John Spillane: ‘Why can’t you sing about Ballincollig if you can sing about Phoenix, Arizona?’

The Cork singer-songwriter has been writing songs to order, like an old-style bard

"Thou dost have more hair than when last we met," says John Spillane when my hairy face appears on his screen. "That's a line from Coriolanus. I did it for the Inter Cert. One of the soldiers says it to the other. It's a stupid line. It has nothing to do with the plot or anything."

John Spillane is good man for an enjoyable tangent. His new record 100 Snow White Horses was made with producer John Reynolds and singer Pauline Scanlon and features beautiful musical tangents across hills, fields, mountains, history, myth and human nature.

It's part of an informal ongoing project to create a "song atlas" of every place in Ireland ("I've got 214 songs and an opera . . . two-thirds of them have some geographical location") and another informal project to establish himself as a bard in the old style, writing songs to order.

John Spillane: ‘There was no model for being a musician in my family.’ Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

He did a bit of this as part of a crowdfunding campaign to help finance the album and he did a bit of it for a TG4 series called Spillane an Fánaí, "where I went from town to town writing songs about each town."


He talks a little about Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a book about poetic myth-making and how Graves believed Ireland’s old bardic schools gave the Irish a reverence for poetry found nowhere else (he also tells me about Graves’s belief that spine-tinglingly good art is “an invocation of the White Goddess”, a “sign she is near”).

"When I travel around and do a gig, like, in Mohill, Co Leitrim, I say to them, 'What you need is a song about Mohill,'" he says. "And then I try and engineer a model where they give me a grand and I write about Mohill." (Carolan, from his new album, is set in Mohill.)

“The bardic school guys would have had a schooling in music, poetry, local history, local myths. The weird thing about it is that it’s all become available on the phone now. There’s a thing called the Dinnseanchas, the lore of places. And there’s the metrical Dinnseanchas and the prose Dinnseanchas and they’re both on the phone.”

You become conscious of accent. Then the idea of singing in your own accent has to be constructed artificially almost

When Spillane was a very young man he abandoned a pensionable job at the bank to become a bard, or rock musician, as he’d have called it then. “[Banking] wasn’t part of my romantic idea of life,” he says. “Me and a buddy in the band made a pact and we left our jobs to go full-time at music. We went professional, bought a van and a PA.

“That was in 1981. Everybody thought we were f**king mad. My mother never got over it. My father died when I was one, leaving my mother with five small boys up to the age of six. So she was a very strong woman and a tough woman and a country woman, a farmer’s daughter, a psychiatric nurse. So when I got into the bank, my box was ticked. When I left the bank, she didn’t understand it. There was no model for being a musician in my family.”

Spillane later went to UCC to study Irish, English, Latin and Philosophy at the behest of his mother, but used it as fuel for further songwriting rather than to become a teacher as she hoped. Then, over time, Spillane moved from rock with bands such as Sabre and The Stargazers to folk music, joining the trad band Nomos. “All the trad bands had two syllables,” he says. “Nomos, Danú, Altan, Planxty.”

Cork's trad scene, he explains, was a product of UCC's uniquely trad-focused music department, the base for, over the years, Seán Ó Riada, Aloys Fleischman and Micheál Ó Súilleabháin. "That's where Nomos came from. Micheál was the guru and they had all moved the Cork to do a degree in music."

John Spillane near his home in Passage West, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

Folk helped him find his own Cork-accented voice. He talks about "the accent wars", the fact that the default for Irish singers was an American twang. "It's unconscious behaviour," he says. "When you sing in a rock band, you're going to sing in an American accent. You're going do it without even thinking. I had two strands. I had the rock band music but at the acoustic session later you would sing Nancy Spain, or She Moved Through the Fair, and you'd find yourself singing in a kind of a Dublin ballad accent then.

"You become conscious of accent. Then the idea of singing in your own accent has to be constructed artificially almost. The most fascinating example is Damien Dempsey, because he's got the Donaghmede thing down to every little syllable. That's not automatic. That's kind of relearned."

Spillane was 36 when he made his first solo record, The Wells of the World, and 40 when he was signed to EMI (he was with them for around a decade).

