well done” is the only kind of success I want.
One21: What responsibility do you think an artist/performer has to its listeners?
Sean: A huge responsibility. We have a saying – “serve the audience”. What’s the point of doing this in front of people if you don’t make it about saying something to them and involving them? Lauryn Hill talks in her Unplugged album about not giving people what they want, but instead giving them what they need. I think that’s huge, and really that’s what love is. If we really love the people in the audience, then we’re more concerned with their soul than just tickling their ears. We wanna make your booty shake, but that’s really just the way for us to get into your soul. And then we want to speak some Truth once we get in there. (I do find that the booty and the soul are connected, in fact- but I digress.) But we want to do all of that in a way that the audience appreciates what they’re being given – whether it makes them feel good or not, we do want them to value it. We want them to feel it, deep down in the inner most part of themselves.
One21: In today’s music scene, with the demise of record companies and mySpace, how does an artist develop a large enough following to sustain a career?
Sean: Just go do it. That’s what I alaways tell artists who ask for advice. Just get out there and go serve people with your music. If your goal is a large audience, then you’ll fail. You got to treat each person like they’re the only person – because that’s how you’d want to be treated. I don’t know much about sustaining a career because we’re probably not the best example of a business model for musicians. But people like what we do well enough, and if we can just break through to their soul then we’ve connected with them – and that will last a lifetime, and hopefully even longer.
One21: You have been pursuing your vision for several years now. Can you give us insight into the life of a musician in the 21st century?
Sean: Ha – well, it ain’t pretty. There’s a lot less money involved than there was even 10 years ago. If you weren’t already somewhat established, then its impossible to get that kind of notoriety anymore. You have to just really believe in what you do and not care about getting “big”. Its a grind, constantly. Its hard to get the word out when you’re up to stuff, like touring or recording. The record industry has changed, but the fans haven’t caught up. The fans still expect their favorite bands to have a cd in Best Buy, even though they won’t buy it there. They expect them to have a huge live show, even though they won’t attend. So there is a dynamic right now where the fans are going to have to catch up to the reality that is the music scene in this century. Until fans begin to make personal investments in the artists they like on a more regular basis, its just gonna keep being next to impossible for bands to sustain themselves with any kind of longevity. Fans are going to have to step up and realize they’re gonna have to take the place of the labels and sponsors of the past. But if and when that happens, I think artists and music lovers will be better off.
One21: What is your best memory of your career so far?
Sean: I dunno – too many to pick a favorite. Next Question. I will say that my favorite moments are the connections with regular people in unlikley settings – just seeing and meeting people, and connecting with them in a way that impacts eternity. I guess you’ll have to wait for my biography for the full story.
One21: What are your road traditions?
Sean: We have a few, but they’re more like just habits. We’re creatures of habit. If there’s a Qdoba, we eat there. We come home through Memphis if we go East, so we have a tradition of stopping at Blues City Cafe on Beale st. for the last dinner of a tour. We also roll the window down as soon as we cross the border back into Arkansas – gotta get that Natural State clean air in our lungs again. We do this thing where we listen to geographically appropriate music – for instance, if we’re rolling down Highway 41 in Georgia, we might listen to “Ramblin Man” by the Allman Brothers, and follow it up with “Georgia on my Mind” by Ray Charles. We also make it a habit to enjoy the places we go. If there’s a national park, we’ll go check it out, things like that.
One21: What do you love about music?
Sean: I love how simple it is – just moving air. And through that, one soul can connect to another soul. Nothing else does that like music. Its almost like speaking telepathically. We cut through all the jive and speak straight to each others souls through music. And its not just each other – its like its God’s own voice, like we’re speaking God’s own language. And you know when two folks are speaking the same language they connect better. So even though we don’t see God, music helps us speak with him. We’re speaking it with him to each other – like Apostle Paul told us to when he said to speak to each other with spritual songs and hymns. I get a little goosebumpy just thinkin’ about how all that works.
One21: Who are your favorite musicians?
Sean: I really love the Staples Singers, and more recently some of Mavis Staples solo stuff. When I was younger I loved CeCe Winans and she still gets to me. I recently have gotten into a former Stax artist named Rance Allen too – he does Gospel. Speaking of Stax – gotta mention Otis Redding. Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe have all influenced the way I play and I still listen to them. I’ve got this Al Green gospel record I’ve been spinning a lot lately. And then there’s guys like Keith Green and Rich Mullins, guys I just feel used music the right way. Musically, sometimes I’m not with what they’re doing but their content always wins me over. Lets see – Jonny Lang, Buddy Guy – saw them together live and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. Zeppelin, The Stones, all of those white boy British Blues – I dig on that too. I could go on and on I guess, but I reckon that gives you the picture.