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On Music, Poetry and Politics

Albright senior Ethan McDonnell and his band, seasonal, have released their first EP, with songs inspired by McDonnell’s love of literature and poetry – ingrained in him at a young age by his mom, Maria, a longtime Albright lecturer. McDonnell’s love of music is nearly eclipsed by his passion for politics.


By Hilary Bentman

At age 2, Ethan McDonnell was attending poetry readings.

By age 3, he was standing in front of the coffee shop crowds, reciting nursery rhymes.

By the time he was 4, McDonnell was writing poetry on napkins, while his mother, Maria McDonnell, an Albright College English lecturer, was reading him The Chronicles of Narnia at bedtime.

“I wanted him to be exposed to as much literature and language as possible,” said the former Berks County Poet Laureate. “Ethan had a journal and everywhere we would go, he would write his thoughts down.”

Today, Ethan’s journal is his phone, and he’s traded poetry for lyrics. The Albright senior is lead lyricist and singer for the Lancaster County-based indie band seasonal.

The band recently released its debut EP, “The World We Chose to See,” available on iTunes, Spotify, BandCamp and other digital platforms.

A collection of six tracks, the EP features seasonal’s reserved, ambient sound, which McDonnell describes as “1990s emo feel.”

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seasonal includes Albright senior Ethan McDonnell (left), Josh Sperow, John Halfpenny & Nick Lowry

McDonnell penned the lyrics for all six songs, taking an objective narrative approach and drawing inspiration from his eclectic reading list, which, at the time, included both Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones – a strange combination, to be sure, but one that seems to work for McDonnell and seasonal.

Created in 2014 from the remnants of the now defunct band Auroras, seasonal includes Nick Lowry (drums), Josh Sperow (lead guitarist) and John Halfpenny (bassist) – all recent Millersville University graduates living in Lancaster.

McDonnell, who will graduate Albright in December with a degree in political science and sociology, knew Lowry from high school and turned the trio into a quartet.

McDonnell brought recording experience with him, having won Albright Idol as a freshman. He recorded and released a song with the College’s label, Lion Records, called “Just Stop,” a post-punk offering from his band Indie Car (formerly known as Mourning Wood).

“Having that experience was invaluable, just to get into the studio,” he said. “This time, in the studio, I felt more at ease.”

McDonnell’s favorite track on the EP is “A Room to Ourselves,” an homage to Virginia Woolf and her essay that inspired him. The song “State Lines” has been the most well received, he said, and the band filmed a music video for it, using the country roads between Lancaster and Reading as the backdrop.

The band hasn’t signed with a label and isn’t eager to do so. They enjoy playing small, intimate venues, and a group of talented friends have helped them record and mix their songs and create the video for almost no cost. Making money is not a major concern; the band members all have day jobs.

“It’s so much better when you don’t need a show to put gas in the car,” said McDonnell. “We don’t need to sell out arenas. We don’t want to.”

Despite weekly practices and frequent performances, McDonnell has struck a music-school balance, even if it means taking homework to gigs. “The professors have been very supportive, and overall it’s been great,” he said.

That support extends to his family. Maria McDonnell wholeheartedly backs her son’s music. It’s his passion, she said. “Poetry is mine. I was an English major. Who am I to say, ‘Find something more practical to do’”?

Although McDonnell enjoys music, he doesn’t see himself in this for the long haul. “I won’t be doing this when I’m 40, and probably not at 30, either. Still, I intend to give it a solid try.”

His career aspirations have a more political bent. McDonnell hopes to work on political campaigns, perhaps as a data analyst.

“I love politics,” said McDonnell, who can seamlessly transition from a discussion of guitar riffs to poll results.

Politics has been ingrained in McDonnell almost as deeply as poetry and literature. At age 11, he and his family were the only people protesting George W. Bush when the then-president’s motorcade wound through their hometown of Fleetwood.

The young McDonnell also protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At age 14, he joined Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, making phone calls and knocking on doors. In 2012, McDonnell served as a precinct captain on Obama’s reelection campaign, helping to register voters on college campuses.

“Politics have always been important for us, to raise your voice, to accept all humanity, and to stand up for those who don’t have a voice,” said Maria McDonnell. “It all comes back to language and voice.”

In summer 2013, McDonnell worked on former Pennsylvania treasurer Robert McCord’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. McDonnell helped compile news clips and research potential donors.

“It’s an amazing time to be alive – through the first black president, the first serious female candidate, the legalization of gay marriage. The next president will have to tackle law enforcement issues,” said McDonnell.

For now, McDonnell is focused on his final semester at Albright. And it will be a busy one. Seasonal plans to head back to the recording studio this fall, and the 2016 presidential race is just around the corner.


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