Welcome to the 29th instalment of Creative Fridays! This time we have an amazing fingerstyle jazz guitarist, Sean McGowan sharing his experience and insights. I really enjoyed Sean’s responses to the questions and I hope you will too.
I first encountered Sean’s work from Acoustic Guitar magazine and later on via his videos that were featured on truefire.com. His graceful playing, elegant style and fluid movements inspired me to learn more about his work. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to review his book, The Acoustic Jazz Guitarist and also enjoy more and more of his music via his updates on Facebook. I am deeply honoured that he has graciously agreed to be part of this series!
Let’s learn more about Sean:
Sean McGowan is a fingerstyle jazz guitarist who combines many diverse musical influences with unconventional techniques to create a broad palette of textures within his compositions and arrangements for solo guitar. His first recording River Coffee won the Best Independent Release of the Year Award (2002) from Acoustic Guitar magazine and music from the recording has been published in Japan’s Acoustic Guitar magazine and Mel Bay’s Master Anthology of Fingerstyle Guitar, Vol. 3 (2005). His subsequent recordings Indigo (2008) and Sphere: the Music of Thelonious Monk (2011) offer compelling portraits of classic jazz standards performed on solo electric archtop guitar. Sphere was named one of Acoustic Guitar magazine’s “Essential Albums of 2011”, and Sean was recently featured on the cover of Fingerstyle 360 magazine (Summer 2012). His most recent solo guitar recordings include Thanksgiving & Christmas Tidings (2014) a collection of seasonal hymns and carols arranged for acoustic guitar, and My Fair Lady (2015) a collection of songs from Lerner & Loewe’s masterpiece.
As a soloist, Sean has performed at several festivals including the Novi Sad International Jazz Festival in Serbia, the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in Napa Valley, Copper Mountain Guitar Town, the Newport Guitar Festival, and the Chet Atkins CAAS Convention. He has also collaborated with several dance and improv companies, as well as with jazz and acoustic musicians throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
Sean is an avid arts educator and currently serves as an Associate Professor of Music and the Guitar Program Director at the University of Colorado Denver. He earned a DMA in Guitar Performance from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and has conducted workshops at colleges throughout the country. Sean is a strong advocate for injury prevention and health education for musicians, and his workshops incorporate a holistic approach to playing. He is also a contributing editor and educational advisor for Acoustic Guitar magazine. He is the author of the String Letter book/DVD instructional projects The Acoustic Jazz Guitarist, Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Essentials and Holiday Songs for Fingerstyle Guitar, as well as Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar Survival Guide and Walking Bass & Comping for Jazz Guitar, both available at TrueFire.com.
And let’s get into the interview:
1. What’s your latest project?
I’ve been focusing a lot of energy in the past year or so on educational materials and products to help guitarists of all levels and experience improve various facets of their playing, musicianship, and overall enjoyment of music. I have a brand new book out titled, The Acoustic Jazz Guitarist, that is essentially an applied jazz guitar method book that covers the fundamentals as well as offering new perspectives and concepts for seasoned guitarists: https://store.acousticguitar.com/products/the-acoustic-jazz-guitarist
I’ve also produced four DVDs with True Fire that cover different aspects of modern fingerstyle jazz guitar, comping, and how to incorporate various pentatonic scales in classic and modern jazz settings to create new sounds: https://truefire.com/search/?q=sean
I’m currently working on preparing and composing material for one or two recording projects. I’ll probably do another solo guitar record next year, and I’d really like to do a trio recording. I just finished an organ trio residency at a club here in Denver, and it was a ton of fun!
2. What inspires your music?
This is a great question, and one that probably has several malleable answers! I guess it depends on what I’m working on. I think first and foremost, listening to music – and experiencing it live – is a constant source of inspiration. Sometimes I think we all forget that active listening is an important part of practicing and musical development. It’s nice to be able to dedicate some time each day to really listen. Sometimes, if I’m doing a lot of driving, I’ll listen to other things such as podcasts or novels, just to kind of take a break from listening to too much. Certainly, living in Colorado is beautiful, and the beauty of the natural world is incredibly deep and inspiring. For me, inspiration comes from a place of positivity and feeling good. To that end, I try to avoid the negative aspects of news, politics, social media, etc. Reading books and checking out movies can also be very inspiring.
3. What’s your 5 Desert Island Albums?
This is a tough one!! But if pressed…I never get tired of the following:
Alex de Grassi – Deep at Night
Michael Hedges – Aerial Boundaries
Tuck & Patti – Tears of Joy
Wes Montgomery – A Dynamic New Sound in Jazz
Jesse van Ruller – Here and There
4. Who’s one artist/musician that you love but most people probably don’t know of?
I’m going to cheat and name two! Mostly because you and I have a shared affinity for both jazz and acoustic fingerstyle guitarists. David Qualey is a beautiful fingerstyle guitarist and composer who was part of the original Windham Hill stable of guitarists, and his music is truly poetic: http://www.david-qualey.com
Also, Maarten van der Grinten, who is one of my favorite contemporary jazz guitarists & educators. He directs the Guitar Program at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and I’m sure a lot more well-known in Europe than in the States. His soloing and comping sensibilities are truly unique, and he has created really inventive music with various jazz ensembles and even string quartets. His duo record with Jesse van Ruller is my favorite guitar duo record of all time:
5. What’s an advice you wish someone told you when you started in the arts?
Staying positive and focusing on your own path are very, very important things to remember, though not always easy. In other words, try not to worry about your musical progress, career, etc. in terms of comparing your trajectory and development with others. I find my students really struggle with this in the era of YouTube, social media, etc. Follow your instincts and musical intuition/vision. That will lead you to discover something really special that only you can offer, whether in the form of compositions, performances, teaching, recording – it’s different for everyone.
