John Spillane – musician, songwriter, recording artist, storyteller, poet and self-confessed dreamer – is chatting from his home town of Passage West in Co Cork. It’s a place that’s now enshrined in musical history as the title of one of his hit records.
When asked to write a song about this small town outside Cork city, he produced what must be regarded as a modern day classic in the Irish song tradition.
The simply named Passage West is a beautiful love song with a haunting refrain, which cleverly interweaves poignant images of the famine years and the emigration theme omnipresent in Ireland’s history. It’s just one of many gems in the John Spillane hit factory.
Others include comical, anthemic yarns Johnny Don’t Go To Ballincollig and Dunnes Stores Girl, the wistful Hey Dreamer, songs of love and hope A Rock to Cling To and Love is King.
He seems to have a gift – which all songwriters aspire to – for expressing universal themes of love, longing and place in his songs, combining strong melodies, a sharp lyric and alluring guitar riffs, all delivered with passion, banter and general craic at his gigs.
Twice winner of the Meteor Best Folk/Trad Act (2003, 2006) and other accolades such as the USA’s Irish Music Association Top Solo Performer (2009 -nominees included Van Morrison and Tommy Fleming), his work has been covered by the likes of Christy Moore, Karan Casey and Sharon Shannon – all testament to his talents. Up against Christy Moore and the Chieftains in 2003, he joked: “I wiped the floor with them!”
But he’s clearly still humbled and excited by his success. “I just make up songs and it’s great fun.”
But success didn’t come overnight. He wrote his first song aged 16 and reckons he didn’t write a good one until he was 21.
“At 18, I worked in the Bank of Ireland, a permanent pensionable job. I left when I was 20 and my mother nearly killed me. I went professional with a rock ‘n’ roll band and I’ve been at it ever since.” Yet it wasn’t until he reached 40 and was signed by EMI Ireland that his commercially successful life really began.
A national treasure and certainly a county treasure in Cork, his appeal extends beyond Ireland. He was in Australia in April and has just returned from a week in China, performing songs interwoven with stories alongside Cork writer Conal Creedon.
Already back on the road, he’s looking forward to returning to London for his third gig at the Camden Irish Centre this month, fondly recalling time spent there with his old band Nomos.
“I love London and always loved Camden. We (Nomos) played there a lot, and the Stag’s Head pub in Camden was our London headquarters.”
John recorded three albums in London with John Reynolds who produced Sinéad O’Connor and Damien Dempsey. He also performed at the 2010 St. Patrick’s day Trafalgar Square festivities, doing not just his own slot but having to improvise and fill in for Mundy.
The London Pensioners choir joined in a load of come-all-yes with him and “there wasn’t a dry eye in Trafalgar Square!”
Spanning folk, pop, contemporary, yet immersed in the Irish tradition, it’s difficult to know what genre to file John Spillane under. Who inspired him and his unique style? Jimmy McCarthy and Christy Moore were key influences, and John appears particularly honoured with Moore’s support.
“Christy Moore has been very good to me. He has covered my songs and been very supportive and encouraging. I went through a lot of phases when I was younger –Bob Dylan, Neil Young…I especially loved the Beatles, and always loved Planxty. Then I started singing in my own accent. It was a deliberate thing. I developed my style of kind of keeping it real – kind of contemporary folk or “new folk” I think they call it”. Good to get a definition from the man himself.
Traditional Irish language songs are dear to his heart, as evidenced in his earlier Gaelic Hit Factory compositions, and the Irish Songs We Learned At School albums in which standards such as Óró Sé do Bheatha Abhaíle get the John Spillane touch.
He wasn’t reared in the Irish language but came to it himself later. “I learned Irish at school and did a degree in English and Irish at University College Cork. I learned Irish there really and by hanging around the Irish speaking areas in West Cork and Kerry and I suppose I saw it as part of my education, being a balladeer,” he says.
With enough hits to justify a best of collection in 2009, it’s not surprising he is frequently commissioned to write songs, with recent requests coming from Connacht Rugby team and Cork’s English Market.
The market traders decided to “get John Spillane to write us a song” to build on the boost gained from the Queen’s visit last year, which John notes also helped repair relations between the two islands. “I’m going to get paid in potatoes, red wine, cheeses and beef. I’ll give them the song and say ‘Give me what you think it’s worth’!” He should be well-supplied in spuds and wine for some time.
Positivity shines through his work – doesn’t he ever write angry or sad songs, even in Ireland’s current recessionary climate? “We don’t know how bad or how good it’s going to be. It’s a terrible tragedy that the bookkeeping was done so badly, that we had a boom and we blew it completely.
I have loads of sad songs but only do maybe three at a gig. I don’t really write sad songs anymore. Life is short and we don’t want to be sad. Accentuating the happiness is the way to go”.
John describes his latest album A Rock to Cling To, September 2011, as his “beautiful album”. Hot Press said it shows “a songsmith capable of creating works of wonder”. One track The best is yet to come epitomises his optimism and maybe hints at more gems to come. As John himself says “Fair play to me”.
Catch John at the following venues this month:
London Irish Centre, Camden, June 8
Monckton Recreation Centre, Penkridge, Staffordshire, June 9
M19 Bar and Venue, Manchester – Levenshulme’s Euro 2012 Irish Festival – June 10
For more information see www.johnspillane.com