Note: This article originally appeared in the March, 2012 issue of New Mexico Magazine.
The dude was dying to play some songs with him, and had already followed him to the bar during a set break to ask if he could sit in. Finally, the stranger relented, complimented Healen on his music, and went back to sit at a table with musician Laurie Anderson and actor Val Kilmer. None of this struck Healen as strange; it was, after all, Santa Fe.
After the gig, the bartender pulled Healen aside and asked him, “You know who that was?”
“Who?” Healen asked. “The guy?”
“Lou Reed,” said the barman. “That was Lou Reed!”
“Oh,” Healen replied.
That incident tells two things you need to know about Sean Healen: He’s so good that even a famously cranky rock star like Reed would want to join in with him, and he’s so far off the grid that he doesn’t even recognize him.
This is Healen in a nutshell. Everyone who hears him, including credentialed producers of national acts and northern New Mexico locals who happen to catch him on one of his infrequent local performances, are blown away by his sweeping lyrical narratives and gripping performances. And nobody can figure out why he’s still an unknown quantity at age 42, with two self-released albums and no record label.
Healen says it’s by choice—he’s been wary of the music business and all that a career entails. But now, with a series of new singles produced by Scott Matthews, who has worked with the likes of Elvis and Neil Young, he’s finally ready to take his music to the national stage.
Healen moved with his family to New Mexico from Missoula, Montana, while he was still in high school, which is when he began writing songs and playing guitar and piano. He lives in San Jose, 20 miles south of Las Vegas, near the Pecos River Valley. He and his wife built their modest house on six acres in 2009.
“I have low overhead,” he says whimsically from beneath a John Deere baseball cap, and wrapped in a jacket that he swears contains an entire sheep’s worth of wool. Occasional performances with the Sean Healen Band and CD sales cover his expenses. With the edge of a Ryan Adams and the soul of a John Prine, Healen inhabits a corner of folk-rock Americana reserved for true craftsmen. He writes a song a day—more than a thousand tunes so far, and counting. Meticulous attention is paid to melody, dynamics, and phrasing; Healen understands how to control emotional tides. Thematically, he describes his subjects as the “darker side of what we’re doing here on earth.” “Sister, Sister,” from his first album, Floodplain, which he considers his trademark song, deals head-on with the demise of a loved one.
Asked about his relative obscurity, Healen cries out, “Destiny of musicians!” In many ways his anti-career defies logic, but it’s not entirely by accident that he has yet to make his move. Healen is cognizant of the fact that record deals, which can help artists with album distribution, marketing, touring, etc., have a tendency to be rapacious. “They’re 360 deals, man,” he says; “they’ll take a piece of everything, including your soul.”
Still, Healen’s newest ally among the powerful in the music industry is multi-platinum producer Scott Matthews, whom he met through a mutual friend. After a quick courtship, the producer developed a bold strategy to record and release Healen’s songs as a series of playlist- and radio-friendly singles from his catalog, rather than working on an actual album.
“Eventually we’ll release a compilation of singles and multimedia with video and outtakes,” Healen says. The first series of singles was released in December. Songs will become available as fast as Healen and Matthews can produce them. Matthews also hopes to facilitate a tour for Healen through the booking agency Mongol Music.
“I’m a lifer,” Healen says about the glacial pace of his career so far. Most musicians hunger for immediate success; Healen reaches for similar heights, but prefers the path not yet invented. In the meantime, the charismatic musician is beloved by those who hear his music and understand that, with guys like him around, singer-songwriters will always have a place in the world.
“The slow ones win the race,” he says with absolute conviction. “I’ve made great connections, and those connections and friendships take time.”
To purchase music by Healen, visit CD Baby, iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or Rhapsody.com.
Gabe Gomez is a writer and music aficionado. He lives in Santa Fe.