John Spillane told David Hennessy about his new album that has a strong theme of Irish mythology, what it means to be Christy Moore’s favourite songwriter and why he wishes more Irish singers would sing in their own accent.
John Spillane is an award-winning singer/songwriter whose songs have frequently been covered by other artists.
A native of Cork, he describes the county as “the centre of the universe” and a source of huge creative influence throughout his career.
John started his career in music during the 1980s with the Stargazers. He then more notably spent several years as a bandmember of Nomos for whom he penned the much-covered song All the Ways That You Wander.
He went it alone with his solo album debut in 1997 with The Wells of the World.
A two-time Meteor award winner for Best Folk/Trad act, John is one of the most accomplished songwriters in Ireland. His songs have been covered by Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Sean Keane and many others.
Christy Moore says: “I sing John Spillane songs everywhere I go. John has been my favourite songwriter for the past ten years.”
Damien Dempsey adds: “Johns songs are the heart and soul of our island and they’ll be sung around the world for as long as there is song.”
Twelve albums on from that debut, John is set to release his first independent album in 20 years.
John says his forthcoming album 100 Snow White Horses, is made up of “love songs to the Island of Ireland”.
A strong theme of Irish mythology runs through the tracks. We Come in the Wind. the first single off the album, is based on the 3 Imramma or Wonder Voyages of Irish Literature; The Voyage of Bran, The Voyage of Maeldun, and The Voyage of St. Brendan.
John says of the song: “It’s like my version of Been Through the Desert on a Horse With no Name with no desert, no horses, only a load of water, islands and boats.”
The album may be just what’s needed for times when people can’t get home from the UK or even leave travel further than 5 kilometres if they are in Ireland.
Recorded in London with producer John Reynolds and singer Pauline Scanlon, the music was recorded pre- lockdown and is John’s first independent album in twenty years.
John Reynolds is known for producing artists like Damien Dempsey and Sinead O’Connor among others. Pauline has released music on her own, as one half of Lumiere and has been a frequent collaborator of John’s for years.
While many performers lament the absence of live gigs which John also misses, he has also enjoyed the break that lockdown has given him.
John told The Irish World: “I’m happy to release the album in a virtual way and I think that in a certain way we might feed into the zeitgeist and the flavour of the times. The world has gone very online anyway these days.
“It’s a real positive experience for me. I just turned 60 in January and I’ve been gigging since I was 20. I’ve been gigging all my life and I’ve actually enjoyed the break and it’s a great way to celebrate turning 60 by releasing a killer album. I’m so proud of the album and I’m getting lots of positivity back about it.
“The single We Come in the Wind was the most played song on RTE Radio 1 the last couple of weeks so I’m getting loads of kudos. People are loving the record. I’m getting loads of positive feedback.
“I miss the gigs but I don’t miss it that much. I’m not complaining at all. I’m in a very good place in my life to be releasing this record. A lot of musicians were hit worse than me because I’ve got a few different pots in the pan. Gigging is one of my things but I also do writing and I get royalties and I do song commissions and I do songwriting workshops. I’m always busy anyway.”
The album was recorded in a completely different world to the one it is being released in. This is illustrated in the simple fact that he and Pauline Scanlon from Kerry were free to come to London for the recording.
“We recorded it in 2018/2019 and 2020. We started it at the end of 2018 and we finished it just before lockdown. It was supposed to be out last year but we put it back because of Covid.
“I did three albums with John in 2004, 2005, 2006, around that time and then there was a big long gap so the return to London was huge.
“It was wonderful to go to London. John Reynolds is a very very positive man and it’s like going to the mental health farm to work with him. The positivity is infectious and it really helps the music and he’s got wonderful equipment but it’s great fun. London is great fun especially when you come from Cork, it’s a great buzz to come to London.
“We work in the day and at night time we go for a pint. We went to a few gigs. John lives in Kilburn. London is a great town.
“I’ve been regular to the Camden Irish Centre, I’ve been regular there for many years and I’ve played once in Hammersmith Irish Centre.”
It is hard to know when John will next get to the centre in Camden.
“We’re under five kilometres lockdown here, level 5. I have a brother who works in the hospital and he thinks we might be in the same situation this time next year. We thought we would be getting out of it this summer but it’s going very slowly in this country and the numbers are not going down.
“We’re very slow in Ireland (with vaccinations), it’s a disgrace. I think this year is going to be a write-off.”
Christy Moore is a bona fide superstar of Irish folk music. What does it mean to John to have someone like that say that he is his favourite songwriter? “It means the world to me. Christy is my all time favourite. Christy is 75 this year and he’s 15 years older than me but I was listening to Planxty when I was ten. Christy rings me up and he tickles my belly like a little puppy dog and I go into ecstasy.
