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Interview: Fionn Regan

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Some artists claim they became musicians to get chicks, or to get rich and famous, or because they were lousy at sports.

But Fionn Regan? He says, without hesitation, in a devilishly sexy brogue: “You make a pact with something invisible. After that you can trip and fall into a river, or you can follow a lot of crayon maps drawn by demented people, but you still have to do it, because you’d suffer if you didn’t.”

This is how the guy talks, I swear. Call it the proverbial Irish gift of gab or whatever, but metaphor is clearly Fionn Regan’s stock in trade. And I'm drinking it all in, loving this interview. Everything he says is so quotable, I can't write fast enough.  

He calls his debut CD, The End of History, a “slideshow of memory;” he says recording it was like “building an ocean liner with a butter knife” or “hitting piggy banks with hammers to try to get enough shrapnel to piece together.” With a giggle, he describes life on the road (which he’s done a lot of lately) as “being in a submarine.” As for performing his songs live, he notes that “the stage can be the microscope or it can be the frying pan.”

Ah, but it would be a crying shame to ask him to put it in plainer language. That prodigious flow of imagery is what makes this mop-haired troubador’s songwriting so astonishingly assured. Sure, Regan’s got an ethereal indie tenor, a knack for understated arrangements, and truly impressive finger picking on the acoustic guitar – but what really makes him stand out from the crowd of earnest young Brits (James Blunt, James Morrison, yadda yadda yadda) is the quality of his lyrics.

His fellow Irishman Damien Rice is the only contemporary who even comes close — you’d have to reach much further back in musical history for comparable talent, back to folkie poets like Donovan or John Martyn or Nick Drake.

Let me just throw out a few evocative lines from his songs for your consideration: “I have become / An aerial view / Of a coastal town / That you once knew” (from “Be Good Or Be Gone”); “The springs in the mattress / Will never reveal / How I entered / In a hospital ward / Across a billboard” (from “Hey Rabbit”); “Wait your turn / You always go for the jugular / Like a juggernaut / Spinning off the asphalt” (from “Bunker or Basement”). The sprightly, whimsical “Put a Penny in the Slot” spins a web of so many images and literary allusions, it really is like watching the perky antics of an old-fashioned arcade game. (Jeez, now I'm catching this metaphor thing from him.) 

Underneath the tangled skein of language, the songs on The End of History are about the usual indie grab bag of themes — relationships yearned for and discarded, authority figures rejected, fugitive lovers, unreliable friends. Autobiographical they may be, but Regan's sidling narrative approach leaves them tantalizingly open-ended (always useful when it comes to ex-girlfriends, I'll wager).

I have a sneaking suspicion, too, that the facts would never keep Fionn Regan from going after a clever phrase. Poetic license, it's called, and when you've got the gift, you go for it.       

The End of History is not, strictly speaking, a new CD. It was released in the UK more than a year ago, but Regan shopped around U.S. labels a bit before settling on Lost Highway (a process he described to me as “finding the right house, one with a bit of land about it”).

The fact that he took that time shows what care he puts into his work. The liner notes' spiky black-and-white line drawings are all his own, including meticulously hand-lettered lyrics. The cover art is a mural he drew on the wall of his home in County Wicklow, an intricate map of a whacked-out alternate universe that I could study for hours. 

So what do all these songs mean? Your guess is as good as mine. But those poetic lyrics are hung on such charming melodies, and so engagingly performed, I’m in no hurry to decipher them. It’s just damn lovely stuff, and an amazing debut. I expect to hear a lot more from Fionn Regan.

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About Holly Hughes