“From the banister I can see you cough and blast rainbows/ Twenty seven summers press against the powder room window / On returning eyes are learning the language of your wrists/ You twist them towards the chandelier and say who will be my witness?” The Lake District
For Fionn Regan, albums exist in real-life settings. His first, 2006’s The End Of History, lives by the sea, in his childhood hometown of Bray, County Wicklow. His second, 2010’s The Shadow Of An Empire, lives in the city. “There’s a lot of America in it, maybe a bit of London,” he says, nodding at the Soho streets beyond the walls of the dingy London pub where he nurses a Moscow Mule. His new album, 100 Acres Of Sycamore, resides in the forest, in the mountains, and in Deia, Majorca
For Fionn, the forest is a setting for childhood memories; Lord Of The Flies-like memories of drinking by the reservoir and running around with bulrushes burning doused from petrol cans. “I still live by a forest, near the sea, it’s a magnet for me” Walking in the forest brings to mind snapshots of the staircase at his family home, where the sound of Irish music and James Joyce passages would drift up nightly, recited by the waifs and strays – travelling musicians and salesmen – who came to stay with his musician father and artist mother. No wonder Regan was entranced by music from an early age: “I would reach up and play the piano in the hall and feel I was connected to something else,” he says. “I felt like everything else would stop”
These memories, faded at the corners like old slides, mingle with reflections on the things that have happened to him since his music took him around the world. The result is not just one of the year’s most beautiful, incisive albums, it’s also the young singer-songwriter’s most personal statement yet. “The Shadow Of An Empire was me looking out of a window at the world,” he says. “With this one, it’s a clear look in.” And there’s plenty to see. It’s a tale of “mad, wild love – there’s a central, epic love story, that spans time – it’s the story of a couple dancing between the gutter and the chandelier.” says Regan, who’s a vision in a corduroy suit with a small cowbell – a treasured family relic -hanging around his neck.
To understand the story is to understand the events that led up to it. Regan left school in his teens, preferring to do his learning at the library in Dublin. He was a wandering soul, hitching around Ireland and the UK playing music and scraping a living from odd jobs. He even worked on film sets, where he became an expert at making rain the old fashioned way. “Growing up by the sea gives you an urge to travel,” he says. “You look out across the water and think, what’s out there?”
The End Of History changed everything. Self-made for little-to-no money, it launched him to an international audience, earning a Mercury Music Prize nomination and gathering a string of big-name fans, from Lucinda Williams to Rhys Ifans, who has a tattoo of Regan’s lyrics about his person. With the wind in his sails, Regan toured and toured and toured, hitting the US especially hard. “I ended up in 35 States 55 times in 35 different states of mind,” he says laughing.
Regan’s second album, The Shadow Of An Empire, seemed to be a bit of self-sabotage, the young Irishman, having been hailed as “Folks new Pied Piper” went electric, with an album that while critically acclaimed, confused some of his fans who were searching for something to sooth the soul. “Looking at it now, I think I wanted to kick up some dust… the cover is red and black, the world felt red and black to me at that time” he says. But The Shadow Of An Empire was a necessary step. “If my last record was a chrysalis,” says Fionn, “100 Acres Of Sycamore is the butterfly.”
The butterfly began to emerge when Regan returned from touring, in a wilderness period that saw him travel on a pilgrimage of sorts to Deia, Mallorca. A chance meeting with actress Anna Friel in Valencia, and a conversation about Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess, led Anna to invite Fionn to stay at her home in the ancient village, and most of the album was written there “being in Deia was like waking up inside the walls of a dream, as a place it had a profound effect on me” he says “the silver deposits in the mountains give them a luminous glow in the moonlight, I stayed up for days on end” says Regan. “I went to the edge in my head to a certain extent, and I documented it. These songs are essentially the wings which stopped me from falling to the rocks at that time.”
When it was time to record, he stuck by his belief of capturing things quickly and honestly. The album was recorded in seven days, straight to tape (with the same Calrec console The White Stripes recorded Elephant on) live, with all the players right there in the barn, honey-dripped strings and all. “The thing for me is to do things quick and to keep things simple, and you get left alone, all three albums have been made that way” says Regan, who, having once been hung out to dry by the Lost Highway label, knows a thing or two about the music industry. “If you take the dough, you have to be prepared to make bread”
Regan is a man for whom the world opens up. Despite skipping school, he’s an honorary member of the Trinity College Literary Society, the chairman saying, “In his music, Mr. Regan has done more than many artists to erode the boundaries between music and literature, with his lyrics always possessing the most beautiful poetry.” He was invited to perform at Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in 2010, Thomas being the man who first made Regan feel “comforted in my own thoughts, dark and bright.”
Recently, he’s beginning to feel something of intangible value: peace. “I played my first show back the other night, just on my own, and it felt really good. This record, I think it’s me making peace with myself” 100 Acres Of Sycamore: it’s a record you could get lost inside.
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100 Acres of Sycamore
[The Guardian] (Heavenly) 4 out of 5 By Maddy Costa The Guardian, Thursday 11 August 2011 Jump to comments (0) Just 18 months after The Shadow of an Empire, his rollicking adventure in electric folk-pop, Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan has shifted shape again. To some extent, 100 Acres of Sycamore takes him back to the […]