Vassar alum Dan Sheehan discusses album and activism

Courtesy of Dan Sheehan via Bandcamp.

Dan Sheehan ʼ91 didn’t always want to become a musician. “I was actually an English major, but I was always taking music classes…I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a writer or a musician, so after college, I went into being a songwriting musician,” he admitted. He showcases his talents in both writing and music on his 2019 album “Tales From Earth Incorporated,” which features original songs focused on the various global social issues arising from greed and its effects on society and the environment. 

Surprisingly, “Tales” is Sheehan’s debut concept album. After graduating from Vassar, Sheehan’s first official musical foray was in 1995 with his Boston-based band Banter, for which he was a guitarist and primary songwriter. Banter’s two releases, the EP “Side One” and the album “Urban Pastures” gained attention throughout Boston and the greater New England area. The band even went on to perform at South By Southwest, a prestigious annual arts festival. After Banter’s final show in 2004, Sheehan released two albums in his project The Dan Sheehan Conspiracy: “The Dan Sheehan Conspiracy” in 2008 and “Are You Conspirienced?” in 2013. “Those were a little more varied in musical style because I was just deciding everything, as opposed to having [to collaborate with] other people,” Sheehan reflected. “Traditionally…my lyrics have run the gamut subject-wise, and certainly when I was younger, I might have written more songs about love or unrequited love or angst…as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve been tuning into all the things going on in the world and lots of social issues that are going on, and I’ve started infusing a bit more of that.”

Sheehan definitely delves into various social issues in this project. “There’s a long history of artists speaking about things that are happening currently, across different media….musicians from the Temptations to Neil Young have historically commentated on what’s going on in the world around them, and I feel like that’s been a little lost in the modern music industry,” explained Sheehan. He continued, “Too many people are shying away from writing stuff that has a social consciousness.” The songs on his new album certainly do not shy away from social commentary; for example, “Black Gold (Ogoni Nine)” details the Nigerian activists who spoke out against Royal Dutch Shell’s harmful oil mining practices in 1995 and their subsequent execution under Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship. Oil spills and land degradation continue to plague Ogoniland, while the Ogoni Nine’s families persist in their fight to exonerate the men. Some of the other issues explored in “Tales From Earth Incorporated” include indigenous displacement in Brazil, drug cartels selling guns across the U.S.-Mexico border, child labor in Zimbabwe’s diamond mines and climate change. 

Each song’s sound and style transforms to fit the lyrics. For example, the upbeat funk song “Wishing Well” describes the future of climate change as it pertains to Kiribati, the Maldives and Bangladesh, all low-lying areas vulnerable to rising sea levels. The lyrics are surreal, painting a picture of our capitalist society trying to profit off of a dangerous situation: “Yeah, the Maldives have a plan to make the future sell/ There’s no view like you can get from their underwater hotel/ Just slink out of your window in your iron lung and fins/ I hope that you like seafood ‘cause you know chicken doesn’t swim.” Other songs are more angsty and hard-hitting. The album’s opener, “Riding Low (and Flying High),” attacks greed and the ways it manifests: “We’ll sink the competition until they can’t feed their kids/ Do anything it takes to keep the costs below the lid/ Keep the shareholders smiling when they open their returns/ Anything cutting into profits is anything that burns.” Brash guitars and Karmina Dai’s backing vocals give the tune zest and vigor.

When asked what he would like for listeners to take away from “Tales,” Sheehan said, “I would like them to take action.” He believes that one of the most powerful ways for young people to combat the issues he sings about is by voting. “I teach at a community college, and I asked my students on the first day of class, ‘How many of you are registered to vote?’ and very few hands went up. People say ‘I don’t have a voice,’ but that’s because you’re not voting.” On his website, dansheehan.net, Sheehan includes articles pertaining to the issues he discusses, along with explanations of each song and its lyrics.

What does the future hold? Sheehan is currently writing songs for a spin-off concept album of “Tales” tentatively titled “Rising Seas, which will further explore climate change and its effects on the world. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *