Interview | Taking responsibility with Fionn Regan

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It seems that folk artists are increasingly rejecting big studio production and opting for a more honest, simple sound. Last year saw Seth Lakeman taking his violin down a mine to record the critically acclaimed Tales From The Barrel House, while Fionn Regan has just last month released The Bunkhouse Vol. I: Anchor Black Tattoo, a record of startling beauty and clarity recorded with just a four track and a microphone. It’s poetic, warm, humorous and imaginative – everything you’d expect from the previous Mercury nominee – and proves that quality song writing and musicianship don’t need millions of pounds and a fleet of label bods behind them. We had a long chat with Regan from his home in County Wicklow and discovered a man hell-bent on sticking to his principles, fulfilling his artistic responsibility and maintaining his human integrity.

The new album is beautiful – what were your main influences and inspirations on this one?

You know, living a life is the greatest influence you can have. You can’t pretend to live the life. As an artist you find that mirror and you reflect it back.  When I listen to something I can tell very quickly when somebody’s really gone down to the deep well. There’s a lot of Ireland in this record, references to Ireland and the environment reflected back in the sounds. I wasn’t touring around as much as on other records…so I think this record sounds quite Irish cos’ that’s where my foot was landing on the ground.

So were the Irish influences based on your response to the environment, or did you find stories from people and incorporate those?

I suppose there is the Irish element of storytelling and words. I don’t know why but when you look into most of the things that make me go, ‘Oh I really understand that!’ a lot of the time there is an element of a kind of Irish thing going on. There’s a certain use of words and an understanding of them and a responsibility to that. There’s some writers that have that [sense of responsibility]and some that don’t – they just have a great time, they don’t have all those weights hanging over them!

I find sometimes that in the world of the singer-songwriter I don’t know where I fit in…I find that I’m kind of at odds with a lot – well, I’m always going against the world and challenging it, especially the more commercial end of the singer-songwriter spectrum. I don’t understand it! I don’t feel that that’s where my stuff’s the strongest – it’s at odds with the time period maybe. When it comes to words I have a great love for words and I think that will become more of interest to me – at some point I’d love to just concentrate on words.

And go down a poetry route?

Yeah, that, or just as a lyricist – let someone else do the music! I do have poems stacked up and I’d like to do something with that. With a song, you have to put the song across and you have certain things that you have to make in a room for that to happen. With the page and poems it just feels a lot easier. It would be nice to spend some time just focused on that.

This last album has a very stripped down sound – was that partly to showcase the words and the poetry?

I suppose it’s getting closer to the words. When I was recording this record I felt that the songs didn’t ask for anything else, they felt very pure in the way that it was. It took a bravery of sorts to put out a record that stripped back, especially in the current climate. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it, it’s what you feel yourself. And I think that’s really the start and the end of it.

You’ve described the album as ‘Irish punk’! Could explain that, please?

I suppose everything that I do is slightly punk and maybe that’s another thing where I’m at odds with…I’m always asked in interviews, ‘There’s something different going on here and I don’t know what it is?’ And maybe it’s that I’m a bit of punk!

In what sense exactly?

In the sense that I go against whatever the status quo is – the records are made out of what I have around me, I don’t employ other methods. With the first record it was like, ‘Ok, I need an album cover, I’m gonna’ paint this on the wall, and we’ll photograph that!’ And, ‘Oh, we need to record it so let’s plug this thing in!’ With this record there was one microphone on the table and all of a sudden there was loads of interest in it and it was the least technical thing that I’ve ever done!

So maybe when I say ‘responsibility’ I felt like it was important for me to stick by my guns and do something that, even though it’s out of step with everything, it’s there, and that feels like a certain responsibility. I feel like I can do something else now – I feel like I’ve come full circle and done my apprenticeship. I think the records will stand the test of time. I think if they were made to try and fit in with this time period they would be more successful but it would stop them being timeless.

Clearly, you have had success and critical acclaim but, particularly in the UK, the albums haven’t quite garnered the popularity that other folk albums have. Do you think that’s because you’re challenging the mainstream and using these lo-tech methods?

I think it’s a massive collection of things and, not to lower the tone, but there is a business element to it as well, because in order to make these records and not make records by committee, I’ve had to accept very shell-like ways of putting the record out. So there hasn’t been marketing budgets and £300,000 behind it. If you take less to be left alone to make records the way you do, you have to accept that you don’t get pushed as much. That’s where the responsibility of an artist and being true to yourself is, that’s where it’s the tough part – because you know that you have to go this way. I don’t know if this even makes sense but I know that it’s right.

photo credit: Autumn de Wilde