With all the logistical challenges and geographic distances to grapple with when touring, many musicians find themselves spending much of their time on the road doing just about anything but playing music.
So when it comes time to finally get up in front of a crowd and share the songs that everyone came together for, artists like Bon Iver drummer/vocalist Sean Carey gladly admits that once they start playing they don’t really want to stop.
Thankfully, he gets the occasional opportunity to really stretch out musically — like he will at this year’s Mo Pop Festival in Detroit — where he will play an early afternoon set with his solo project S. Carey on July 28, before joining his good friend Justin Vernon and company for Bon Iver’s beatific headlining set later that same night.
“I’ve always loved doing both things, playing both roles,” Carey said. “Being a frontman with S. Carey is definitely some more pressure, but it’s definitely more rewarding at the same time. It’s a different animal. You get to express yourself differently.”
A Wisconsin native, Carey grew up studying jazz. He has a degree in classical percussion from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he vividly remembers listening to Bon Iver’s massively influential indie-folk masterpiece For Emma, Forever Ago back in 2007.
Transfixed by Vernon’s songwriting, Carey quickly learned all of the songs on the album in his dorm room, and after sharing an early gig with Vernon, joined up with him as both percussionist and supporting vocalist.
“It’s funny how that really did change my life in a lot of ways,” Carey said of his early obsession with Bon Iver’s landmark debut LP. “I mean I was just so into the music and I saw an opening and it worked from the start. Our voices really worked
well together. My sensibility as a percussionist and where I came from matched Justin’s. We both have kind of a jazz background, but we’re also super into all other types of music as well, including indie rock and folk stuff.”
Before hearing Bon Iver, Carey wasn’t sure what he would’ve done after graduation. He speculates he might have gone to grad school and later taught lessons and played gigs. He certainly never thought he’d get to tour the world over, let alone become a key member of one of the most beloved independent bands of the past decade.
“It’s surreal to look back on it,” Carey said. “At the time, it was super exciting. But we started small. The first tour was a grind. It was eight weeks long, and we were playing tiny rock clubs and we were the opening band. But yeah, that whole year and a half, two years, that momentum just kept snowballing, and pretty soon we were playing bigger venues. … I’m sure I will look back on it as one of the most exciting times in my life for sure.”
Inspired by his experiences in Bon Iver, Carey found the confidence to explore his own voice with his own project: S. Carey. He has since released three albums and two EPs over the past decade, including his latest, Hundred Acres.
Now counting pop superstar Taylor Swift as one of his fans, Carey has taken his music to new heights. He’s worked with artists as different as Sufjan Stevens and Dierks Bentley as collaborators, and most recently contributed two songs for the Netflix original series Flaked.
Yet it’s not the hype, but how grounded he and his music remain, that makes Hundred Acres so therapeutically appealing in these fast-paced times.
Casting off the bustle of everyday life — no pun intended for those who follow Carey’s love for fly-fishing — the album acts as an open invitation for listeners to immerse themselves in the peaceful simplicity of nature.
“It’s hard to explain,” Carey said of the unintended philosophical bent of his latest work. “I don’t really go to church, but (nature) is my church. I can’t explain it. All I can think about it is, ‘Why doesn’t everyone have this same feeling?’ Because it’s such a strong thing. When I’m out there, I don’t know, you can’t argue it. I get frustrated when — not to get into politics or whatever — but I don’t get why everyone doesn’t have that connection. I guess we’re all different.
“It just seems like it’s part of being human, because that’s where we came from.”
Mo Pop Festival
Feat. Bon Iver, The National, Portugal. The Man, St. Vincent, Brockhampton, S. Carey and more
West Riverfront Park, Detroit
July 28-29, $85-$520