Born through the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s percussion performance program and raised as a drummer for Eau Claire native Justin Vernon’s band Bon Iver, Sean Carey set out eight years ago on a solo career.
He’s produced two albums since then, several EPs and a variety of singles as he worked to discover who S. Carey is as an artist. With his third-full length album, “Hundred Acres,” released Feb. 23, Carey thinks he’s finally found it.
“To me, it really feels like I landed somewhere, whereas the last two records there was a lot more searching,” Carey said in a recent phone interview.
With two singles out (”Fool’s Gold” and “More I See”), his fans are beginning to notice.
Eau Claire musician Tyler Henderson, who played with S. Carey when the band was at the 2015 Eaux Claires Festival, said he appreciates the personal connections in Carey’s music.
“His music has always been introspective, even going back to his early work,” Henderson said. “He draws a lot from his own personal experiences and uses them in his lyrics.”
“Hundred Acres,” is no different, based on his first two songs. Henderson said he was intrigued by both releases.
“If his singles are anything like the rest of the new album, I’m really excited,” he said. “In both singles, there’s a lot more guitar to drive the music forward.”
Henderson wasn’t wrong. While his previous albums have been instrument-heavy thanks to Carey’s percussion performance roots, he said he left those behind a bit with this album and focused on the lyrics.
“It’s more of a folk song writing approach with simpler chords and more attention to the lyrics,” Carey said. “It’s trying to portray a message in a simple and beautiful way.”
Carey said he focused on guitar instead of his go-to piano. “Fool’s Gold” was the first song he wrote on this album, and Carey said it decided where his music was going to take him this time.
The second song he wrote, “Rose Petals,” was for a Netflix original show called “Flaked.” He said the company sent him the spot in the episode where they wanted a song and “that song just came out of me in one night.”
After he had those two, Carey saw the patterns begin to form.
“I was like, ‘OK, there’s something I’m liking about this strummy guitar folk tune,’ and the rest of the record was built on that aesthetic,” he said. “It’s not all strummy folk songs, but that’s definitely part of it.”
With a career in percussion, Carey said it was difficult to move away from the instrumental aspect of music and focus on his songwriting, a skill he realized he would have to practice like anything else.
“It’s been a conscious effort to sort of realize I’m more than just a drummer and percussionist and keyboard player,” he said. “Part of my craft is writing songs and composing and all of that.”
It is an effort that has paid off, he thinks, with this record. In “Hundred Acres,” Carey finds a voice even he didn’t know he had.
“When you listen to songs off the previous records and then listen to the songs on this one, the singing is way better,” he said. “It’s partially performance, partially just learning more about how to record, but the vocals are much more up front.”
In the eight years since he released his debut album, “All We Grow,” a lot has changed for him, as a musician and a person. He is now married with children, and what drives him forward each day isn’t the same as it used to be.
“The first record was very exciting to make and to think about,” Carey said. “This one is equally as exciting, it’s just a different kind of energy. I’m trying to live a simpler life. That’s one of the main themes on the record, I think.”
It’s also a discovery of who he is. As an artist, Carey said this album has grounded him.
“It’s what I’ve been going for my whole career and now I think I got it,” he said. “I feel really good about it. I feel really confident.”
From the musicians who recorded on the album with him to the songs and the production value, Carey feels he has gotten to where he wants to be as an artist.
And he did it all in his hometown, which he thinks is equally as exciting. Still rooted in Eau Claire, Carey said he has no plans to leave. He’s excited to raise a family in the city that built him, and give back in any way he can.
“As you get older, you start thinking differently,” he said. “Having kids now, you start thinking about, ‘how can I make this place better?’”
One way is simply sharing his music. He’ll do that as part of his “Hundred Acres” tour with a backstage performance at Viroqua’s Historic Temple Theatre on March 16, the second date on the tour after opening in Eau Claire.
While playing a hometown show is in some ways a little more nerve-wracking, Carey said he’s looking forward to playing his new music to “a bunch of friends,” especially in a city that is so focused on the arts.
“It has a lot of meaning when you know a lot of people there,” Carey said. “I’m so pleased with what Eau Claire is doing as a town, so anything I can do to contribute to the music scene, it feels good.”