Interview with Fionn Regan
Fionn Regan‘s new album ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ is released today, little more than a year since his last release ‘The Shadow of An Empire’. I caught up with Fionn and chatted about his new album as well as getting a glimpse into how he approaches his art.
A chance meeting with actress Anna Friel at Benicassim in 2010 was the catalyst for ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ and the album came together when Friel invited Regan to stay in her house. ‘It was very fast, sometimes when you’re a writer it’s like that, lightning strikes, the stars align for whatever reason they do’ says Fionn, ‘It definitely felt that this time period and the way it came together is really exciting for me. I had done a lot of work on the production side of it but the songs were very fast, they flew like liquid gold.’
If you get an opportunity just to go somewhere and write, how do you get into mindset?
‘I think you kind of are an aerial or a transistor, you do feel like a lightning rod. I don’t think you can plan it, I think you have to be open to receive it. You can close yourself off to so many things without realizing it and you can open yourself if you think hard enough about it.
‘Valencia is absolutely beautiful, the place I ended up doing most of the writing is a place called Deia in Majorca . That probably had most impact on the record, the writing of the record. It’s sort of a place that’s laced with magic, it has the quality of a book, everything there feels like a dreamlike overtone to it. So a lot of the writing on the record and the way it sounds is my impression or whatever way that wove its way into the writing and it came back out in the record. I think the place, the environment you’re in, always has an impact on the way that you write. If you lived in countryside it’s going to have an impact, if you live in the city, it’s going to have an impact. There are different frequencies that you tune into.’
I heard you got into writing on a typewriter, is that something you always do now?
‘I got into that on the last record. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful and also it makes you think about things in a different way, the rhythm of it. I would say the rhythm of the typewriter, you could probably write a book about it, how that actually affected writing, how the actual physical.. I heard someone talk about Paul Auster and it sounds like someone is practising the drums when he is hammering out a book, it’s such a physical thing. You have to wait, you have to think about it, you really have to think about the process and what you’re doing before you commit to the page, otherwise you ‘ve got to roll it out and do it again.
It’s the same with music, I record to tape, I use, what for some people would be archaic techniques to make records. Analogue, tape machine, a room full of musicians, me set up here, strings set up over there, drums over there. Three takes of a song and that was it.’
You had tons and tons of production notes for the album, is it important that you get out exactly what’s in your head or would you ever settle or something that’s not quite there?
‘I think the nature of what I do is so tied to my own weird and wonderful way of doing things, it doesn’t really lend itself to making things with a committee of people, it just doesn’t work. It always gets caught in the fence and things get misinterpreted. The smartest thing for anyone who has worked with me and I think most people have worked it out at this stage, is to leave me to my own devices and let me get on with it.’
Does that make you a bit of a loner?
‘No, no, no, no, not a loner at all, absolutely not. When you’re writing though, you’re never really alone, you’ve got a reservoir of things to be thinking about. The actual process of writing I could sit here (Dublin City Centre Hotel) all day and write something. When it came to the record and to translating my ideas and how I want the record to sound, my idea was to record it in a chronological fashion from top to end. I felt like the record feels like it’s a little film or a play or something like that. Although, I don’t know what the narrative is, that’s the way it feels to me, more in an abstract way.
I wanted it to be very easy for me to have a short hand with everybody and sometimes before when I’ve made records, I’ll kinda go ‘We’ll go in and we’ll just work it out’ and sometimes you find that you have to over explain yourself and you can lose a day or two days. We had seven days to make the record, when you could be tuning the drums up for three days, a lot of people would spend that long just getting a snare sound or something. I suppose the nature of having such a short window to capture the record in, I wanted to be meticulous about what I wanted when I went in there.
For the first time it was actually really illuminating and it helped a lot that I didn’t have to go into the details. I’d usually not want to go into that much detail because I would think it would paint everybody’s way to doing things. It would make them feel like they were too confined but it wasn’t like that, it was a lot more open. The technical things were done, then the abstract things were here so everybody had an idea and it worked.’
The album sounds great and the strings are amazing on it.
‘I couldn’t be happier with it. The thing is you can prepare things for so long but you don’t know if lightning is striking. In the studio, everybody’s hair was standing on end and pupils were dilated when we got the first two or three songs down. We felt like it was something, like discovering an island, discovering something when it starts to take shape.
‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ in my head is like, there’s something still mysterious to me about the record. Even though I went through all that preparatory work, it still feels mysterious, it feels like there’s ghosts walking around, feels like its own little country existing on its own.
That’s a great thing for you. It seems to take some people so long to get albums out that by the time it’s released, they never want to hear it again. You sound like you’re still very much in love with the album..
‘To a degree, I suppose the great thing about the songs is that I’m out and playing them and playing them is quite mysterious. Every night the images and the pictures that I see in my head when I sing the songs are changing and I feel like nothing is hammered to the ground. It feels like the songs will always be able to be sung, there’s no enhancers, there’s no airbrush, the record feels timeless in that way. It could have been made in any period of time, it doesn’t feel forced it feels like it has a very natural ebb and flow to it and that I think that’s the Gods looking after you in some way in a seven-day window.’
From your very first EP releases, how do you feel like you’ve changed as an artist and as a person? Do you keep Fionn Regan the artist and Fionn Regan the person separate?
