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Thursday 17 October 2019

Fionn Regan: A poet with a song in his art

His debut album is called The End of History, but for Mercury Prize nominee Fionn Regan it's only the start. By Elisa Bray

Fionn Regan
Fionn Regan

If you hadn't already discovered Fionn Regan, you may recognise the singer-songwriter from his nomination for this year's British Mercury Music Prize, when he delivered a breathtaking performance of his song "Be Good or Be Gone". That he compared being an outsider in the awards to feeling like "a housekeeper at a wedding or like a shepherd at the country fête" is typical of the way Regan uses metaphor and simile in conversation, mirroring the poetic lyricism and imagery that characterise his debut album The End of History.

Since the album was released on Bella Union, and since Regan was taken on by Damien Rice's own Heffa label, the folk troubadour has signed to US label Lost Highway, whose back catalogue includes such heavyweight names as Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, and Willie Nelson, and has now embarked on a sold-out tour. In August, Regan was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. Leibovitz found it impossible to "break him down" and it wasn't until Regan picked up his guitar that the photographer could capture him. The 26-year-old Regan is a bit of an enigma.

At the village pub where we meet near Bray where he was born, Regan doesn't so much answer the questions thrown his way as use them as a springboard to poetic metaphor and to diverge onto tangents, giving an insight into his mind's workings. Ask him the simplest question about when he wrote his first song and he replies with a long description of his family home; the shaft of light that came through the front door creating a warm patch on the carpet where he would lie down before playing piano, singing whatever came into his head which developed into improvised stories and then onto fantastical poems about Will-o'-the-wisp and dragons.

His precocious talent stems from his parents - his mother is an artist and his father a musician - and the creative home in which he grew up. Home, Regan says, was "like a magnet. The things it was pulling in were poets, characters who stand outside the box and we just sat there and let it unfold.

"It was the place to be if you could tell a story or string up a violin and play and howl at the moon." The influence of the artistic family home Regan prefers to see as a "flashpoint" or "indicator" rather than the leading factor in his becoming a songwriter.

"I think that essentially whatever it is you are going to do comes out at some stage. The real thing about it is you don't have a choice. You make this pact with something invisible that you can't really see or touch. You don't know what's going to happen, you don't know if you're going to be able to keep a roof over your head or stop your shoes letting in water when it's raining. You can't ignore it. You have to accept it."

Having embraced the unpredictable life of a musician, Regan (whose musical hero is Woody Guthrie) has been compared to such sainted singer songwriters as Bob Dylan and Nick Drake. He is worthy of such accolades: his folkish intricately plucked and often haunting melodies are matched with poetic and canny lyrics and literary references. But you can't blame him for being sceptical.

"When it comes to people making comparisons they build a little house for you and they say 'we think it's time you live here.' So you sit in it and you wonder how you feel. But there's plenty of worse people to be compared to so I don't mind being invited along to that table."

Regan is very much in the next phase of his second album which he describes as having "a wild mercury violent sound, like the chest, the ribcage, is ripped open", different from the gentle introspective tone of The End of History. His latest song is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's last words "Lord help my poor soul". The first poets Regan read were Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson and, as a traditional troubadour, he is as much poet as musician, capturing imagery in lyrics: "ideas are like sparrows they dart down the hall and, the chimney and out of the spout/down a wormhole and back out my mouth".

The inspiration behind his songwriting is also unfathomable; Regan gives a glimpse into the unexpected bursts of creativity that fuel his craft: "The process of the thing just happens. You don't have any control over it. Some people have this idea it's something you have to get into a Land Rover with, with nets, and chase around the field with it and try to capture it. It just sort of happens, and although that sounds exciting to me I think the whole thing is you have to ambush yourself every now and again. It's like there's two versions of you, a carbon copy and one of them is waiting up around the corner and you walk up around the corner and they just dive on you. That's why I'm excited about the new songs."

The amazing thing about music, Regan says, is being able to perform, but when the songs are this personal and soul-bearing, it's all to do with getting back into the heart of the song's mood. "What you try and do is get back inside the original song, the way you felt the first time that you played it. Sometimes the songs are hard to sing because you're offering the dirt under your nails to the microscope. I think if you don't care about it, your gigs probably won't vary.

"Sometimes when you go to play these songs you carry the weight of a lake on your shoulders because you want to actually live and breathe inside what it is and you want people to know to feel like you're represented in some way. Sometimes you go and see something and it's a beautiful ornate box, what seems to be mother-of- pearl, and you open it and there's nothing inside. I'd rather know what's happening inside. A good singer can make you believe what you hear."

When Regan performs - at the Mercury Awards or elsewhere - he does just that.

'The End of History' is out now on Bella Union; Fionn Regan plays Vicar Street, Dublin on 3 November (www.fionnregan.com)

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