Sean Hogan--The Phoenix and The Provider

Cover, Feb 17, 2012

Story: Lenny Stoute

It’s easy to call Sean Hogan a ‘survivor’ and Lord knows the dude has earned it in spades. But Sean Hogan is also a musician and as a musician, I’d call him a 'provider'. Of inspiration, of hope, of some damn fine story telling tunes. If you’ve ever heard “Catalina Sunrise”, “Slow Turning“, "Suck It Up” or any of his other radio-charting singles you know what I’m on about.

Fifteen years of surviving the hard knock life of the professional musician doing original material came in handy last August when the Big C came calling. Specifically, oral pharyngeal cancer, which was masked in his right tonsil, the same type of cancer that’s afflicted Eddie Van Halen, Levon Helm and Michael Douglas. It’s reputed to be one of the more curable varieties and Hogan’s treatment ended in November 2011. The lanky dude with the sandy-coloured hair’s feeling better every day and looking forward to getting out in support of his latest collection, the prophetically-titled “Phoenix.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve written songs which portended things to come,” notes the B.C. resident. ‘Phoenix’ (the single) was written 2 ½ years ago, basically a song about keeping your nose to the grindstone, about keeping on keeping on.”

“The album was in the process of being finished and ready to go when I got the diagnosis. After I absorbed the initial shock and signed up for the treatment, the question of how to go forward was easily resolved. I’m a musician, this is what I do and so I turned to the music itself for strength.”

Hogan also leaned on his family, friends and fans as major sources of support. As they have done throughout his career, the believers backed him in his most deadly personal struggle. Not that struggle is something new for Hogan. Checking out the six albums making up his body of work, a case could be made that Sean Hogan is a victim of his own versatility. It’s all about the song fitting a certain style and Hogan crosses borders and leaps genres with the grace and sweet timing of the Easter Bunny.

Just as the Bunny is a hard one to pin down, so is Hogan, and that fits with the niche-marketing mindset like ballet slippers on a bronc rider. There’s a fierce reluctance to being creatively pigeonholed, especially for an artist who prefers to till the dark soil on the border between country and roots rock, between self-doubt and self-reliance.

Neither country nor roots rock means two sets of cracks to fall through, two sets of square holes to be forced into. Hogan has bucked all this like a mustang on jimson weed for six albums now and even though he knows better and can easily do better, meaning go the commercial route, the dude can’t help himself, can’t hold back his heart.

“At the heart of it, I have to be true to myself, as a person and as a singer/songwriter. Have to keep on keeping on has been my way for a long time. I feel what my fans relate to is the sound of a genuine, heartfelt voice and the associations of the imagery in the music. People will go along with a good story no matter what style it’s in.”

“That’s at the heart of a comment I hear fairly often; “ I don’t usually listen to country music but there’s something in your songs that connect to me. There’s been a certain amount of pressure to just be a country singer. I understand that; not being of one camp or the other can sometimes mean you can’t get into either. It’s something I face every year when Festival season comes around.”

“Nothing against the efficiency of the Nashville music machine; they know their business. There are aspects I find suspect. I question every so often how much of it is written from the heart and how much from the head. I mean, these folks clock in, start writing songs and then clock out again at the end of the day. Every working day. You have to wonder where’s the soul. I find modern rock’n’roll more honest, more willing to lead with its heart.”

“I guess I feel closer to rock writers than I do to country but at heart I’m a style-jumping, singer/songwriter, kind of like John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett”.

Like them, Hogan hopes one day to cross over into the mainstream still doing his thing. He’s well on his way, if ever-growing award wins is anything to go by. Hogan has won back to back West Coast Music Awards for Best Country album with his 2nd and 3rd releases, won multiple C.C.M.A. awards for Roots Artist of the Year in 2003 and he was the original recipient of the Independent Male Artist of Year Award with the C.C.M.A. in 1997 and other awards like Best Country Male Artist and Best Country Video for Catalina Sunrise as well in 2005 with Saskatchewan's Country Music Association.

“Phoenix”, Hogan’s sixth album that drops mid-March, puts him in a good position to make some noise on both sides of the border. It’s got big muscles on its side, courtesy of a distribution deal with EMI via boutique label 360 Records. First single “Travel Plans”. dropped in 2011 and promptly went Top Ten.

“This album (Phoenix) is my most soulful in the way the material is handled but through all of my albums there’s always been traces of the soul influences. I grew up with Motown and the blues.  In the ebb and flow of the process, it’s natural that I arrived at a soul album at this time.”

“I felt it had to be done as quickly as possible, without compromising the quality. So the choice of which songs got on the album came down to the ones that were the most ready. As a songwriter, you always have songs in various stages of completion. You’ll have one that needs just a little bit more work before it’s the way you want it. In this case, I didn’t feel there was time for tinkering so it came down to the ten best that were ready. When I listened back to the album, it just felt right.”

When “Phoenix” rises, it’ll surprise both fans and newcomers with the quality of the music, the voice and the emotional appeal. No surprise, Hogan would like for it to be his most widely heard ever. “What I’d like is for people who’ve never heard me before to go, “Why haven’t I heard of this guy before?  What I’d most like for people to take from the album is simply that sense of no matter what, you’ve got to keep on keeping on”.

In his ever-evolving story, Hogan sees himself back on tour in April, initially doing 12-18 major centres where he has experienced significant airplay. Beyond, the rest of the country beckons and beyond that, as it as been for some time, the USA.

Make no mistake that should all of this come to pass, Sean Hogan will show up ready to play every day. The man is after all a ‘soul-dier,’ survivor, provider and as he lays it out in “Phoenix”: "I don't mind the losing, the losing makes me stronger/The stronger that I am, the more I wanna fly/I'm all right with knowing I could burn out if I don't blow it, and like a Phoenix flying out of the ashes, I will rise".

Sean Hogan Photo Gallery