Sean Carter is a singer, songwriter and worship leader from Dallas, Texas. His raw, honest, passionate approach to conveying story, truth, and struggle through lyric and soundscape has impacted audiences for over a decade in the Dallas area. He has a nothing's-off-the-table approach to melody and musical texture, using an eclectic mix of vintage and modern instruments to take listeners on a creative journey. Sean's full-length indie release The Telling is a collaborative and creative effort of an all-star cast of local musicians. Sean's music runs a spectrum of eclectic folk to aggressive indie rock. Upon the release of his full length album, Sean is exploring publishing and touring opportunities.
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
AHD: Where is your favorite hang out spot in Dallas?
SC: Of course Art House Exchange at St. John’s Tavern is a highlight! But on other nights, I like to go with my pals to Quarter Bar. On less ‘social’ occasions, I have a group of friends who gather for dinner, and make music in my living room.
AHD: How did you get your start in music?
SC: I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. My family traveled every weekend when I was a kid and my sister and I would sit in the back seat of the car on long rides and have our own little “sing off” to whatever was on the radio. I began playing guitar in middle school and learned to play watching a recording of Nirvana Unplugged. I haven’t put the guitar down since. As is the case with many musicians, the local church was a great place to plug in and get more experience. I did that in my teens, which is where I started serving as a worship leader, as well.
AHD: You’ll be releasing a full-length album called The Telling. What can we expect to find on your new album?
SC: The album is really a “musical memoir” of sorts and each song is a chapter of the journey. Sonically, there are a variety of songs in style, approach and instrumentation. We essentially used whatever crossed our mind to convey the story. There are the normal rock instruments—drums, bass, guitar—and the array of keyed instruments like B3, Rhodes, and piano. Some other more interesting things were used, too, like an old 80’s juno synth, Moog Voyager, banjo, resonator guitar, pump organ, Fairlight drum samples (think “Thriller”), Atari samples, and the use of things like duct tape, shrink wrap, crystal glasses, and cardboard boxes as percussion.
Music for me, no matter the subject, is an expression of the soul. My journey of faith is a big part of this album, so there are songs I’ve used in the corporate setting but also songs that deal with the reality of being human. The project has three parts, or “acts,” if you will. Act I has songs that say, “I want to live a faithful life,” but then the middle gets honest about struggles and conflict, both internal and external. I dive into messy artistic issues, confessions of feeling stuck in monotony and even dealing with being ‘fake’ to impress people and get their approval.
These are really vulnerable songs for me. It’s easy to say, “I love and desire to follow Jesus,” but more difficult to admit, “Sometimes I swear, I think I hear my voice above the crowd, ‘crucify him!’ ” The third “act” turns the page to the comfort found in realizing one doesn’t have to “work” to live a faithful life, that you really can’t accomplish it on your own, that its more about surrender. To glorify God is to be honest, to give in to the fact that the glory is all His anyway. The resolution, the change, the hope, comes from somewhere else.
AHD: The concept behind the title track off of The Telling hails from a classic by C. S. Lewis. What is it about Lewis that inspires your creativity, and what other content, be it literature, music or otherwise, do you take in to get ideas?
SC: The Telling was inspired by a conversation between an artist and an angel in The Great Divorce. They are standing outside of heaven and having a discussion about what is to be found in the beautiful landscape in the horizon. The artist is more concerned with getting to paint what he sees and maintaining his earthly notoriety than with the fact he is looking at paradise itself!
The words of the angel pierced my heart when I read:
“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells to the love of the telling till, down in Deep hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only what they say about him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower—become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”
The whole song is a re-telling of the story (you can read the whole excerpt here) and the chorus comes from that passage and is a personal prayer “Don’t let me be drawn to the love of the telling, but lead me to love of the one I tell.” Our art, talent, and the creative gift are meant for a greater purpose than our own, it’s a story to “tell.” I think most artists who have had the creative experience have at one time or another had the sense that “this came for somewhere else.” It’s that “what the heck just happened” moment. Artists see things through a different lens than non-artists. They are gifted to put to words, music, canvas or clay the things others cant. They make tangible from the intangible. Art is about this expression of this ‘otherness.’ If I, let art be for arts sake alone and lose sight of this, it is a tragedy. Personally I don’t want my love of music to get in the way of telling the story of the one who has granted me the gift to make it.
What C.S. Lewis does with literature is what I hope to one day accomplish with music. I love that he keeps things honest; he deals with the real issues of doubt and struggle, and is creative in doing so. He conveys truth through fiction. It is brilliant. Then Lewis has this whole other facet where he writes “Mere Christianity.” He blurs the lines many draw between faith and art. I would like to do the same, embracing the many facets of faith, art, fiction and non-fiction unapologetically.
