‘Just keep rocking’, and then die’: John Spillane on his new album and how he hopes his best songs are ahead of him

From crowd-funding his new album, to keeping his long-running residency at DeBarra’s of Clonakilty alive via the magic of live streaming, it’s been a hectic lockdown for Cork’s songwriter, John Spillane. Downtown gets a chat in via Zoom, while the singer sorts another round of records and CDs for the post-office in his native Passage West.
‘Just keep rocking’, and then die’: John Spillane on his new album and how he hopes his best songs are ahead of him

John Spillane is only getting started.  Picture: Shane J Horan

The fixed-perspective view offered by a video-call has offered up its own kind of subtleties and storytelling, over a lockdown of Zooms, Hangouts and the like.

Aside from the racks of CDs, tapes and books visible in John Spillane’s home office, are stacks of CD and record mailers, as he negotiates the glamorous part of advance orders and a successful crowdfunding campaign for his newly-released album 100 Snow White Horses.

The album’s been on something of a journey over the past year or more - originally slated for release in April of last year, Spillane’s plans for his first independently-released LP in two decades were all but scuppered by the rapid pace of change amid the onset of the Covid crisis.

Turning to crowdfunding on fundit.ie to help get the album’s release over the line and keep busy in the absence of a famously intense gigging schedule, Spillane has used the campaign to stay in touch with longtime friends, and forge connections further afield.

It’s fascinating to see who’s buying the album - in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Willison Park, New York

“I did it on recommendation of my friend (vocalist) Pauline Scanlon, who’d done it some years before. You have the chance to build a community around your record, it’s a cottage industry, rather than a record company. It’s not like you’re begging for money - you’re giving rewards. CDs, records… I had a lot of complicated rewards, which I’m still fulfilling.

“It’s fun - I have loads of packages here, I’m all go. And it’s fascinating to see who’s buying it,” says Spillane, reaching for a cluster of packages. “Albuquerque, New Mexico; Willison Park, New York - there’s quite a lot of Danish people, German people, some French people, American people and Irish, as well.

“I’m lucky that folk and trad have a home around the world, radio in every country has a Celtic hour, or programme. Radio is a part of it. There’s a certain kind of people that like songs about nature, and I have a song, ‘The Wild Flowers’, and some people think it’s my best song. There’s a poetry crowd, and a folky crowd. There’s a bit of this and that.”

Released under the working name John Spillane’s Lapwing Nation, the album is a step back into collaboration on the production and arrangement levels for Spillane - working with Scanlon and producer John Reynolds, a team that’s borne creative fruit on some of Spillane’s previous long-players.

 John Spillane: Just keep rockin'.
John Spillane: Just keep rockin'.

A love-letter to locations around Cork and Ireland, by way of inspiration from 300 years of Irish history and mythos - it’s an ambitious work, whittled down from a few years of typically prodigious songwriting.

“I went to John in London, with 23 songs. Some of them were quite short, bits and pieces, and I let him decide, I put it in his hands. He didn’t pick the ones I thought he would at all - like, the title track at one stage was about seven minutes long, and very particular to County Laois, and there were others I didn’t think would go on at all.

“The album was done between 2018-2020. It was a teamwork situation, and a theme emerged very strongly when John picked the title track - it allowed for that theme, and it gave the album a great title track as well. John is all about the arty stuff - it’s not commercially-minded at all.”

Leadoff single ‘We Come in the Wind’ itself was something of a feat of inspiration, drawn together from some reading on a theatre set shelf before a gig in Abbeyfeale, and being hit by some lyrics on the drive home.

Drawing the muse from people, places and history is, as we all know, nothing new to Spillane, though.

“There’s a name for it, I discovered! Bibliomancy! It was a long, hot summer in 2018, and I’d been toying for years with writing a fairytale song. ‘Once upon a time’.

“I met a guy from Tipperary, Mullinahone, and he asked me when I was going to write a song about Croch an Óir, a venue I’d played. I said, oh yeah, I must get around to it. I’d actually wanted to write a song about the Imrams, after they land on the shore, when they pull the prow of the boat up on the shingle, then head for the mountain of the women in the middle of the island - Slievenamon.

“I’d to write another song to get to that Croch an Óir song, and I’ve loads to do. If I live long enough, I could be writing songs forever.

“I went back to the Imrama, and spent a long, slow time looking at the song, no stress, but at that gig at Abbeyfeale, I said, we’ll move the song along a bit. I took a book down from the shelf of that theatre set, and it was Shakespeare’s As You Like It. ‘Go tell my lady’. It just tied in.”

The Covid crisis has affected everyone, and musicians have had to innovate to keep things ticking over, and Spillane is no exception to the wider adjustments. One aspect of pre-Covid life that’s survived, however, is Spillane’s residency at De Barra’s Folk Club in Clonakilty, continued via live streaming.

I needed a break, to be honest with you. I was gigging one to three nights every week

The album launched last week with the most recent excursion, undoubtedly a huge adjustment after a lifetime of playing for crowds, and a change from the usual modus operandi for album releases for Spillane.

“I needed a break, to be honest with you. I was gigging one to three nights every week, around Ireland. Once I got over the initial shock and got on with this album, I enjoyed the break.

“I did a few gigs from home for DeBarra’s, then went down there to record, then that all stopped, so I’ve missed a few months (before last week). It’s okay - it’s more paranoid, singing to people from different parts of the world, looking on their screen, you don’t know who’s there, or how many are there.”

Singer songwriter John Spillane: “No better way to turn 60 than to release a killer album”.
Singer songwriter John Spillane: “No better way to turn 60 than to release a killer album”.

Spillane recently turned 60 - “no better way to turn 60 than to release a killer album” - and lockdown has been a reminder of what’s been important to himself about his craft.

And while there isn’t a crystal ball we can peer into to ascertain exactly what the post-pandemic future looks like, even at this stage, Spillane is looking toward a change in his long-established sonic routine.

“I don’t know, but I’ll probably try and do less gigging. I did two or three nights a week, small venues. I’m not a huge crowd-puller. I fill the Everyman every year, but DeBarra’s might fit 40 or 50.

Just keep rockin’, and then die

“I might concentrate on writing. I do songwriting workshops as well. I have all these methods, and surmounted certain obstacles, I have tricks, and a method that’s good for freeing people up.

“I’ve always liked a variety of things to do, but I’m so proud of this record, and that’s going to encourage me to write more songs. That’s the best thing I can do, and wouldn’t it be sweet if the best ones were at the end? Just keep rockin’, and then die.”

100 Snow White Horses is available now from johnspillane.com.

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