‘Everybody would love to keep them separate to keep the madness at bay but I think they’re linked. I would think the well is quite deep in that sense, I think the two work hand in hand. There is obviously times where you have to learn to distance yourself with certain points in order to get on with the next thing. Those things you have to learn a little bit.
When it comes to being a producer, making records and a song writer, I suppose I’ve just got better. That’s what you try and achieve. If there’s one thing you’re going to do is try and be a better person and try and get better at your craft.
Looking back at the Mercury win for your debut ‘The End Of History’, how beneficial do you think it was for you?
‘I think the thing is that everything I’ve done is so unconventional and its come from a real place. I think the people that get into it and the people I talk to when I’m at shows, that I look out the front row at, there’s tears and the elevation of spirit, there’s lots of things going on from where I can see it. Whatever it is about the songs, they seem to get into deep in some level to some people, the people that care, the rest of the people, whatever, it’s fine. For those people there’s a sense that they are in for the long haul with it, it’s not a flash in the pan thing. People are very dedicated to it, which is a great feeling for me to be a writer, that has that because you don’t know, to get that response.
I think with the Mercury Prize it was the first time where it started to bleed into other areas. The flag gets raised a bit higher. For an artist who has come in on that train the D.I.Y. Punk aesthetic, make it yourself, record it at home yourself, go here, do this, get the album together, then work out how you’re going to get around the place, I think those things are great. They shine a great light on what you do. In my case, it meant that America opened up, it meant that I was on the road for a long time, I won’t do that again but that was just the time period.’
That must have been really hard for you ?
At that time, it was so ramshackled, it was so unorganised. Everything that happens, if you’re open enough to it the lessons are there to learn about it. That’s what it’s all about as an artist, that’s why I say you try to become a better person and realizing how to make records. Like I knew this record, with Shadow of An Empire, I knew that going to places and spending six or seven months in other places (touring) I didn’t want to do because I wanted to get on the next record. I didn’t know that the first time around.
I made a record between the first and the second record with Ethan Johns, I made that we’re calling that record ‘The Red Tapes’ now cos it’s got so much red tape around it. That record got clamped and I quickly turned around and got onto the next record. I suppose it’s about me learning how to manoeuvre. After the first record, I could have just went, ‘I’m onto a good thing I could another record exactly like this’.
Then you’re not progressing though?
‘Exactly! I think that more people understand that the better, an artist really is through thick and thin. The people that know that, they get it, it goes deeper than that. They know you don’t get ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ with ‘Shadow Of An Empire’ and you don’t get ‘Shadow Of An Empire’ without ‘End of History’ and whatever is coming next you won’t get without ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’. It’s part of the wheel.
I think it’s one of the hard things we battle with now. At some point it was ‘Right here’s a deal we’ll make six records and we’ll get in there and do this, that and the other.’ Now, it’s more of a case by case basis. That part of it, to pull off all those stunts within a year, find the right partner and person to put your record out, those things. That’s a lot of work, you have to be very focused to pull that off but I suppose that’s what you learn.’
Will any of the tracks from ‘The Red Tapes’ ever be released?
‘I’d love the record to be released but as far as I know at the moment ‘Lost Highway’ (Record Label) made it very hard to be released. But I would hope at some point it would make sense for them to put it out and I’d like to put it out on record. I’d like to make another record with Ethan. It was one of those occasions when we both had a massive amount of respect for each other. Ethan had heard the demos for The End of History and they’d expressed an interest in working but he said ‘You know I thought you were just on to the right thing with that record, it sounded like you were doing the right thing yourself, I don’t know what I could have done to help you then.’
So I think at some point I’d like to make a record with him again and this time not have somebody holding the green light or the red light in their court.’
Your music and your lyrics are very eloquent and it makes me want to read books because you’ve such a beautiful way with language. Have you ever thought of writing a book?
‘I have but I think the pieces of writing that I write are more like prose. I do write poems. On this record, the song ‘The Lake District’, ‘From the bannister I can hear you cough and blast rainbows, twenty-seven summers press against the powder room windows and returning eyes are learning the language of your wrists’. All that stuff comes from reading Dylan Thomas, TS Elliot. I think I’ve conquered the poem but most of them each up in songs now. The way I make records and the amount that has to go into it each year, never say you don’t have time but at the moment, it would be almost physically impossible to, unless I was staying up for months on end and writing at night-time . I feel that with a book ,if it’s natural and if it happens, it happens. But for a book I think I would have a very high watermark of what I’d want to achieve, I might want to set aside a lot of time (laughs).
Last question, you have been compared to Nick Drake and Bob Dylan, if you were making a supergroup which included yourself, would you include them?
You know what? I probably wouldn’t have necessarily… I would probably have Basquiat, Joseph Beuys, Dylan Thomas, put him as the compere, maybe Samuel Beckett, set design. I’d approach it slightly differently, Lord Buckley. He does spoken word with jazz behind it, Tom Waits would be a good guy to have around to produce and maybe do the drums.
100 Acres of Sycamore is released in Ireland on Universal Records. Fionn will be performing an acoustic set in Tower Records on Wicklow street on Saturday August 13th at 2pm and will also be signing albums.
Listen to Fionn’s new single ‘For A Nightingale’