Though I have heard the name Workman Song often as an inhabitant of The Valley, I have only met Sean McMahon once or twice- in the dimly lit valley playground that is Bishop's Lounge. It was somewhat in passing, and right before he performed with one of his projects, Tidwell's Treasure. I was immediately curious by his enigmatic spirit- seemingly kind and approachable off stage, and full of energy, creativity, and fearlessness on stage. From this spirit, to his lyrics and musical style- Sean McMahon and his full throttle passion project Workman Song are clearly a true treasure to come from Northampton. A feeling that seems to be mutual towards a town that Sean refers to as a "muse of sorts". Recently, Sean took some time out of his day to share with us some of the thoughts behind his work and promote his show here on September 15th when Workman Song opens up for Becca Mancari.
GCA: I have seen you perform with Tidwell's Treasure but I have been wanting to see Workman Song for a long time now- how is Workman different from other projects you play with?
SM: Wow, thanks for supporting Tidwell’s! The meat of Tidwell’s is 100% my lifelong friendship and creative partnership with J Witbeck and Tim Jangl. Everything Tidwell’s -- namely, metal, comedy, and shred -- comes out of that chemistry. Workman is all me all the time. It’s whatever is fascinating me at the time. It’s my songwriting legacy. It’s my musical playground and sanctuary. 100% passion project and strong-armed visionary obsession.
GCA: You have recorded and released a full length album, a full length mix tape, and a number of singles and EPs. Does the progression of these releases follow a specific story or evolution? Have you seen the themes in your writing change at all throughout these releases?
SM: The Lamb & Wolf EP’s were recorded at once, and documented the songs I’d written upon arrival in Brooklyn, NY in late 2011 or so. It was a lonely but exciting time. I was struggling with my faith, and the lyrical content was emotionally heavy to that end. I was a little on the fence about being a professional musician, having just started getting into ministry, and was less interested in writing pretty or cool songs than I was in creating honest confessions and cathartic experiences. As I became more comfortable with my life as a musician, I began experimenting with harmony and melody, and the lyrics became more experimental and intellectual. This was Ion Zelig Vol. III & IV, as well as Open Source Agape Union Vol. I. It was all very lo-fi, quite obscure, and actually quite dissonant. After linking up with my brother Griffin, I finally had a backing band, and I started writing what I considered to be pop songs: “O, To Be In Love Again,” and “Bag of Rejects”. I was deep into The Smiths and Springsteen at that time, and I wanted to express a more universal feeling. After Bowie died, I took it pretty hard, and that’s where I invented the Ruben Smiley persona, and I found a lot of fodder in President Trump’s ascent to power. I wanted to write a concept album, and mix heavy rock and roll with jazz, and I think I did that successfully with “The Secret World of Ruben Smiley Vol. I.” The themes were much more political -- Ruben Smiley himself is a sort of neo-con but questioning (more on this later), culminating in the tacitly anti-Trump “Rock And Roll” single, as well as “O, Brave Fortunate Son,” which is about buying your way into the Presidency. There’s a lot of back catalogue stuff that no one’s heard. There’s an Ion Zelig Vol. I & II, as well as a IV, that’s unreleased, and Ruben Smiley Vol. II: Ruben Smiley In Love might come out soon. There’s also something called the New Jersey Record, a full-length psych rock record, that will probably come out soon, but now I’m writing country music and R&B so I’m a little distracted.
GCA: Have your Northampton roots influenced your writing at all? Has New York?
SM: I would say Northampton has been a muse of sorts for my whole life. As a kid growing up, I knew which clubs I’d be playing in Northampton, and I would picture the crowds I was playing for as I wrote and arranged my songs. Not much has changed. I still feel like I’m writing for Northampton somehow. I learned most of my music business lessons in New York, and made some amazing lifelong friends and connections there, but there’s a reason I wanted to move back to Western Mass.
GCA: What would you say is something special about the Western Mass music scene?
SM: I’ve always said that there is a peculiar “Culture of Weirdness” in Western Mass. It’s not like Portland, or Austin, where they “keep it weird”, either. It’s a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys. Throughout the ebb and flow of the years and changing scenes, that thread has still continued. There’s a sort of friendly competition for peak weirdness. Freak flags fly high. I love that and it inspires me in so many different aspects of my own life. It’s simultaneously welcoming and challenging.
GCA: I have read a lot of comparisons between you and Bob Dylan, Alex Ebert, and others- what artists do you feel you've drawn inspiration from?