“He says, ‘Jesus, I sang your song last night: The Ballad of Patrick Murphy. What a fucking song!’ And I go into ecstasy so I have got an awful lot of wonderful things happening in my life with the songwriting. The songwriting has gone well for me. I’ve been able to write and Christy has done a number of songs especially a song Gortatagort which I knew is unpronounceable but is a song about the names of the fields in my mother’s farm in Bantry.
“Christy has said in his top ten songs of all time that he’s ever sung I would have two and he’s talking about Gortatagort and Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar which was the title track of his last album so things are very sweet in my life in terms of art and job satisfaction.
“This record is very special in my mind in that it’s my record but it’s me and Pauline and John really. We’re calling it our masterpiece. We’re painting our masterpiece.
“There’s a certain nature thing in the album as well. There’s a song about birds and there’s a song about trees and a lot of people are getting into that a lot more in the last year with David Atttenborough saying ‘the end is nigh’ and all that kind of stuff. I think people are becoming aware of nature so I’m hoping that in a few areas it might click. I feel great about it. The music business is a mad business anyway so we’ll take what we can get.”
In 2015, John was invited to a meeting of the Ballyphehane 1916-2016 Commemoration. A suburb of Cork where all the roads, lanes and avenues are named after signatories of the 1916 declaration of independance, and other Irish patriots, John was moved to write Streets of Ballyphehane.
“In Cork City there’s mountains in one area and there’s rivers in another area and there’s patriots in another area.
“There’s a great quote, ‘Let the poor have the patriots’. Often in Ireland the roughest places have the most patriotic, nationalistic place names. Ballyphehane is a whole suburb full of them. It’s not just the one dimension, there’s Joe Murphy Road and there’s Kent road and there’s Clarke Road, it’s the whole suburb.
“At one stage in the 1930s and the 1940s Sinn Féin had control of Cork City council and they changed a lot of the street names of Cork city centre. They got rid of all the references to the empire and the English names and they put in a lot of native Irish names. But the people and the shop holders in those streets didn’t want that and they changed them all back to the original names. Then Ballyphehane was built in the ’50s so they made a deal. They said to the Republican Sinn Féin crowd, ‘Look, you have got a new suburb. You can knock yourselves out there. Get it out of your system’. They gave them a whole suburb so that’s the background to Ballyphehane.
“It was a very working class council house area and all the street names are to do with 1916.”
It was his fellow Cork singer-songwriter Mick Flannery that offered his input on Under that Old Clare Moon. They were walking in Brisbane while on a tour of Australia and New Zealand when John shared the two melodies he had in mind for the song.
“I think it’s probably the best song on the record really. Even though it’s quite an old fashioned song, it came together so beautifully. Me and Mick, we’re both from Cork and friends. I had two different melodies for the song and I sang them both to Mick and I said, ‘Pick one, which is your favourite?’
“He said, ‘I think you should use both’. But neither of them really worked for me until I wrote a third melody and that’s the one that’s there now but there is a second melody that comes in which is one of the first two, there is a turn in it which is very sweet. Every song has a story like that you know.”
The title Carolan refers to the great Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan. John was suffering from shingles, a painful fiery burning around a the ribcage. Although it doesn’t last long if you are lucky, John was worried because he was due to go on tour. John drove to Tullamore to the Seventh Son Aidan Wrynne from Mohill, County Leitrim who had the cure for shingles. Aidan placed his hands on John’s side and John felt an incredible sensation of heat and healing.
“It did make me feel better. We’ll never know. Maybe the shingles were going away anyway or maybe he cured me. We’ll never know but I went there for research reasons as well because I’m into all that folklore.
“I’m open to believing. He doesn’t claim he can cure cancer or stuff like that. He claims he can cure shingles. He does shingles, he does warts, I don’t what he does but he’s not a bluffer, he’s not a faith healer that says he can cure brain tumours or anything weird like that. He doesn’t claim any of that stuff, it’s agriculturally based folk medicine.
“Leitrim is fabulous and that’s where I discovered the Carolan connection.”
O’Carolan’s first family home was in Mohill, Leitrim and is where a statue in his honour can be found.
“They wanted a song about Mohill. I did a series on TG4 which was writing songs about Irish towns and a lot of people saw it and a lot of people loved it and I got a lot of requests for songs. Every song on this new album is actually requested in one way or another or it’s written in a bardic way in exchange for work that I got.”
It was Molly Bawn, a song that pays tribute to Clonmel, that was controversial due to the word ‘hash’ in the song.
“It’s very bold to put the word hash into a song for God’s sake,” John says almost in disbelief.
