Wanderer John Spillane brings his magic nights to the Duncairn Arts Centre
SPILLANE an Fánaí – Spillane the Wanderer – is the title of a TG4 series which features the eponymous Corkman travelling the length and breadth of Ireland getting to know the town through the locals he meets.
But as well as a physical wanderer, John Spillane also travels on flights of fancy, his imagination finding voice in some of the best loved songs in the modern Irish canon, in Irish or in English.
When I asked him where his songs came from, he said that some were "asked for" songs.
"For example, last week I was asked by a man who is a caretaker at University College Cork and who has worked there all his life – I played there as a child, climbing in over the railings to get into this beautiful campus by the river – but his man wants me to write a song about the college, not about the institution but about the grounds."
And this is where the Spillane imagination kicks in.
"I’m thinking maybe about a conversation between a swallow and a swan on a weeping willow overhanging the River Lee beside the college gates," he expands.
"And there’ll be an owl to represent wisdom," he adds.
This really does sound like the man who was asked to rewrite his letter of resignation from the bank he worked in because it was too poetic! (He refused, of course.)
While others were dissing the city, it was the magic of his native Cork that created Spillane – An Fania. He thinks he’s lucky in that he was born on the outskirts of the city, so he appreciated both he urban and the rural.
"I was born on the very edge of Cork where the city meets the countryside. At the bottom of our garden, the countryside began.
"Then I was lucky to be sent to school in the city centre, St Joseph’s in the Mardyke, a very beautiful and iconic part of Cork and there I got to mix with a lot of inner city boys with wonderful thick Cork accents and dialects.
"And then we were sent out to my mother’s home-place on a farm because our father died when we were young (John was one and a half) so I had that rural upbringing as well."
That’ll explain the sheer, delightful wonderfulness of the nature imagery in Spillane’s songs, whether it’s the Dance of the Cherry Trees or even The Wild Flowers about weeds growing along the side of the road.
So it’s hard to believe that John was a rocker in a former life.
"Well I don’t think I was very good as a rocker because I didn’t have enough ego or swagger, I think I was too shy," he confesses.
He also played in a jazz, swing, harmony band called the Stargazer which started off as a laugh and ended up in a band but it was when John got a free transfer from Sir Henry’s Hard Rock Cafe to the Phoenix Bar where all the great traditional and folk people hung out, the likes of Jimmy Crowley and Jimmy McCarthy and musicians like Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh, that the die was cast.
He was a member of Nomos (with Niall Vallely, Liz Doherty and others) before becoming what he has always wanted to be – a solo singer.
With 100,000 album sales under his belt, you could say it was a wise decision.
At the minute, can see the Passage West man in another TG4 TV series, Na Bailéid where he describes himself as a 'song detective', getting the story behind the song and where it came from.
"For instance, Boolavogue you’d think it has been around forever, but it was only when it got into its third melody, the one we have now, that it began to take off in any way and that was in the 1920s," he explains.
For another TG4 programme, Ceolchuairt, John journeyed to Senegal to make music Baaba Maal, one of world music’s biggest stars.
"That was brilliant," he says. "The Senegalese are lovely people but they think they own the music.
They said ‘we love your Irish traditional music. It’s like a girl that left Africa so long ago. We listen to it and we say ‘oh my, how you have grown’.
"And no matter what song or tune you’d play for them, they’d say ‘oh, we have that as well!" he laughs.
On November 4, John re-issues a double album of Irish songs we learned at School, Vols 1+2, which have been out of print for a few years but which were hugely successful when they first came out.
More great news is that John has just had his musical biography published by Collins Press, Will We Be Brilliant or What? with the words of 59 songs (in English) with the stories behind them and a bit of a memoir.
Needless to say, it is a joy to read as you subliminally hear the words on the page flow in that mellifluous Cork accent.
Finally, John is working on an opera. Yes, an opera based on the Irish storytelling tradition of the Fiannaíocht and the Rúraíocht which he hopes it will be staged in Cork in 2018.
In the meantime, you can hear John in a double bill with a fabulous new trad band called Project West at the Duncairn Arts Centre in north Belfast tomorrow night.
Will it be brilliant, or what?