There are many other things I tap into for creativity. Sometimes I just imagine a storyline and write what the character feels. Recently, I wrote a song with my friend Tyler Ellison from the perspective of the apostle John. I wanted to imagine what he must have felt watching his best friend be embraced like a king and then crucified by the same people a week later.
In songwriting I find myself asking, “What would you feel? What would you see? What would the soundtrack for that scene sound like?” When it comes to worship songs, I think church music could use a dose of creative language and I’m excited to see bands like Gungor, The Brilliance and Lovelite are doing this.
AHD: You gained experience with editing and mixing during the production of your latest album. How valuable was that process and did that give you a desire to keep exploring the technological side of your industry?
SC: Before recording this album I had a ton of experience using Ableton to create live tracks and do small bits of recording, but had never jumped into Pro Tools. My friend and producer Ryan Tallent heard my Ableton work and believed in me enough to show me the ins-and-outs of Pro Tools and allow me to do much of the editing and mixing. I have a thirst for learning new things and it opened a floodgate. As a result the process took longer, because there are mistakes you make and you have to redo things. In the end, it took a while, but I not only have a record that accomplished much of what was in my head to show for it, I also have a deeper knowledge of gear, software and production.
Learning this technology changed me. Now I write songs knowing what can be done with them in the studio; I can write with production in mind. Breaking through the technological wall removed the fear of wondering, “What is on the other side?” and brought a certain freedom.
AHD: The Telling was made possible in part by a talented cast, each bringing a unique offering to the project. That sounds a lot like the overarching aim of Art House Dallas, to bring about creative community. How important is collaboration, for a band and a city, when it comes to making art?
SC: Collaboration is a powerful tool. Having community with other artists that you trust and that you are a “fan” of can be a game changer. In my case, I had some really talented friends infuse their own artistry into the project. Giving each of them ownership and asking for their contribution opens up whole new “doors” on creativity. In many cases, the things they brought to the table completely changed the direction of the songs.
Collaboration occurred beyond the recording process. I had a watercolor artist interpret the album into a painting. I collaborated in songwriting with a photographer, my wife (an event planner), worship leaders and other musicians. Other songs were inspired by conversations with pastors and even my counselor. Co-writing has become a freeing experience. When I write a song alone, I struggle so much with the vulnerability and the second-guessing. Playing the song for someone for the first time can feel like standing before a firing squad. Co-writing removes these insecurities because you know you are not fighting alone. When you write together, you can throw ideas out like crazy, spark new ideas in one another, and many times end up on a whole new and greater path. Instant feedback can save you from getting too married to an idea and lets you pull from a deeper well.
I love that Art House Dallas provides great opportunities for “safe places” like the songwriters dinners and feedback for this very purpose. Having an artist community brings a certain level of healing and safety that artists need to feel in order to make powerful art. The culture of a city is greatly impacted by what can come from a healthy artist community. As these artists start putting their heads together, support one another and collaborate, the depth, quality and impact the art can have, as well as the awe-inspiring wonder generated, is exponential.
AHD: What's your take on Dallas's music scene these days?
SC: I think we are in an upswing and coming into a great season of local music. Bands like Air Review, The Orbans, Sarah Jaffe, and Doug Burr are leading the way. The arrival of public radio station KXT is a huge asset as well. I’ve also met some amazing artists at Art House Dallas and I am confident that community, as well as artists being fans of other artists, will open the floodgates on the local scene.
AHD: You've been featured on NoiseTrade and FaithVillage, and your knack for passionate storytelling continues to garner support. What do you think it means to be successful?
SC: This is a hard question. There are multiple standards for rating success I suppose. For some, it’s money or fame, but that isn’t the only measure. For me, I think following your heart is key and being as real as you can possibly be. Don’t just paint a pretty picture, but show the ugly side, too. Being teachable by inviting others into your space is also essential.
Success is viewing our art as a gift given to us, one that we are to be good stewards of and share with society. This should be the heart behind promotion and the drive for a larger audience, not to make much of our “selves,” but for the common good and enjoyment of others. That said, though, I certainly desire to reach a larger audience! And I hope I can keep paying the bills! Sharing the art, shaking hands and having great conversation remains the motive.
AHD: Leading up to the release of The Telling, what do you have in the works performance wise and how can we follow what you’re working on?
SC: If I’m being honest, the “booking” side of things is not my strong suit, but I’ve got some exciting things in the works.
AHD: Finally, does velvet ever go out of style?
SC: Hahaha! My wife refused to go out in public one cool, April evening because I had my velvet jacket on! She and her friends had a great time laughing at me via Facebook. Apparently Emily Post says no velvet after Valentines Day. But I say go for it.