A meeting with a famous actress and a trip to a mystical Spanish town inspired Fionn Regan’s magical new album. Alan Corr meets the Bard of Bray
The last time I saw Fionn Regan he was still partying the morning after pulling an all-nighter with Welsh actor Rhys Ifans (and sundry guests) in the penthouse of a high-class Dublin hotel. Shocking: could this really be the same Fionn Regan who’d penned those albums of such poetic power and spiritual beauty?
Hell yeah. It appears writing beautifully crafted music and living a rock `n’ roll lifestyle are very natural bedfellows. “I suppose I am living some sort of bohemian existence . . . ” Regan smiles but doesn’t elaborate. It turned out Ifans and Regan are good friends (Ifans even has a tattoo of some of the singer’s lyrics about his person).
Like Ifans, Regan is one of life’s more unconventional characters. When we meet he looks beguilingly like a refuge from a CND march in 1962, all bowl haircut, tight drain pipes, winkle pickers, and black pea coat. As well as the usual trinkets around his neck, there is a new addition - a miniature cowbell sits on the table in front of him as some kind of talisman. “The cowbell is a moveable shrine,” Regan explains, as impish as ever. “Just something that got passed around in my family.”
The look is vintage and the music is otherworldly but Regan is very much in the here and now. Beside him lies a battered satchel containing an anthology of TS Eliot from which he regularly fishes out a notebook to jot down topics of passing interest in our conversation. Just as well because Regan’s conversation cartwheels and flies off on some intriguing tangents.
This week he releases his third album 100 Acres of Sycamore, less than a year and a half after the swaggering Shadow of An Empire. He calls that album “the red and black record” and 100 Acres of Sycamore comes from a whole different box of colours many of which he found during a trip to Majorca and in particular his sojourn in the small village of Deia.
“I feel on this record I was lead to Deia, a place laced with magic and that made it into the music,” he says. ““The writing flowed. The songs felt like they were coming out of the ground I was walking on. People could say the last record sounded like Dylan or Neil Young or The Clash but this is really a Fionn Regan record. The woodland and sea in Ireland play a part too.”
He was led to the village after a chance meeting with actress Anna Friel. They met after he played the Benicassim festival in Valencia and they bonded over a shared love of Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess. “We got talking and she told me about this place called Deia where Graves had a house and where he had encouraged a local artistic community,” Regan says. “So we went to Deia. It was like a place you’d dream of, it has a certain magic realism. Everyone sparkles, everyone stays up all night and rambles around and Robert Graves’ grave is up the top of the hill . . . it’s a beautiful place. The songs were flowing like liquid gold.”
Songs that he wanted to get down fast. After nearly getting mangled in the gears and wheels of the music industry machine with the release of Shadow of an Empire, Regan’s mission with 100 Acres of Sycamore was to work fast but without haste. He recorded the whole album in seven feverish days to capture his thoughts and moods as honestly as possible. It’s less crammed to overflowing with the mad and sometimes macabre poetry of his last record, something that suggests that Regan has found a tranquil peace of mind.
“That’s one of those leather couch questions isn’t it?” he says. “Do I like the leather couch? I was in a peaceful headspace when I was writing it so I suppose it is peace of mind. I had gone through a bit of a whirlwind, a beautiful whirlwind, but it was a whirlwind all the same. There is a certain calm to it and I’ve worked out how to keep a budget small and get left alone to do what I want. I have restrictions and I have to learn to do what I want to do within those restrictions. It’s like managing a build.”
100 Acres of Midnight is Regan’s most tender record and by the sound of For a Nightingale and North Star Lover he is madly in love. He quotes his own eminently quotable lyrics back to me and says: “Am I in love? Ah yeah, of course I am! You can’t write songs like this and not be in love. There are love songs but these songs feel like a mystery to me when I’m playing them. It was like I discovered a little island with its own time and climate.
“A lot of great records that are very exciting but with the advance of technology there are records that are like a firework display but someone has to sweep the rockets up. They don’t have a lasting impact. I think this record is a bit more like the Northern Lights.”
Born to an artist mother and musician father in Bray, it makes sense that Regan grew up in the Garden of Ireland. However, his life has largely been nomadic. He describes his recent USA tour as “ending up in 35 states 55 times in 35 different states of mind.” “I am nomadic. I always had that thing where I’d head to Busaras and just head off,” he says. “Sometimes touring can be your best friend and your worst enemy. It opens windows in your imagination but finding the time to write is hard. Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with me and then I play some gigs and I think, ah I know what’s wrong with me! I’m meant to be on the road.”
And has he ever seen 100 acres of sycamore on his travels? “Only in my imagination but I can tell you, there are a lot of forests on this record.”
100 Acres of Sycamore is out now. Fionn Regan plays the Pepper Canister Church in Dublin on December 8