SM: I am one of those songwriters that tries to isolate myself from influence as much as possible when I’m writing. I’m very impressionable. The Dylan influence comes from obsessing over just one or two Dylan songs; the Magnetic Zeroes comparison probably comes from playing in Streets Of Laredo for three years, which was a lot like the Zeroes. The most eye-opening artists -- the ones that really inspired me and liberated me from myself as a writer -- are the Beatles, Willie Nelson, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Father John Misty. I can go back to them any time and learn something new. I also model a bit after Beck, Zappa, and Prince: prolific artists who make mince of genre and do what they want, when they want.
GCA: I was able to find a few of your song lyrics written out in their entirety on your bandcamp and I was pretty blown away by some of your words. What comes first for you, the music or the lyrics? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
SM: Thanks! Most often, I sit down with my guitar or piano and I write music and words at the same time. But there are seasons of productivity, and they’re often of different types. I used to write every day in Brooklyn. For the past few years, I’ve been writing in bulk: once every week or two, I will sit down for an hour or so and write 3-5 songs, each one intentionally different from the previous one but attempting to wring out whatever excess feeling and thought has built up inside me up to that point. Additionally, about 1-3 times a month, I will write a song entirely in my head whilst driving or walking -- lyrics, melody, harmonic structure, basic arrangement ideas -- and that’s something that started about 4 years ago.
GCA: I want to hear about how faith plays into your music, and maybe even your life, if that isn't too personal. I know you write about faith but you don't seem like someone who is just putting the idea of a greater power on a pedestal- can you elaborate on your relationship with ideology and how it influences your music?
SM: My relationship with my faith is not ideological. I avoid ideological prisons, and all the polarization that entails. I’ve always called myself a Judeo-Christian mystic, as I was born Jewish (albeit raised areligious), and my decision to be a Jesus freak came after a decision to embrace and explore that inheritance. But I’m not a card-carrying member of any church, nor do I subscribe to a particular theological brand. Jesus did not preach in ideological terms, nor did any of the Prophets. The Bible is mostly narrative about relationships, and it’s a spectacular record of failed relationships, in fact. So is my music! I just gave a workshop at the Wild Goose Festival, a sort of “Progressive” or “Post-Christian” Christian gathering in Asheville, on the topic of “Songwriting For Christians Who Hate Christian Songwriting.” My central message was: glorify God with both the honesty and the beauty of your work. That’s what motivates me.
GCA: Is there an experience in your mind that sticks out as being truly transformative in relation to your work?
SM: When I was 18 or so, I performed a song called “Mighty Jim” for a Suicide Survivors’ (as in, those who were left behind by loved ones who commited suicide) Support Group in Springfield. The song was about my teenage neighbor, who killed himself, and what he would say if he came back to speak with his mother who he left behind. I didn’t go in there knowing how it would affect people: but a Catholic nun told me I had “redeemed their worlds” with the song. I’ll never forget that.
GCA: I know you perform with a few alter egos or aliases, do you feel like this impacts how vulnerable or intimate you are able to be with your performances?
SM: Ruben Smiley is the hardest alter ego. It’s elaborate performance art. The last Ruben appearance, I (as Sean) staged a ferocious altercation with J Witbeck mid-song, stormed the stage, and returned in character as Ruben Smiley. I think I lost some of the audience in the interim, who didn’t realize this was a put-on. And then those who remained were charmed by Ruben, but that’s tricky work for me to pull off. Ruben is avidly Pro-Trump, yet he is torn, because he is deeply in love with Melania Trump. This is the central conflict of his current story: will he choose political allegiance over love? Ruben proceeded to sing his ode to Melania, “Queen of Castle Tower”, and lead a toast to the First Lady, and then sing an improvised harangue about the virtues of neo-conservatism -- to a Northampton crowd. This entire schtick sits in an ambiguous place with my audience, and it requires a lot of cunning to not overly offend people and a lot of courage to pull off the character without cracking when people inevitably get slightly offended.
GCA: What's next for Workman Song? What can we expect to see on September 7th and in the near future?
SM: September 7th is a solo show, and I don’t necessarily plan on any hijinks (always subject to change). I’ll keep it intimate. I’ll share some new songs, too. What’s next for Workman Song? That’s a good question. I’m sitting on 3 or 4 finished records right now, each wildly different from the next, but I’m also writing some really rootsy stuff that’s really doing it for me. I’m going to pick a direction this fall and go from there. Keep me in your prayers!
Learn more about Workman Song here.
Grab tickets to see Workman Song and Becca Mancari on September 15th here.
RSVP to the Facebook event page here.