From a pragmatic standpoint, do your best to stay out of debt. Search thoroughly for grant opportunities where you live, and learn how to write grants and network beyond ‘traditional’ methods. Try to assess all of your musical and non-musical skills. There’s a great book called The Savvy Musician that highlights many of these concepts and exercises, and really focuses on entrepreneurial thinking and mindsets.
6. As a jazz guitarist, composer and educator, what has been your biggest challenge in your work? How did you overcome it?
I think as an independent musician in any style or genre, it’s always a challenge to get your music heard, develop opportunities outside of where you live, and ultimately finding your audience and/or fan base, without feeling like you’re compromising your musical integrity. I’m still working on it, and I think it’s important to find the right exposure that is meaningful. By that I mean, I’m not so sure if having a ton of social media followers pays off and will have a meaningful effect on your career. Perhaps in some cases it does. But, for example, many of my students deal with the concept of potential fans expecting everything – recordings, tabs, arrangements, lessons – for free. Obviously, that’s not a sustainable model, not for anyone. I think this is a big issue, right now, that all of us are trying to figure out.
I think fundraising platforms such as Kickstarter are fantastic. I think of it as pre-sales for a recording project, and it can really connect you with your audience in exciting and personal ways, and allow you all the artistic freedom that maybe a label wouldn’t. Check out Amanda Palmer’s TED talk video on the Art of Asking:
We all know the industry is constantly changing, and part of our charge as artists is figuring out how to change with it, but in a reasonable, sustainable, and hopefully enjoyable way!
7. How do we reach you?
CD Baby: https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/SeanMcGowan
Thank you for your time Sean!
Thank you for reading this week’s instalment of #AzCreativeFridays. Please do check out the past interviews (29 so far, including this one) and come back for the next one with film music composer Rendra Zawawi. Stay tuned! 🙂
Read the recent [Creative Fridays] interview:
[Creative Fridays] #14 : Taylor Roberts
7-String Solo Guitarist
[Creative Fridays] #16: Scott Murphy
Saxophonist and Composer
[Creative Fridays] #17: Nisa Addina
[Creative Fridays] #18: Jake Shimabukuro
[Creative Fridays] #19: Jared Sims
[Creative Fridays] #20: Gabriel Lynch
[Creative Fridays] #21: Rizal Tony
Jazz Guitarist and Educator
[Creative Fridays] #22: Raja Farouk
Multi-Instrumentalist and Sessionist
[Creative Fridays] #23: Kho Chia Wen Sharon
[Creative Fridays] #24: Josh Maxey
Jazz Guitarist & Educator
[Creative Fridays] #25: Toru Watanabe
[Creative Fridays] #26: Jordan Klemons
Jazz Guitarist & Music Educator
[Creative Fridays] #27: Armen Movsesyan
Jazz Guitarist & Music Educator
[Creative Fridays] #28: Gwen Guo
[Creative Fridays] #29: Sean McGowan
[Creative Fridays] #30: Rendra Zawawi
Film Music Composer
[About Creative Fridays]
The original Creative Fridays was an interview series I did back in 2012. Published on my website, www.azsamad.com, it explored the musical influences of various musicians from all over the world. Relaunching this now in 2018, there are some cool add-ons. For a super obvious one, we’ve now added Spotify and YouTube links whenever possible for the Desert Island Albums list.
This to me is amazing because you can actually immediately listen to the recommended albums. Coming from a generation that used to make trips to the record store to check out new music, it still boggles my mind that we can immediately listen to the records that is recommended here. Imagine if you listened to the 5 suggested albums – how much could you learn from it?
Also, in addition to the original questions from the series, I’ve added a new question into the mix asking about the biggest challenge each individual has faced in their work. I’ve found that we all can benefit by learning from one another. Let’s share and grow together!
If you know a musician who you think could be a good fit to be featured in Creative Fridays, please contact me with your ideas. The focus is in diversity for music, cultural background, geography, age and experience. It doesn’t matter where you are around the world, if you’re a creative making interesting music on an interesting journey and have something to share, please reach out to me. Please do note, due to this being a weekly series, the interview may be featured later in the year depending scheduling.
Thank you! 🙂
[The Original Series]
Season 1: Every week for 13 weeks, published from Feb 2012 to April 2012.
[Creative Fridays] #1 : Kevin Broken Scar
(Melbourne Singer-Songwriter/Sound Engineer)
[Creative Fridays] #2 : Deborah Crooks
(SF Bay Area Singer-Songwriter)
[Creative Fridays] #3 : Dylan Kay
(UK/Auckland Jazz Guitarist)
[Creative Fridays] #4 : Azmyl Yunor
(Malaysian Singer-Songwriter/College Lecturer)
[Creative Fridays] #6 : TragiComedy
[Creative Fridays] #7 : Candelaria
(Oakland Cumbia-Dub Band)
[Creative Fridays] #8 : Pete Teo
[Creative Fridays] #9 : Lori McKinney
(West Virginia Bandleader/Festival Organizer)
[Creative Fridays] #10: Helen Sherrah-Davies
(UK/Boston Violinist-Composer & Berklee faculty)
[Creative Fridays] #11: Adam Everett
(SF Bay Area Drummer-Composer)
[Creative Fridays] #12: Julian Chan
(Malaysian Jazz Saxophonist)
[Creative Fridays] #13: Sharon Chong
(Malaysian Keyboardist and Vocalist]
[More about Az Samad]
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