THERE was a period six years ago when Fionn Regan seemed poised to become Ireland’s next major musical export.
Having released his debut album The End of History to acclaim, Regan’s 2007 ended with a Mercury Music Prize nomination, a salute from Vanity Fair magazine, and a deal with Lost Highway, the highly regarded US record label that reinvigorated the career of the late Johnny Cash.
And then it all seemed to go awry for the 31-year-old Bray troubadour. Regan recorded a second album with Kings of Leon producer Ethan Johns that Lost Highway refused to release and the singer-songwriter was quietly dropped.
“It was like a filmmaker who doesn’t get the final cut,” Regan says as he reflects on that period from down the telephone line in Dublin, “and I need the final cut on it. When you need the final cut, or you ask for that, then you have to be ready for a certain give and take in the world that you are operating in.”
That ‘give and take’ has seen Regan operate away from the spotlight over the past five years, but to great creative advantage. Since 2010 he’s released a new album every year, each bettering the last. His most recent album, The Bunkhouse Vol. 1: Anchor Black Tattoo, was released in Britain last month. A sparse, emotive LP, it was recorded in a forest ‘bunkhouse’ with just Regan’s voice and guitar.
“The whole thing with this record was that it was more about instinct than intellect,” says Regan. “I sat down and tried to sort of document what was going on; move through the songs, and then just see what happened. When I got to the end of it, it was like ‘what do I do now?’ I can either re-record it, go into a studio and make it sound more hi-fi or whatever you want to call it, but I think that that would lose the emotional thing that I first captured.
“It’s like when you paint something the first time and you go, ‘oh I’ve just done the first sketch, now I’m going to take it to the canvas’. A lot of the time, I think, you lose something in that transition. You might gain something, but you also lose something. So there was a sort of leap of faith on my part to go, well here it is.”
That trust in his instincts has served Regan well. Although he readily admits to not knowing how he stumbles upon a great song (“If I knew how or why I’d be knocking them up out the back garden”) he’s confident that staying true to himself above any short-term success has stood him well.
“I think that there’s something at stake that’s important,” he says of the importance to being true to the song. “And sometimes I don’t know what that is, and sometimes I do. I think in that situation (with Lost Highway) I knew what was at stake. I knew what they wanted me to do, to jump through their particular hoop, and I didn’t like it. It’s sort of like having a facelift and then regretting it. It’s like having a nose job and then everyone goes: ‘I like it, but it was your weird nose that was quite beautiful in the first place; your human strangeness’”
The raw beauty to Regan’s work has ensured a dedicated fanbase that will always warmly welcome his work. It’s a fact he not slow to notice.
“I think the people that really care about my songs, REALLY care,” he says with certain pride. “There might be a small amount of them, but it’s serious. Instead of having a huge amount of people that kind of half-care and are going ‘well this is kind of cool for a bit so we’ll float with this,’ I think the people that are into my music are into it deep and they want to go on the whole journey.”
The Bunkhouse Vol. 1: Anchor Black Tattoo is out now