Thursday 14 December 2017

Out of the depths of sorrow...

After a glut of singer-songwriters in early to mid-noughties, when the likes of Paddy, Glen and Mundy ruled the roost and the airwaves, Ireland has since seemingly fallen out of love with the genre.

Step forward Ronan Hession, a Dublin songwriter who plies his trade under the moniker Mumblin' Deaf Ro. His third album Dictionary Crimes has just been released by vibrant independent label Popical Island.

What makes his latest collection one of the most compelling domestic releases of the year is that Hession mines an intensely personal path in his songwriting and lyrics, which deal with bereavement, lung cancer, miscarriage, filial grief and parenthood. If this all sounds a little depressing, please give Dictionary Crimes a fair hearing as it's actually a powerfully honest, moving and uplifting album.

"When it came to sitting down and writing the album, it was hard to avoid what had happened in my personal life," Ronan explains. "My previous two albums were more about storytelling and narrative songs. I wrote one or two in that vein, but it just didn't feel right. Losing your parents and cancer are such commonplace things that I started to wonder why these things aren't talked about more."

Ronan has already struck a deep chord with listeners who empathise with such brave but honest subject matter.

"A few people have been in touch to buy a few copies of the album for people they know who have gone through similar experiences," he says. "I don't think they find the album depressing. For them, it's a release to hear an album that deals with these things in a plain-speaking way and which does not try to dramatise these events or invent a happy ending.

"Songs have that effect, even if they have a heavy subject. The heaviness is in life, really.

"A song works when at the end the listener appropriates it as their own song," Ronan continues. "If they listen to it and go, 'Wow, that guy went through a lot,' it hasn't really worked, but if they listen to it and think about their own family or own experiences, then a transaction has occurred and they take ownership of the song. I think that's what you're hoping will happen.

"Thomas Hardy had a saying that a writer shows someone their heart by showing them the writer's own. I really think there's an element of that in good songwriting."

Dictionary Crimes also has a highly entertaining and perceptive accompanying blog on Tumblr. "Whatever the difficulties of parenthood, it sorts out your existential angst pretty quickly," he writes. "All wonderings about what life is all about, your sense of purpose and identity -- the kind of stuff people like the Manic Street Preachers think about -- all that stuff is folded into a lumpy nappy and fired into a bin, basketball-style.

"One of the lovely things about having children is that it snaps you out of yourself," Ronan says. "No disrespect to the Manic Street Preachers, but sometimes their preoccupations in life are very different to most people's."

Mumblin' Deaf Ro is certainly keeping good company. Since 2010, his prolific Dublin-based label Popical Island has been releasing a consistent stream of exciting new music. "I think the reason they've been so successful is that they love music and that they're so interested and enthusiastic," says Ronan.

"They've experience in playing in bands themselves, so they also bring that to the table. They don't go for a generic sound -- if they like it they'll release it and back it. It's a very exciting thing to be part of. They put on day-long gigs and the quality and buzz they generate is phenomenal."

In terms of his own gigs, Hession is taking a proactive approach to staging audacious shows, such as playing the Kevin Barry Room of the National Concert Hall last weekend and Designist on George's Street.

"It's a bit weird to bump into someone I haven't seen in a while and when they'd ask me how the music is going, I can tell them I'm playing the National Concert Hall," he laughs. "You have to make it interesting for an audience. I like to use interesting spaces and make it affordable.

"It's great that these other spaces are opening up to live music. Now, you've got people involved in the arts with different theatre or gallery spaces collaborating with each other and presenting really interesting shows."

There's plenty of interesting shows in the pipeline, as Ronan intends to book a national tour. This remarkably gifted and unflinchingly honest songwriter is well worth checking out.

Mumblin' Deaf Ro plays Bewley's Cafe Theatre on October 19 and the Unitarian Church on Stephen's Green on December 1. Dictionary Crimes is out now on Popical Island.

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