Cork singer John Spillane: There’s a real sense of happiness being back out playing again

Singer songwriter John Spillane reflects on 2021 - the year he turned 60 and released a new album. AISLING MEATH chats to him about navigating the pandemic and being back on stage for a busy festive period
Cork singer John Spillane: There’s a real sense of happiness being back out playing again

Singer songwriter John Spillane.

DURING lockdown, the renowned Cork musician and songwriter John Spillane found solace in nature, and regular walks with his two dogs provided a welcome retreat from the unsettling atmosphere of the pandemic.

While out walking, songs often come to live in his head.

“I’ve never had a set nine to five routine for writing my songs, they just come to me at random times, or when I am strumming the guitar. I try and write at least one song a month.”

His songwriting output has been prolific, more than 200 in total, and his latest album, The Lapwing Project: 100 Snow White Horses, bears another 11 gems, and was released in April.

“I turned 60 in January, and it has been a brilliant year so far. I celebrated with this new release and I am thrilled with how it has been received, and that the gigs have started up again too,” he said.

During lockdown John missed playing live, but he was heartened to discover that his song The Dance Of The Cherry Trees got more radio play than ever before, as listeners were uplifted and renewed by its positivity during the darkest of days.

“You know we’ve travelled around the sun, you know it’s taken us one whole year. Well done everyone, well done.”

He turned 60 this year and released his latest album The Lapwing Project: 100 Snow White Horses.
He turned 60 this year and released his latest album The Lapwing Project: 100 Snow White Horses.

When March, 2020, first brought the chilling wind of lockdown, John, along with other performers, was plunged into a weird state of mourning. Stage curtains closed, spotlights were switched off and plugs were pulled, rendering venues, which normally resonated with song and applause, into darkened shrines of silence. John was forced to grapple with the catastrophic news that all gigs were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

“I got an awful shock at first,” he said. “March is usually a very busy time of year for me, with gigs galore celebrating Paddy’s day and Seachtain Na Gaeilge.

“After the initial upset, I settled down into it after a month or two. I got the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, and the mortgage break sorted, and luckily I had work to do to bring out the album, so I was able to throw myself into that.”

John’s trajectory into his life as a musician started while playing in a rock band as a lad in school at Colásite An Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown.

“ We had a teacher there we called ‘The Doc’ - Tony Doherty. He was a great man for the extra curricular activities, and getting us performing. Quite a few of the lads in school fell for the lure of the grease paint and became well known, people like Philip King, RTÉ journalist Brendan O’Connor, Louis de Paor, and Paul Tiernan.

“I got a job in the bank when I finished school at 17, but I could not reconcile myself that this was it for life. 

"I knew if I did not get out early, I was doomed to stay trapped by the lure of a steady wage, and my dreams of being a full time musician would turn to dust.

“My poor mother, who was widowed when I was very young, and had brought myself and my four brothers up by herself, was horrified when I jacked in the job. It took her years to come around, but I think she did around 20 years later, when I introduced her to Gay Byrne after one of my appearances on The Late Late Show.”

John’s late mother, Mary, was clearly a very astute and wise woman as she advised her young dreamer that if he wanted to work as a musician, then at least he should go to college.

John always loved Irish at school, and when in fifth year he was put into ordinary level Irish, his mother spoke to the teacher, insisting that he do Honours. John went on to have a degree in Irish and English from UCC, and gained fluency and a love of the Irish language which has never waned.

John Spillane who has more than 200 songs.
John Spillane who has more than 200 songs.

During his TG4 series, Spillane an Fánaí, he started writing songs about different towns and places, and this idea continued into 100 Snow White Horses, which brings the listener on a mythical and romantic journey through many places around Ireland.

It was recorded in London over a period of time in 2018/19, with legendary producer John Reynolds, well known for his work with sparkling luminaries of music, including Irish talents Sinead O’Connor and Damien Dempsey.

The album also showcases the hauntingly beautiful vocals of another Irish talent, Pauline Scanlon.

Pauline is featured on John’s 2005 album Hey Dreamer and the two have collaborated many times since then.

“Magic things happen when you work with John Reynolds,” muses John, “and one of the most incredible things was that the cover art on the album was designed by Brian Eno. Yes - that Brian Eno, like! One of the greatest living artists of our time. I had been a fan since I was a young fella and his album, My life In The Bush Of Ghosts, featuring David Byrne from Talking Heads, blew my mind!

“So John Reynolds walks his dogs every day, and he’s often joined by Brian Eno. When we were over recording, myself and Pauline joined them walking by the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

“I was telling Eno, ‘I’m calling the album ‘100 Snow White Horses’ and I was thinking about putting a picture of a white horse on the cover. He turns to me and says, ‘John, maybe you shouldn’t be so literal. Stand still there and take a picture of your shadow on the grass, then send it to me’. So that’s what I did - and a few weeks later he sent it back digitized! That’s how Brian Eno came to design the cover of my album!

“Another brilliant thing which also happened was that Natasha Atlas sang on the track Billy In The Sky. Natacha is an Egyptian /Belgian singer known for her fusion of Arabic and Western music traditions, and has also worked with many amazing musicians like Peter Gabriel.”

This gorgeous and exotic song nestles well alongside the other ten on the album, which are written in the Bardic tradition in the form of song poems.

Christopher and Betty Swann from The Lough, Cork, receive an Art Gift’ from John Spillane. This is just one of over 300 Art Gifts which were delivered in person to people at home as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2021. Picture: Jed Niezgoda
Christopher and Betty Swann from The Lough, Cork, receive an Art Gift’ from John Spillane. This is just one of over 300 Art Gifts which were delivered in person to people at home as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2021. Picture: Jed Niezgoda

Jojn has just released a second single from the album, Under That Old Clare Moon, which is accompanied by a beautiful video shot by cameraman Barry Donnellan on the stage of the Everyman Theatre in Cork where John will be performing his annual Christmas Concert on December 19.

The background dance features members of the talented troupe from The Joan Moriarty School of Dance, choreographed by Karena Walsh, with principal dancer Emma Gibbons.

Johns plans are to go with the flow, and he is presently touring Ireland.

“I am really enjoying live performances again. I feel a great sense of joy and excitement from the audience, and it’s how I feel too. There’s a real sense of happiness being back out playing the music and singing the songs again. It’s a brilliant feeling”

See www.johnspillane.ie

John has a number of upcoming gigs - here are some of them:

December 11, Treaty Songs, National Concert Hall, Dublin

December 19 – John Spillane and Friends Annual Christmas Concert, Live at The Everyman, Cork

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