Monday 19 August 2019

Fionn Regan: The Bray Wanderer returns

His beautiful lyrics have ensured him success, but Fionn Regan tells Eamon Sweeney there is plenty of humour in his new album, and that he should have called it 100 Acres of Alka-Seltzer

Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Since emerging in 2006 with an exciting Mercury-nominated debut The End of History, an album that Regan now says, "felt like something that raised the flag", the boy from Bray, Co Wicklow, with the baffling bowl hair cut has become one of our most original and successful songwriters in recent times.

Its opening track Be Good or Be Gone nailed his local colours to the mast, containing the lovely lyric, "I have become/An aerial view/Of a coastal town/That you once knew". The song's title itself has even become a tattoo belonging to none other than Welsh actor and one-time member of Super Furry Animals, Rhys Ifans. As they say, you really couldn't make some of this stuff up.

"It's pretty amazing," Regan agrees. "He's an amazing actor and so accomplished. I loved him in Mr Nice. For someone of that calibre to say not only do they like your work, but then they go out and get a tattoo of it. It's quite a serious tip of the hat and a real commitment. I don't even have any tattoos yet."

He's rightly acclaimed for his literary and poetic lyrics, such as "For the loneliness you foster I recommend Paul Auster". And 100 Acres of Sycamore, his new release, is another album of sweet and tender songs to get lost and luxuriate in. At a series of album preview gigs that took unexpected pit stops in Lahinch, Naul and Sligo, the memorable second track Sow Mare Bitch Vixen has already struck a chord with audiences.

"It's about a rural femme fatale," Regan explains. "There's certainly a lot of humour in it. A couple of nights when I've played it out and it gets to the line, "I've always had a thing for dangerous women", there's quite a few chuckles from various quarters in the room. It's romantic as well and a whole mixture of things. (Regan sums up the album as being about "mad, wild love").

"At times, I'm at my most potent when within the walls of a song. After that, it's completely mysterious and I've no idea how I got there. Especially on the song The Lake District. When I sing that every night, I ask myself how on earth I came up with it, but Sow Mare Bitch Vixen started as a painting."

While Regan loves painting and hopes one day to exhibit, he's certainly not giving up the day job. "Some people say it's neo-expressionism and like Basquiat," he says. "I don't know, I suppose it looks like old-fashioned graffiti. I get great freedom from painting. I feel like I don't know anything about painting and it's a nice feeling. I can do it anytime, whereas songwriting is a bit more like a light bulb coming on and you go and do it."

A conversation with Regan is liberally sprinkled with a string of colourful metaphors and whimsical flights of fancy. The new album is likened to being "more like the Northern Lights than a fireworks display", and its gradual genesis "almost felt like discovering an island after the fog". He likens a solo career to "carrying the Liffey on your shoulders. At least with a band, you only need to carry a portion of it".

If this all sounds like the hallmarks of an airy fairy troubadour from outer space, it's worth noting that Regan is possibly the most polite and pleasant musician and interview subject I've ever met. He may be a dreamer, but in a refreshingly grounded way.

In his short career, Regan has already experienced the hurly burly of the often ruthless industry wheel. After the success of The End of History, he recorded a follow-up album with with Ethan Johns, son of the legendary 60s producer Glyn Johns, and whose CV includes Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright and Laura Marling to name but three out of literally scores of stellar names. The album never saw the light of day, as Regan's label at the time, Lost Highway, refused to release it.

"Arts and business don't always make the best dancing partners," Regan states. "Sometimes, one of them trips on the rug. I'd love to work with Ethan again. I think the only thing was we didn't have the umpire's chair in the corner. When the record came back, it was like, 'We don't like the cut of your jib'. It was like being commissioned a painting and you end up giving them their painting, and it's completely different to what they asked for and way too abstract. They're looking for trees and houses and flowers."

Finally, the resulting album The Shadow of an Empire arrived in 2010. "It was very red and black with an edge and a swagger and its chin was up in the air," Regan says. "There's definitely a debate about it which is very interesting. The other night in Galway, it was the only album people were shouting song requests for. It got tarred with a Dylan brush a bit and I think there's a lot more to it than that when you get into the gills and bowels of it, but that's just what happens sometimes."

100 Acres of Sycamore couldn't have been a more different experience. Sonically, it's certainly his most fully realised album to date. Much of it was written in Deia in North Majorca in a house owned by actress Anna Friel. "I met her in Valencia and we got talking about the book The White Goddess," Regan explains. "She told me to go Deia where Robert Graves wrote it. It's hard to describe, but it's got an air of Magic Realism. I wrote a lot of songs there. Sometimes songs I spend a lot of time on seem to rub me up the wrong way. If you could bottle the place and get it on to tape, I'd like to think this is how it might sound."

You can take the boy out of Bray, but seemingly you can't take Bray out of the boy. Place and home is everywhere in Regan's music, namely the Bray and north Wicklow coastline and hills where he hails from. The End of History is awash with local references and 100 Acres of Sycamore is no different, right down to its title. "There's a feeling of Deia spliced with Roundwood Reservoir on the song 100 Acres of Sycamore, 'We'll steer our car towards the reservoir/and poison our senses until nightfall commences', he quotes. "I wanted to be surrounded by the countryside. Something between that and Deia made up the musical landscape of this record."

One of Regan's best known and loved songs is Put A Penny in the Slot, which name checks Knocksink Wood near Enniskerry and the swans in Bray's harbour where the River Dargle meets the sea. The harbour he has immortalised in song is a perfect place to conclude a Sunday stroll of Bray head or promenade, as it also houses the Harbour Bar (O'Toole's), a wonderful boozer that Lonely Planet deemed to be the best pub in the whole world last year.

"Really?" Regan exclaims. "Wow! It really is a gorgeous bar. Some people are really interested in the places in my songs. Maybe at some point I'll do a bus tour in a milk van and stop off at all these places and do a song. We could do Put A Penny in the Slot with the line 'count the swans in the telescope' and then pop into to the Harbour Bar for a drink. There's one for my agent to try and get their head around," he laughs, beginning to cook up a plan. "'Are you sitting down? I've got a slightly different idea for this tour.'"

Speaking of the best bar in the world and their deliciously creamy pints of Guinness, is Fionn aware that 100 Acres of Sycamore can also function as an extremely soothing and meditative listen to nurse a hangover? "Brilliant, thanks!" he laughs. "I'm glad. If everyone with a hangover gets into it then I'll be doing alright! I'll be the new Alka-Seltzer. I should have called it 100 Acres of Alka-Seltzer."

100 Acres of Sycamore is released today

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