"I did an interview with the RTÉ Guide and he was laughing at me. He said, 'You'll never get anywhere with a song like [Johnny Don't Go to Ballincollig]. It might be popular in Co Cork, but outside of Co Cork nobody's going to get it.' "I said, 'What about By the Time I Get to Phoenix? It's not just popular in Phoenix. That's popular in Borneo. That's popular all over the world.'

"A good song is a good song. And faraway hills are greener. So why can't you sing about Ballincollig, if you can sing about Phoenix, Arizona? The Iliad and the Odyssey were based on some local quarrel in the corner of a field."

He was always a fan of celebrating the local and the personal, so his new bardic tendencies aren’t a big diversion for him. “I’ve opened up my hit factory for Covid, because I lost all the gigs. I wrote a song for somebody who lost their daughter. I wrote a song for a flower garden in Austin, Texas. I wrote a song for a 60th birthday for a guy in Dublin. I put my heart and soul into these projects.”

How did he write the song for a grieving parent? It was daunting, he says.

“I came up with an idea which I got from Ewan MacColl [when] he wrote The Shoals of Herring out of all the things that the fishermen said. I got letters that this girl’s schoolmates had written to her just after she passed. And I made a song out of those.”

The pitfall of being a bard is that occasionally the people who commission him quibble with the results. He mentions a few examples. “I think they’re wrong, I think the song will win.” He chuckles. “That’s the trap of the bardic vibe. A fella says change a word and I get very annoyed.”

I have this reputation in Cork. If I go in to buy sausages somebody will say 'What about a song about it, John?'

He sees his job as being to "explore the hidden dignity" of his subjects, though I suspect this isn't difficult for him. He's an optimistic kind of person. "A lot of the small towns I was writing about, people use the word 'hole' to describe them," he says. "One of my best songs is about Passage West [where he lives]. The place is stunning. We're on the river and we have huge maritime history. And people said, 'Jesus, I don't know how you made such a hole sound so nice.'"

The new record opens with a song of young love and possibility called Bishopstown, named after the Cork suburb. He wrote this after performing two gigs at the Bishopstown GAA club (he grew up in neighbouring Wilton). "I was grateful for the gig and I said at my second gig, 'I'm going to write a song called Bishopstown in Bishopstown GAA club about the place.' And then I try and extract more money from them for having written the song. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

Did it work that time? He laughs. “No, but that’s okay.”

Slieve Gullion was also written “in gratitude for a gig”. The College Gates came from a friend suggesting he write a song about the college. So he wrote an “Oscar Wilde-ish” song about the weeping willow at the gates in conversation with a swallow. “I have this reputation in Cork. If I go in to buy sausages somebody will say ‘What about a song about it, John?’”

Billy in the Sky is about a helicopter pilot he knows called Billy Doyle who, obsessed with how Spillane's Magic Nights in the Lobby Bar describes a metaphorical flight over Cork, offered Spillane a literal one. He gave him a lift to a gig in Inishmore. When John offered to pay for the petrol, Billy told him how much helicopter fuel costs and John offered him a song instead.

“But then there’s another level to the song because my father was called Billy, and he died when I was was 1½. So, to me, ‘Sometimes I fly with Billy in the sky’, it’s like my father.”

John Spillane out walking with his two Tibetan terriers near his home in Passage West, Cork. Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

Did his mother ever come around to his musical career? "It took her about 20 years," he says. "When I was on The Late Late Show and she came up and met Gay Byrne . . . For the last years of her life I was in the paper a bit and on the radio and she got a lot of praise from neighbours and relations and I think she did come around. But she wouldn't say it to me at all. She was old-style, a tough widow woman. She wouldn't praise me, like."

He describes his career trajectory as “a gentle incline”, one you mightn’t even notice if you just looked at a couple of years in a row.

“A lot of people in rock and roll, they write all their good songs when they’re young and then they don’t write anymore. Whereas for me I see my writing as a career like a novelist or playwright – I would hope that my best songs would be later on.”

100 Snow White Horses is released on April 2nd

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times