Fionn Regan | Exchanging Stories

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"Conversations that you've had, the way you feel, the way you think, things you've passed by, things you remember, things you don't want to remember, and the dirt under your nails...you sing about that."

 

 

Fionn Regan's youth is misleading. His boyish looks and shy demeanor tell nothing of his strikingly mature songwriting and impressive guitar work. After hearing to his debut LP The End of History, I was initially apprehensive, but the longer I let it sink into me, the greater my appreciation grew for this shaggy-haired songster. His intricately finger-picked guitar and clever lyrics compliment his polite, sincere voice. The Irish singer-songwriter creates varied acoustic compositions that drip with an ambiguous sort of meaningfulness. It creeps in on you, and before you realize it, it's got you and you're not sure why. There's something very genuine in his collection of sparsely colored, finely metered narratives.

Recently I was able to get a hold of him on the phone. As he rested from the previous night's show in New York, he spoke to me candidly about his music and experiences.

Earlier this year, he made Nationwide Mercury Prize's shortlist for album of the year (a celebration the best new music in the U.K. and Ireland) and performed at the award ceremony. He contemplatively described that night and the attention he's achieved from it, saying, "It's interesting. It shines a different sort of light on what you're doing. I felt like a lighthouse keeper at a wedding. I'd gone from more of an isolated situation, in regards to people knowing about me, to being right in the middle of chaos. There was a lot of flash bulbs and image capturin' equipment surrounding me for a couple of days... When it boils down to it, I just write songs and play them the best I can every night."

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At the ceremony, he performed his single, "Be Good or Be Gone." This is certainly the most immediately accessible track on his debut effort, and fittingly starts the disc. I'd seen the music video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pj66XgK3NvE) (which I implore you to watch) and was completely surprised by its freshness. In a world of James Blunts, solo-act videos have become a lot like cereal boxes: not much different than the one next to it on the shelf and filled with sugar-coated content. In the video, the album version of the song is not used, and instead a live one, cobbled together from on-the-street performances in over 20 locations, creates a cornucopia of scenes. In one shot, seagulls squawk behind him as he sings a line from the second verse; in another, his vocals swell with beautiful reverb that only the church in which he sits can provide.

After I slobbered on about his excellent video, a composed Regan said, "Yeah, t'anks" in his ever-present Irish accent. "When I think of the song, like in a lot of the songs, it's like a slideshow of memories in a way. You feel a certain way and the slides change due to the passing of experience. I see the songs more like a three-minute film, in a way. The marriage of changing each location and the sound was the idea of the director. They came and done the video for nuttin' 'cause they really liked the record. A lot of times videos cost twenty times more than I'll ever understand, but they done it for next to nothing, really."

Romantic relationships have often been fodder for songsmiths, and Regan is no exception here. His songs have a very romantic quality, but usually maintain a level of vagueness through his use of strange images and metaphors. I asked him about the meaning of "Be Good or Be Gone," and if there was certain lassie it might have been written for. He responded, "I generally don't go into date of births or addresses about the songs. That can backfire on ya', but I s'pose it is about people I've seen around the pool..."

The media most often compares Regan to Elliot Smith and Bob Dylan; while I'd say he is guilty of traveling similar terrain, Regan's songs aren't a carbon copy. I wondered if he agreed with these comparisons, or even paid any attention to them at all. "Comparisons are signposts, put into the ground," he said. "It's up to the listener to decide if the person who put it into the ground has a blindfold on, or if they have 20/20 vision, or if they understand the area, the neighborhood. Is the signpost in the right direction? It's not really for me to say; I just write songs."

When talking about other musicians, Regan did say, "I like Tom Waits, Lord Buckley, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, John Prine, [and] Lucinda Williams." He's currently on tour with Williams on the east coast. "She's doing five nights, doing each one of her records, [and] having an interval and then doing another set of songs. I've been invited on to play with her on the second half of the show every night. It's a huge honor." He'll sporadically travel the States, only playing a handful of shows, and then he plans on heading back to Europe in mid-October for yet another leg of touring.

So the obvious influences are all there—the Dylans, the Guthries—but I wondered what else may be guiding him. When we talked about his greatest influence, he said, "I think the nucleus of everything that's happened for me stems from a household where the currency was trading songs for poems, and poems for stories. Listening to this, and being around that. Falling asleep under a table and waking up when a whole new cast has arrived and they're exchanging stories. I suppose that's really where everything stems for me." It seems his home environment was one that embraced art and ideas. He went on to say, "It was just a house. My father's a musician and my mother's a painter. It was a place where people would end up at the end of the evening, you know? It was just...that kind of household."

One of my absolute favorite verses on The End of History is one from the song "Snowy Atlas Mountains." It goes: "If you pull a hatchet/ I'll pull something to match it/ How 'bout your wife/ I'll give her a good life/ My car is in your drive." That last line, for me at least, says so much in so few words. It hints at adultery, and all the dark things that go on behind the walls of "proper" society. The verse also covers jealousy, rage and lust, but never mentions any of those things by name.

One of the best things about Regan is his ability to say things without saying them, to redefine how we think of familiar concepts and sneak them in our heads. I couldn't help but ask about this song and what it really meant, to which he very gladly said, "T'anks very much. It's about the shades of light and dark in a small town. I suppose it's the explanation of the mammoth that hangs over a small town. Whether it's some form of rivalry between opposing camps of wolves, or things that you witness."

I wonder how much a young man can have witnessed, remembered to recount environments such as small towns, snowy mountaintops, and relationships as articulate as Regan does. The guy seems to soak everything in and let out an amazing filtered version of what he's seen. His story-telling abilities are punctuated by cryptic metaphors and images, such as this line from "Noah (Ghost in a Sheet)" wherein Regan quietly whispers/sings: "Tiny little animals/ and the tiniest of feet." I don't know what it means, but I know I like it.

I mentioned this line when breaching the topic of his songwriting; I wanted to know if there was a method to his madness. He took a breath. "Not really. The whole the thing to me is a mystery in a way, I suppose. Some songs come out of sixteen pages of writing, and some songs come out of as much as you can fit on the back of an envelope. A lot of the songs arrive fully formed where a few that have been lit somewhere, at some point, and there's that gradual igniting of something...ideas that are in the marrow of your bones, or things that you see, snapshots of things. Conversations that you've had, the way you feel, the way you think, things you've passed by, things you remember, things you don't want to remember, and the dirt under your nails...you sing about that. It's really just a combination of experience, really. The songs are the evidence, the documents, of the combination of all those things, the journeys, the conversations; they're the evidence of that."

When my very pleasant conversation with Regan was winding to its close, I gave him an opportunity to say something to all the people who have still not heard his music. After a pause, he said, "Keep passing the open window." | Glen Elkins

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