Interview: Fionn Regan

Of all the Irish musicians we’ve stumbled across over three years’ worth of heavy interviewing, Fionn Regan may well be the most interesting. A poetic lyricist who seems to have stumbled upon a brilliantly evocative and unique sound, Fionn speaks in insightful quips, his train-of-thought ideas betraying a literary scholar and abstract mind. The very lyrics that saw the Bray man rise from hitchhiking high-school drop out to one of the folk world’s most intriguing acts seem to pour straight from the artists soul, delivered with a layer of quiet consideration that seems a million miles from the kind of man you’d expect to find hanging out with Anna Friel. A chance meeting with the actress was exactly the spark that Fionn’s third album ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ needed, though, and as usual, there are plenty of beautifully described stories behind his music. We’d go so far as to say Fionn’s sheer artistry brings out something of a man crush in us… now, who wants to put a few of these words to music? No? Well Fionn’s conceptual imagery should at least be enough to persuade you to cash in on yet another top-class album…

Of all the odd ways of putting together a new album, writing it after meeting Anna Friel and travelling with her to Majorca to record is not exactly your bog-standard route. How did that happen?

Well, I was playing at the Spanish festival, Benicassim, and I bumped into her and got talking to her. We were talking about a book called ‘The White Goddess’, and she was saying ‘you have to come to this place Deia’, which is where Robert Graves wrote the book and is now buried. There are a lot of houses there that have been bought up and are now given to artists rent free, it’s like the seeds are sown for the next generation of painters and writers. As a place, it’s laced with magic and tradition. There’s sort of an artistic overtone. It’s unbelievable. I think when I got there, all the songs on this record just flowed like liquid gold. They just poured out, and it really felt like we were discovering an island or something, with its own time, calendar and climate. There was a lot of hair standing on end and dilated pupils. You put a lot of work into production, but when it gets to recording, it’s like lightening had to strike. I think with this record we got to that place. I think the Gods must have been smiling on us.

Did you ever feel like that with the ‘The Shadow of an Empire’?

The last record was different. It was like my ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ record; it was on the road, sales taking a hammering. One of the things was I had a nine month lead in, and I really struggle with the lead in for records. This one was five, and luckily enough I’m on the road and able to play the songs, but it’s that start-stop thing. I’d like to have the record recorded and get straight on the tour bus. Some people can write the album and put it to bed, and say just let us know the time and date and we’ll come out and do it. With ‘The Shadow of an Empire’, it was a real drag. It needed it to come out at that time. If I’m ever in that position again, I won’t put out a record unless it’s a quick turnover.

The first record was so unconventional, the snowball was very graceful and I just had to respect that, as there was no massive marketing budget or anything. It was a word of mouth thing and people were getting very into the songs. Eventually it got up to 2000 people singing all the words to a record that’s considered to be an odd folk record. Then it happened in America. I always write enough songs for a record every year, but it’s not always the right time.

Are there another two or three albums back there that have never seen the light of day?

There’s the one with Ethan Jones, ‘The Red Tapes’ I’m calling that. Hopefully we’ll get our hands on that, I’d like to release it on vinyl if I can. The tapes are there, but there’s a lot of wrangling and shenanigans going on over them. It’s like trying to extract it from the quagmire. Maybe at some point everyone will see the light and do it. I’d like to do another record with Ethan. That period of time was the most important thing for me for a load of things, a real learning curve as a producer, a songwriter, even just as a co-ordinator and project manager. I learned how to make this record happen, how to be left alone to make a record.

If you want to be left alone to make a record, you can’t expect a pot of gold, you can expect jam jars and biscuits tins. I’ve learned how to execute my ideas with a small amount. You can only learn these things by going through them, but it allows you to take the reins. Otherwise you can roll off the side of the planet in a barrel kicking and screaming.

Sometimes the hardest things are the aces up your sleeve. I feel blessed that I have such a wealth of experience. Even working in shops or hotels, you hear that in the lyrics of ‘Protection Racket’. The thing with that record [‘The Shadow of an Empire’], is musically I didn’t really care. It was all about the lyrics, which I just hung on a kind of 60s pop song frame. That’s what I was interested in. Maybe when this record comes out, that one will make more sense, but the great things is with the stuff that I do, the people who care seem to really care. I’m more of a Northern Lights, rather than a firework display where you have to sweep the rockets up the next day. It’s a graceful snowball, word of mouth.

Which world, which version of Fionn Regan does ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ live in?

It’s a very literal title. Sycamore, as a symbol, is something that’s there for a long time, it’s the oldest tree. Most of the songs, the good ones, have that lease of life. This record in particular feels like a mystery to me. It’s a great feeling to work on something for that long, and to play it night after night and for it to still feel like a mystery. I play it some nights and think ‘I’m still trying to get my head around that one’, you know? The songs can be viewed from so many different angles, so many different images are attached to them already. This whole record feels like part of the ground that I walk on. Playing the songs stripped back has been great. It’s a good benchmark for a record, that when I’m building the set list I put most of the tracks from the new record on it. It’s exciting, so who knows!

On the press release, the record is described as ‘the wings that hold you above the rocks’. Were there some really hard times back there that ‘100 Acres Of Sycamore’ helped to carry you through?

I guess what I’m trying to say is some people are able to say that ‘that’s my writing, and that’s me’. From when I first started writing, I felt I was connected to something else and transported. No matter what’s happening, I have to write. It doesn’t stop, and it feels like it’s part of me. What I’m trying to say is that the actual songs can be the pegs that you’re hammering into rocks that you’re holding onto to climb back from things. I feel like without song writing everything would be impossible for me. It’s that important, I do it for myself, and I’m delighted if anyone else likes it. If they don’t, whatever. I’m a one man circus at this point, I just push the pegs in, pull the fly sheet up and move on. I exist in my own little world. My expectations outside that are just getting to the next thing.

How does life now compare to when you were hitchhiking around, just playing music in the corner of pubs as a teenager?

There’s a massive thread of consistency. When you do write for a living, it’s that wealth of experience, working picking up phones, being a porter, baking apple pies and selling them door to door and sometimes selling people back the apples that you robbed from their orchards in a pie, all those things are incredible important for writing. There’s a consistency in the sense that I used to draw up pictures of a stage, write out set lists for a little show that I’d play for five or six people in a bar or in someone’s front room. It’s just got a big bigger, a bit out of hand, like a wildfire you know!

When I interviewed you for the last album, you mentioned that, if you were Lennon, you still hadn’t found your McCartney. It was worded in a nice way that didn’t compare you to Lennon which I can’t quite recall, but still, any progress on that front?

No. I think, at some point, I wouldn’t mind. The amount of time that goes into the aesthetic of an album, art, management… I wouldn’t mind if I was just the way Morrissey was in The Smiths, and just concentrated on the words and the songs. I wouldn’t mind at some point doing something that isn’t a Fionn Regan record. This record sort of feels like it could be the sequel to the first record, or the second of a trilogy.

I can see you doing something almost cabaret…

That’s the thing, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one avenue. I think with a band, going through all the changes, its mind blowing. Everything’s critiqued, it’s all on a clock, but on your own it’s like carrying Lough Derg on your shoulders. With a band, you feel like you could share that a bit. At some point, if you’re out there, Macca…

As published on Goldenplec.com, August 2011.

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