In 2007, as The Script were preparing to support Paul McCartney in New York, the band’s guitarist, Mark Sheehan, came down with a bout of butterflies. The Dubliners would be performing to a crowd of 45,000 at Citi Field, the former Shea Stadium, in Queens – by far the biggest of their career. For advice, Sheehan turned to McCartney.
“We were opening for him at Shea Stadium” in 2008, he later said. “Which was obviously significant as it was the scene of that final Beatles concert. We were only starting to play big arenas. Before that, it was places like Brixton Academy – 5,000 capacity. I remember talking to him, saying, ‘it’s 45,000 people – I’m worried’. He said to me that what you say before the song can be as big as the song.”
McCartney illustrated what he meant that night when he introduced a new tune with an anecdote about John Lennon. Watching from the side of the stage, Sheehan took note. “You could see the audience leaning in – he altered the entire meaning of the song,” Sheehan recalled. “That changed my life. I learned that with certain songs we have to take a breather and take a risk and talk about what it means to us.”
Nobody would compare Sheehan and The Script to the Beatles – certainly not the self-effacing Sheehan, who has died aged 46 after a short illness. But the Dublin three-piece who broke through with hits such as The Man Who Can’t Be Moved and We Cry were nevertheless a singular force in Irish music – a pop band that spliced glossy hooks, R’n’B grooves and Celtic soulfulness. They were hugely successful, too, selling 20 million albums. Through it all, however, they never lost sight of where they had come from.
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“We dropped cool a long time ago,” Sheehan told me in 2019 when I interviewed him for the Irish Examiner. “Cool to me was the nice guy at school who got along with everybody and treated everybody with respect. It wasn’t the guy in the leather jacket. That’s all b******* to me.”
[ ‘A gorgeous soul’ - Tributes to Mark Sheehan, guitarist with The Script who has died aged 46 ]
Sheehan was the trio’s driving force. As a guitarist, he followed in the tradition of U2′s The Edge by conjuring vast, empathic soundscapes, his virtuosity charged by a desire to connect with the listener. He was also a hugely talented songwriter, producer and arranger. With Sheehan in the control booth, The Script’s songs were meticulously assembled – balancing shiny production and an impressive rawness.
Behind the earnest music, Sheehan was a scrapper and scraper. Nobody had handed him his career on a plate – everything he achieved he’d fought for, tooth and nail. From St James Street in inner city Dublin, Sheehan had lost his father aged 14, while his mother suffered a stroke shortly after The Script had signed their record deal and were preparing to record their debut album.
She died within the year. It was in the shadow of that loss that Sheehan, the group’s centrifugal force, wrote The Script’s early hits.
“She was in hospital for 10 months and that is what brought me back to Dublin. The lads came back with me. I had a small studio, more like a shed, at the back of the James Street house where I grew up,” he said. ”It was right next to the hospital so I was able to go in and do night shifts with my mum, write lyrics and then come home and write and record more.”
Career-wise he’d already been through the wars. Sheehan had started out as a dancer and then, with future Script bandmate, Danny O’Donoghue, formed the boyband MyTown. “The pressure was enormous,” Sheehan told me in the run-up to the release of the Script’s first LP in August 2008.
“I remember going through Dublin Airport and seeing a rolling news ticker and it had something about an Irish boyband singing a record-breaking deal. And I was like, ‘Oh man, we’re really setting ourselves up here’. What I’ve learned out of that whole experience was to take nothing for granted and to always keep your business head on. We’re in this because we love music, but you have to have an awareness of the commercial side of things as well.”
With the implosion of MyTown, Sheehan and O’Donoghue started over. Recruiting drummer Glen Power, they reinvented themselves as musicians who bridged rock and pop. They had by that point moved to Virginia Beach in Maryland, the headquarters of production superstars The Neptunes. A few years later, things turned full circle when The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams supported them in Ireland.
The one thing about being Irish is that it keeps you grounded. You’re not allowed get a big head— Mark Sheehan
That American adventure ended when Sheehan’s mother took ill. Back in Dublin, one of their first gigs was at the 350-capacity Sugar Club in Dublin. “The Script are definitely the band to watch out for in 2008,” said the press release announcing the show. Three years later, the band were performing at the Aviva Stadium – and, in 2015, he and his bandmates joined U2 and Westlife in that unique club of Irish artists to headline Croke Park.
Sheehan was a big-hearted pop writer who never tried to be anything else. With The Script he released several classic singles, including Breakeven and Superheroes. And yet, for some reason, his earnestness and the band’s ability to command a huge audience was triggering to critics, especially in Ireland.
“The untouchable rock star has gone out of fashion,” is how Sheehan summarised his approach to stardom when we spoke. “The way Madonna used to work – it was great at the time. There used to be a lot of mystery. Now people want to connect to normal, humble people. And the one thing about being Irish is that it keeps you grounded. You’re not allowed get a big head.”
Sheehan’s humble streak was one of his defining qualities. He was also a songwriter of immense talent – just listen to Superheroes – and someone who overcame rejection and personal setbacks and guided The Script to global success. As both a great musician and decent human being, he will be missed terribly.