“First they said, ‘You’ll have to get rid of the word’. I could put in the word cash or the word stash instead but then they said, ‘Actually no, you’re fine’. So we didn’t remove the word in the end. I got permission to use the word and we made a video with Tipperary County Council, very official, and the song promotes the town of Clonmel. It touches a lot of bases within the town in the busking festival, the cider and there’s a lot of Clonmel in the song so we made a beautiful video showcasing the town but they left the ‘hash’ in.
“The thing with the hash is he does go to jail. He does go to jail at the end of the song so the message is, drugs are bad.”
Known for being a proud Cork man, John has spoken about Irish performers tending to adopt American accents in their singing.
He says, “Accent is part of singing. People sing in an American accent. A lot of rock ‘n’ roll is in an American accent. An awful lot of the younger Irish singer-songwriters in this country are involved in Americana.
“Mick Flannery is a prime example. Brilliant singer but he definitely sings in an American accent. Then choirs sing in a snobby British accent.
“But to sing in your own accent that you speak in is a thing which is happening more and it’s got to do with identity and it has to do with reality as opposed to fantasy.
“Christy Moore sings very much in a Kildare accent, Damien Dempsey sings very strongly in a northside Dublin accent, the Saw Doctors from Tuam sing in a very Tuam and proud accent, Juliet Turner from the north sings in a very Tyrone accent and then all the rest sing in phoney American accents.
“It’s a thing that came up in an interview and I call it the ‘accent wars’. I’m kind of exaggerating but I think it has to do with being proud of who you are and your people. A prime example would be Van Morrison who is from Belfast but he sings American soul music. You would swear he’s from somewhere in America. There’s a whole style of music which accent is a big part of but it’s quite invisible and unconscious for a lot of people. People copy. We are apes after all. We copy other singers and we copy things that we like. I don’t mean to be judgemental about it in a bad way but it’s just that it is a thing that came up and I was talking on the radio about it and my interviewer said it had never even occurred to him in a million years that there was such a thing as accent involved in singing.”
John admits he found himself singing in an American accent early on in his career.
“You become conscious of it and then you work on it but it’s actually an artform. Damien Dempsey is fascinating how he pronounces his consonants and his vowels and he has the Dublin accent down to a tee. It’s his own accent but he has it rediscovered or developed.”
John has had the pleasure of playing in some far flung places for St. Patrick’s Day. Of course, none of that was possible for the one just gone but John was delighted to have his music featured on RTE.
“I had the most ridiculous St. Patrick’s Day. I was everywhere. I was on the six o’ clock news and the nine o’clock news as well as doing a live concert stream from home for Irish Music Magazine as well as a lot of other bits and pieces.
“I do a lot of Irish language stuff and one of my songs was translated into Irish and it was performed with the RTE Concert Orchestra and a singer called Niamh Farrell from Sligo sang my song in Irish beautifully and at the end of the news they had my song on and they had the rock of Cashel turning green and Blarney Castle turning green to my soundtrack.
“My brother was saying, ‘If only our mother was alive to see it’. It was like the heart and soul of Ireland, the six o’clock news on St. Patrick’s Day. You can’t top that.
“Paddy’s Day is a great ticket for an Irish musician. I’ve played in Edinburgh, I’ve played in Hanover, I’ve played in Lusaka in Zambia. I’ve played in America. It’s a great meal ticket for going to foreign places. It’s a wonderful excuse.
“The thing about being a musician is that the whole thing is extremely random. I mean you might get a gig like that but you might never get a gig like that again. The scene is constantly shifting and changing. It’s not like a proper job.
“I’ve been playing music all my life. I went professional when I was 20 and then when I was 40 I got discovered and signed to EMI Records. I had a wonderful time with EMI Records and that went on for many years. I sold 100,000 records in Ireland, 50,000 in the English language and 50,000 in the Irish language, but I’m not really known outside of Ireland. Musicians might know me or songwriters might know me but I haven’t really built a career in the UK at all. I’m happy enough with that because as a musician you can spend your whole life travelling as well.
“I toured in my thirties with an Irish traditional band and we did a lot of touring, a band called Nomos, and we were like a really hot band and we toured an awful lot so after that I was happy to operate in Ireland and Ireland has the best music scene of anywhere in the world. There are small corners of Ireland if you can pull a crowd you can have a wonderful life gigging up and down. The scene is very vibrant and very alive.”
John should probably say the scene was very vibrant and alive. Will it bounce back post-Covid? “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m not a prophet. I can’t read the future. I’ve no idea. I’m watching with interest. I’ve just turned 60 so I’m feeling kind of old at the moment. I’m sure I’ll get over that but God knows what’s going to happen.
“For a musician to reach 60 is a bit of an accomplishment. To release a record like this around my 60th is to me very satisfying. It’s not how you start it’s how you finish.”
100 Snow White Horses is out now.
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