AVENUE

Q and A with Sean Thomas Gerard about “Great Unknown”

Singer-songwriter discusses making and writing his first solo album.

By Brian Tucker

With no deadline or outward pressure, Onward, Soldiers singer Sean Thomas Gerard wrote and recorded new songs at home that became Great Unknown. Melodic, haunted, and catchy, it has a lush sonic presence and lyrically illustrates a more personal approach to Gerard’s songwriting. He’s been a singer with Onward, Soldiers for six years. The band’s new album Daydreamer is due next year.

Are these songs more personal to you, more than the work with Onward, Soldiers?

Gerard: Definitely. But, the Onward songs were very personal to me as well, my best stuff at the time. This one is more personal because of all the work I put into it. From writing to recording and mixing, I spent a lot of time with these songs, more time than I’ve ever spent with a piece of music before. I feel a deep connection with them. They’re an extension of my heart, like everything I write. I think it’s probably my best stuff yet. The most like me that I’ve ever sounded.

sean thomas

This is your first solo album, was it freeing to work without a band?

Gerard: Before I started playing with a band, I would multi-track to electronic drums on my laptop and was pretty prolific for a while. It helped me learn how to play different instruments and taught me a lot about arranging music. In some ways, it’s the most fun to record like that because you have no boundaries and you get to play everything. I had no deadline, no restrictions. So it was completely stress-free.

Were these five songs written in a specific period? 

Gerard: I wrote “Gold Mine” four or so years ago. It’s one of those songs that I’ve arranged one hundred different ways and never found a place for it. When I started recording this album, it just seemed to vibe with the sound and feel of the other four tunes. The other four are pretty fresh. “They Made a Mess Out of Me” was written and recorded in its entirety in one day, right before I started mixing.

They just didn’t feel like Onward tunes, but I knew they needed an avenue. And the five tracks, to me, just seem to flow really well together. Everything just came together very naturally, probably had a lot to do with being in my own home and not in a studio time-sensitive atmosphere.

Will you incorporate them into OS sets?

Gerard: I don’t think they’ll make their way into an Onward set. I’m looking to perform these out as well and want it to be a different experience.

Calling it Great Unknown, what does that mean or say for you? 

Gerard: Great Unknown is about finding your place in the world with the love of your life, essentially. About being ok with the unknown, because the known is enough. I wrote most of these songs about my wife and our travels together. I find it easier to express things through music sometimes.

These songs just poured out of me. Like they needed to be written. I think my subconscious found happiness. I’m ok with whatever happens with this record because making it alone was enough. But I think a lot of people are going to relate with the content.

Is that how you felt working solo?

Gerard: Working solo just felt normal, maybe even easier to express the true nature of the songs. It can sometimes be hard to work on very personal material with other people. Songs can get anxiety.

Did you have a specific idea in mind for the EP?

Gerard: I think the sound of this record is bits and pieces of everything I like about music – everything that inspires me. I didn’t want it to sound like a folk record. I wanted to give each song its own personality while keeping an overall theme to the album. I’m a live sound engineer, always around live music, so I wanted the album to be more than just a guy and a guitar. I wanted it to have its upbeat moments.

I wanted to show that I could do a little bit of everything. I also had some help from my bud, Justin Lacy on trumpets and guitar. He helped add to that atmospheric swelling you hear. I feel like this record is the closest thing to the way I’ve always wanted my music to sound, that kind of lush electro pop, driven by acoustic guitars.

Did you learn new things about yourself working solo, surprises along the way?

Gerard: There were too many surprises along the way. I thought that I knew a lot about recording when I started working on the record. I ended up spending a lot of time watching “how to” videos online. That said, I now know a lot more about recording and its endless complexity.

You can mix a record for the rest of your life and not be completely satisfied. Mixing was something I didn’t have much experience with before, but after some trial and error, I found that I really had a knack for it. It became a fun ritual to compare mixes through different sound systems and mess with panning and effects.

Can you share the story behind “I’ll be a Shadow?”

Gerard: “I’ll Be a Shadow” is about being skeptical of, and then accepting of, unconditional love. About wondering how someone could love you for you. And the love that comes from knowing that. I think the shadow reference is the love you carry around with you. Did I mention love?

Has this experience affected making the new Onward, Soldiers LP?

Gerard: I learned so much from recording the first two Onward records. We tracked them onto Logic, the same program I used for this record. I learned a lot of shortcuts; keyboard commands and tricks that helped me make this album. Just being in the studio all the time, being involved in the recording and mixing helped me learn a lot about the process, about mic’ing techniques and all that fun stuff.

The newest Onward album was recorded over a year ago at Sound of Music Studios in Richmond. We made the record in four days. Watching Alan Weatherhead work was mind-blowing. He worked so fast. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of how productive one could be, even if all they have is a small home studio, a laptop and a lot of heart. I took a lot from those sessions and from this experience.

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