Bon Iver’s Sean Carey on Jazz, Loss and Fly Fishing

Sean Carey talks about the inspiration for his new solo album Break Me Open — and how he finds time to hit the river while on tour

April 25, 2022 7:00 am
Sean Carey in studio
Sean Carey in studio
Peter Larson

Sean Carey is both a solo artist — his fourth album as S. Carey, Break Me Open, dropped last Friday — and the second-longest serving member of the folk phenom Bon Iver. When he’s not home with his three kids, he’s in a revolving door of recording studios, stages, hotels, and tour buses. The rest of the time? Well, you’ll find him on the river — fly fishing for trout. For Carey, the two passions of music and fishing are symbiotic: the meditative act of casting a fly while knee-deep in water fuels his creative energy, and provides an escape from the hectic demands of band life. 

The lead-up to Break Me Open was marked by two monumental losses: Sean’s marriage ended in divorce, and his father passed away. Rivers became not just places to get away, but sources of healing, reconnecting and new sounds. Swathed in warm, dark synths, whispery vocals and gauzy electronica, Break Me Open is his most intimate release yet. Below, he talks with InsideHook about his love for fly fishing, and how time spent on the water informs his creative process — and sometimes even his tour schedule.

InsideHook: How did you get into fly fishing?
I grew up fishing, but when I moved to Eau Claire, WI, I met my friend, Ben. We were both percussion majors together and he was an avid fly fisher. So we started trout fishing together and by the end of the summer, I had converted and was fully addicted. 

What do you enjoy about it?
I think the real draw is how deep it can be. There’s the aspect of just being outside, being in nature, connecting to nature. Then there’s the puzzle part of it where you’re trying to figure out all these things, like where are the fish, what are they eating? I like trying to crack the code. I certainly like days where you don’t have to try it all either, and every cast, there’s a hungry fish. I like the social aspect of it. I also like the solitude of it. I probably do a 50-50 split where I love fishing with buddies and just getting out there and drinking some beers, spending a day on the water — that’s a great way to bond with people. And I love fishing by myself too, just the head space that you get in and the meditative quality of it. 

Do you have a favorite piece of fishing gear? 
My Dad, who passed away recently, had this little book of poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I stuck that in my fishing bag years ago and it’s just always in there. I almost never read it, but it’s just always tucked in there in case I get stuck in a rainstorm and just need to hunker down. It’s getting all worn, but it’s the perfect size, and it just sort of hides in amongst the other lines and leaders. Besides that, I would say polarized sunglasses — they’re a game changer.

What’s a tip or two that you’d share for someone who’s just starting out with fly-fishing or, or thinking about starting out?
People get like too stuck in, what’s the right way to do this or the wrong way. Maybe there’s a dry fly hatch, but the biggest fish might still just eat a streamer. Find your own rhythm. Don’t always think, I got to go to this one spot that’s the good river that everyone fishes and I got to throw these certain things. You don’t really need that many flies. That’s sort of in life in general or even with music: just have your own voice. 

How is your time on the water conducive to the music? Will you be out casting and inspiration strikes, or is that where you go to forget music and turn that part of your brain off?
Both. I’ve definitely been out there and had like a song like running through my head. Being in a different environment has been very helpful, maybe some lyrics or an arrangement idea will come to mind. Even more productive than that is just driving to go fishing. Sometimes I’ll make a playlist or burn CDs — I still do that sometimes. I’ll listen through demos or ideas on the way to the river. Or I’ll use my voice memo on my phone and sing melodies. Other times, it’s definitely an escape — not even escaping the music, but escaping the other aspects of being a musician. I feel like half my time working is not actually doing creative stuff, it’s like answering emails.

This is your fourth album — what felt different about putting this one together compared to the previous three?
It’s probably my most personal album, my most intimate. Whereas in the past I might have been a little bit more cryptic, this one definitely felt like sharing my life in a clearer way. The songs have a certain darkness and heaviness. Not all [of them], but that’s definitely a main theme.

You wrote a lot of these songs on synths as opposed to piano or guitar. How does that affect the texture or structure of the sound?
There’s actually a lot of brightness in the sound of a guitar or a piano. I love playing piano, but when I hear a really bright piano, I almost cringe. I just want to hear this soft, dark piano. So even that, writing on top of synth, there’s just a different gravity to it. 

The lead-up to this album was marked by tragedy: losing your father, losing a marriage. By the time you started working on this album, had you gotten a little distance on those losses, to begin to make sense of them? Is it helpful to have that distance?
I feel like the songs that are like the hardest to share, that are the most intimate, were written in a time of, not numbness, but also not rock bottom either. You can see it from different sides, you’re starting to see how you might heal, but you’re still in it. In a way, I’m still in that phase. 

Could you walk us through the creative process behind one of the songs on the album, maybe “Paralyzed”?
A lot of these songs I co-wrote with other people, where they would send me an idea and then I would build a song around that idea. “Paralyzed” was one that I did with my friend, Ben, who got me into fly fishing. He sent me some of the synth stuff and it came together really fast. I wrote [it] about my kids, specifically my oldest daughter. Just like, gosh, I can’t believe you’re already eight years old, just seeing them grow up before your eyes. There’s a certain joy and pride, but there’s also the melancholy of, you’re not going to be little very long and that’s really hard to imagine. 

What were you listening to in the course of making this album? 
I listened to a lot of jazz and some classical. Bands like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers, Ethan Gruska, Blake Mills. Radiohead is always an inspiration, the way they explore all the sounds. They’ve been so good at all their electronic stuff, and that’s something that is a little bit more present on this album. 

Is it easy to tell when an album is done? 
It’s maybe my favorite moment of the whole process. I love seeing the big picture and thinking about what the sequence is going to be.

To bring it back to fishing for a second, you’ve taught other members of Bon Iver to fly fish. What’s that been like?
Yeah, I taught Matt, the other drummer. We were in Colorado and we had a great afternoon and he took to it really fast actually.  I got to watch him catch his first trout on a dry fly and be the proud parent guy, it was awesome.

And you’ll occasionally fish while on tour?
Yeah, I’ve been doing it more and more. It’s not always super easy, but the fly-fishing community has been helpful. It’s like, you got this one buddy who knows so and so and oh, I know a guy that fishes and lives there and it’s like, he’ll take you. We’ve done that a little bit on Bon Iver tours. With my band, we actually booked a couple tours solely around fishing spots. So we’ve been able to fish out West and take a couple days off between cities to be able to fish.

I’m sure it’s a great way to catch your breath and rejuvenate a bit.
Totally. Or come to the show completely tired and dehydrated [laughs].

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.