Trad/roots: How crows helped John Spillane get over his pandemic freak-out

With live music cancelled abruptly, John Spillane got to pursue birdy interests and to fine tune an album's worth of songs which see the light of day today

Cork singer-songwriter John Spillane whose new album 100 Snow White Horses is released today
Robert McMillen

FOR even the most balanced of us, the past 15 months has been tough on so many levels, made worse by the fact that the light at the end of the Coronavirus tunnel still seems very dim and very far away.

People working in the arts – jobs that are precarious at the best of times – found themselves without an outlet to share their work, audiences disappeared like snow of a ditch, venues fell silent, laughter beat a retreat. But creative people are, well, creative and many found outlets to keep the fire in the belly lit despite it all.

One such artist is John Spillane who releases his new album, 100 Snow White Horses, today. Chatting to him earlier this week via Zoom, he recounted how he picked himself up after a stumble last year.

“To be honest, Robert, I didn't have a terrible year,” he says with great candour. “I got a shock at the start and I was quite freaked out in March 2020 because we were in the middle of Seachtain na Gaeilge and my diary was full.

“The way I work is that I do a big gig at Christmas. I do very little in January and February and then in March, I start making a few bob to pay my debts.

“So when that was pulled, I was quite freaked out at the start but I got help from my brother Mossie and then I got sorted out. I got a break from the mortgage and I got the dole and whatever – and then I got very happy,” he finishes with a smile.

He did this through a lot of walking and, er, taking photographs of crows.

“I started with jackdaws on my phone, got really into them and then moved on to rooks – I got great photographs of rooks in the wind – and then I started talking photographs of ivy. I'd never really noticed the colour of the berries before and that led me to write a poem of 99 lines, in Irish, called Eidhneán. And then I started out writing about crows and in the end, I had a lovely year,” he says.

Many people would agree that despite or maybe because of the pandemic, that people appreciate nature more than they ever did and this is certainly true in John's case.

Another stroke of luck, or perhaps it was just fate, meant that by the time Covid came to our shores, John had a lot of songs oven-ready – it was due to come out last April – and so with the help of long-term collaborators, producer and drummer John Reynolds and the sublime singer Pauline Scanlon, 100 Snow White Horses.

Reynolds was so enthusiastic about the album, which he rightly thought was something special, that they produced the LP independently under the project title The Lapwing Nation as Spillane saw it as very much a team effort.

“We were in a pub in London and someone came up with the idea for the title because we were trying to be pretentious, arty and mysterious and to make the record sound, er, birdy,” he explains.

According to John himself, the 11 songs “are full of poetry, Irish mythology, melody and wonder and the album will have a fairytale feel and an atmosphere of fantasy and enchantment”.

I suggest that every country has its own mythology and folklore but in Ireland it seems to be nearer the surface in our place-names and in our strong folk memory. John isn't so sure.

“I tend to say that there is a disconnect between the Irish people and Irish mythology and that people don't really know it. It's everywhere but people aren't aware of it. Its crazy. We have one of the greatest mythologies in the world and I'd love if more Irish people were in touch with it,” he says.

For what it's worth, I think the album is very Cork, with Bishopstown – for whom John played football – being the opening track and Ballyphehane, another suburb of the Munster capital, also getting a song. But it covers the whole of Ireland, with a song to celebrate Slieve Gullion and the harpist Carolan as he wanders the country creating music.

Yet the album goes further, with themes that are universal before it soars in the world of the imagination, the fifth province, if you will.

In At Swim Two Birds – birds again – Flann O'Brian wrote that a story could have more than one beginning and hundreds of endings and so it is with John's songs.

Take the title track, 100 Snow White Horses. It could refer to the fact that John wrote it while doing a residency in Co Laois in 2016.

“They brought me up to celebrate the centenary of 1916 – not the violence of the Rebellion but what they were fighting for,” explains John. “The organisers were very good to me and, although it wasn't part of my brief, I wrote a song for them, 100 Snow White Horses, to represent 100 stars over the Slieve Bloom mountains and the 100 years since 1916.”

But then John tells me that he had pieces of the song gestating in his head since the mid-1990s when he was playing with Nomos and fell victim to acute tonsillitis.

“I was really knocked for six and was in hospital for three days,” he recalls. “The day I got out, I was walking down Patrick Street in [Cork] city centre and because the drugs they used to treat my tonsillitis hadn't fully worn off, I was totally spaced out. But these lines came to me: ‘He wished he was invisible, And hiding in the air, One Hundred Snow White Horses, All around him there' and I had this feeling as if I was surrounded by an invisible herd of horses like I was one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

And many of John's songs are like that, mixtures of the real Ireland we live in enriched with stories of sea journeys and magic and the mysteries of love.

100 Snow White Horses is an album that gets better the more you listen to it, an album that will uplift the saddest soul and we should treasure it because we might not see as much of John in the flesh in the coming years.

After turning 60 he has decided that, after doing two or three gigs a week for the past 47 years, it might be time to concentrate on other aspects of his career that don't cause as much upheaval. Will it be brilliant, or what?

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